This filmmaker takes us on a personal journey of artistic exploration and self-discovery through a unique tether.
In Angel Applicant, Meyer tells the story of Swiss-German painter Paul Klee, who left Germany after he and other modern artists were condemned by the rising Nazi Party. While isolated in Switzerland, Klee was afflicted by a mysterious illness that profoundly influenced his art. Ken August Meyer, who serves as both narrator and director, examines Klee's expressive final pieces created after being diagnosed with the same life-threatening disease, systemic scleroderma.
A personal journey of artistic exploration and self-discovery, Angel Applicant follows the filmmaker as he battles with the life-threatening disease of scleroderma, finding solace and inspiration in the later works of Swiss-German painter Paul Klee. Through a series of parallel narratives, the film explores the connections between the filmmaker's physical struggles and the evolving style of Klee's art, ultimately revealing the power of creativity to heal and inspire even in the face of mortality.
Ken August Meyer and Jason Roark sat down with No Film School over Zoom to chat about the making of Angel Applicant, their collaboration, and the moments of the film that speak volumes to their ten-year journey.
Editor’s Note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
NFS: Congratulations on Angel Applicant debuting at SXSW. What is the inspiration behind wanting to tell the story through the lens of Paul Klee?
Ken August Meyer: I was diagnosed with scleroderma in the early 2000s. I got the diagnosis and Paul Klee was in one of the informational packets when I was first diagnosed. That's when I first became aware that he suffered from the disease. I became an admirer before that back in art school when I was studying, the Bauhaus was something that you can't avoid in art and design. It crosses over into art, art history, and also visual organization and that kind of stuff, typography. Paul Klee being a central figure to that was in my mind.
I hadn't really spent much time with his later works because a lot of his more broadly known work is the earlier work at the time of the Bauhaus. Eventually, my disease caught up with me and I had to take a leave of absence. I started spending more time with his art and I started buying more books. I bought his entire catalog of the last five years of his life, which are probably close to 10 inches thick put together.
I started to be overwhelmed by how much work he accomplished in his last five years. Scleroderma tends to be more deadly in the first five years, so the things that were starting to happen to me made me pay more attention to what was happening to him at that time. I had to step away for medical leave to do a harsh round of chemotherapy for a year, and I started meditating with his work in a sense and going through all of it. It became more of a personal connection than one that started almost like an academic investigation and turned into a more passionate, almost spiritual kind of connection.
I've said many times there's not a face to scleroderma, like a specific sufferer that's a celebrity that we know of. Then, I thought to myself, well, Paul Klee really should be more in people's minds when they think of scleroderma. In fact, World Scleroderma Day, as it's mentioned in the film is named after or was created from the day he passed away, June 29th. So anyway, that started a personal journey for me.
Jason and I worked together at Wieden+Kennedy, and I wrote a treatment and put together an approach for how to tell a story, meanwhile documenting what was happening to me. That there was sort of a parallel of things happening in my life to my body that I saw in the artwork that I thought would be really interesting to tell. Wieden+Kennedy were really gracious to support my project and Jason and I met there, but we already knew each other a little bit and shared a similar passion for DIY cinema and so that's how it started.
Jason Roark: Ken was a creative and art director at Wieden+Kennedy, and I think that we did a project or two together advertising related before we started working on this film at all. He came and talked to me and had some kind of initial footage and a sketch, I think, of this story that he wanted to tell. I was just taken with it right away. Ken's so visual and so creative that I think the film, there's a lot of really kind of interesting approaches that we take. It was really great to team up with him on a creative project that wasn't advertising.
Often the creative projects or even some of the altruistic like pro bono stuff that the agency would do always felt a little bit of the antidote to advertising for me to flex my creativity and not be trying to sell something at the same time, I'd say. I hesitated to make this all about the cameras, but Ken and I bonded really early over the Panasonic GH2, which we started the film with. We used the GH2, GH3, GH4, and GH5 to make this film. So for the 10 years that we've been making it, we've used their entire line of cameras.
NFS: What led to the natural transition to each of those cameras?
Roark: Just the fact that when we started, it was the two, and every iteration that came out after that was an upgrade. And most of the film is the GH4. So we both had the GH4 and they're so small. Just to talk about the cameras really quickly. One of the huge advantages is Ken was having issues with his hands and gripping and grasping things. And those cameras are just so small that it really enabled him to shoot a lot of the film. And I want to give a huge amount of credit to Ken and his cinematography because he's responsible for a lot of it. I was happy and lucky to be there to help.
