Sam Gurry creates films using the stuff of life that often end up discarded or in a box at a thrift store. Physical ephemera, old photographs, and the like are repurposed to great effect under Sam’s lens. They strike a balance between formal exploration of the material, with brilliant juxtapositions and hypnotic replacement animation, and engaging semi-narrative. Sifting through other’s discarded memories leads to thoughtful explorations into the lives of the subject which operates in a non-fiction way. Beyond giving the archived material new life, Sam is able to cleverly imbue the work with social critique and themes that touch on sexuality and gender. Sam’s most recent film, “Winners Bitch” premiered at TIFF 2018 and will be screening at Slamdance in 2019. Outside of making films, Sam collaborates with animator Melissa Ferrari in an expanded cinema group called Saint Victoria’s Incorruptible Body.
Mostly Moving: I wanted to start by asking you to give a short background about yourself and how you started making films.
Sam Gurry: Hey Jonah! I grew up in the suburbs of New York in New Jersey. My family is that classic Jersey blend of Irish and Italian and most everyone is from Jersey City, which is one of the closest places you can settle after getting off Ellis Island. I had a lot of freedom as to how to spend my time and used it to watch copious amounts of television, draw, and run around outside. We didn’t have any books about art in the house growing up but we did have several volumes of the collected works of Charles Addams so I developed a kind of macabre sense of humor.
My high school had an incredible art and media program where I took TV production and film making classes. My first job was working for our local TV station, SOMAcom as a camera operator and content producer. Old women used to recognize me at the grocery store for talking about The Bridge on the River Kwai late at night. We actually had an animation class taught by Boris Gavrilovic, an incredible and influential teacher who I am so, so lucky to have had. We animated short films on paper and he would show us Eastern European animation and films like L’Atalante and Underground, the full five-hour version. I really loved how you could bring together disparate forms of art-making into the process of animation, it was a real blend of everything I loved.
Mostly Moving: Would you consider yourself a filmmaker or an animator? Or both?
SG: I consider myself both. I use animation to make films but am not an animator by vocation.
Mostly Moving: You’ve got 22 videos up on your Vimeo right now. That’s a lot! How do you manage to keep so busy with your work?
SG: That many? A lot of those are really short! I don’t know that I am especially busy with my work, I always feel like I’m behind! These days I’m trying not to be too precious and make tiny things in a shorter amount of time. I really respect animators who work quickly without hesitation like Noah Malone or Jonni Phillips. It’s not about making it perfect, it’s about making it.
Mostly Moving: Found-footage and physical ephemera seem to make their way into your films consistently. Where does this interest come from?
SG: I just like stuff. I think it runs in the family. My grandparents were all children of the depression and they saved everything because you never know when you might need it. My one grandfather would make lamps out of syrup bottles and great grandmother would sew from scrap textiles. You know those blue cookie tins that never have cookies in them? Their houses were like that but with everything.
I grew up going to a lot of garage sales and picking through the trash on “Big trash day” in my hometown. Going to Estate Sales was my favorite! I thought it was the coolest thing to go into a stranger’s house and get to look through their world. Things with experience have more life to them. Later, I worked in Antiques in which is fancy people trash but still trash! It’s trash with a pedigree.
Talking to people is something I’ve had, and had, difficulty with. I was a quiet kid and used to doing my own thing most of the time which made me feel isolated when I couldn’t relate to people. Peoples’ objects gave me insight into their world and who they were. I used to love riding the subway as a kid and imagining everyone’s stories.
Mostly Moving: How does documentary filmmaking figure into your work?
SG: I’m interested in experimental approaches to the form. I think there is a lot of exciting work being done in the realm of documentary right now, especially animated documentary. I didn’t set out to make documentaries but it attracted me.
Mostly Moving: The use of found materials mixed with minimal digital effects creates a nostalgic, ‘time-gone-by”, type feeling in your films. Is this purposeful or does it happen naturally?
SG: It’s not intentional, just a by-product of how I work. In 10th grade, I had study hall in a room that halfway through the fall semester had a mouse die on a radiator. Slowly through the year, the smell got worse and worse. It was sweet but smelled like decay and we still had to have class in there, letting it mix in with the scent of teenage Axe Body Spray and Cocoa Butter. I want to make films that feel the way that did.
Mostly Moving: Themes of sexuality and gender are woven into your films, sometimes overtly and others subversively. Is it important for you to broach these topics with your art?
SG: These are things that are on my mind a lot, just by nature of being a queer nb person in the world. I don’t know that it’s important for me to share my specific vantage but I am interested in both by other filmmakers especially. I think nuance and varied experience is important and strengthens our community. Sometimes, it’s hard for my to articulate my thoughts on certain aspects of my identity and filmmaking allows me a conduit with which to explore it.
Mostly Moving: Your films stand out because unlike many of your peers you (for the most part) do not animate with drawings or CG images. How did you arrive at your particular aesthetic?
SG: It comes from a few places. I’m attracted to the beauty of objects and sometimes struggle with the concept of taking something inherently interesting and bringing anything else to it. Stop motion allows me to utilize the objects themselves and showcase what I find to be beautiful or valuable about them. I’ve always been attracted to collage. I’m trying to recapture that blue cookie tin magic.
I would like to draw more in the future. We’ll see!
Mostly Moving: Do you have anything in the works at the moment?
SG: I’m supporting my thesis film, Winner’s Bitch, on its festival run this Fall as well as teaching a portion of a class on Animation & Identity at CalArts. I’ve got a new documentary that I am working on but I can’t say too much yet! It’s a bit different from what I’ve been doing but still me.