A fondness for fonts

By Joanna Hunkin

Q&A with Gary Huswit - director and producer of Helvetica

In New Zealand for the first time, Gary Huswit caught up with Joanna Hunkin to discuss his film, Helvetica - an in-depth look at graphic design, typography and a sans-serif font that divides the world.

Q: So how many festivals have you done so far?

A: We started with South by Southwest, one of the biggest film festivals in the States. That was the premiere in March. We've done all the major documentary festivals - Toronto, Seattle, North Carolina, Istanbul . . . We've done a lot of special events as well - at museums and design conferences. Since March, we've done almost 60 events and I've just been travelling around the world.

Q: Forget my five days of films - you must be going pretty crazy?

A: At least I don't have to watch the movie every time! If I had to watch it every time I'd have become a mass murderer by now. I do the intro, I go to a bar, I come back and I do the Q&A. But it's been amazing. I can't complain about being flown around the world and meeting all these amazing people.

Q: I'm off to see your film tonight and it's funny, because yours is the first that I've had people fight over tickets to come with me.

A: Well anyone involved in journalism is kind of a type geek right? They've got a font that they like.

It's interesting because in the past five years, everyone's got a MySpace page, everybody's got a website. So now the choice of what font you're going to use has become a decision that everyone has to make. It's a personal expression thing. I think that's why non-designers have gravitated towards the film as well.

Q: How did you get onto the idea of making a documentary about font and Helvetica?

A: It started out that I wanted to do something about graphic design and type. Helvetica emerged as a way to focus the film but also, there's no other type face that's this controversial. People are for it or against it for all kinds of reasons.

I'm fascinated by people who do something really well and do it passionately. Whether it's making a font or weaving a rug. You know, I would watch the rug weaving documentary if it had brilliant weavers doing amazing work that they love. But that's just me.

At the time, two years ago - when I started thinking about the film, I was walking around the streets of New York and looking at all the words around us and really noticing how people were interacting with type. That's when I really had the idea of how the film would look visually.

Q: What was the initial reaction when you told people you were going to make a film on Helvetica?

A: They all laughed initially. But then when I described the scope of what I was trying to do with the film, people started to get it. Everybody was really excited aobut getting involved. These are people that have done amazing work for 50 or 60 years and no one's ever asked them to go on camera and ask them about what they do. It really comes through in the film that these guys love what they do and are passionate about it. People still probably think I'm nuts but once they see the film I think they get it.

Q: Was there ever a question about whether you could make an entire feature film about a font? If you would have enough material?

A: No. Once I had the idea for the film and had it in my head, I knew exactly how it could be made. All I had to do was fill in the blanks.

I'm the audience for this film, that's how I have always done my creative projects. They're things that I want to see and can't believe don't exist. I was like, 'Oh my god - why isn't there a documentary about fonts and graphic designers? I would love to see that'.

And if it doesn't exist, that's my cue that I have to do it. It was a film that I wanted to see two years ago but didn't exist so I made it. It never works if you're trying to guess what people might want to see.

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