Last week [adjective][species] featured Paper Bag, a short film exploring the furry condition. It is an autobiographical documentary (of sorts), made by and starring Jean-Baptiste Gaudet, aka Panda Man.
I interviewed JB about Paper Bag, talking about the structure and content of the film, his relationship with Panda Man, and—of course—the contents of the paper bag itself.
We also have a short one-page comic to share, that acts as a companion piece to Paper Bag:
[adjective][species]: I wanted to start by asking about the two-part structure of Paper Bag. You rely on black & white and noir conventions in the first half, before shifting to high-contrast colour and narrative immediacy in the second half. The change coincides with the detective's discovery that he is fictional. Can you tell us a little about your reasons for structuring the film in this way?
JB Gaudet: It is a student film I made at the end of my third and final year of Bachelor's degree. First year was mostly theory, 2nd year was focused on fiction and 3rd year was focused on documentaries. I was therefore asked to make a documentary and that... didn't suit me. At all. I like watching some from time to time but I had neither the will nor desire to direct one. But I had to make one. So I asked myself "how can I make a film that could feel like a documentary and could be considered like one while it actually was pure fiction".
Then I saw this. The video that justified the return of the Nostalgia Critic and explained what relationship Doug Walker had with his character. I realised I had something similar but with my Fursona "Panda Man" through the stories I wrote. So I decided, like Doug Walker, to arrange a meeting between my character and me. Since he was a private detective, the best way was to send him on an investigation on me.
I chose black and white for the first part because it's all from the point of view of the character who is a pure Film Noir archetype and color for the 2nd part which is from my point of view. And so, there is first a fiction that leads to documentary about myself and my relationship between a fictional character and I and how we look at and face reality.
The color scheme is simple in that regard. Since Panda Man is a private detective and a classical Film Noir figure, black and white was an obvious choice for his part as it set the right mood and an easily recognisable visual code for most viewers. When Panda Man disappears and leaves me alone, he becomes the voice of the camera that I talk directly to and since the "fiction" has left the movie, all that is left is me and therefore the colors of reality coming back. The high contrast is not a conscious choice, I am color blind and I trusted my friends on this but they told it reflected my hypersensitive state in the "face camera confession shot".
[a][s]: It's interesting that you say that Panda Man is a classical film noir figure, when he also represents a version of yourself. It is common for furries to try hard to create something unique about their fursona beyond just the species, whereas Panda Man is closer to a simple archetype. Did you make him a simpler character for the film?
JB: Indeed. That's because unlike in the stories of my FA gallery he isn't personally concerned by the events or the story, so he appears more like a plot tool than a real character. But that's only because he doesn't have the time to express complex thoughts, he's onscreen for less than 5 minutes whereas I am for over 10 minutes.
[a][s]: It seems like the switch from black & white to colour signals a switch from the 'imaginary' part of the film to the 'real' part of the film. Panda Man largely disappears for the second half, and the story becomes directly personal, a truer exploration of your own feelings.
I wonder if you feel it is a weakness to have two identities - Panda Man and JB? Does Panda Man exist so you don't have to face the reality of being yourself?
JB: It's not a weakness to me, he's more of a shield that helps me trudge and face reality. I'd prefer to be strong enough to face it head on like a strong lone wolf but since I can't do that, rather than not advancing, I prefer his help to being helpless.
[a][s]: Who do you personally prefer: the cool, lone-wolf narcissist of Panda Man, or the introspective and complex JB?
JB: Panda Man. He always knows what to do, how and where to go. I don't.
[a][s]: Over time, have you become more like Panda Man? Has Panda Man become more like you?
JB: I have become more like him, less ashamed of existing and less afraid of showing off my talents.
Panda Man has become more detailed and more complex as a character but has never started to resemble me. He has always been like an archetype, easily recognisable, uncorruptible and unchangeable.
[a][s]: I was chatting with a furry researcher recently, talking about the differences between character and self: the closer each of us are to our furry character in personality, the happier we are likely to be.
I wonder if you have observed this - as you have become more like Panda Man, have you become a happier person?
JB: I have indeed. I fall back into "depression" whenever I lose my job or don't have any plans/projects which is totally different to how Panda Man would act. He never lets himself go.
[a][s]: In the first half Paper Bag, Panda Man is quite dismissive about certain traits he discovers about you - I guess those are the sorts of things that might make you fall back into "depression".
But among the negative things he discovers—overweight, poor little rich boy, inability to finish projects, lack of friends, etc—he also discovers your homosexuality. Panda Man seems to be negative about that as well. I wonder if that is a deliberate choice?
JB: He's critical about it but not negative.
After the first call with me, he thinks he's figured it all out: a gay couple case of jealousy. It is linked to France's recent acceptance of gay marriage over 2 or 3 years ago and just means that, it´s not because gays can marry that marital disputes won't appear. Since straights have gone through such things in the past, they're "used" to it. It is commonplace. Gays don't and they will do the same backstabbing divorce shit when divorcing like it was new.
And the thing he's critical about isn't homosexuality itself but more my relationship toward what being gay means in France in 2013 and the details that still bother me about it when they shouldn't. Mostly how I still have to hide to whom I can say it to because they might be homophobes and unaccepting.
[a][s]: Paper Bag is different from most furry films because it explores furry as it relates to identity exploration. Other furry-made short films have tended to just be dramatic stories that happen to involve anthropomorphic characters, e.g. Bitter Lake or Kaze Ghost Warrior.
I was wondering if you could talk about the furry aspects of Paper Bag, and talk about how you're being different from those other films while still being 'furry'.
JB: I think Paper Bag is different from others because it doesn't use the furry fandom or furryness as plot device or an excuse for a pointless/cliche/predictable/formulaic movie. And as you said it explores the question of self identity through the fursona. The fursona not the fandom. The deeply personal aspect of this movie I think makes this movie works so well and explores the very old question "who am I?" in a previously unexplored/little known way.
[a][s]: In the second half of the film, did you consider having Panda Man appear as an anthro character (rather than a human) once his true nature was revealed?
JB: No, I didn't.
[a][s]: I wanted to ask about the paper bag itself. You mentioned in an earlier conversation that an early draft of the film revealed its contents, but you decided to change that in the final version. Can you talk a bit about why you made that decision?
JB: It was during a reading of the script that my script doctor and friend Grégoire Cutzach advised me not to because it would be best to leave people guessing what the hell is hidden in the paper bag and putting what THEY wanted in it. The mystery, he said, is more suggestive than the Truth.
The advice was sound and coherent so I listened to him.
[a][s]: Finally, it is the contents of the paper bag that are the reason you'll "end up single". It's a bit of a downer, and also a bit surprising given that you come across in the film as honest, disarming, and actually rather charming.
I imagine that the contents must be something to be hidden below everything else: the homosexuality, the furry alter ego, etc. Must you always hide something from the world, in order to be able to exist in it?
JB: Thank you for the compliments. (^_^)
It is something entirely hidden indeed. And yes because there are things we choose to consider "private". And what is private is either something you keep to yourself or tell to the few friends close and trustworthy enough. And the reason they are private is that the world won't accept, doesn't want to deal with or simply doesn't care about them.
The contents of the bag are private but weighted so heavily on my mind it justified the writing and making of the movie. I needed to express myself about it and the movie was the outlet I needed. Except those who worked on the movie with me, no one knows nor guessed the content of the bag. Hearing what other people would put in it helped me came to terms with its content.