Filmmaker Q&A: Silver Hand Productions’ Paul Mento on “Howard Pyle and the Illustrated Story”
The documentarian created a well-received documentary about famed artist/illustrator Howard Pyle. It may soon be showing in a classroom near you.
DT: How did you get into the business?
PM: I guess from an early age I was very interested in making film. There was no such thing as video yet. I was interested in shooting Super 8 movies and editing them together. I was probably in junior high school when I first started doing this. My dad was really great in lending me his equipment, so I got to do that kind of stuff. I’m a local boy. I went to Brandywine High School. During the summer I was working at DuPont’s warehouse. My boss came up to me and asked me what I wanted to do and I said, “I would love to be in video or something like that.” He told me they were starting a studio for corporate video and that I should check it out. I did and I was able to work there while I was in college. The best thing is video at that time was magical. It was very complicated. Nothing was on the computer. It was all machine-driven and tape-driven. In order to do that there was a lot of extra equipment and technology that you had to employ to actually edit. To be able to do a dissolve that was a great thing, you needed two machines, you needed a time base corrector—it was very complicated. No one really knew how to do that, so they kind of looked to me, the young kid in college, to figure it out. That’s basically what I did. So I helped them build their little studio there. I got a job at DuPont after school, but then I realized that I should probably broaden my horizons. So I left there and started working for a guy in Bala Cynwyd that basically lit major events, like when the Rolling Stones came into town. It was a big change for me—from DuPont to rock ’n’ roll. But I learned a lot about lighting there and that helped. Then in 1983, I started my own company because I realized there was a real need to do corporate video and I thought this would be a great way to make money and start a family. And it certainly was. I’ve been doing it for about 30 years now. The majority of my bread and butter is corporate work. It’s something I really was impassioned about and something I loved. And in the back of my mind, what I really wanted to do was produce documentaries.
DT: So you were in the right line of work.
PM: I figured this might be a way that I could stay active in this world of video and production and make a living—because, as you might know, you’re not going to make a lot of money making documentaries—especially in the nature of Howard Pyle. There’s a limited audience for it. But it was something that I just had to do. It was just a sheer joy to produce because it really was a labor of love. And everyone who committed to the project basically did it for free. They were doing it because they had some passion about Howard Pyle and how amazing he was as an artist.
DT: Was this your first documentary?
PM: I’ve done others that people wouldn’t see. My first one was on watershed management. (laughs) You know, you build all these urban houses and all the water that spills off. Where does it go? It doesn’t go into the ground anymore. It runs off into the tributaries, the creeks and that makes the banks shallow and light pierces it, algae forms and kills all the fish. It’s just kind of disastrous if you don’t manage it well. The second one was about diabetes. That was sponsored by AstraZeneca. But you know a limited number of people are going to watch that. It’s not broad appeal. And Howard Pyle is a special interest group as well. But you saw the trailer. You can see that Howard Pyle is kind of, in some respect, his legacy lives on just about everywhere, even today. So that does have a broader appeal than, say, the watershed management documentary.
DT: How did the Howard Pyle film come about?
PM: I’m a Delaware native and back in elementary school we were brought to the Delaware Art Museum. I just remember seeing these Howard Pyle paintings that were just, to me ... I expected to see flowers on the table, paintings like that, and be bored. But I see Howard Pyle and there’s pirates, there’s action, there’s guys with guns. (laughs) It’s illustration. It’s telling a story and that excited me as a kid. That must have created some spark in my brain. Later on a friend of mine was working at the Delaware Art Museum and I told him I was really interested producing a documentary. I just needed to find the subject matter that I could handle. They say doing something that you know about is great to do. So I knew a lot about Howard Pyle. He said, “Why don’t you do one about Howard Pyle?” And I said, “Why didn’t I think of that?”
DT: What makes Pyle so great?
