Oklahomans team up on documentary film 'Beauty is Embarrassing'

It may seem cliche, but it's true — it's hard to make a first movie. That's likely why, when it does happen, there's often a good story that goes along with it.
BY IAN OGILVIE Published: July 1, 2012

It may seem cliche, but it's true — it's hard to make a first movie. That's likely why, when it does happen, there's often a good story that goes along with it. Anyone who attended the recent screening of “Beauty is Embarrassing” at the deadCENTER Film Festival had the good fortune of watching an entertaining movie and bearing witness to a great Oklahoma-bred story in the making. It's a story about creative vision and business acumen coming together with Oklahoma as the glue.

“Beauty is Embarrassing” is a feature-length documentary film about Wayne White, an important pop artist known for his creative work on the TV show “Pee-Wee's Playhouse,” and more recently, for his artwork featuring humorous and colorful (literally and figuratively) words painted over vintage oil landscapes.

The film is filled with memorable moments and quotes. In one scene, standing in a lush field in the middle of Tennessee, White expresses his love for the gorgeous landscape of his boyhood home: “It's beautiful out here,” he says. “It's so beautiful it hurts my feelings.”

Path wasn't easy

The film is the brainchild of Neil Berkeley, a thirty-something who grew up in Moore, went to Moore High School and graduated from Oklahoma City University in 1998. At OCU, Berkeley majored in broadcasting, but knew he wanted to get into film production. That path was not easy.

After graduation he went from Dallas to Southern California, getting whatever work he could as a production assistant and intern, then working his way up to producer for several small companies. At entry levels, producing work means every noncreative aspect of a project that needs to get done to see it through to completion, such as planning and budgeting.

In 2004, Berkeley founded his first company, and when that partnership dissolved in August of 2009 he founded BRKLY, a company which does design, animation, production and direction among other things. BRKLY, which is Berkeley's last name with no vowels, has garnered an impressive list of clients in its three years of existence including such names as NBC, ABC, CBS, Food Network, Travel Channel, Bravo Network, PBS, Logo Network, Oxygen Network and others.

A month after founding BRKLY, Berkeley decided he needed to finally scratch the film itch and get started on his first project.

“I always wanted to make a movie,” he says, “and I thought Wayne White was the perfect subject. His impact on pop culture alone is enough for a great story, but then I found out how funny, magnetic and inspiring he is. That's when I knew I might have something great.”

So Berkeley bought a $600 camera and started “following White around.”

The colorful Tennessean is an artist who Matt Groening, creator of the Simpsons, describes in the movie as part Zak Galifianakis (the Hangover), part Stuffy Smith (big band jazz musician) and part Unabomber (a reference to White's scruffy hair and beard). Having no real budget or crew support, Berkeley knew the film would be a labor of love and would not be easy to produce.

Not just hard work, but expensive too. Berkeley decided to self-fund his movie, but a little over a year into production he realized that he'd need some help to finish the film. The project might have been shelved right then if a mutual friend Troy Bailey — another Oklahoma success story who is an agent with a client list that includes Tommy Lee Jones, Scarlett Johansen and Reese Witherspoon — had not reintroduced Berkeley to Bart McDonough. Berkeley and McDonough had spent their freshman year at OCU, but after two semesters McDonough had gone to The University of Oklahoma for a year before relocating to Connecticut and earning his degree from the University of Connecticut. Bailey, their mutual friend, thought that the two Oklahomans shared a lot in common and hinted that McDonough might be interested in investing in the project.

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‘Captivating and uplifting'

I don't often go to documentaries, but “Beauty is Embarrassing” was captivating and uplifting. Even though my wife and I try to keep our home free of curse words, I came away from the movie wanting to share it with my 10 and 13-year-old boys, my habitual caution overwhelmed by the film's positive message and fun. A lot of time is spent featuring hilarious puppets including the ones White created for Pee-wee's Playhouse.

A version of the film with toned-down language is in the works.

Filmmaker Neil Berkeley has set up a Kickstarter (www.kickstarter.com) program to raise the money it will take to get his documentary into theaters nationally this fall. Fans may donate to the project and will have the opportunity to choose from a list of rewards they'll receive in return, including film marketing materials, private screenings and original pieces of pop artist Wayne White's art. For more information about the documentary, go to www.beautyisembarrassing.com.

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