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THE DOC SHOT Q&A: Julie Checkoway, Director, 'Waiting for Hockney'

By Tamara Krinsky

The DOC SHOT Q&A is a new exclusive online feature by Documentary magazine associate editor Tamara Krinsky. Through this mix of questions (some serious, some sassy) each DOC SHOT will provide a glimpse into the work and lives of those creating and supporting non-fiction film.

Julie Checkoway--Director—Waiting for Hockney


Brief description of your film: An art school graduate from a working-class background living in rural Maryland, Billy Pappas has decided that his mission in life is to reinvent realism. He spends eight years on a single drawing, aided—one might even say enabled—by an eccentric cast of characters including a clergyman, a professor and an architect calling himself “Dr. Lifestyle.” Billy then begins a quest to show his work to renowned contemporary artist David Hockney, the one person he thinks can validate everything for which Billy has been striving.

Your role/credit on the film: Director, writer and producer.

How did you find your subject or become involved in the film? Dr. Gary Vikan, who is one of the characters in the film and director of the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore, introduced me to Billy in 2002. I traveled to Baltimore, where I have relatives and where I had lived for eight years, and met with Billy and was completely taken by him—his intelligence, his working-class roots and his passion. It didn't take long to know that he was a story all by himself and that the quest he had undertaken was Olympian and still open-ended enough to warrant close watching. Then, after meeting all of Billy's entourage—his impresario, Larry Link, his mother Cookie Pappas and Brother Rene Sterner (Billy's former high school principal), I knew absolutely that the film would have a richness and humor and complexity that I couldn't before have imagined. It was as if all of the characters around Billy represented different aspects of himself, and that it was likely that in the course of the shooting, he might discover how he would integrate those characters into himself and come out on the other end an entirely new and complexified human being. And by luck, that is what exactly happened, with lots of great plot twists along the way.

Was there a moment in this film that went a different way than you expected? I never knew until very late not only how the film was going to end but how we were going to end the film. There always remained enormous possibility of dramatic changes in Billy Pappas's life, and we worked on the film in post, always aware that something could suddenly occur that would shift everything. Then, when we were finally close to the end, we had to determine the literal last moments with which we wanted to leave the audience—the moments that would lead the audience to have a complex and beautiful takeaway. I credit my brother Neal and our editor Chris Peterson for finding both the audio and video that makes for an ending that completely took me by surprise.

If you had had an extra $10,000 to spend on your film, what would you have used it for? You know, I really feel good about the way we spent money on this film, meaning, I'm happy with our production values, the soundtrack and score—which are both killer—and the special effects and archival materials. Honestly, if I had an extra $10,000, I'd put it toward paying off debt. 

When you found out that your film had been accepted into the Tribeca Film Festival, what excited you about playing your film there? Our team, which consists of some amazing people—Geralyn White Dreyfous, my brother Neal Checkoway, Chris Peterson (editor of Who Killed the Electric Car?), Jeff Beal (Pollock, Monk and Ugly Betty)—have literally been waiting, as if for Godot or Hockney for the moment when we could share this film we've made with an audience. The fact that New York was Waiting for Hockney's launching pad is a better outcome than I could have imagined.  


What's the first film you remember seeing as a child? Oh, Lord, this is embarrassing. We had a wonderful little theater in the town in which I grew up—Newburyport, Massachusetts. It was in walking distance from my house, and on Saturdays I would pay a dollar to see new films and 10 cents to buy some candy. My first two formative films were (I can't believe I'm admitting this) Chariots of the Gods and In Search of Noah's Ark. I was one of those kids who read those Erich Von Daniken books and was completely taken in by the notion that we were likely not alone. At the same time, I was raised as a very, very conservative Jew, and the notion that the magical qualities of the Old Testament could turn out to be true—that Noah really did have an ark—stunned me. I loved those cheesy documentaries. I loved the overly serious voiceovers. I loved the notion that one could go out into the world and try to solve a mystery.

Tell us about a film that affected your profoundly or changed/inspired the way you do your own work. Strangely, seeing some really self-serious and "bad" documentaries—which shall remain nameless—have prompted me to see that there's a hunger in our culture for stories about real people told in an entertaining and even wacky way. While I have absolute respect for the long tradition of chronicling and championing issues of social justice in documentary filmmaking, I tend to champion the story of the unseen ordinary individual and how really seeing the narrative arc and complexities of an individual life on screen can make us more fully awake and aware so that we can move forward with our eyes wide open—and engage in anything: issues of social justice or just leading a better, more conscious individual life.

What would surprise people the most about your job or the way you execute it?  That I am both an obsessive micromanager of detail and that I am intensely collaborative, and while those two things might seem at odds, those qualities have worked for the most part with my creative team. I am a lone wolf and a lover of community; it's possible to be both and still be a filmmaker, I think.

When you are feeling creatively stumped or burnt out, what do you do to get the creativity flowing again? I never have worried about running dry. I only worry about running myself into the ground. When I become tired and overwhelmed, I try more to give myself peace and time and patience. There are so many stories out there. If you rest and rejuvenate and clear your head, you can then be ready to open your eyes again and watch for stories right in front of you.


Daily essential read (online or off)?—about 20 times per day.—I am obsessed with that site. And if I don't get my New York Times fix (sometimes it doesn't get delivered to my door in Salt Lake), I go into withdrawal and sometimes weep.

What's on your TIVO or iPod right now? I've got a press screener of Alex Gibney's Taxi to the Dark Side—one of the perks of my job as a journalist—and I've only had time to watch half of it. Also, I am in great need of watching all the episodes of this past season of The Wire. Calgon, take me away to a place where I can catch up on videos!
What do you want more of in your life? Time to meditate and work out, time to sit and just to think. And more time to read again. I miss immersing myself in a long nonfiction book.

What do you want less of in your life? I would love it if, in a perfect world, I could work from home (Salt Lake City) and have to travel less to LA and New York. I love those cities and I love the work I do there, but I wish Salt Lake and Utah, where I have lived only for four years, had better editors and post-production facilities so that I wouldn't have to travel away for post and be away from my family for such long periods of time. We imported Chris Peterson here for a summer (he's based in LA), but after a while, he missed his life and family, and I had to begin commuting to REDeditorial to be able to finish the film.

If you could add an extra hour to every day, how would you spend it?  With my children and husband, after dinner, clowning around in the living room, laughing. We do that most nights, but I want to make sure we have it every night.

What do you want for your birthday?  Yikes. I've gotten to the point where my birthday is just another day in a string of pearls of the days of my life, as Virginia Woolf said in her amazing book-length essay, "A Room of One's Own." I would love for my birthday to be a day of peace and pleasure, a day, at the end of which I can say, “I fully lived today. I've done what I said I would do"—something which Billy Pappas himself says in the film—“and I have no regrets.”