Brussels-based artist Pierre Bismuth on his playful and confounding quasi-documentary Where is Rocky II?
What happened to Edward Ruscha’s 1979 sculpture of a boulder hidden in California’s Mojave Desert, and why is Ruscha so secretive about the project now? Bismuth attempts to find out in a film that deftly explores the way secrets and intangible truths stoke the fires of creativity.
When did you first learn about “Rocky II”?
I first read about it in 2006, and I soon realised that no one in the art world knew about the piece. I persuaded a friend of mine to ask Ed Ruscha about it, but Ed really didn’t want to discuss it. So I thought that was extremely weird. In 2009 I went to London to confront Ed directly during a press conference. I felt that if I made the film without evidence, nobody would believe the piece existed. The confrontation was perfect, because you can see the surprise in his eyes – he’s taken aback by the fact that I know about it. That was exactly what I needed to start the movie.
How did you envisage your film at that point?
The initial project was an art movie, a slow journey into the desert to look for something that was impossible to find. Then I moved towards the idea of a documentary, but I found myself simultaneously moving away from the conventions of the form. The finished film is really about the different regime of reality we’re confronted with in TV and film. I’d noticed that filmmakers often have to add signs of reality to make the audience believe that something‘s genuine. I decided to respect the documentary methology of unscripted events, but hide the signs of reality where possible. Would the audience still perceive it as true, or would we destroy the feeling of authenticity? That was the game I wanted to play.
And why decide to depict screenwriters creating fiction based on the story?
There were two questions I wanted answers to – where is the piece, and why did this artist decide to create something that was totally invisible? When I started casting for the detective, I found people who’d be able to find the piece, but wouldn’t necessarily be able to answer the question of meaning. Because the private detective is such a common cinematic element, I realised I already had one foot in the film world. That led me to think that the best people to explore the meaning would be screenwriters.
What was it about Michael Scott that won him the private detective role?
The main reason is that he was very square! He’s an ex-army officer and ex-policeman, totally overqualified for the job. I liked the fact that he made no judgement about the case – he didn’t think it was stupid.
Did you know in advance that you’d be pairing him up with Jim Ganzer, the founder of skate brand Jimmy’z and inspiration for The Dude in The Big Lebowski?
The way it appears in the film is exactly how it was. Michael really wanted to find Jim after flying to London and watching him in an old BBC documentary about Ruscha. And Jim turned out to be this totally amazing character. What I didn’t expect is that Michael would somehow fall in love with him – it was great to watch.
Was it always your goal to make something this unusual?
To be honest, I just thought I was making a documentary with a little twist. It was not my intention to do something this weird! The strange thing is if you try and explain the film, it sounds like something that not many people would be interested in. But the reaction we’ve seen at festivals is that audiences find it very entertaining and easy to follow.
Where is Rocky II? opens in Berlin cinemas on October 20. Check our OV search engine for showtimes.