PM: I started doing research and realizing how far-reaching he was ... he wasn’t just an illustrator, he was an author, too. The story of Robin Hood, for example, became popular in the United States because Howard Pyle illustrated it. At the time, those guys were considered movie stars. They really were. They had that kind of status. It’s hard for us to think this way, I certainly try to, but I can’t imagine a world without television, radio and movies. Back then, books were it. That’s what you had. People would seek out books and magazines because Howard Pyle illustrated it. That made the story even more exciting to them. It was just a tremendous influence he had on the way people perceive things. You know, we think of pirates the way we do because of Howard Pyle. His illustrations of pirates were romanticized. He didn’t really know what they looked like. Those illustrations are ingrained in our brains now and that’s what we think pirates look like.
DT: You said Pyle was also an author.
PM: He first started by writing children’s stories. He was writing for children’s magazines and St. Nicholas at the time. So he was writing children’s themed stories. However, if you try to read it today, a lot of it’s in Old English and a lot of the stories are old-fashioned to kids today. It’s kind of hard for them to identify with some of the stories. We named our company Silver Hand Productions after a book of Howard Pyle’s. It’s called “Otto of the Silver Hand.” It’s a great story. If you have a chance, you should read it. It’s an example of Howard Pyle’s writing style and how he illustrated. He really believed that stories needed illustration. They were meshed together and he magically did that. Authors would say, “This is what I want illustrated.” And he would say, “I don’t think so. This is what we need to illustrate.” And a lot of times he got his way.
DT: What was your role in making the documentary?
PM: I was writer, director, producer on this. Camera man, sometimes. Editor. Music. I did it all, basically. I had lots of help along the way. Several other cameramen helped. I had crew members, as well. But as far as the whole kit and caboodle, I would say it was my project.
DT: Did you keep track of how much time you spent researching?
PM: I would say that by the time we were ready to shoot—it’s hard to say how many hours we put in—but it was a good two years before we started shooting. Granted, it wasn’t full-time research. But it was a period of time because I had to find the places ... for example, in the documentary we found Howard Pyle’s gravesite. It’s not here in the United States, it’s in Florence, Italy. You go to the gravesite and no one knows where he is, really. It took research to find out exactly where his body is interred. The funny part about it is he never wanted to leave America, but he ends up dying in Italy. The poor guy. And finding our contact at the Van Gogh Museum—they were kind of reluctant to talk about Howard Pyle in the terms of fine art. But as I researched I found letters from Van Gogh to his brother Theo about how much he admired Howard Pyle. After talking to the museum people about that, they did some research on their own and, in fact, they found more details about that. And that’s in the documentary as well. So we visited all the places Howard Pyle went to in Italy when he was learning how to do murals. We went to the Norman Rockwell Museum because research led us to the fact that Norman Rockwell was a big fan of Howard Pyle and considered him one of his true mentors.
DT: What drew you to Pyle?
PM: Personally, I love his attention to detail. When we do video programs, we are very detail-oriented. So I definitely relate to that. Not only was he an artist, but in many cases, he was sort of like a historian, if you think about it. For example, when he did the “Battle of Bunker Hill,” he did so much research. He wrote to London to find out, “How would your military have executed this? What did they die of? What were they wearing?” You know, specific details. He was so detail-oriented, he would do something and a student would come by and say, “Wow, that looks really good.” And he would say things like, “Yeah, but do you smell the smoke?” And if they said no, he would destroy it.
DT: That’s pretty cool stuff.
PM: The world of illustration at that time was very, very interesting. They were considered more craftsmen than they were artists. A lot of Howard Pyle’s stuff was just destroyed or painted over to get the canvas white and do another one. To me, Howard Pyle is one of the true, notable people who came out of Delaware. I really do think we should have a statue erected for this guy because he was such a major influence, not only in the world of literature—because he illustrated for Mark Twain and all the major authors at the time. Everyone was seeking out Howard Pyle. And if you wanted to be an illustrator, you came to Delaware to learn under the great master—Howard Pyle. That’s how N.C. Wyeth came here. So we talked to Jamie Wyeth in the documentary. That’s what he says. He says, “Thank god Howard Pyle took my grandfather in.” At the time, he wasn’t the greatest illustrator. And Howard Pyle definitely influenced him in such a way that he become incredibly famous.
