Feels Good Man, my favourite doc of 2020
"The way Pepe was stolen from Matt was the way consensus reality was stolen from the public."
I love documentary. It’s the best genre, it’s the best thing.
It can be the most challenging, hilarious and heartbreaking medium.
Real life eclipses any fiction any human could possibly write.
I’ll always be a sucker for true crime tomfoolery: The Jinx, The Staircase, The Imposter (all true crime must start with “The”) — and the outing of people and institutions seen in Blackfish, Jeffrey Epstein: Filthy Rich, Capturing the Friedmans and At The Heart of Gold.
Fill my heart with Werner Herzog and inject my veins with Errol Morris. From the lofty conceptual heights of The Act of Killing to the tiny, intimate Dear Zachary — I’m there for all of it. I’m even down with that ridiculous Octopus thing on Netflix.
And as the world falls into more confusion, I just think it’s really fucking important to document stuff — thinking about it critically, and putting it in context.
I think context is what we’re missing most at the moment.
And with all that in mind, I’d like to talk about Feels Good Man: my favourite documentary — and favourite film — of 2020 so far.
It tells the story of illustrator Matt Furie, a wonderfully likeable cartoonist and illustrator who invented a character called Pepe the Frog back in 2005
Pepe first showed up in Boys Club, Furie’s comic about likable roommates Andy, Brett, Landwolf and Pepe.
Boy’s Club a group of slackers who just hang out being, well, boys. It’s an incredibly specific and very funny type of humour.
At one point, Pepe (a frog whose eyes that have either soon too much or too little, I can’t decide) observes one of his mates peeing, his pants dropped all the way to the floor.
“Feel’s good man” he observes.
Then something weird happened. Pepe and his catchphrase started showing up on MySpace and message boards like 4Chan.
Pepe and his catchphrase became a supercharged meme, spreading so far out of Matt’s control he didn’t quite know what to make of it all. Quickly, his frog creation was paired with ideas and symbols entirely seperate to Pepe’s original identity.
By the 2010s, Pepe had been claimed by the alt right.
Pepe was a hate symbol.
Now if this had happened to Simba, or Spongebob Squarepants, the legal might of Disney and Nickelodeon would have shut that shit down immediately.
But Pepe was the cute lil’ creation of one man. What could one man do?
Imagine something you made being stolen by a bunch of racist and used the world over as a symbol of hate!
This is all explored in a totally bonkers, terrifying and ultimately redeeming fashion in Feels Good Man.
It’s the best kind of documentary: starting with this seemingly small story (man creates frog character! frog becomes meme!) that ends up talking about something much, much bigger.
On a personal note, I was delighted to discover it was produced by Giorgio Angelini, who I’d met after a screening of Tickled back in 2016.
So I reached out, told him I fucking loved this film, and I’d love to chat to him and director Arthur Jones about it.
So I did.
Towards the end of our chat — which took place over DMs and emails — Arthur said something that really stuck with me:
I think humanity is in a transitional phase. We aren’t equipped to deal with the pace and scope of social media. I haven’t processed all of the things the movie has conjured but I know we can’t build a global future for seven billion people based around hyper-individualism.
This is something very real we’re facing, and I think films like Feels Good Man will help us understand it — and maybe find ways to deal with it.
At least I hope so.
An interview with director and animator Arthur Jones, and producer Giorgio Angelini.
First up, great film. I’m in awe. Whenever I dream about making a film about anything in the conspiracy theory world, or online, my brain freezes up. You kinda cracked it by finding this really “small”, intimate story — a cartoonist whose creation got away from them — and then from that got to talk about these really BIG ideas.
Giorgio: Wow, this is very moving to hear. I’m a huge, huge fan of Tickled and the film definitely came up a lot while we were making FGM.
For me personally, I always gravitate to films that are about something very specific and maybe a bit strange that speak to larger cultural and political conditions. And this story about a stoned cartoon frog presented a perfect opportunity to tell that kind of story.
For so many people 2016 was this nightmare moment. But they’ve been unable to make sense of the world around them. Or explain for themselves how or why things are the way they are.
The election of Donald Trump kind of demarcated this moment in our history where internet fictions supplanted our consensus reality. We’re in this moment where we’re actually living in the internet irreality. And it’s confounding.
But for some reason, this silly frog sits at the center of it all. And his transformation kind of neatly explains how we got here in a comprehensible and compelling narrative.
So, to understand Pepe’s transformation from innocent indie comic to icon for conspiracy theory and fascism is to really understand all of this. Social media. Radicalisation online. Memes. And how they all converge to erode consensus reality and, potentially, democracy.
Arthur: We knew that both Matt and Pepe were going to be really unique protagonists for a film about the Internet.
The manner in which the Internet morphed, changed and disfigured Pepe runs parallel to how the Internet has morphed and changed and disfigured our human discourse.
