By Michelle Trauring
When the Hamptons International Film Festival recently approached Eric Fischl, he hadn’t done the math.
He didn’t realize it had been 25 years. He hadn’t reflected on the 18 artists who continued a tradition that he started. But without hesitation, he said yes. He would create the film festival’s annual poster, and he was flattered, just as he had been in 1993 — all those years ago when HIFF was barely more than a pipe dream.
“Somehow, I didn’t remember that I had done their first one, their first-ever poster,” Fischl said. “I remembered doing a few of them, and I liked doing it and I was pleased with what I had done, but I actually didn’t think, ‘Oh my God, that was their first one.’ So that was a pretty big revelation for me this year.”
The artists who have participated since — from David Salle, Jim Gingerich and Julian Schnabel to Ross Bleckner, Cindy Sherman and Malcolm Morley — are all part of a not-so-secret, but rarely discussed society, one that has produced an iconic slate of imagery that binds them together.
“A lot of the artists who have done this know each other, and it’s a nice club to be a member of,” artist Dan Rizzie said. “You just feel fortunate that you were chosen. Mine was 18 years ago, but it feels like yesterday. I remember thinking, ‘Wow, this is great,’ and I remember my wife — who was my girlfriend at the time — her excitement wasn’t that I got the poster. Her excitement was that you get a Founder’s Pass and you can go to all the movies.”
Last year alone, films that screened at HIFF across the East End snared 45 Oscar nods, including “La La Land,” “Lion,” “Manchester by the Sea” and “Moonlight,” which would go on to win Best Picture.
“I think they choose great movies and they seem increasingly finger-on-the-pulse about exactly what movies are going to do well and what’s going on in the film world, so they seem absolutely plugged in,” said artist April Gornik, who created HIFF posters for years 1995 and 2005. “It’s pretty exciting.”
Gornik isn’t a huge festivalgoer herself — “I’m really fidgety and it’s really hard to sit through more than one movie in a day; I almost can’t imagine it,” she said — but that hasn’t stopped her from participating, and painting two of the collection’s signature oceanscapes.
“I love that different sensibilities come up with such different images, and that the film festival has the flexibility to contain all of those kinds of expressions, because film is like that, too,” she said. “Eric’s new one is gorgeous. It’s really so graphic, and it has a little bit of melancholy — but not in a sad way, more in a dreamy kind of way. It’s elegant and reduced.”
Fischl has always drawn his sense of the narrative moment from film, he said, as it was his visual education since he was a young boy. “Even though I can’t imagine making a film, I like the relationship my work has to it,” he said.
In the early 1990s, he had done a series of four oil sketches of a woman changing — getting into or out of a white skirt — dimly lit by an almost baroque light, the artist explained. Together, they became much like a film reel, and the first poster for HIFF.
His posters in 2002 and 2010 were also sourced from existing works — a close-up of a couple in an intimate embrace, and an “orgiastic sea of flesh,” he said, respectively — marking this year as his first festival-specific vision.
And it was a complete accident.
Working with a highly saturated beach scene — “I schmeared this yellow and blue on a piece of chromecoat paper,” he said — the artist placed a sketch of a woman on top of it in Photoshop. But, as it so happened, only her top half popped onto the canvas, which made Fischl sit back and think.
“Oh, that’s interesting,” he recalled musing. “I’ve never done that before.”
It was dynamic, he said, and simultaneously a quiet moment.
“So I did it,” he said, and laughed. “It wasn’t a lot of thinking or strategy behind it. I’ve actually never done a painting as simple as that, either. I wish I could. But this was so straightforward. You’re looking over the head and shoulders of someone you’re following into this scene, this luxurious richness of color and vibrancy.
“It was a good exercise for me, we’ll see if it creeps into my work,” he continued. “That would be nice to have the poster influence my paintings, instead of the other way around. The poster feels fresh, and that’s what I like about it.”
As with the majority of the posters, the final stage of production comes with an assist from HIFF’s design team, which places the lettering and the dates, and firms up the placement of the art.
Not in 1999, though. Rizzie insisted on painting it all himself, and even affixed a real starfish to the center. All HIFF had to do was photograph it, he said.
“A lot of the posters, as beautiful as they’ve been, are people’s work with letters superimposed over it,” he said. “I wanted mine to look like an old-time, hand-painted carnival poster, as opposed to something slick.”
