‘Junk Blessings’ and the Creative Power of Play
“Lost,” “Alias” and “Game of Thrones” director Jack Bender’s latest project is what Stephen King called “a children’s book for adults”
By Bliss Bowen
Emmy-winning director/producer Jack Bender’s press bio describes him climbing roofs in his Los Angeles neighborhood as a child, “going from house to house without ever having to touch the ground” — a depiction bearing more than a touch of Peter Pan. It fits a man known for directing shows that explore the unknown.
It also suits the free spirit of Bender’s vividly illustrated “The Elephant in the Room,” which references climate change, jazz, Henry Moore sculpture, the Kama Sutra, PETA and “Waiting for Godot.”
Bender’s occasionally surreal art and fantastical, philosophically layered stories in the book address child abuse, addiction, sexuality, shyness, self-determination and human arrogance.
Stephen King blurbed it as “a children’s book for adults.”
Polite and self-effacing, Bender calls serendipitous moments that occur in his home studio or on the set “junk blessings,” and jokes that he could spend 45 minutes studying an unexpected drip of paint on canvas. Rusty objects found on the street and emotional lightning bolts between actors are other transformational accidents that animate his self-described “folk art.”
Best known for directing TV shows such as “Lost,” “Alias,” “Under the Dome” and “The Sopranos,” Bender recently helmed episodes of “Game of Thrones” and is currently developing a miniseries based on Stephen King’s novel “Mr. Mercedes.”
He took a break from scouting locations in Brooklyn to talk about “The Elephant in the Room.”
You’ve described the creation of your book’s cover as a process of serendipity: finding the broken pool pipe, thinking it resembled an elephant’s trunk, and nailing it to a canvas that you then painted. Can you elaborate on how that led to a book’s worth of stories? That’s like asking a songwriter, “Which came first, lyric or melody?” — but there’s an intriguing tonal shift from the elephant in “Animal Logic” to “The Urban Acrobats” and “Wanda Woke Up,” where the paintings are more Picasso-like.
Right, it’s true. Well, I had done one other book prior to this, “2 Broken People,” the story of two remarkable friends who are the founders and heads of Beit T’Shuvah in L.A., an extraordinary Jewish rehab. I’ve had many art shows, and I’ve been painting since I was 14, and I found the process of utilizing paintings — many of which I had already painted — and sculptures to tell stories with minimal words. Because although I’m a storyteller, and that’s what I do for a living as a director, I wouldn’t say that words are my tool.
I’m much more of a visual storyteller. So I always had the desire to make another [book].
When I found, as you said, the serendipity of the junk in my yard that then turned into an elephant’s trunk that turned into an elephant who then said, “I am the elephant in the room,” I realized that that was going to be the title of the book. Which meant I needed a section where other animals I had painted had something to say to us about their lives and our lives. The other four stories came at different times. I’ve always had this Peter Pan obsession, and flying in my dreams is a big part of the landscape of my subconscious; thus the “Urban Acrobats.” Also, there’s this recurring theme in all these stories of people evolving into who they’re supposed to be in the world. … “Who We Are” is probably the most personal, because probably I felt like that kid a lot growing up.
I wondered what inspired those musician portraits, and whether you’re a jazz fan.
I’ve always been obsessed with really dramatic, interesting faces. Some of those jazzman paintings I’d already done. Using those became a logical thing … because [jazz] really is just a metaphor for him finding what he loves, which we all need to do.
The middle story, “My Wife Was Killed By an Alligator,” was taken from an article I read about a man somewhere in Nigeria, I believe; his wife was snatched into a river when she was doing the laundry, and eaten by the crocodile. In my own twisted mind, I thought, “That’s fascinating, and if I make it St. Petersburg, Florida, and she’s playing golf, that certainly could be more amusing.” So that became a dark, odd, funny story.
With an element of magical realism.
The earthy whimsicality of the stories and artwork had me contemplating the spirit of play. Do you think people have forgotten how to engage with that?
I don’t know about that. All I know is that I love spending a lot of time in the world of creativity and play. In many ways, they overlap. I’m very fortunate in my life that I get to do that — that I get to work with wonderful actors and direct extraordinarily great television and get lost in those moments of storytelling creation, along with when I’m painting or sculpting, which to me is the greatest hiding place in the world. You get to go to this other part of you, which is what meditation is, I think, where you get to lose yourself and go beyond yourself and get in that world. It’s just a wonderful place to be.
You just spent the day scouting locations; was that for “Mr. Mercedes”?
No, “Mr. Mercedes” we’re in the process of casting, but not actually making until the beginning of 2017. David Kelley and I are making it and we’ve got some extra-ordinary actors that we’re about to announce. In the meantime I’m doing this new show called “Falling Water” for USA.
You’re mounting a gallery exhibit of some of the book’s paintings too.
Yeah, it’s opening Thursday night (April 28) from 6 to 10 o’clock at 1320 Main Street gallery in Venice. It’ll be up for a few weeks and online. … I hope that the book takes people on a bit of a ride that hopefully reflects a bit of our crazy lives that we’re all living, and that they enjoy it as much as I enjoyed making it.
Jack Bender reunites with fellow “Lost” alum Titus B. Welliver to discuss “The Elephant in the Room” at 3 p.m. Sunday, May 1, at Diesel Bookstore in Brentwood Country Mart, 225 26th St., Santa Monica. Free admission. Call (310) 576-9960 or visit dieselbookstore.com.