ACTION! Marshall (center) sets up a shot on Benefit Street.
A black Lincoln Town Car drives through the darkened streets of Providence. The car pulls into the driveway of an East Side mansion and a man is hauled to the front door. He pleads with the cop who has dragged him there. Unmoved, the officer looks at him. "You shouldn't have fucked with Buddy," he says.
So begins OBEY THE GIANT, the sleek, confident directorial debut of Julian Marshall that premiered at RISD's Film, Animation, Video (FAV) Senior Show this week. (There will be an encore showing on Friday. Admission is $5 for the public, $3 with a RISD ID. Call 401.454.6233 for tickets.)
On Monday morning, two days before the premiere, Marshall sits in a near-empty RISD Auditorium in shorts, a black t-shirt and flip-flops and watches the film for the first time on the big screen. "It's totally different watching this, because now Buddy's face is like eight feet tall on the screen," he says, describing the infamous (and forever "alleged") fireplace-log assault that begins the film. "But I think that people will really enjoy this film and really see my style come out through it."
Marshall describes that style as "the intersection of David Fincher and Michael Mann," which is the sort of talk you might expect from a young, ambitious film student. Except OBEY really does look like what Mann and Fincher might have produced, had they decided to tell the story of a young illustration student at RISD in the 1990s named Shepard Fairey. The scenes of Fairey making his now-iconic Andre the Giant prints and then climbing up a Cianci campaign billboard to paste one over the former mayor's face are mesmerizing. The sets — from the lush interior of Cianci's office to Fairey's gritty, graffiti-tagged studio in Olneyville — are convincing. The period-authentic music from Jane's Addiction and the Sex Pistols is pitch-perfect: loud and aggressive. Marshall knows what he's doing.
"I've just always known I wanted to do this," Marshall says about a career that he hopes will have him directing features and commercials. He started filming his own skateboard videos when he was 10 and never stopped making films. He didn't know he would be telling this particularly story, however, until a day last fall when he looked up at two Fairey posters on his wall — "OBEY" and "HOPE" prints that he received after interning for the artist in 2009 — and the idea struck. From there, Marshall says, it was simply a matter of putting the skills and resources he had acquired to use.
He burrowed into documentaries and books about Cianci as research. He got in touch with Fairey and received his blessing on the project. He crafted a story and screenplay with the filmmaker, Alex Jablonski. He corralled friends with whom he had worked on Wes Anderson's latest feature Moonrise Kingdom (which, coincidentally, premiered in Cannes the same day OBEY THE GIANT premiered in Providence) and recruited scores of RISD classmates to help build sets and act as extras. He coordinated permits, financing, catering, and equipment for an eight-day shoot in February, which included shutting down the intersection of Angell and Benefit streets. Last week, he took the film to Manhattan for sound design at the studio that handles Spike Lee and Martin Scorsese's work.