Home Film How Two Filmmakers Redefined Pepe the Frog

How Two Filmmakers Redefined Pepe the Frog

by Andrew J. Salazar

Everyone knows Pepe the Frog, but do you know the true Pepe? Not the screeching Pepe, sad Pepe, or many racist and offensive iterations of Pepe, but the Pepe from artist Matt Furie’s Boy’s Club. Many to this day only know Pepe as co-opted by America’s alt-right, the snickering frog holding his chin often drawn as Donald Trump or Hitler. The tragic truth is that Pepe was born an entire decade before he became politicized. A simple character from the mind of an everyday cartoonist now on the Anti-Defamation League’s database of hate symbols. Sh*t nowadays is insane and almost nothing comes across as surprising, but how did we get here? How did a frog mange to quite literally shape the online landscape? Feels Good Man sets out to finally settle the score.

Feels Good Man turned heads when premiering at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival. A labor of love from animator turned first-time director Arthur Jones and producer Giorgio Angelini. Years in the making, the duo follow artist Matt Furie from the days before Pepe was identified as a hate symbol to the when the frog was adopted by the Hong Kong protesters in 2019. Hilarious, yet vital in the current digital age, it encapsulates a moment in time in ways many documentaries can only dream of. The film is continuing to gain more and more recognition as it reaches wider audiences (many of these chances online due to the ongoing pandemic).

In celebration of Feels Good Man finally reaching a timely digital release, we sat down with filmmakers Arthur Jones and Giorgio Angelini to discuss everything Pepe. The art of canonizing a tainted meme isn’t something they learned over a few months, in fact, detoxing a frog from far-right politics at first seemed impossible. Read how the two perfected their own process in redefining Matt Furie’s cartoon creation.

‘Feels Good Man’ director Arthur Jones and producer Giorgio Angelini at Sundance 2020 courtesy of Getty Images North America

It seems like you guys got the wheels turning at just the right time. You followed creator Matt Furie long enough to capture a wide timeline of events. From the days before Pepe became an official hate symbol to last year’s Hong Kong protests. Can we trace back to the first time this concept for a film first popped up in any of your minds?

Arthur Jones: I had bought Boy’s Club Issue #2 probably in like 2008 or 2009 – it’s crazy to think that somehow buying that comic somehow led to this conversation. It’s pretty weird. I think the time that it occurred to me to make the film was, you know, I had talked to Matt about doing a creative project together and we kicked around a number of ideas that were maybe really about creating some sort of animated cartoon, maybe a miniseries, a cartoon that really took Pepe back to the Boy’s Club world. It still had some allegorical elements of what was happening in culture. The story was either going to be like a ‘Frankenstein’s monster’ story or an ‘Alice in Wonderland’ story, where Pepe gets pulled into this vortex and the other members of Boy’s Club have to take him out.

That was going to be this metaphorical story about the 2016 moment where Pepe was sort of kidnapped, transformed, and then turned into a hate symbol. So we kicked around something to do together with that. We pitched it to a number of people in Los Angeles as a cartoon idea and we realized very quickly that Pepe was just too toxic. People actively did not want to do this, and so I talked to Matt about maybe doing a documentary? We slowly started filming interviews with Matt, collecting all of this amazing artwork from him, but then also pulling all of the Pepe’s, all of the rare Pepe’s, all of the memes that we could find. And Giorgio and I had worked on a documentary that Giorgio directed called Owned: A Tale of Two Americas. It’s a really imaginative look at post-war housing policy. We had developed a friendship working on that film together, so I roped him in and we just really started. The story was uniquely inspiring to both of us and we had a great time making it.

Giorgio Angelini: The moment in time from my perspective, I was not living in LA, I was in New York finishing Owned. When Arthur had told me that he started filming for this thing, at least to me personally, I felt kind of hopeless in some sense of this current political situation, feeling like we were just screaming into a void. This project seemed like such a great way to create a piece of work that could really help a large number of people internalize and understand a problem that maybe they couldn’t identify very clearly.

Matt Furie in the mid 2010’s was a prime target for many news sources. He was even interviewed by The Atlantic. I can’t imagine that you guys were the first to approach him on making a documentary?

