Voyage into the Far-Out Mind of Tomi Ungerer, Renegade Children’s Book Author and Illustrator

With a career that began with acclaimed children’s books, surged into iconic 1960s protest posters, blossomed into lavish books of erotica, and included dalliances with architectural design, advertising, and sculpture, Tomi Ungerer evades easy description. (Reader, he has published almost as many books as Steven Heller!) The Alsatian-born illustrator gets his close-up in Far Out Isn’t Far Enough: The Tomi Ungerer Story, a documentary that makes its U.S. premiere tomorrow at the DOC NYC film festival.

“Once you start digging into Tomi’s personal history and then start studying the body of his work, you realize quite quickly that he has visually captured on paper every moment his eyes have witnessed,” director Brad Bernstein tells us. “And when you consider that his life began in 1931 in the lead-up to WWII in such a cataclysmic place like Strasbourg, on the border of France and Germany, you realize that from three years old Tomi was recording the most seminal events of the 20th century–in Europe and America. That’s not such a bad starting place for a documentary, this combination of art and narrative, right?” The deal was sealed when Bernstein flew his crew to Strasbourg and spent three days with Ungerer. Six bottles of Alsatian wine later, neither director nor subject could wait to get the cameras rolling. Read on for the film’s trailer and more of our interview with Bernstein.

How and where did you first encounter the work of Ungerer?
The first time I read about Tomi Ungerer was in a New York Times article in 2008, and I thought I was seeing his work for the first time. Certainly I was hearing his story for the first time. But as I did more research I realized I had indeed seen parts of his portfolio in the form of his anti-war (Vietnam) posters and his famous Village Voice campaign, “Expect The Unexpected.” I guess being a native New Yorker the VV slogans and art were stamped into my subconsciousness and it took some dusting off by the Times for me to realize it had been with me all along–or at least some of his work.

What surprised you the most about Ungerer as a person?
What surprised me the most is how honest Tomi is with himself and others. He realizes he hasn’t always said or done the nicest of things, but he also realizes he can’t apologize for it so he kind of owns his past and wears it as both a badge of courage and shame. But I’m also meeting him at at his octogenarian stage, where he’s mellowed out in some respects, so I can only wonder what a terror he was forty years ago! I could never have made this film then!

How long did this film take you to complete?
Almost exactly four years from concept to the festival circuit. I’ve made docs for TV for over a decade, but the learning curve on a theatrical doc is shocking, for lack of a better word. Shocking for the pocket book, for sure! I’m hoping when people come out to see it that they realize that every single cut was agonized over, every anecdote and effect scrutinized, every animation ripped apart and labored over, and every piece of music dreamt about!

Finally, what was the most challenging aspect of making the film?
There were a lot of challenges but I guess the two greatest challenges were a) getting Tomi’s story right and b) the physical location where we edited. First and foremost, I had well over 40 hours of on-camera interviews with Tomi and he knew a lot of people in his 80 years, so his anecdotes are vast and almost all are interesting. How to condense that awesome personal history into 98 minutes? But another challenge was working out of a two-car garage in the South Florida heat! I’m a New Yorker, but I cut the film out of the house of my co-producer and editor, Rick Cikowski. He converted this garage into a fully compatible HD studio and we had two children under the age of three to look after between edits while his wonderful wife was at work!