When the director of an acclaimed documentary is a street artist famous for screwing with people and not revealing his identity, people are naturally going to wonder whether the events of the film happened the way they were presented. That you end up arguing about which parts might have stretched the truth is part of the fun of it, kind of like keeping up with who owns the Donkey Kong record after King of Kong. Artist Ron English (below right) was a contemporary of some of the characters from Exit Through the Gift Shop, seemingly in a position to know how things really happened, and recently talked about the events the movie depicted in an interview with PostersandPrints (via DocChannel). I’ll include longer excerpts of below, but the gist of what English says is:
- It happened pretty much the way the film depicted it.
- Banksy and Mr. Brainwash are not the same person
- Mr. Brainwash got to hang out because he was wealthy
- Exit Through the Gift Shop all began with a lawsuit between Thierry Guetta (Brainwash) and Shepard Fairey
English: The only glaring detail that they leave out that helps you understand the story is that Thierry is like a billionaire, a very wealthy guy. He doesn’t come off as wealthy. His family are some kind of merchants from France, and when he was 17 years old he met with his financial advisor and told him that he wanted to move to the United States. His financial advisor says “It’s very hard to immigrate to the United States, but it’s a lot less hard if you own a bunch of property in the United States.” So the family bought a bunch of buildings up and down Melrose and some other really prime real estate in Los Angeles.
He’s quirky-crazy but he’s not stupid, he’s kind of like Columbo or something.
Thierry really loved the idea of celebrities and was always chasing them with his camera, but then Space Invader turned him onto the world of street art, so he started following us around, and we let him film us because he just seemed like a harmless fan. The artists all tolerated him because he hooked you up, when you went to LA, the first thing people told you is “You have to meet this guy Thierry because he’s got all the main spaces, all the best walls, and you can do something without getting arrested.” So first he hooked up with Shepard, who turned him onto Banksy. Suddenly he was in with all the street artists.
English: He just films everything, absolutely everything. Later, when they finally went through all his footage, Banksy said that although he was always filming, he never seemed to be filming the right things. Banksy first thought that Thierry had a collection of the greatest street art footage ever filmed, that all these major moments had been captured, but when they looked at the footage they said ‘he had the camera pointed the wrong way almost every time.’
On the lawsuit:
English: Here’s what actually happened: When we first met Thierry, he was supposed to be making a movie about Shepard [Fairey, the guy who did "OBEY" and the Obama "Hope" poster]. He was filming Shepard all the time, wherever he went. They made a deal, 50/50, we’ll make a movie. They shot for five years doing this, Shepard in his Spiderman prime, leaping off buildings and stuff. At the end of five years, Shepard says “Alright, let’s put the movie together,” and Thierry said “I’m not giving you the footage.” He’s actually quite smart and can be a little devious-he figured “I just took away five years of your fame,” because in his heart, Thierry always wanted to be the artist. He figured he was messing up his competition, in a way, and holding onto valuable footage. Shepard didn’t quite know what to do and filed a lawsuit against Thierry.
Then Banksy figured “I’m in the same situation, he has tons of footage for me.” He had some of the only footage of Banksy where you could actually see who he was. So he calls up Thierry and said “I’m sending you a first-class ticket to London, get on the plane, I have to talk to you.” That’s when he told Thierry that he would make a movie about him instead, in exchange for the footage, which Thierry turned over to Banksy. That’s when they realized that the footage wasn’t nearly what they thought it might be, but it turns out they did get a different sort of treasure trove, because you’ve got a portrait of this weird guy, Thierry.
Obviously, there’s no way we can verify what English says, but he doesn’t seem to have much motive to lie. Either way, file it under “Cool Story, Bro.” And of course, I can’t take it 100 percent at face value, because it leaves out the most important part: Banksy is James Franco. I’ve never been more sure of anything.