As the sixth annual festival approached, it went from being a poster to so much more, Rizzie said. It became an experience, and he credits his houseguest — actor Bill Murray — for that.
“We had a pretty good 24-hour stretch there where we hit all the joints,” Rizzie said. “I could tell you Bill Murray stories forever.”
The first starts at an East Hampton gallery where Rizzie had a show.
“I had proudly introduced Murray to the gallery owners, and he just went about adjusting every picture in the show. There were at least 25,” the artist said. “It’s something they spend hours and days doing, and he undid it in about five minutes. He went up to every picture and said, ‘Well this one’s not right.’ And it was just hilarious. Every picture in the gallery was crooked when we left.”
Their antics spread to Nick & Toni’s in East Hampton — Murray joined unsuspecting dinner guests at their tables, fork in hand, ready to try their food — then The American Hotel in Sag Harbor, where they eventually got the boot, before landing down the street at Murf’s Backstreet Tavern.
“I’ve only known one person who was kicked out of Murf’s in the history of the bar, but it wasn’t me or Bill Murray,” Rizzie said. “We got there and ‘Saturday Night Live’ was playing, and an ex-girlfriend of mine was on there. Murray was screaming to everyone, ‘He used to date her!’ He really puts you on the spot.”
Rizzie laughed. “When you have Bill Murray with you, you sort of have a passport, or a carte blanche. All rules for behavior are waived. Anybody who’s seen Bill Murray in public knows, he’s not your normal guest. Having him there, he was doing his thing and I was doing my thing. It was a great balance because usually it’s just Bill Murray, but I was the poster boy and he was the actor, and we just terrorized the whole Hamptons.”
Another of Rizzie’s friends, fellow artist Donald Sultan, had accepted the poster boy honor three years prior — turning out a minimalist, black-and-white projector inspired by an old film canister he had lying around in his studio.
To this day, it is the only poster that has taken the film festival theme at face value.
“I thought it was interesting to do a poster that had something to do with film, but nobody else did,” he said. “I’ll never forget, after the closing night film, they had a big party in a huge tent in the parking lot of Nick & Toni’s. And I walked in and they had blown up that poster and hung it like banners, or flags, five or six of them down this long row of tent straps. And it was incredibly scary.”
He burst out laughing. “I got scared! I was like, ‘Oh my God, I created these?’ I love the image, I think it’s a wonderful poster. But they made it so stark, black-and-white repetitive, it was really, it took me quite by surprise.”
The film festival itself was enough to make artist John Alexander raise a skeptical eyebrow back in 1993. He distinctly remembers it — and not attending — and never thought it would last.
“In those days, I couldn’t understand. It’s like, ‘Why are they doing a film festival?’” he recalled in a Texan drawl. “Listen, you’ve gotta give them credit. They did a marvelous job with it. I never thought it would really work, I didn’t see it as a concept that would take off, but it did, and I think it’s been a real good thing for the community and a really big success. I would have not predicted that. I was surprised that it became as immensely successful as it did, as fast as it did.”
His poster for last year’s festival tapped his painting, “Ship of Fools,” a boat weathering a stormy sea and filled with a colorful cast of strange characters — which reminded him of the Hamptons, he said.
“Out here, you have a combination of farming community, a fishing community, a very, very alive art community of musicians, writers and artists. And then, you have thrown into that, the richest people in America,” he said. “And all of those different things are wildly different subcultures in our society. That mixture is very unusual anywhere else in the country, and certainly to see it on the level you see it here is very unusual.”
He remarked on the “obnoxiously oversized houses scattered in between these beautiful farm fields that are rapidly disappearing” as he drove through Bridgehampton, on his way to the Southampton Arts Center for a talk about portraiture alongside Fischl. “That’s ironic,” he chuckled.
The lives of this particular group of artists are intertwined. Personally and professionally, they entangle and overlap. They have inside jokes — and make cracks at each other, even through independent interviews — and, above all, a common bond, Alexander said.
“In this age of everything digital, I think it’s very nice that the film festival still has the tradition of old movies, going back to our earliest movie-making days, of these big graphic works — of big movie posters,” he said. “I love that they’re keeping that tradition alive.”
The 25th annual Hamptons International Film Festival will be held from October 5 to 9 at various locations across the East End. Passes and packages are available starting Tuesday, September 5. For more information, visit hamptonsfilmfest.org.