Arthur Jones: There were a number of people that I think had approached Matt over the years to do either a short or longer documentary. He’s really cautious about journalists. He did talk to The Atlantic when Pepe was officially declared a hate symbol, he felt like he basically had to go to the press and do what he could to clear his name. So he did a seated interview with the BBC, he did a spot on Problematic with Moshe Kasher, a short-lived comedy central show, but outside of that, he’s not someone who’s like impressed by like a CNN or a Vice News or something like that. He really doesn’t feel like he trusts anyone to tell the right story. He feels like Pepe is his and he really kind of resents the mainstream narrative that people have told about Pepe.

So I think he was looking to trust friends to basically tell that story. And you know, even when the Hong Kong stuff was covered several months ago in the New York Times, it was like ‘Racist Symbol Now Used in a Different Way‘. The fact that people’s out of the box reaction of Pepe as always this racist symbol, ignoring the fact that Matt had drawn this character a long time ago and that it came from this other artistic lineage, I think Matt just wasn’t down to trust another journalism company to do it. So that’s kind of why we were able to get the access. We did talk to all of Matt’s friends, worked with Matt’s attorneys, it was a group effort.

In the film, you capture all kinds of private moments with Matt and his closest friends and family, from them just hanging out to him tucking his daughter in bed. There is such intimacy and you obviously knew Matt prior, but as documentary filmmakers, how do you build this trust with your subject?

Arthur Jones: Well, Matt was learning how to be a subject at the same time as I was learning how to be a director. It was something that we had a real back and forth with and, you know, good documentaries are made when you do have a lot of access. We shot a lot of stuff that didn’t end up in the film and it was a slow process where he kind of, as we brought more people into the sort of artistic fold, I think Matt saw how hard we were working on it, how amazing all of our crew was, how completely invested they were in the subject matter, and how we were so committed to justice on his behalf. I think he saw that and the more he saw that, the more he felt comfortable letting us into those more intimate moments.

Additionally, Feels Good Man features crucial insight from outside voices, like any good documentary. But your film specifically features memeticists, philanthropists, occultists, cartoonists, 4chaners, cryptocurrency traders and more. I can only imagine how much of what you guys filmed ended up on the cutting room floor?

Giorgio Angelini: A lot of it definitely did. There was just a point at which, you know, it’s so hard to explain the story and we knew that our audience was going to be pretty broad, I mean we wanted it to be pretty broad. So we wanted to make sure that the story was being told from a variety of viewpoints, least of which, because the story of Pepe is just like so broad and all encompassing. It was actually very challenging to figure out what the right amount of voices were. Unfortunately, as we got closer to locking the edit, we had to top out a couple of fan favorites just for the sake of the flow of the story. There’s definitely a lot of outtakes for sure.

Arthur Jones: I’m sure that a lot of the people who read your stuff, they’re young filmmakers. Part of the fun for Giorgio and I was just to be in our studio like – how do we tackle this story in a way that it hasn’t been told before? How do we make this not seem like a Frontline documentary? What are the creative choices we can make in terms of the people that we reach out to, that are going to be able to have this story vibrate at a slightly different frequency than other documentaries that are about the internet… or about the alt-right? We made a lot of creative choices between the two of us on how to approach the story in this imaginative way that matches Matt’s wildly imaginative artwork.

Giorgio Angelini: Yeah, how do you tell a story as absurdly as the story itself actually is? It’s kind of like this meta telling of it.

That’s a quote you can put on the DVD cover!

Matt Furie’s ‘Boy’s Club’ courtesy of Feels Good Man

Feels Good Man covers just the right amount of information in just an hour and thirty minutes. It almost feels like a crash course, but not in an offensive way because you learn so much in that compact time. Any other project would have aimed for something longer. So was it always your goal to have that running time?

Arthur Jones: Our editor Aaron Wickenden, who’s also a producer on the film, has cut a lot of documentary films like Hail Satan? and Won’t You Be My Neighbor? So Aaron was always telling Giorgio and I that this movie needed to be 90 minutes long. We were always like maybe an hour and 45 just because there was so much stuff that we had collected that we were really attached to, but we realized that and I love that you call it a crash course. I take that as something that’s really exciting. We made this film to be a mainstream film. We wanted it to feel like a narrative feature that has a beginning, middle, and end with a really tight three-act structure – something that has emotion that’s going to surprise you.

