My Comic Shop DocumentARy is a movie, released today, that looks at the comic shop Alternate Realities, its owner Steve Oto, and the various personalities that hang out at the shop. I worked at a couple of shops over a decade ago, and seeing the film brought back memories. A review will be up later today!
But, before the review, I got a chance to talk to the director Anthony Desiato about the movie as well as its spin-off follow up, By Spoon! The Jay Meisel Story. You can catch a trailer of that below, but before you get there, the interview!
Graphic Policy: You used to manage the comic shop Alternate Realities, but have since moved on to get a law degree. What got you interested in returning to the world of comic shops to make this film?
Anthony Desiato: I’ve always been interested in writing and filmmaking, but it wasn’t until law school that I found the motivation to actually pursue it. A few weeks into my first semester, I realized that I needed a creative outlet to stay sane amidst all the cases I was reading. The documentary idea emerged, and it became a goal—a light at the end of the tunnel.
I will forever maintain that my dual focus of law and film, however unorthodox it may be, has provided an invaluable balance. I think it’s fair to say that I wouldn’t have been as productive in either area without the other.
GP: How’d you come to work in the shop?
AD: I started shopping at the store during elementary school. One day during high school, the owner (Steve, the protagonist of the film) asked me how my alphabet was. He was looking to reorganize the back issue bins and needed some help. I started working at Alternate Realities that summer.
Over the years, I went from a boy whose mother drove him to the store and waited in the car while he got his comics to the guy who opened and closed each day.
Without a doubt, it was the best after-school and summer job a high school or college student could possibly ask for. I learned how to run a small business and deal with people; I came to appreciate the value of working for and saving my own money; I met some of my best friends there; and it provided an endless source of inspiration—as evidenced by the documentary and the fact that we’re talking now.
GP: What was your general experience working at a shop? Any great memories or stories you’d like to share?
AD: I loved it. As a fan, it really was the best, even if the novelty of being surrounded by comic books all the time eventually wore off.
Message boards and social media weren’t what they are now, and none of my friends read comics, so being able to talk to coworkers and customers about what I was reading was just incredible.
I also couldn’t have asked for a better boss than Steve. As the film shows, he’s certainly not without his quirks, but as an employer he was always nothing but generous, patient, and accommodating. It was a big moment when he entrusted me with a key to the store.
The customers were interesting. You know that scene in Clerks where Dante and Randal recall all the stupidity they encounter on a daily basis? I’d be lying if I said I didn’t have encounters like that, but overall it was a diverse, polite, friendly group of people coming in for their comics every week.
As for a story: In the documentary, one of the interviewees says that he plans to invite Steve to his wedding. Not only did he make good on that promise, but he also invited me and two of my coworkers from the shop. He even spoke about the friendships he made at the store in his wedding toast. This was someone who just came in every week to pick up his books, but who truly became a friend.
GP: What is it about comic shops that takes folks who generally are considered not all that social/socially awkward in other situations or with other groups, and opens them up?
AD: That’s really interesting. There’s a scene-stealing moment in the documentary where one of the customers—a good friend of mine—describes himself as an introvert, then goes on what can fairly be described as a rant about Captain America’s movie costume. He felt comfortable enough to express himself that passionately at the store.
As for why, I suppose that being surrounded by the things you’re passionate about brings out that passion. And, at Alternate Realities at least, there’s usually some pop culture discourse going on behind the counter, so I think that sort of opens the doors for the customers.
GP: So where did the urge to make a film come from?
AD: The store has always been a tremendous source of inspiration for me. I was a journalism major in college, and I wrote a number of papers about the store and the people there. One of them was an in-depth profile of Steve (Hesitation Kills: The Secret Origin of SKO, available in full at www.flatsquirrelproductions.com). That one was the genesis of what would become the documentary. It really showed me that there was a story to be told.
GP: On the flip side, I’ve found in my time working in shops and going to them, that the owners and managers tend to be very “interesting” personalities. What do you think attracts that type of person to run comic shops?
AD: Great question. I don’t know exactly what it is. Comic books are about colorful, larger-than-life characters, so I guess it makes sense that it takes colorful, larger-than-life people to sell them. Maybe it’s as simple as that.
GP: What was the initial reaction when you said you wanted to make a documentary about Steve Oto and his store?
AD: Everyone was supportive initially, but I suspect it was more of a, “sure, that’d be cool”-type thing. I don’t think anyone took it too seriously, and understandably so: I didn’t go to film school. I had never made a film before. I had no background in this, no experience.
I think things shifted somewhat when I started showing up to film the interviews and to shoot at the store and they saw that I had actually invested in the equipment.
Thankfully, there really wasn’t any resistance. As you saw in the blooper reel, there were some questions that people didn’t wish to answer on camera, but those responses became part of the story in their own way.
