AS WITH so many things in Richard Thompson’s life, it largely started with a cartoon.
Andy Hemmendinger was a Northern Virginia neighbor of Thompson’s, and because the “Cul de Sac” creator likes to draw so organically from his suburban surroundings, one day the artist decided to spin off of Hemmendinger’s name in a cartoon.
“A friend of mine called up and said that he’d made fun of my last name in a cartoon that he’d done,” Hemmendinger tells The Post’s Comic Riffs of the Thompson illustration. “After that, I started paying attention to his work. I loved his sense of humor and began to read him regularly, especially when ‘Cul De Sac’ started.”
Today, that love of Thompson’s humor, and that deep appreciation of his talent, is deftly reflected in a new documentary short, “The Art of Richard Thompson” (which shares a title with the career retrospective of a book being published next week).
Hemmendinger is president of GVI, a Washington-based video-production company, and he teamed with longtime professional partner Bob Burnett, GVI’s vice president and creative director, to create a beautiful filmic tribute to Thompson’s life and Reuben Award-winning career. The documentary portrait includes interviews with “Art of Richard Thompson” book co-authors David Apatoff and Nick Galifianakis, as well as contributor Gene Weingarten and Billy Ireland Cartoon Library & Museum curators Jenny Robb and Caitlin McGurk. (Disclosure: Galifianakis and Weingarten work for The Post Co., and the film includes photos from my 2011 Post Magazine profile of Thompson.)
“I think [they] did a great job,” Thompson tells Comic Riffs of the film. “It really humanized me.”
As that film hits the Web today, here is Comic Riffs’ exclusive advance interview with the filmmakers:
MICHAEL CAVNA: Congratulations on the beautiful documentary, guys. When did you first discover Richard’s work, and what inspired you to make this film?
ANDY HEMMENDINGER: Richard has been a friend and neighbor of mine for the last 15-plus years. I enjoyed his sense of humor from the beginning, and while I knew he did illustrations and cartoons, I’d never seen any of his work. One day, a friend of mine called up and said that he’d made fun of my last name in a cartoon that he’d done. After that, I started paying attention to his work.
I loved his sense of humor and began to read him regularly, especially when “Cul De Sac” started. It did surprise me that not everyone knew who he was, though. This past spring, I was visiting Richard and saw a self-portrait he’d drawn in which he was a chick that had just hatched. That image really struck me. It made me think of the endless hours he’d spent staring at a blank piece of paper, waiting for ideas to strike. Like staring at the inside of the egg. And now it wasn’t the lack of ideas that constrained him, but the Parkinson’s. [Ed. note: Thompson retired “Cul de Sac" in 2012 to battle his Parkinson’s disease.]
Between the combination of this mental image and wanting … other people to enjoy his work as much as we did, we decided to make a film.
BOB BURNETT: I probably jumped on with “Richard’s Poor Almanac” in the Post. I was drawn to the eccentric, free-flowing style that felt more akin to the history of cartooning and illustration than anything else. The first time we met was at a social event of Andy’s and we talked about James Thurber getting his eye put out in Falls Church. [Ed. note: When Thurber was a boy, his family lived for a time on Maple Avenue in Falls Church, Va., and the great author liked to tell of how it was here that his elder brother struck him in the eye with an arrow.]
MC: I’m curious: Given Richard’s mountains of originals – as well as his mountains of friends and admirers – how did you approach crafting all that into a truly representative [20-minute] narrative?
AH: We did want to show the variety of artwork that he produced [cartoons, caricatures and illustrations], but we really looked for the images and moments that reveal Richard’s view of the world and his sense of humor.
BB: The initial heavy-lifting was done thanks to Nick [Galifianakis] and the others who worked so hard to put “The Art of Richard Thompson” together. We had access to a wide range of high-resolution images that were used in the book, as well as the selections that were from the retrospective exhibit at the Billy Ireland Cartoon Library & Museum. [Curators] Caitlin McGurk and Jenny Robb were kind enough to let me spend the day shooting the exhibit. Plus, Bono Mitchell had a large personal archive from Richard’s days of freelance illustration work. When we went to interview Bono, we found the scattered pile as you see it in the film. It was the first interview we did, and I had a great time just rooting through the stacks with her.
MC: Did the film end up with pretty much how you envisioned it, or did the filmic journey introduce twists and turns that altered how you pictured this documentary?
AH: It changed a lot. We didn’t end up doing anything with the Richard “hatching” theme. We were fortunate that Richard’s conversation with Caitlin McGuirk of the Billy Ireland Cartoon Library & Museum [at the Ohio State University] unfolded the way it did. It let us include Richard’s current voice in a very natural way.
BB: I felt Richard’s sense of humor would remain the guide for wherever we ended up. Early in the process, Andy talked to Richard about a direction we saw taking the film in [what Andy said above about the chick, the egg, the hours staring at the void]. And then spent a long time crafting a creative approach that spanned many topics and how we saw going about making the film happen. One of Richard’s replies of approval to Andy’s work on the approach was an email that said something like, “Yeah, sure….as long as there’s a wistful piano in it.”
MC: What were one or two of the most surprising things you learned about Richard during the making of this film, either personally or professionally?
AH: I knew he was incredibly talented, but didn’t realize how highly his peers thought of his work. I also had no idea he was addicted to chocolate milkshakes.
BB: Richard was into participating from the start. Here’s the content of an early e-mail exchange we had about music:
“Please note the Brahms Serenade No. 1 in D Major for Orchestra Op. 11 IV that Richard suggested made it in as the opening music. I’ve been humming this piece for months, now. A smattering of Haydn made it, too.:
“OK— time from some creative input from you.
“I’m thinking initial soundtrack possibilities/ideas now. It’s pretty clear you kept the classical churning while drawing/creating as well as around you now. Would you mind listing out some options you think of as possible inclusions?
Ravel , piano concerto in G, first & second mvmts.
Brahms, Serenade no.s 1 & 2..
Brahms, Academic Festival Overture.
Various Haydn symphonies. (i.e.,101, “the Clock”).
Bernstein, Candide Overture.
Berlioz, Roman Carnival Overture.
Ravel, LeTombeau de Couperin, piano version.
Hey, this could be fun!
Richard also led us to the interviews he did in 2010 for RingTales and [the documentary] “Stripped”.
MC: Do you believe this film, and the new book, are part of a larger “tsunami” [to invoke a word from the film] of interest in, and discovery of, Richard’s body of work?
AH: That’s a little hard for me to say, but people do respond to his work and wonder why they haven’t seen it before.
BB: I hope so. Richard’s work, to me, is timeless. The book, “The Art of Richard Thompson,” is a perfect balance of great stories and essays along with unparalleled art. When we first started the project, Nick loaned me an early draft of the book and I read it in one sitting on an airplane. It was the best cross-country flight I ever had. I’m not a “laugh out loud” type and I know I was doing the slow-rolling giggles that Richard’s work tends to make happen, to the chagrin of the person stuck in the middle seat next to me.
MC: How long did this film take to make, and do you have plans to screen it anywhere specifically?
AH: We’ve been working on it off and on since July. We’re looking to distribute it on the Web as much as possible, and it’s going to play at some events with Richard in the coming months.
BB: We originally thought we’d be done around Labor Day, but then we had the opportunity to spend the day at Richard’s house with Caitlin McGurk in mid-September returning the work from the retrospective exhibit. And…[as] I think the film shows, that day ended up being a very strong part of the film.