An Interview with Almost There Directors Aaron Wickenden and Dan Rybicky

Almost There tells the stranger than fiction story of outsider artist Peter Anton, who was living in extreme squalor amongst his hundreds of paintings in a dilapidated Chicago home when he met directors Aaron Wickenden and Dan Rybicky. Completely taken with the eccentric Anton and his work, Wickenden and Rybicky went to great lengths to organize a gallery show, only to confront a much harsher reality as Anton's personal histories came to light. Operating somewhere at the nexus of Art and Craft and Grey GardensAlmost There is a fascinating character study that probes the convoluted question of morality. Check out our interview with Wickenden and Rybicky below.

 

Did you first meet Peter at the art fair? Without revealing too much, how did your relationship progress both on and off camera? Did you feel that he always presented himself in the same way?

We first met Peter during the summer of 2006 at Pierogi Fest in Northwest Indiana, having initially gone there because the festival was trying to get into the Guinness Book of World Records by unveiling "The World's Largest Pierogi." We brought our cameras with us because we thought that buttery mountain of dough would be a sight to behold. Little did we know we would encounter someone who would change the course of our lives for the next eight years.

Peter was sitting at a rickety table surrounded by his art and trying to make a few bucks by creating pastel portraits of festival goers, especially kids. After observing his process for a bit, he took out his scrapbooks and we were astonished. There are a total of twelve, and all of them are covered with glitter and handmade drawings. Together they tell the story of Peter's life, which he titled Almost There. We were immediately drawn in and exchanged contact info, but it took a couple of years of writing letters back and forth for our relationship to progress to the point where we actually visited Peter.

When we did visit, we were shocked to find Peter's house dilapidated and him living in extreme squalor. Still, Peter's determination to share his story of perseverance in the face of poverty and disability through his creations inspired us, and we wanted to both document and help him. The more we got involved, though, the harder it was to just walk away - which is what Almost There dramatizes.

What's it like working in tandem as directors? Does it make the process at all easier?

Filmmaking is an intensely collaborative art form, and Almost There would have been impossible - practically, creatively and otherwise - without both of us working so closely together on it for so long as both producers and directors. To begin with, the conditions in our main subject's home were so life-threateningly intense that we needed each other just to stay sane and survive the shoots. Because Peter t is elderly and handicapped, it was also important to have the two of us present on a logistical level just so we could help him get around during days when we were filming.

It feels amazing to have a partner who's as invested as you are in a project this complicated and difficult to pull together. And considering what a complex and personal project it is, we were glad as well to have another voice around to help provide some perspective during both the production and editing phase when we were working hard to figure out how to tell our story in the best and most compelling way possible.

The film bares some similar subject qualities to the Maysles' Grey Gardens. Formally speaking, do you have any particular influences?

Grey Gardens is definitely an inspiration for Almost There. We actually had a wonderful meeting in NYC with Albert Maysles a few months before he died. In fact, we were hoping to screen a double feature of our two films at his beautiful cinema in Harlem with him doing our Q&A at some point in the coming year. If only. We miss him already.

Other films that really interest us because they deal with dark stuff in funny yet human and compassionate ways include Marwencol, Crumb and American Movie.

We're proud Almost There is a Kartemquin Films production, as we've been influenced by some of the past titles in their canon as well. In addition to Seve James’ Stevie (which has so many parallels to what we made), we also love the Jerry Blumenthal and Gordon Quinn documentary Golub and how it shows that an artist's work doesn’t exist in a vacuum but is framed by the society and the social conditions in which it was made. With our main subject Peter’s work, we similarly thought you would understand his art better by understanding the cultural and societal forces that helped shape it.

You shot the film over eight years. How were you able to condense such a massive amount of footage?
It took awhile to find the shape and balance of the film. As directors, we both had extensive experience shaping narratives and that helped quite a bit. Dan's background is in playwriting and screenwriting, having received his MFA from NYU's Dramatic Writing Program. Aaron's background is in editing. In fact, as we were starting our edit, Aaron had just completed work on the Oscar-nominated film Finding Vivian Maier.

Also helpful was having to describe the narrative arc of our film in the many grant applications we had to write to obtain funding for our project. We applied to ITVS three times before receiving funding from them, and each time our story became more refined. This writing process gave us a pretty well-developed road map for when we started editing. We knew going into the edit what story we were hoping to tell and just hoped we had the footage to pull it off.

We were also very lucky to have an incredible support team for the edit. We were working under the guidance of our Executive Producers Justine Nagan and Gordon Quinn at Kartemquin Films, and we also hired the talented filmmaker Kyle Henry as an editorial consultant. With our team in place, we set up several feedback screenings over the course of a year where we showed different iterations of our work-in-progress to fellow filmmakers and strangers. It was a humbling experience, and at first, the film wasn't working at all. The audience was confused and didn't know why they would want to spend 90 minutes with our main character, who they found abrasive. We quickly realized we would need to include our own storyline as filmmakers in order to show the audience why we were interested in the character, and that would hopefully give people a reason to stick around and see how our relationship played out.We tried to navigate the notes from those feedback sessions that most resonated with us, and over time we found that criticisms from our audience members got smaller and smaller. A fellow filmmaker Brad Lichtenstein told us, "You know your film is finished when the feedback you get in these types of sessions is about what type of image should be on the poster." Eventually we got to this point. We finished the film...and the poster - and we can't wait to screen what we've made at your wonderful festival come June!