It was twelve years ago, when journalist Megumi Sasaki was doing a story on environmental artists Christo and Jeanne-Claude for Japanese television network NHK and was introduced to the unlikely legendary art collectors, Herb and Dorothy Vogel.
Upon attending a gala at the Gracie Mansion, Megumi was immediately drawn to the older couple who appeared to be so ordinary in an art world that was so fashionable. The petite couple—both standing under five feet tall—were surrounded by dynamic artists sipping champagne, decked out in designer clothes and expensive handbags. The Vogels, appearing diminutive in stature, were quite possibly the center of the minimalist and conceptual art world.
Megumi was so moved by the fascinating story about the Vogels that she approached the couple about doing a profile story on them. They agreed and invited her to their apartment the following week.
The film took years to come to fruition, but with a thick skin and a continued belief in her subjects, Megumi pushed through so that she could share Herb & Dorothy’s compelling story with the world. Her documentaries Herb & Dorothy (2008) and Herb & Dorothy 50×50 (2013) give a glimpse into the world of passionate art collectors.
You had no knowledge about contemporary art and you had never made a film, yet you manage to direct this intriguing film. How so?
I never made a film before. I didn’t know anything about contemporary art. I knew who Andy Warhol was, I knew Christo and Jeanne-Claude, Jackson Pollock and Picasso and that’s about it. I didn’t have any profound knowledge about contemporary art but what I saw were these two
conceptual art collectors who seemed to be so inaccessible so I wondered, how I could make a movie about them.
What set you apart from the other filmmakers interested in telling Herb & Dorothy’s story?
It was a learning process for me. A lot of people asked, “You never made a film before, you don’t know anything about contemporary art, so why did Herb and Dorothy choose you to make this film?” I never thought about it, so after the screening when somebody asked myself, Herb and Dorothy and they explained that a lot of filmmakers, really experienced and established filmmakers had come to them before me. They never said no to anyone. The filmmakers always said they’d come back as soon as they raised funding for the film and no one did. Some started filming a little bit, but they never pursued or finished it, which is why they never expected that I would. They had zero expectation of me to do it. I didn’t even know that fundraising had to be done to make movies, so I think the ignorance helped. I just jumped right in. I started following them with my digital camera and started shooting them.
This sounds like quite the endeavor. What was the process like?
A few months went by, maybe six months, I guess. And I found out that these people are so petite …but they are actually giant. They are such important people in the history of art, especially in this country or in humanity I think. That’s why I thought I should really start taking them seriously. Instead of shooting with shaky camera work, I should hire professional camera men. And I should really seriously do it and really make this film professionally. Finally I woke up and started doing the research on how to make a movie and do the fundraising. I attended classes and read a lot of books and talked to a lot of filmmakers and really learned, as I made a movie. And I never imagined it would be so difficult. It was so hard. A lot of times, I thought, “How did I start this?” I just couldn’t believe how difficult it was. I really wanted to stop, because it wasn’t assigned to anyone, it was my own project. Maybe Herb and Dorothy would be very disappointed, but other than that nobody would really cares even if I were to stop it right there in the middle of it.
But you didn’t give up?
I think the most difficult thing is to keep the morale high and keep going and finish it. That was the most difficult part of the whole process. And of course, fundraising. It cost me a half a million dollars to finish that movie. I was able to raise two-thirds of the funding from elsewhere but the one-third I had to fund from my own pocket, spending all my savings. I maxed out credit cards, and eventually I had to move to an apartment in Brooklyn.
You came to a certain point where you knew you couldn’t stop. Where you thought, “I have to finish this?”
I think that after the third year Herb’s health started deteriorating so I thought, I just can’t wait to until I raise enough money, I really have to keep going. Because there was no deadline, right? I think what artist’s need is not unlimited freedom, or time, or money. No, I think what creative people need is a deadline. So, I had to set my own deadline.
So once you made the deadline, your mind was set?
