The Last Days of Edward Gorey Captured: An Interview with Chatham Filmmaker Chris Seufert

If you don’t know who Edward Gorey was, you’re missing out. The eccentric illustrator, who authored numerous books, illustrated many others, and lent his imaginative drawings to several publications, including The New Yorker, lived on the Cape for the last portion of his life. He died in 2000, the year I arrived here, also a New Yorker in exile, but thanks to the work of Chatham documentary filmmaker Christopher Seufert, I am now able to glimpse Gorey’s Cape Cod life. Seufert had been making a documentary about Gorey when we first met, but it had been put on hold. Now, after a decade-long hiatus, Seufert is back on track and he’s bringing his work-in-progress to various venues around the Cape and Islands to regain the momentum he lost in the aftermath of Gorey’s death. He took a few minutes to chat with me about this film as he prepared for his next screening/fundraiser at the Chatham Orpheum Theater on Saturday, April 26th at 10 a.m., where he will be joined by Gorey’s cousin Ken Morton.

Cape Cod Film Society: When did you begin this project?
Christopher Seufert: In the summer of 1996 in my late twenties; I’d just moved back to the Cape after living on the West Coast and then in Australia. I kept meeting people that summer who, when hearing I was a documentary maker, would mention that there was this eccentric, reclusive artist in Yarmouth who would make a great documentary [subject]. I’d never heard his name and was not familiar with his work so the idea kept falling flat with me. Finally… I went to a local book store and checked out his work. I didn’t understand it particularly, but I did see that he was a significant and prolific artist. So, I sent him a letter, thinking, if nothing else, that I’d at least to be able to put the idea to rest when he never responded.
To my surprise he responded within the week. He said he’d be open to the idea but that he had some of his plays being performed and he’d like to hire me to document them. I told him not to pay me, that we’d consider documenting the plays test footage for a possible documentary. He agreed and I shot his next plays, Wallpaper and Heads Will Roll, at Theater on the Bay in Bourne, to his specs.

CCFS: How did you come to meet Edward Gorey for the first time?
CS:I met Edward at the Theater on the Bay in Bourne in September of 1996. His collaborator Carol Verburg, introduced us. She was very enthusiastic that I was there to shoot a documentary and wanted to do anything she could to get the two of us to do this. She said, “Thank god you’re here. He has prostate cancer, heart problems, and diabetes. You need to move on this.” In April of 2000, three and a half years later, Edward died of a heart attack. I had gotten about sixty hours of footage but was really shooting to get about two hundred, a typical amount for a verite-style feature length documentary.

CCFS: What made you get back to it now so many years later?
CS:After he died, I decided that whatever I edited would be too sentimental and that I’d be better off getting some distance. I decided to put my energy and money into documentaries with musician Suzanne Vega and filmmaker Albert Maysles, in addition to a project-for-hire with veteran journalist Walter Cronkite. Editing a feature length documentary and then releasing it takes time and money and I wanted to put all that into new projects and figure out the details of releasing a documentary where the subject died midway through later.

CCFS: In the intervening years, you’ve done other projects; why didn’t you finish this one first before moving onto other films?
CS:In 2007 I was married and my son was born. In that year also the economy tanked. So there was a perfect storm there that shifted my priorities. I gave up all personal projects in favor of projects for hire. Now our youngest is three and the economy is really rolling back, so I’m getting more expansive again and giving some priority to my personal projects, in whatever state they’re in. I’ve got several documentaries on the shelf waiting to be edited and rolled out and things have changed for the better for independent filmmakers in some ways. Social networking combined with the grassroots fundraising possibilities at places like Kickstarter and Indiegogo, is an element that didn’t exist ten years ago.

CCFS: What was the most surprising thing about Edward Gorey?
CS:My documentary is about Edward himself and not his work, so that’s the heart of the documentary, the parallels and discrepancies between he and his work. His work is often described as macabre, and there wasn’t anything like that about him personally. He was an eccentric to the highest degree but not dark and gothic and forbidding; he was friendly. That’s the big surprise here. Like many artists, he wasn’t huge on talking about his work but he’d go on and on about anyone else’s artwork with little prompting: films, books, music. He loved conversation.

CCFS: What’s your favorite Edward Gorey moment that you captured on video?
CS: There are some private moments that can’t see the light of day that I like simply because of the access he gave me and the level of trust. As soon as I’d see him I’d slap a wireless microphone on him and start recording. Sometimes I wouldn’t shoot and would go to a DAT [digital audio tape] recorder tucked away somewhere. The best moment for me was capturing his ritual in front of Jack’s Outback in Yarmouth, counting the frogs in the goldfish pond as he left. This one particular day he was thrilled to count five frogs and as he walked away from me he said, to no one in particular, “It’s a five frog day, wow! Keep up the good work frogs.” Probably the ending of the documentary.

CCFS: In general, how do you select your topics for documentaries?
CS: Like most documentarians I’m always looking for the untold story. Of course it also has to be a story that other people are interested in. My background is in anthropological filmmaking, an idealistic form of documentary making where the director gets out of the way and communicates the subject’s point of view. Usually it’s a filmmaker documenting some disappearing way of life such as a tribe in the Amazon rainforest. I try to bring this approach to mainstream subjects in America. The Maysles brothers were the first pioneers here and Albert Maysles is still out there doing it. He cares about his subjects, loves them, and everything flows from that. For me Edward was the last of a dying race and I was the only one there with a camera. In the 14 years since his death, no one else has come forth with footage taken so close up, so I’m excited to bring this to the world.

CCFS: When are you hoping to have the Gorey film completed?
CS: I’m [running] a Kickstarter campaign for the next month to raise $38,000 and there will be a great reward ladder with private, unreleased footage, interview CDs and transcripts, etc. Then, for the next six months I’m screening the rough cut in its ongoing forms at places like the Cotuit Center for the Arts, Nantucket Dreamland Theatre, Chatham Orpheum, the Gloucester Community Theater, and I’m also working with the Woods Hole Film Festival to do a special event this summer. Stay tuned on that. In September I’ll submit to Sundance and then I have a letter of support from WGBH to broadcast when I deliver on my proposal to them.

CCFS: What else are you working on in terms of filmmaking?
CS: I have two other feature documentaries that are in the same unreleased state, waiting for the same attention from me. A documentary shot with alterna-folk musician Suzanne Vega at her home and on tour from 2002 to 2005, and a short documentary shot with the legendary filmmaker Albert Maysles about his journey through the Czech Republic in 2005. I’m also doing a documentary-for-hire about the writer Henry Beston and the role of his book The Outermost House in the creation of the National Seashore. This is the brainchild of producer Don Wilding with beautiful acting by local actor Chris Kolb that is in a rough cut state currently. After this clears I can give myself the privilege of starting ideas. So fun on the first day of shooting a new idea. Where else can you get such permission to enter a new world and have such close up relationships with people in their own element. I love the camraderie of the small documentary crew as well- shooting all day and then a great Mexican meal with margaritas at midnight.

For tickets and information about the Exclusive rough cut screening and fundraiser, visit the Chatham Orpheum Theater online or in person: 637 Main St., Chatham, MA, or visit the film’s official website.
NOTE: Pre-purchase the upcoming Edward Gorey documentary media bundle here at the project’s Kickstarter page!

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