I can’t thank the cast enough. They gave me terrific material to work with. They showed up on time for their interviews. They let me into their homes to film their collections. With Steve in particular, nothing was off-limits. I had unlimited, unrestricted access and freedom to tell my story, and I’m very grateful for that.
GP: I find it interesting that Oto went from law into comics, while you went the opposite way, comics into law. Was your choice of profession inspired by him?
AD: This one makes me laugh, because that’s always been the joke: that I got my law degree so I could follow in his footsteps and buy the store. I can’t say that my decision to go to law school was inspired by him—if anything, he tried to talk me out of it!—but he certainly has inspired me in other ways. He inspired me creatively, obviously. But I also feel that I’ve learned a lot from him. He’s really been a mentor.
GP: How long did it take for you to put the film together from beginning concept to the finished product?
AD: About three and a half months. I had my last law school final on a Friday in mid-May, relaxed that weekend, and then started outlining the movie and researching the equipment that Monday. Shooting began in late June and lasted about five weeks. The rest of the summer was spent editing.
It was all-consuming, especially because I was teaching myself as I went—and there was no crew—but I loved every second of it. It was incredibly fulfilling.
GP: Did you go into the filming with a “story” you wanted to tell, or did that all organically come together?
AD: I had a script, though certainly things evolved during shooting, and even more so during the editing process. Still, when I compare the initial vision to the finished product, they are substantially similar.
One of the things I’m most proud of about this film is that it’s from an insider’s perspective (while still remaining accessible to outsiders). I’ve spent so much time at the store as a customer and employee that I had a very clear sense of what I wanted to do with the film. For better or worse, I told exactly the story I wanted to tell, the way I wanted to tell it, to the best of my ability.
GP: Being your first film, did you find yourself learning as you went along, and did that impact the ability to use some of the earlier footage you shot?
AD: I definitely learned as I went along. I shot a little bit of test footage, but once I began filming in earnest, there just wasn’t time to go back and re-shoot anything I wasn’t thrilled with.
Looking back on the film now, are there things that I wished I had done better or differently? Of course. But the way I look at it, this documentary was my film school. It was more important to me that I applied what I learned here to future projects.
GP: The film has screened at a few festivals and conventions, what has the reaction been so far?
AD: The reactions have been terrific. At San Diego Comic Con, it was obviously an audience pre-disposed to this sort of thing, but the responses at the non-comic venues have been even more gratifying. I was very conscious about making the film accessible to the initiated and non-initiated, and it seems to work for both audiences.
Injecting humor into the movie was also important to me—it’s something you don’t see a ton of in documentaries—so the fact that it gets laughs has been very rewarding.
GP: What’s the reaction been from the folks featured in the film?
AD: The response was overwhelmingly positive (at least as far as what they’ve told me—I don’t know what they say when I’m not there!). Steve, in particular, was a tremendously good sport. So much of the movie consists of people offering their take on him and the store, and I imagine it must be somewhat of a bizarre thing for him to watch, but he seemed to take it all in stride.
I spoke earlier about the friend of mine who rants about Captain America’s costume in the movie. Admittedly, I wasn’t sure how he would react—the last thing I would want is for him to think I was making fun of him—so I was very relieved to hear him laughing with the rest of the audience.
In the end, actions speak louder than words, so I think one of the best endorsements has been that many of the cast members have attended multiple screenings, including out-of-town ones, which has really meant a lot to me.
GP: Like any good comic, you’ve got a spin-off coming out of the documentary, By Spoon! The Jay Meisel Story. Where is that in the process and when might we see it?
AD: I’m very excited about the spinoff. Jay had a segment in the first film, but I felt he was a big enough character to stand on his own. I actually began filming his movie a little over a year ago, and it was originally just going to be a profile, more or less, but then it became something much more.
Late last summer, he found out that the flea market—where he has operated his comic book booth for 35 years—was closing, and I resumed filming to document the final days. Much of the humor that was present in the first film is here too, but the tone is also much more somber at certain points. I’m very proud of how this project has taken shape.
I expect to be finished editing in late spring/early summer and hope to bring it to some NY festivals in late 2014/early 2015.
GP: What’s next for the film and you?
AD: Since making the film, I passed the NY Bar exam and currently work in Admissions at my law school.
On the film side: I’m finishing the spinoff, I started a trilogy of short film mockumentaries about a mismatched legal duo (the first two films are at www.flatsquirrelproductions.com), and I’m trying to get my next documentary project—about an aspiring puppeteer—off the ground.
Right now, I hope folks watch and enjoy My Comic Shop DocumentARy and that it gets in front of the right eyes.
Check out the trailer for Athony’s next film, and come back this afternoon to read a review of the movie!