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An Interview With… Kyle Cooper #Locarno71

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In his speech on the Piazza Grande at Locarno Film Festival, Kyle Cooper said that he ‘had been giving credit to everyone else for 30 years and now it was time for him to enjoy it’.

Kyle Cooper was the recipient of the Vision Award Ticinimoda awarded to those whose creative work behind the scenes, as well as in their own right, has contributed to opening up new perspectives in film.

As one of the most respected title credit designers and directors, Kyle Cooper has worked on over 300 movies, including the likes of Goodfellas, Se7en, Spider-Man and TV Series such as The Walking Dead and American Horror Story.

It started again with Se7en and it’s like people had forgotten main titles could be something, and then you came up and broke that wall open. So are you in any way regretting what you did because suddenly you kind of opened the door and everybody came barging in. 

No, I think that it’s interesting, you see Saul Bass talk about these “studio trends” where people get tired of main titles and they say let’s just do Woody Allen main titles, we don’t need to spend the money and they can’t do anything for the film and then they forget that it’s the beginning of the movie. I mean sure we could put them all at the end- which is another trend- but it can become the perfect beginning to the film. It can dovetail whatever the live action is, whatever the director’s already intended to do, and the title designer, if they do a good job, for example, I was working on Goodfellas when I was a kid and I wasn’t solving Martin Scorsese’s problem and he said ‘I want something like Saul Bass, remember Saul Bass?’ and I said well, Saul Bass he’s still around, they’ve got an office around the corner! And then Saul Bass did Goodfellas and then the lesson I learned was, Martin Scorsese knew he wanted Ray Liotta to open the trunk and say “I always wanted a gangster” and he wanted the music to kick in, and that was all still there because Saul Bass saw what Scorsese had and  looked at the beginning and thought well they’re in a car, so I’ll have this type come by like passing cars and I was thinking as a young person, I need to think of a metaphor for the gangsters of Italy, I don’t know, the Italian flag? And no, he looked at the beginning and figured out how to integrate these nasty credits into the beginning that Martin Scorsese had, and the beginning wouldn’t be the same without the typography integrated and I would maintain that the movie ‘Se7en’ wouldn’t be the same if it didn’t begin the way that it began and so, again about Saul Bass- when he did ‘The Man with the Golden Arm’ people had gotten kind of complacent about main titles and everybody sat up and said gosh, here’s an opportunity, here’s a bit of real estate, where we can do something creatively interesting, so you know, a lot of good work came out of that-  it sounds a bit arrogant if I say that Se7en did that but since you said it… it kind of woke people up to the potentialities of what a main title sequence could to for a movie and the best thing that it can do is set the tone and become the first scene of the movie and the last people that were here just asked me what I thought about the Netflix ‘skip title’ button, and I think you have to make the distinction of a film title sequence and a broadcast title sequence and the reason I say that is, if it’s a full feature, many times the main title is setting up something expositional that’s crucial to that particular film. Whereas the Netflix button- the title sequence isn’t intrinsically linked to the first scene of the episode. 

What would be the different functions and different uses of those titles – opening the movie, setting the tone are there other purposes in some way?  

Yeah- for a film title, a lot of times the studio will stream the movie and realise people don’t understand a certain thing, or they’re missing a point and they say how do we fix this? What shall we do? Oh, let’s talk about the serial killer in the main titles. I shot this thing for a movie called Identity and people didn’t understand the pathology of the plot and so we tried to make sense of that in the main title. So the other things that it can do- it can set the tone – I mean the titles that influenced me and the titles sequences that made me want to be a main title designer when I got out of graduate school were Altered States, Alien and The Dead Zone, and I think that those perfectly set the tone for those movies. They are minimalist and simple, but the music is impeccable and wonderful and it just makes you feel the way you’re supposed to feel at the beginning of that movie. You want to set the emotional tone for that film, you want to elicit an emotional response from the audience.  

How did you get into title design in the first place? 

I was a graphic designer and where I was working at the time, this man brought in a reel of movie titles and I saw some of Richard Greenberg’s work – Altered States and The Dead Zone – and that’s when I realised main titles combined both my interest in film and in graphic design and that was in 1985.  