Meyer: You're being modest. It's interesting. I was able to shoot my kind of vérité stuff of my family and often point the camera at myself. But then there's a whole lot of stuff where Jason's filming me and often sometimes we're filming together. It was an interesting collaboration that way. Several vignettes in the film that are reenactments of events, and those are the most fun for sure. That's where we definitely exploited Jason's cinematography chops that come from a higher level of commercial production. Those scenes are a little more produced than the stuff that we kind of gathered here and there along the journey.
NFS: I'm very curious about your collaboration. I know that you both worked together before, but how do you blend your unique styles from an artistic approach?
Meyer: I would say I mean, Jason, you can answer better than me maybe, but I feel like the process is really organic. I think that the thing I like about this film so much is that it is a blend of cinema verite, traditional historical documentary style like Ken Burns using conventional methods. But I think that what we always seem to do, especially mentioned those vignettes, is to have some moments of color and surprise and intrigue for the viewer. That they wouldn't be bogged down in medical jargon or sometimes medical or I'm sorry, art history, a pedagogical kind of thing where we're just overly educating.
That the process was one, to keep things surprising and sort of embrace the idea that I've used this reference before, but the film feels like a quilt to me. That it's kind of a mixture of different things that isolated might seem anomalous, but that together there's sort of a thread, especially with Peter Broderick's music that kind of pulls everything in an interesting way.
There's a scene where I'm showing pictures of myself as a baby, and that was something that Jason and I did naturally. We just said, "Hey, let's just set up the cameras and then I'll prompt you with some stuff and we'll just look at pictures," I hadn't looked at for years. That was a very organic way to conduct how we were going to deal with the changes in my face, knowing that would lead to a montage of it actually changing.
Then, of course, we had moments where we were setting up dollies and timing out how to pan across a birthday cake the right way.
Roark: I would just say that the collaboration just from the very beginning was just so natural. I can't think of a time when there was any sort of disagreement about the approach between the two of us. I think stylistically, we're just so like-minded and would come to the same conclusions together often. During the making of the film, Ken would act as the art director for some music videos that I did. So it's a very natural collaboration and we're talking about whatever may come next for us as a partnership, too.
Ken August Meyer: It's been a great relationship in that way. Jason is a lot more technical-minded and has a great eye, and I tend to be a little bit more spontaneous or approach things from an art direction mind. At the same time, Jason is a good storyteller and so he's been my ally through this from the beginning. He's always the first person I've shown cuts to.
I've got to give him a lot of credit for not just that, but there was a moment when I was in really bad shape and getting fed through a feeding tube and I was lying down. Jason was kindly jumping in for editing duties while we got through some particular scenes. It was definitely a bonding experience in many ways. That was probably too much information.
NFS: It speaks volumes to your collaboration as a team. That's just really beautiful.
Meyer: I want to expand a little bit on that, too, because I think that oftentimes this is a unique film in the sense of turning the camera on myself, but then also having a partner to put the camera on me. Having someone that you trust that you can be vulnerable to and really allow this film to have that quality, that personal quality that I don't think would've happened with somebody else had we sought a different ally in this project. I'm so grateful that Jason could be a part of it from the beginning.
NFS: That's wonderful. How do you think working with another medium with paintings and art lends itself to shaping this narrative about your autoimmune disease from an artistic perspective?
Meyer: It was not my intention to turn the camera on myself, but in the process of doing a test piece, I discovered that I could do things and say things and make light of things happening with my disease in an artistic and colorful and hopefully surprising way at times in a better effort to soften sort of the somber nature of living with a deadly chronic illness. I think that approach of considering color and how to infuse it.
One of my favorite scenes that Jason and I spent a lot of time figuring out was the pinata scene. That to me is kind of a great encapsulation of my point of view about this film, that it can ride the line between comedy and sadness. If it can invoke some emotion such that a person doesn't know which reaction is appropriate, to laugh or to cry, that's the place I like to be from a storytelling standpoint. Those are my favorite parts of the film that do that.
NFS: Jason, what shot or what scene do you feel encapsulates your perspective on this film?
