Filmmaker Q&A: Eames: The Architect and the Painter.


Now in theatres, this is the first film about Charles and Ray Eames to be made since their deaths. Filmmakers Jason Cohn and Bill Jersey take you inside the crazy, exciting, and sometimes sad worlds of Charles and Ray. You’ll hear from people who worked with them in their Venice Beach studio, as well as from Charles’ daughter, Lucia and grandson, Eames Demetrios. The name of the film came from the fact that Bill was “interested in the relationship between Charles [the Architect] and Ray [the Painter] and felt really strongly about getting into the lives of these two.” As for Jason’s goals with the film, “I wanted people to see design differently,” he says. Indeed, neither disappoints with this in-depth, intriguing film. It’s a must-see for anyone who loves design.

To learn more about Jason Cohn and this film, DWR’s Suzanne Shrekgast interviewed the filmmaker. He shares insights to his process, as well as hints of what you’ll find on the soon-to-be-released DVD.

DWR: What inspired you to make this film about Charles and Ray Eames?

JC: Well, they inspired me. My introduction to them was not sort of the normal one that people usually have – it didn’t start with their furniture. I wasn’t, at that time, a design geek or a furniture geek. But when I was in graduate school, I saw the films made by the Eameses and they really made a strong impact on me. Part of it was that they were so baffling; they were so different from anything I had ever seen because they didn’t fit into any normal category of documentary or narrative film or art film or experimental film. I watched them and thought, ‘What is this? What are these films? Why would Charles and Ray make them or how would they make them?” They were confusing and inspirational in a way, too. Even if I wasn’t really clear about what it was that I was watching or why they were made, the beautiful, striking images entered my consciousness. So, that really made an impact on me, but it wasn’t until years later that I became aware of their furniture and started reading about them and realized that there was a whole lot of depth to what they were doing. I realized there was a profound philosophy at work. And when I saw that, I realized that Ray and Charles would make for some really great material for a great film.

DWR: Are you more of a self-professed design and furniture geek after making this film?

JC: Yes. The research for this film included a huge amount of window-shopping at design shops and looking at pictures of great furniture and great architecture, so over the course of four or five years doing this I definitely became something of a design geek but really only in that mid-century realm. That’s the only aspect of it that I know a lot about and I’m kind of stuck there. If I had $100,000 right now I could spend it so quickly on furniture.

DWR: The Eames Lounge and Ottoman is perhaps one of, if not the most, iconic and universally recognized pieces of furniture that came from the mid-century. Yet in the film, there is little or no mention of its creation. Why is that?

JC: Another way to look at it is that the furniture wasn’t a big part of the film. We really only tell the story of the development of one piece of furniture and that’s the plywood furniture and the reason that the furniture wasn’t such a big part of it was that we felt we needed to make a film that opened up the world of Charles and Ray to people so that they could see how expansive it was; that the furniture was really just the engine of the Eames office and what kept it going, but that it wasn’t the only thing that occupied them by any means. Basically, in terms of the amount of time that we felt we had to put furniture on screen, we really felt that we could only tell the story of the development of one chair and the plywood chair was the first one and it was the one that was sort of the best one because it illustrated the creation of the Eames design process.

DWR: What are some parts of the film that ended on the cutting room floor that people will have to wait to see in the DVD extras? [Ed. Note: DVD release: December 13, 2011]

JC: We uncovered some of the lost footage from a 1973 interview with Charles and Ray. One of them features Charles driving through Los Angeles in that sort of chaotic disaster of the city as an example of what happens when you don’t have any constraints on your design process. And then there is this very moving, almost three-minute discussion with Ray where the interviewer asks what she and Charles do for fun and she can’t answer the question. And, you know, you realize that the work is what fun was for them. And I just think that’s so revealing of Ray and Charles versus Ray on her own of what mattered to them. They were workaholics and what they got pleasure from was solving problems.

DWR: Tell me about shooting at the Case Study House.

JC: I had goose bumps the whole time. Honestly. You feel like you’re walking through history, and yet, it’s still so alive. Charles and Ray filled it with all of these artifacts from their lives, so it has this feeling of being at grandma’s house with all the chotchkies everywhere and that makes you feel like you can reach out and touch Charles and Ray. The house is kind of small but it’s a really powerful place. So we decided to blow our production budget with a gigantic 30-foot jib to help present the space in a really sweeping kind of way. I hope that people get a feeling for not just the house, but for the site that it’s on as well.

DWR: Since this film was produced in collaboration with the PBS American Masters series, I’m curious to know what you think classifies Charles and Ray as masters.

JC: For me, what takes Charles and Ray to a different level is that they developed this sort of empirical process of thinking – through their approach to problems, modeling, and use of photography – and applied it to so many different areas. I think that’s what makes them masters. If they had continued or if they had been born 10 or 20 years later, there’s no question in my mind that they would be cutting edge innovators in the computer or Internet world. Obviously, they were innovators in multimedia with all of the work that they did with IBM, but there’s no question in my mind that they would be Steve Jobs-like figures in computing and innovative design. It’s really the process that they created that could be applied to almost anything and yet they still brought a kind of artistic intuition to everything they did, which is what I think elevates them to a rarified level of art.