A fifty-year old guy from Quito makes the world’s greatest movie posters
James Verdesoto crafted the designs for Pulp Fiction, The English Pacient and Ocean’s Eleven. He’s not very good at using his iPhone.
James Verdesoto gets excited when he finds the word ‘submit’. “Eventually, you realize that everything cannot hold completely to your vision. That what satisfies you and what satisfies the client is not necessarily the same. And that you have to, you know …submit”.
Oh, but James Verdesoto hates to be submissive. That morning, he had said in a lecture that “if you want things to go well, you can’t be nice.” According to him, the phrase ‘the road to hell is paved with good intentions’ refers to the irrelavancy of complacency. He has no qualms about telling me that, within his portfolio, there won’t be a single piece that my eyes will find unpleasant.
He quotes Thomas Jefferson and says he’s a lucky guy, yeah, but that he works very hard to be a lucky guy. He says that if he’s talking about visual aesthetics, it’s very likely that he’s able to quote more references than any other member of the conversation. James Verdesoto isn’t cocky, but he’s no too far from it. He ain’t submissive at all.
James Verdesoto is from Quito, but he has lived in New York since he was five. He has made some of the best movie posters ever. I don’t think that claim is entirely subjective.
I meet James Verdesoto in a café in La Esquina de las Artes. James Verdesoto’s like the most new yorker guy alive. He wears this neat black shirt, this neat black jacket, these neat black & green sneakers and this sort-of-worn-out-but-still-neat-enough blue jean. He works on his MacBook and on his iPhone (the golden one, fellow citizens, the golden one!), but he doesn’t know how to send a text message to an e-mail inbox. Maria Paula (the girl that works at the festival) and I are good third-world-country comrades, so we have no clue, either. A Robbie Williams concert, circa 2003, is projected. We get to hear it in its entirety.
James Verdesoto gave a talk that morning. It occurred in quite bizarre circumstances as well. See, there’s a lovely conference room on the top floor of Park Cuenca, and we got to climb four stories of parked cars to reach this agglomerated learning conference bubble. James Verdesoto’s intervention began with a video from Ecuavisa, a national TV channel: Maria Teresa Guerrero is on her primer and wears this short silver sequined dress. There’s this dreadful techno music on the background. The narrator of the video capsule says James Verdesoto is accustomed to red carpets and James Verdesoto says his eyes’s gift was a gift from God. The bad techno volume goes up and down arbitrarily .
Is this guy really as good as they say he is?
But then, the talk gets very interesting. There’s sample sketches of Pulp Fiction’s poster. There’s sample sketches from Y Tu Mamá También. From The Last Samurai. From Perfume. James Verdesoto shows his portfolio or, rather, a fraction of his portfolio, and there are posters of Notting Hill, Fahrenheit 9-11, Ocean’s Eleven, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon; Wings of Desire , American Pyscho , Monster’s Ball, Snatch. This Verdesoto guy is quite good at making posters, I tell myself .
He’s good indeed. I understand how good James when James Verdesoto is at making posters when James Verdesoto explains me, little by little and with ‘Rock DJ’ as his soundtrack, how the legendary Pulp Fiction’s poster was made. “If you googled Pulp Fiction before Pulp Fiction, you wouldn’t find anything that resembles that poster. Pulp fiction was about these cheap magazines where women were either femme fatales or sex slaves. Mia Wallace, Uma Thurman ‘s character, is neither. She’s too cool. She’s the modern world’s woman. So, we portrayed her in this pose that is based on pulp novels, but then, she uses a long dress and has this strong woman’s look. You cannot not be hooked up by her eyes. Typography, meanwhile, follows the poster’s aesthetics. It’s retro, but it’s kitsch as well. It’s very difficult to make adaptations in modern, retro-themed posters. You make a tribute to the past, yes, but you have to catch contemporary audiences with it.”
James Verdesoto had already spoken of this “constant search for answers in the past” during his talk. After showing his portfolio , he stated what he considered his “ references “. He went further on, say, Horst Bohrmann photographs’ that in his own compositions.
