“He lived in complete obscurity,” said filmmaker Julie Checkoway about Billy Pappas, the subject of her 2008 documentary “Waiting for Hockney,” “but in his own mind he lived in this incredibly grandiose universe.”
In “Hockney,” which was recently released on DVD, Checkoway tells the story of Pappas, a Baltimore man who worked on the same portrait of Marilyn Monroe for an entire decade before considering it finished.
Checkoway tells Pappas’ story of obsession and drive for perfection and follows him as he attempts to set up a meeting with the only man he feels will appreciate what he has accomplished, British artist David Hockney.
During an interview with me from her home in Salt Lake City, Utah, Checkoway discussed how curiosity lured her into making the film, how she felt when she first saw the portrait, and what she learned about the art world from an outsider’s perspective.
What was it about Billy Pappas’ story that resonated with you?
The idea that a person can spend that much time on anything and have so much of his life on the line was incredibly suspenseful to me. I thought [the film] was either going to be like “Waiting for Godot” and nothing would happen at all or something amazing would happen. I knew it was something worth following.
How did you first learn about what Billy was doing?
As a writer, you get stories pitched to you all the time. Sometimes they’re good and sometimes they’re really good. It was really deeper than I thought. Everything Billy said lead to a new level of enrichment and curiosity for me. It was like a novel unfolding. It was like “David Copperfield.” It was too good to walk away from.
How did you present Billy with the idea for the film?
I really didn’t have anything in particular in mind. I said, “I’d like to meet you. I’m a writer, but I don’t know what I’m doing right now. I’m in between projects.” As a writer, I’m always looking for a project that has enough meat to it to keep me busy for a couple of years. I had lunch with him and told him I was there to explore and learn about him and maybe write something.
When did you first see the portrait and what was your reaction?
I didn’t want to see the portrait until I understood Billy and all the characters. I waited about a year until I let him show it to me. When I saw it, I was quite overwhelmed by it. We then had to decide if we would show the portrait [in the film]. There were philosophical, artistic and aesthetic issues. Was the footage flattening the portrait? What was going to happen when people saw it? Were they going to like it? That was a real moment of truth.
Did you learn anything about the art world in general from this experience?
I was always pretty intimidated by the art world. What I learned is that it’s really hard to get into the art world unless you’re part of a certain social class and you know the lingo and look a certain way. That might not have been Billy’s only problem. Having only one piece of work probably was a problem, too, but Billy was an outsider to the art world. What do you do with an artist that is not part of the academy? And who is to decide?
So much of the film hangs in the balance on whether or not this meeting between Billy and David Hockney will take place. In a sense, you were waiting for Hockney, too.
Let’s just put it this way: I am no longer waiting for Hockney. (Laughs) I’m done. Now that it has made it to DVD, it’s finally achieved its ultimate form. To me this is the end of waiting.
Are you still in touch will Billy? What did he think of the film? And where is this piece now?
He and I talk very intermittently. Billy moved back to Baltimore. I don’t know what he is doing now, but I wouldn’t hesitate to say that he’s probably still waiting tables. I always love the people that I write about for the period of time that I’m with them, but then I have to move on. He has the piece in New York and a dealer is trying to sell it for him, but he priced it really high.
What’s the price out of curiosity?
We cut it out of the film because it would’ve made people think he was truly crazy. It was $9.5 – $13 million. If we had left that in the film, you would’ve really pitied him for that delusion. I think over time he will realize it’s not a price he can really ask for. He measured worth in terms of labor hours and the unprecedented quality of this one work.