Gary Hustwit

Interviewed by Primo Orpilla

I was a Gary Hustwit fan long before he came to O+A’s office to shoot scenes for his documentary Workplace. Years before that, our whole firm went to the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts to see his first film, Helvetica—a movie that took a simple subject (a common font used all over the world) and turned it into a meditation on design. In addition to being a fascinating look at an obscure subculture and a quirky profession, the film itself was an example of great design. Gary’s subsequent films, Objectified and Urbanized, were equally elegant and equally engrossing. When SOMA asked me to interview an iconic creative I admired, I knew right away who that would be.

When did you decide to start making documentary films?

I got into filmmaking after a very roundabout career path that included independent music, book publishing, and a dot com startup in the late ‘90s. It was around that time that I got my first DVD player, and became obsessed with DVDs. In 2001 I started a company that released independent films on DVD, and shortly thereafter I got involved in helping to produce a few music documentaries, notably the Wilco documentary “I Am Trying to Break Your Heart.”

Why did you make Helvetica?

I’d been interested in graphic design basically since the first Macintosh came out. My friend in high school got one of the very first ones, and we’d goof around and design mix tape sleeves with it. So I was self-taught, but very much into using typography for the book and music projects I was involved with in the ‘80s and ‘90s. I was reading design magazines like Emigre and I even tried making a few really ugly grunge fonts. So later after I’d helped a few music documentaries get made, I figured I’d try to make a documentary myself. I really just wanted to watch a film about fonts, but there wasn’t one out there. So I found Massimo Vignelli’s email address, asked him if he’d like to be in a documentary about Helvetica, and he said yes! After that it all fell into place.

How do you tell a story?

I generally try to let the story tell itself, and even though my design films have been very constructed I try to make the narratives feel organic. With Helvetica, it was about showing this huge world of creativity and influence behind a seemingly small subject- one font. With some of the other films, it’s sort of been the opposite- looking at a massive subject (the design of cities for instance) and trying to demystify it and show how it all connects. Or at least start a conversation about the issues and how they affect us. There’s also a pacing to my films that I’m not sure how I arrive at, it just feels right. I’m also really reluctant to have music behind someone talking in the films, because it always feels like it colors their words, and injects a different meaning or emotion into what they’re saying. I try to avoid that as much as possible.

Are you in some of your films?

Not if I can help it! But if you look carefully, you’ll see me in window reflections in some of the films, especially in Helvetica. The only time you’ll hear me is if there’s a situation where you really need to hear the question I asked in order for the subject’s answer to make sense. That’s happened maybe three or four times. I’m not really interested in seeing or hearing myself in these films. The subjects are way more interesting!

Who’s an iconic creative you’d like to meet?

There are plenty of people I haven’t met who I’d love to work with at some point. I’m actually going to meet the artist, Christian Marclay, this weekend as part of a virtual reality project I’m doing, I love his work. There are a lot of musicians I’d love to meet, like Tom Waits, I’d love to make a film about/with him. Brian Eno. Nels Cline. PJ Harvey. David Lynch. I actually considered publishing a long list on my website of all the people I’d love to work with, like an open letter for them to just call me. I still might do that. I guess I just did? Tom Waits, give me a call!