Last year, Providence residents got a surprise blast from the past in the form of a billboard that appeared on Benefit Street. It was a campaign ad for ex-mayor/convict Buddy Cianci, with the veteran pol's face replaced the dead-eyed, meaty-lipped mug of pro-wrestler André the Giant.
The billboard was a replica of another one from 1990 that was targeted for a guerrilla attack by Shepard Fairey, the street artist better known today for his Obama "Hope" poster. Seeing it standing again in 2012 prompted a calamitous reaction among some Rhode Islanders. "I think there were two car accidents as a result of people staring at it," says filmmaker Julian Marshall.
Marshall recreated the seminal billboard for a set piece in his new film about Shepard's life, "Obey the Giant." The short movie doesn't really deal with Fairey's current status as an Obama-boosting, Google-doodling, will.i.am-collaborating rock star. Rather, it takes a look at his student days at the Rhode Island School of Design, when the artist and his skater posse helped spawn the underground art campaign known as "Obey Giant."
For those who have been living in an Iowan corn field for the last two decades, "Obey Giant" is the name that's latched onto the phenomenon of street artists slapping stencils or stickers of André the Giant's on every surface within reach. The altered Cianci billboard was one of the first appearances in the campaign, which began when Fairey's crew saw a picture of the wrestler in a newspaper and thought it would make a "hilarious" stencil. Today the project is enjoying a healthy middle age, with an estimated 600,000 likenesses of the André plastered on light polls, mailboxes and other bits of urban architecture worldwide.
The 22-year-old Marshall, who also graduated from RISD, was inspired to make his film when he was just sitting around one day staring at posters that he received from Fairey while interning for him in 2009. He traveled to L.A. to pitch Fairey and his wife and then spent a hectic week shooting the movie, using professional actors from New York City and New England and vintage '90s stickers straight from Fairey's collection. Fairey didn't contribute any money to the film – it was financed by a few generous individuals and Kickstarter – because the artist "wanted it to be an independent voice," says the director.
Some people have given Marshall flack for not making an interview-heavy documentary. "I'm definitely a narrative film director, not a documentary director," he says. "I thought there's way more of a thrill in narrative because you're collaborating with hundreds of people. It's more exciting to me to get inside the minds of characters and build them up based on the research I've done."
Here's the plot synopsis for "Obey," which you can watch in full here and below:
Based on the true story of Shepard Fairey’s first act of street art, OBEY THE GIANT tells the story of a young skate punk challenging a big-city mayor and the powers-that-be at art school. Frustrated by his inability to gain respect within the confines of art school Shepard sets out to gain notoriety and acclaim by targeting the most powerful man in Providence, former Mayor Buddy Cianci. Risking expulsion and jail time Shepard plasters Andre the Giant’s face over the image of Cianci on a campaign billboard. As word of Shepard’s prank gets out, Shepard learns that art is a weapon and attention is both a blessing and a curse.