“I do not know how mucho to trust Google,” he had said. “I gather my references in long visits to the library. And every time I see a photo or an illustration that comes across me, I get obsessed about finding the original source, the very first reference. I find it fascinating to understand the progress of art: how photographers thirty years ago were based on photographers thirty years before them. And you have to know them all, because understanding previous work is key to building your own visual vocabulary. If you meet a director who has never heard of Godard, he feels like some sort of impostor. He cannot handle the same language. I work on posters, so I have to understand as much visual references as I can. I have to see it all”.
I wonder if that’s not copying. “ I am very clear with my own references”, James Verdesoto tells me. In his talk, he had shown the poster of Man on the Moon next to a cover of Harper’s Baazar. His inspiration was very clear. “And you have to base your work in the past if you want to make any progress.” He talks about Cate Blanchett, who was recently asked about her performance in Blue Jasmine, the latest film by Woody Allen, if it wasn’t based on Bianche Dubois of A Streetcar Named Desire . She said that of course it was. But she had also based it on fifteen other actresses, and afterwards, he had all the personal experiences that had formed her. Everyone steals, but not everyone steals the very same things. And some burglars steal better than others.
We continue. I only understand how genius James Verdesoto is when James Verdesoto explains me how he worked on the not-that-legendary Training Day movie poster. “Denzel Washington ‘s character is a powerful guy. So I went to the library and looked for references to power. I found nothing more powerful than a lion on a savannah. I understood that, in the film, Denzel was a lion in a savanna. So we went looking for frames where Denzel had this feline King-Of-The-Jungle look. We studied photographs and documentaries from National Geographic”. And, once again, you can’t avoid being hipnotized by his look, but for very different reasons”. In the Training Day poster, Denzel Washington is Mufasa.
But James Verdesoto isn’t just this methodical investigator who gets solutions through ultra-streamlined exhaustive polls in large libraries. Not to deny it, but then, James Verdesoto is an artist. “It’s all emotion-based”, he tells me.
He illustrates the concept with The English Patient poster. The use of the desert has to be subtle, because the film is not about deserts. It has, however, to evoke loneliness and enormity. And melancholy. The light on Ralph Fiennes gives optimism; his face expression, not as much. Typography, color, composition: all elements produce an emotional reaction. The same goes for The Diving Bell and the Butterfly. There, sans serif typeface contrasts with images that are almost over- emotional. Otherwise, if an obvious serif would have been used, the film poster could create the perception of “ manipulative movie”. “What I ‘ve noticed over the years, is that better work comes fromt the heart than from the head . But you do need the head.”
And therefore , selling a movie through a poster and make it crucial for ever and ever has pretty much the same goals. It is extremely difficult, but if one is achieved, so will the other. The connection is what matters.
But then, James Verdesoto is an artist, and he’s as much of an artist as when, say, he copied female faces when he was five at his notebooks, or when he won the Miramax contest for the poster of The Burning at twenty-and-some. He’s in constant conflict with his self-indulgent and his self-referential features, and he never feels entirely comfortable with his work.
“I’ve been working with my partner, Vivek , for twenty years. We never agree. When I went to this bussiness partner therapy (is there anything more new yorker in the universe than business partner therapy?), we were told I was the rock and he was the water. “ I’m not sure if I understood the metaphor. James Verdesoto’s not looking firm on it, either. “ There is a phrase that my partner always repeats and that greatly affects me. He knows how much it affects me. He says: ‘We have to stay relevant’. For him, it’s almost motivational stuff. For me, it means that we are resting on our laurels. And that, for me, is the scariest thing in the world”.
James Verdesoto says he’s learned to submit to the client’s tastes, but that he has his limits. That a true artist never stops being self-indulgent, because he has to surprise himself. “Sometimes I felt that spark that drove me to eat the world up has lit down”. Yet, judging by the Sketches-That-I-Liked-But-Weren’t-Used-In-The-Final-Version-Of-The-Movie-Advertising-Plan section at his morning talk, the spark’s crearly there.
“Now, with regard to self — satisfaction, its evident that perceptions are subjective. I care a lot about removing photos where I don’t like how I look at Facebook; you know, making sure they’re vanished forever. But then, some people look at them and tell me i’ve never looked better. It’s because perceptions are different”. I prefer not to run any risks, so I won’t attach any James Verdesoto’s photos today.
It is very cruel to ask (but oh, we’ve got to ask) James Verdesoto to never let that devouring spark go off.
But then, that’s the very thing I’m asking him for.