So we had conceived of it as being a very tight, entertaining film. Then as we were making it, you realize that there’s industry pressure also to keep documentary films at 90 minutes. We did a lot of rough cuts and the more we did the rough cuts, the more we realized that this is really Matt’s story. We went on a lot of tangents with the meme, like with the cryptocurrency traders. Whenever the edit ballooned, people would always say, “Oh, we want to go back to Matt!” So that was something we heard as a consistent note. It ultimately works to the benefit of the film for sure, but it’s great to hear that you’ve responded so well to it. It’s been very nice to hear that the film is working both for people who are your age, who really spent their adolescence on the internet, and for people that really had no idea or know anything about this.

That was also our goal. If you are someone who had spent time on 4chan during this time period, even if you maybe disagree with some of the stuff we say in the film, you would at least recognize that it is accurate and true. And then if you’re someone that has never even heard of 4chan, all of a sudden you’re like what in the world is going on? Some people have come to me with, “Thank you for telling this story because we feel like this film represents kind of our history as someone who’s younger.” Then other people are just like, “I’m really surprised that this story exists.”

We have to talk about the animation because not only is it fantastic, but it also does service to Pepe’s legacy, or at least the good side of his legacy. When you’re making a documentary on a cartoon, animation is required. Arthur, you’re even credited as one of the animators. How did you guys assemble your team of artists?

Arthur Jones: Animation was something that I was first really excited about with the prospect of making this film before we even shot an interview. I felt like it was something that me as a first time filmmaker, it was something that I understood. It felt like it set me apart in the ability to tell this story. Initially, we had hoped that there would be this through line where you almost have Pepe on this hero’s journey, like The Lord of the Rings or something similar where he’s on a journey and meets all of these like pitfalls and villains, things that he has to conquer in order to basically find his way home. Finding his way home would be back to the world of Boy’s Club, his friends. Then we realized that this energy kind of stole from some of the other social commentary that Giorgio and I were working on. The way we dialed it in was really going back to map our work and trying to figure out, what’s the best version of Pepe to put forth that feels true to his original spirit and in a way that is able to give little allegorical touches to the film?

Film still courtesy of Feels Good Man

We worked on the edit for a long time and then we came to animation near the end of the process. We collaborated with three amazing animators: Jenna Carabello, Kyland Woodrow, and Nicole Stafford. They helped us bring the Boy’s Club in a way that gave legitimacy to Matt’s artwork. One of the reasons why Pepe was so easily co-opted was that people didn’t understand his backstory. You know, there are a lot of memes with SpongeBob Squarepants, which on 4chan are often used in really f*cked up or racist ways, but people know SpongeBob because of Nickelodeon.

Giorgio Angelini: We basically created and built like an in-house animation company for this film. It was mostly the team of four, but we had some help. What was so special about that collaboration is that for all the animators, they understood on an intrinsic and deep personal level what Matt was going through. So it looked and felt more personal too. The fight for them really was to start canonizing Pepe in his world. To kind of reverse engineer the story and get people to understand that this is the real Pepe. Everything you see online is a derivation of it, sometimes for fun use and other times for craziness. This is canon Pepe. The team just threw so much talent and energy at it. It was a super incredible experience.

It’s almost like you can make a Feels Good Man art book, the visuals are really gorgeous.

Arthur Jones: We’re hoping that as this film reaches a wider audience, that Matt can do an art book that will come out around the same time. Maybe not specifically art from this film, but some of his work that is featured towards the end of the movie. In sort of bringing Pepe full circle and encapsulating him, we did try to create this moment and just imagine that you did something, maybe a little bit silly or naive when you were in your early twenties, and then that thing just follows you for the rest of your career. Matt has moved on from Pepe and done so much, so many different things. Even part of this documentary, I think is telling the story and hoping that Pepe and Matt can both move on into something that’s new and positive. The animation really helps breathe life into the story and make people feel like Pepe is a little bit more real. So when you see these terrible things happen to Pepe in culture, you feel a sadness about it because you’ve seen Pepe now in the film and feel like you’ve gotten to know him. He is part of Matt.

Feels Good Man is now out on VOD and digital!

Check out our ★★★★★ review of Feels Good Man from SXSW!

Follow managing editor Andrew J. Salazar on Twitter: @AndrewJ626

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