DT: A version of the documentary aired on PBS?
PM: Yes, in March of last year. We got a lot of really good feedback. They loved it. They wanted to keep it in their file to keep on showing it over and over again. We elected to pull it right now because we’re in negotiations with a distributor. Our main goal is to distribute this to high schools and colleges because there’s a great story that’s told within this documentary. It’s kind of subtle, but Howard Pyle illustrated these tremendous events—fantasy, history and really never left this area. He did all of this by reading and researching. Historians will tell you that “Battle of Bunker Hill”—that’s probably exactly how it looked. I talk to these guys up in New York who are major distributors of illustration artwork and they’ve written many books, a lot of which deal with Howard Pyle, and they say it’s almost as if someone took a snapshot at that time. Because that’s probably what it looked like. Howard Pyle would get all of the costumes and have everything down to the detail. Someone says in the documentary that someone brought a Colonial hat and Pyle took it off the model and threw it on the ground and stomped on it. He said, “This isn’t even close to what it should look like.” He was a real stickler for detail. I don’t know what his personality was like, but I think he was a pretty strict teacher, to say the least. And you can see that in his students’ works. I admire the guy in the fact that he was doing something that I don’t think many people were doing at the time—really teaching young illustrators to become, not only great illustrators, but great artists; that their work’s going to not only be in magazines and books, but hung in galleries, as well. And that’s what he wanted to do with these students.
DT: Is there anything negative about Pyle?
PM: The first woman I interviewed, an historian, told me that Howard Pyle was a male chauvinist pig. I said, “Weren’t all men back then? Come on.” (laughs) But I don’t think he really was. I think she got that from a statement that he said, “I don’t know why I bother teaching women because they’re just going to get married and they won’t pursue it.” I took that as the direct opposite. He really wanted them to be professional illustrators. The ones who went on to become famous, like Violet Oakley, he made sure they had work, too. Not only did they graduate from his school, but he made sure they had work. So in that sense he was a forward-thinker. But all of this is in the documentary and that’s one reason why I wanted to produce this. Because he should be a really notable figure here in Delaware, at least. I’m kinda hoping that that brings him a little more recognition. But I also think it’s a great story for anyone who is interested in illustration.
DT: Any regrets?
PM: I wish we had more money. I wanted to interview illustrators of today and how they are influenced by Pyle’s past. We did that with Darrell Warner, who is doing that. But I wanted to talk to the guys who are doing illustrations for the video games that kids are playing. I did find one guy that his warriors for the game looked like Howard Pyle characters. So I called him and he said, “Yep. I’m a big fan of Howard Pyle.” The Delaware Art Museum just had that display and all the Disney illustrators, modern illustrators, all referencing Howard Pyle as a true mentor and someone they admire and have their skills around what his illustrations looked like. It’s exciting in that way to see that his legacy is continued.
DT: Where can I find the documentary?
PM: It’s on sale at the Delaware Art Museum, Brandywine River Museum and the Norman Rockwell Museum. They’ve been selling out pretty regularly. I mean, they’re not ordering hundreds at a time—you have to understand it’s a real special interest kind of thing—but they have been selling out and re-ordering, so that’s a good sign. This is not a money-making venture for us. We didn’t really go into it as that. We’ll probably be putting it online eventually. It’s basically to spread the word of Howard Pyle and get people interested in him. For people who don’t go to a museum, this might be an opportunity to see Howard Pyle’s art. A lot of that art isn’t on display. They rotate it. So in the documentary, you get to see just about everything. A wide berth of all of his illustrations from the fairy stories to Civil War to the fantasy to later on doing big murals. At the time, Wilmington was considered the place to go to become an artist. That, to me, was very exciting. I’m hoping some day that that influence of Howard Pyle somehow creates this sense that this is where illustration was born.