A college drop out, a “Plug Ugly” (slang for “tough guy”). Brooklyn based filmmaker Michael Sladek, sure knows how to present himself. His documentary Con Artist, that got a jury mention at the 2009 Tribeca Film Festival, is still being screened in theaters around the country and will be released on DVD later this spring. I decided to meet up with this “tough guy” and hear his story from the independent film world of New York.
According to US Bureau of Labor Statistics, about 99,000 people in the United States work as producers or directors, and an average of 20 percent of them are self-employed (year 2008). Michael Sladek, born in Denver Colorado, is one of them. Sladek started out working in the world of theater, both as an actor and director. Upon moving to New York over ten years ago, he felt it was time for something new. Plug Ugly Films was soon born, and so was Sladek’s first feature film, the no-budget narrative Devils Are Dreaming. Five years later, the documentary Con Artist got released, and Sladek’s name started to get know in the wold of independent film.
Con Artist is a documentary about the 80’s art figure Mark Kostabi, who made it big in his own controversial way. He hired up-and-coming painters to create art that he then credited as his own. Kostabi found his way to stardom, but was this enough to make him feel loved? Con Artist dives deep into the world of fame and glory – not leaving anything out, not even the uncomfortable truth.
This revealing documentary got immediate attention and praise from critics as big as The New York Times. I could not help wonder how a colorful person like Mark Kostabi was to work with.
“Working with Kostabi was a great creative collaboration and he was really open to most of what I wanted to do,” Sladek begings. He mentions, that working with an opinionated person instead of an actor can make things difficult. “You have to give your subject space enough to play and be themselves, even if you want something specific or know that what you’re shooting isn’t really relevant.”
While filming Con Artist, Sladek and Kostabi did not always agree on what was to be shown in the film. “We were both trying to manipulate each other in different ways,” Sladek says. Some people that Sladek would have liked to interview for the film also refused, because they just could not stand Kostabi. In the end, it all worked out well and both parties are pleased with the outcome.
After hearing Sladek’s side of the story and reading all the controversial reviews about Con Artist, I was eager to hear what Kostabi, the artist himself, though about the film. I contacted him and asked about his experience working with Sladek, and if Con Artist turned out the way he wanted.
“Michael was a pleasure to work with because of his easygoing manner and sense of humor. He seemed to grasp the irony in my art, my public persona and his film,” says Kostabi. He continues: “He seemed much more casual than most of the filmmakers who have included me in their projects. Sladek knows a lot about film history and popular culture which I think gives him the confidence to be seemingly slacker as he films.” Kostabi even compared Sladek’s relaxed attitude behind the camera with Andy Warhol’s. Ironically Kostabi himself has been described as a “poor mans Andy Warhol” by Diego Costa from Slant Magazine.
Working in independent film might seem like an endless marathon. Con Artist took over four years to finish. During the interview, I wondered how someone has the patience, and Sladek shakes his head: “After four years on the same film I was ready to jump off a rooftop. I love the work, but it is just too long on the same project.” Still, he knows people who have worked on the same projects for twenty years. As one might suspect, the big “stop” for most independent filmmakers is financial problems. Plug Ugly Films was no exception.
Sladek explains that part of Con Artist was shot without any money, and that they still pay back investors. Also, the company, New Yorker Films, that is about to distribute the DVD, declared bankruptcy during the recession. Luckily, New Yorker Films got back up on their feet about a year ago, and Con Artist will be released on DVD in June.
So what is next for Michael Sladek? With Con Artist still playing in theaters, Plug Ugly Films are working on a bunch of new scripts. For now, Sladek would like to concentrate on fictional films. As a former actor he explains having a passion for working with professionals.
Before I let Michael Sladek get back to his work, I ask if he thinks he will keep doing his films here in New York. Despite the vague answer, I get the feeling that this “plug ugly” is here to stay.
“You can make good money and have a career,” Sladek says, pointing to the Hollywood-lifestyle. “In the independent world it is more like, everyday is a different day.”