Increasingly we are seeing almost little films at the beginning of the movie where the title sequence is- even animated when the film is live action or whatever –  I wonder if the internet has been an influence on that where you can see on YouTube, particular segments of a film- whether that’s changed the status of the title sequence? Like trailers for example, they’ve become an art form and people review trailers and I’m wondering if title sequences, in a similar way, have they become a discreet theme?  

I agree with you yes, and people talk about them and review them independently and I think it’s good but it shouldn’t be separate from the movie somehow I think they work better if they are the actual beginning rather than this disembodies music video – I could be wrong. Elvis Mitchell said in the New York Times, that the Dawn of the Dead title sequence was better than the movie and I felt bad, I felt because I’d never got to work with Zack Snyder, one of his associates said that was insensitive to him , but I would never set out to do that. The trailer is different because the trailer is made up of parts of the movie. 

What is your take on the current main-on-end, because I know you’ve done a lot of them yourself, but the whole thing of the main title is to set the movie up, even if they come a little later than the beginning but the tendency now is to have a small sequence at the beginning and let everything role at the end of the movie to an emptying room, Is that demeaning to your work, is it another challenge you have to overcome? What is your take on that?  

I don’t think it’s demeaning, to work on a main-on-end, I think a lot of times I have worked on them, they want the audience to leave with a spring in their step, they want the audience to dance out of the theatre –like in Iron Man or in both Sherlock Holmes movies – let’s remind them what they’ve seen, and have them leave with a good feeling, so in that sense there is a necessity to them. The first Sherlock Holmes movie felt like that, it was kind of a celebration of what you had just seen and it worked visually and it was okay. Marvel does it all the time, I don’t feel like it’s a lesser job but you’re not really setting a tone, if the movie ends on a dark tone, they usually decide to have white-type over black. You could have a dark movie and you could set a dark tone at the beginning, but you can’t do that as much with a main-on-end. Maybe your options of what you could do in a main-on-end would be limited.  

So in regards to your creative influence at the start, does a director give you a strict brief, as you said, Martin Scorsese guided you to the idea of what he wanted for Goodfellas, so how much freedom do you have in creating these titles? 

I’m so interested in getting information, and finding out about what the movie is and what everybody’s intention is, and if the director gives me something to go on, I don’t mind having the box I have to work within be smaller because specific perimeters have been provided because I feel like an idea is only as good as its execution, for example, I shot money burning for the Hughes’ brothers for ‘Dead Presidents’ a long time ago and they had that idea. I don’t mind if the idea comes from the director and I’m just executing it, but I still try to execute it in a way that I think is visually sophisticated myself. I’ve been in situations where it’s completely my idea, and I’ve presented boards and they’ve been approved and I get the director telling me, or giving in notes on what I created. The director always has to approve what I do, I am a graphic designer so I have a client but they have to like what I’m doing. 

Is there a director you look forward to working with again? I know you’ve done a lot of work with Terence Malick, there have been directors who have come to you more than once- but is there anyone that you really feel- wow, I’m really looking forward to working with them again! 

People ask me if I have to make choices on what to work on, and if I’d choose to work on a movie that wasn’t a good movie or work on higher profile things- the truth is my choices right now are more about the people that come back and I like to work. Is there someone I’m hoping comes back again? I had a nice experience working with Scott Cooper on Black Mass and on Hostiles. Ben Stiller is my friend, he wanted me to some work for him, the last thing I worked on with him was Zoolander 2 and that had a bit of trouble so I don’t know if I’ll work with him again- I’d like to. I liked working a bit with Ridley Scott on Exodus and Prometheus and I think not really. I like Gareth Edwards, the first Godzilla director and I usually have a pretty good relationship with who the director is and if the come back, I try to help them. There isn’t anybody that I’m desperate to have give me a job that I can think of. But rather than pitch on new business and compete against other companies to get new business, I’d prefer to work with someone who knows who I am and knows what I bring to the table. 

What is your favourite Saul Bass title sequence? 

My favourite Saul Bass titles are- The Man with the Golden Arm, Take a Walk on the Wild Side when the two cats fight and I kind of like Casino – like the idea behind it.  

Some people have started to remake old movie posters- is there a title you would like to remake a title sequence to? A classic movie maybe?  

The Thing by John Carpenter I would like to remake. That does have a nice title sequence but that is just the first thing that came into mind.  

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