Roark: Oh boy, that's a tough one. Ken referenced the pinata scene, which is so colorful and interesting, and it's a wonderful visual metaphor for what he was going through at the time. "Why is my body doing this? Why am I doing this to myself? Why is my body attacking itself?" That was a lot of fun.
The section with the mannequin was great fun to film. To carry around our friend, which we referred to as the manne-Ken, all over town and put him in interesting situations with onlookers, wondering what the hell we were doing.
Meyer: A lot like myself. I couldn't stand at the end and had to be taped together.
Roark: I would very much like to revise my answer here though, and say that it was our trip to Switzerland to see the Zentrum Paul Klee.
They were so gracious in giving us access to the gallery and to the paintings. We had time on our own in the galleries where we've got the cameras inches away from multimillion-dollar pieces of art, and they just imbued us with this great sense of believing in the project.
I want to call it a pilgrimage really to Switzerland to see the museum felt like this wonderful culmination. That wasn't on the books. We kind of came to the decision that maybe we could go to the Paul Klee Museum in Switzerland halfway through making the film. When it culminated, we've been so lucky and have so many allies along the way too. The people at the museum were just so gracious and in no small part because they saw a teaser of Ken's film and saw I think, how brilliant it could be. Having that experience was amazing, and meeting Paul Klee's grandson, Alexander Klee, was an absolute treat. We just felt so well taken care of.
Meyer: Absolutely. I mean, I have to say that is the most important part of the film to me. There's a lot that happens there that brings the story together, and a lot of that was really unplanned from the beginning. As Jason said, it was just a coincidence that the part of the story that I wanted to tell about his life living in Bern happened to be on exhibit at the time that I was healthy enough to go. A year later, there was no way I could have done it. So that window of opportunity was just by happenstance worked out for us and they were completely cooperative.
NFS: I do want to celebrate the cinematography of this entire documentary. There are times when it's these beautiful modern landscapes and then there are moments that are profoundly intimate and nostalgic. I think you kind of hit, you encompass life as what it is in this documentary. And I think that's gorgeous.
Meyer: That's a testament to what Jason was saying about the cameras. I think that being able to have those in my pocket all the time, or my satchel. To use my phone to be able to use it as a monitor and to change focus with it when I was not with it was a really great tool and super versatile. You could have a whole sack of lenses with you and have everything you need.
NFS: What lenses did you all use, or what lenses did you primarily use throughout the shoot?
Meyer: For me, I used primarily two Leica lenses. It was a 15mm and a 25mm, which I think are kind of the 25mm is sort of a 50mm equivalent on a four-thirds. The 15mm is more like a 35mm. Jason, I think you were primarily, you were on a lot of different things.
Roark: A bunch of different lenses. I will say that in some of the lower light situations, we used really ultra-fast Voigtländer lenses, which make it a really beautiful, blurred background and they're so fast, the lenses and so beautiful. Not particularly sharp, which I kind of like about it because it just gives it that cinematic quality.
Meyer: I love the color on those shots, especially whenever the camera, whenever it would flare out the lines are just beautiful colors.
NFS: Do you all have any advice for filmmakers or cinematographers? I know you had multiple roles on this project, but if there's one thing you learned, what would that advice be to others?
Meyer: I'll start just by saying that for me it was just looking at things I like and just having them in my brain. I've cut a few things, but nothing long format before. I'm an art director by trade turned filmmaker, and I've been on sets a lot for commercial shoots. One of the things I learned early on was just to pay attention to all the things that are going on on set and why DP is getting frustrated with a lens or why we need to change the set.
From an editor's standpoint, I got some advice from an editor I like to work with a lot, Kyle Valenta. The idea of watching a movie a day if you can, and not just paying attention to getting enthralled in the story, but to pay attention to the cuts. Why do they make that decision? And when things stick out, why is it that they stick out? It kind of goes back to an adage at Weiden+Kennedy, too, which is to be a sponge and just absorb and don't try to know everything. Because if you take that thought process into something, you won't gain anything. So for me, it's just been to pay attention.
Jason Roark: From my perspective, I feel like the best advice is kind of the simple advice, and it's just to make something with whatever means you have to make it. Early on in my career as a camera person, I was working with a director on a documentary, and some of the best advice I've ever had, he was like, "You see the red button here? Hit the red button and point it at something cool." So it's the simplest advice there is, but without pointing it at something cool and hitting record, you never know.