I made up my mind, and I said, “I have to finish this movie within one year.” Once you make up your mind, that’s it. A lot of people think, “well, maybe I’ll do it, only IF I have enough money. Only IF I can raise funding. Only if I can interview such and such people. Only if I can shoot this and that. No. No conditions or negotiations with myself. I’ll finish it in one year. I’m going to do it. So right there I made up my mind. And from there, I shouldn’t say it was easy, but I knew how to get there. The only goal was to finish the movie. Nothing else. Not to fight the stupid fight with my editor, or my colleagues or interns. There were a lot of small, stupid fights coming and going. I just had to tell myself, I have to put my ego to the side. My ego should not be the priority. My ego should not have a primary voice.
Once you set your ego aside, what changed?
I set my ego to the side and my goal was to just make this film better. That was the only thing I had to focus on. Not about my ego and not about me sounding smart. I can be the stupid person, that’s fine. But as far as my film is going to be—even just a little better—I’m going to give in. That’s totally fine. It was such an amazing experience. It’s about learning about life or about the world. It’s not just about filmmaking. I learned so much from Herb and Dorothy and so much about filmmaking and about art. I learned so much through this experience but I think I learned a lot of life lessons.
What did you learn about art?
It’s a story about art collectors, so just the basic questions, “Why do you find this artist fascinating? What’s the beauty of this work? Why do you acquire a lot of work from this artist?” Just basic questions and the only thing they would say was, “Well, we bought it because it’s beautiful…because we like it.” They gave the simplest answers and nothing else. Nothing more, so I thought that was a huge problem. A huge, huge problem. I thought, “How can I make a movie about art collectors who cannot really articulate about their collection?”
I thought, I cannot even make a half an hour film, maybe only 10 or 15 minutes because there is nothing they can talk about. So I shared this with one of the artists, Lucio Pozzi, who was first artist I interviewed in the movie. When I interviewed him. I told him about it and he said, “they just talk about like cauliflowers and tomatoes and there is nothing more than that” and then he said something really amazing. He said, “That’s why they’re so unique and very special.” At the time, Lucio was teaching at the School Of Visual Arts (SVA) and he was ridiculing it calling it “the school of verbalizing arts,” asking why visual art has to be explained or theorized with language.
Some people find contemporary art really difficult. This film is really about really letting the guard down with and making art very accessible. Art is for everyone and you don’t need to explain it. You can just say, “I like it. I think it’s just beautiful, or, “I hate it. I don’t know why. I can’t explain it. But I just like it or I don’t like it.”
That became one of the main messages of the movie so there were a lot of findings like that. It was enjoyable yet very difficult at the same time.
So, that perspective really inspired you?
Everybody is trying so hard to explain art, but art is something that you really have to look at, instead of expressing with language. No one really looks at art as hard as Herb and Dorothy. Lucio told me to look at their eyes. When they look at the works of art, their eyes get so intense. It’s not about the language. In their eyes they’re seeing something that most of us are not seeing. So, right there, I thought that was a really important message of the movie.
You found a valuable lesson in your greatest obstacle?
Those obstacles or problems make you think so hard and that is a great tool for an artist’s creativity. Just because we have a lot of problems, we think so hard to be creative to overcome that. I think that was one of the biggest lessons that I learned. Don’t make an enemy out of problems or obstacles. There’s always a way to get around it. Obstacles and problems make you grow. They make you smarter, so that’s ok, and that’s why I could keep going, no matter what happened.
What are you working on now?
I am working a totally different movie that has nothing to do with art. It’s about environmental issues. It can be a little bit controversial. It’s about whaling issues. Japan is the target of a lot of international blame because they catch and eat whales. Whales are considered to be very intelligent animals and endangered possibly, but is that really true? I really want to examine that because the argument is very emotional, not based on the signs but based on the politics and emotions. Very difficult, again. It’s really challenging, but it’s really fascinating.
I’m continuing my endeavor and interest in art by hosting a program for NHK World
NHK World – http://www3.nhk.or.jp/nhkworld/
It can be watched from anywhere in the world. It’s broadcasted once a month. While it’s not streaming, it can be viewed four times a day. Introducing Japanese Art, covering a lot of different topics such as tea house, tea ceremony, the art of Samurai Armour. Introducing contemporary and traditional art.