We knew if we did the film right that the viewer would sympathise with Matt because we are all Matt in some regard. The way Pepe was stolen from Matt was the way consensus reality was stolen from the public.
Pepe as a meme is used to express emotion online. This was also an important tool in our editorial process. The audience follows Pepe as his emotions spiral out of control until he becomes ultimately irrational. We begin the film with Pepe as the “Feels Good Man” frog but Pepe descends into anger, despair, resentment and irrational rage.
In the film we found the psychological horror of Pepe. And traced just how he became the symbol for cultural aggrievement and reactionary extremism.
You nailed the 4Chan culture. Were either of you part of that world at any time?
Arthur: I’m too old for 4chan, but I was a very conservative teenager. When I was around 14 or 15 I was proto red-pilled. I’m sad to say that because of this, none of the discussions on the politics board of 4chan surprised me.
What fascinated me about 4chan was how important the board is to its users.
4channers spend seven to 12 hours a day on the site. I saw immediate parallels to how my Trump supporting father spends six to eight hours a day listening to right wing AM talk radio.
The users of 4chan are their own unique subculture. Their own family unit. Their shared bond is very intense.
Both American AM radio and the 4chan politics board create an echo chamber that becomes very claustrophobic for their listeners and participants.
These platforms construct a set of fears — islamic extremism, feminism, socialism, immigration — and obsess over those fears until they become mentally all-encompassing.
Giorgio: I was often spending around four to six hours a day on Reddit in the early 2010s. Years when I was going through a bad break up. Stressed in grad school. In a very transitional moment in my life. So coming out the other side and having some perspective, I can appreciate how depression and spending time on these boards go hand in hand.
Mr Furie, the wonderful central character in this film — does a more pure human exist? I loved him. I wanted to slap him at one point, slap him into action. I hated seeing him stand by as shit went down.
Arthur: When the “shit went down” Matt was a new father. He was more into changing diapers than taking on the alt-right.
Let’s also keep in mind this was only four years ago. Matt wasn’t totally passive at any point during that time, but one man can’t take on the anonymous hordes of Internet shit-posters by himself. Finding the right pro-bono attorneys to help enforce the Pepe copyright isn’t easy.
I think a lot of Matt’s critics wish he was more of an activist personality. That’s just not who he is. He has no interest in fighting trolls on twitter or becoming a political pundit.
He needed a moment to access the situation and handle it in a way that was true to himself.
I’m happy that he allowed us to document that.
Giorgio: I think that’s what makes him such a compelling protagonist. Because for a lot of Americans, I would think they might find a lot of commonality with Matt.
As a society, we too have found ourselves sitting on the proverbial couch. Avoiding conflict. Avoiding confronting the evils in our society.
I hope all of those Americans who’ve been sitting on the sidelines will find themselves getting up off that couch and doing something about it.
Like Matt did.
At one point it struck me how MUCH is going on on screen in this film. So many images, animations, scenes, characters. Was this a hectic cut?
Giorgio: Yes! Definitely. There are a million rabbit holes you can go down with Pepe’s story. It was often a struggle to figure out how to balance Matt’s personal story with the larger cultural narrative. Without one cannibalising the other. Once we cracked that code, though, it really influenced the rest.
And because we knew there would be this animated subplot for Pepe, we were always thinking of how those animation sequences could operate as chapter breaks of sorts. Or even pallet cleansers. But critically, also providing us with this emotional ending too. Where you actually have this relationship with Pepe.
We initially thought that the animations might be longer or have more specific narrative to it. But ultimately we found that the simpler it was, the more weight it carried. That in the same way a simple meme can carry so much emotional context, having a very simple plot line within the animation world would be imbued with so much more meaning simply because it sat in direct partnership with the rest of the film.
As for motion graphics, luckily, Arthur is also an animator and motion graphics artist. So the strategy for all that was formulating constantly while we were working on the edit. So by the time the edit was locked, Arthur had already made the space in his brain for where/how the motion graphics would go/look.
And once the sound edit was added, it just magically all came to life. I got really emotional actually, when I went to our sound editor Lawrence Everson’s studio to hear the first rough mix. It was like seeing a spell being cast.
Ultimately, there was a tonne going on, all the time. But everyone on the team was so insanely talented and threw themselves so deeply into this film that it all just clicked. It was a very special creative experience. And a testament to the idea that if you put the right people in the right position and let them be as creatively free as possible, magic happens.
Arthur: Time to shout out our editors! Aaron Wickenden, Katrina Taylor and Drew Blatman. And our amazing assistant editor Caitlin Ward. Caitlin organised thousands of Memes that we all collected.
It wasn’t a hectic cut but we approached every scene differently. Some scenes were more archival. Some scenes were used to set up an animation. Some scenes were verite moments of release where the audience could take a breath.
I did all the motion graphics on the film, which I think made the cut less hectic. We could workshop an idea, perhaps make a fast storyboard, or make an animatic. If it worked, great! If it didn’t — we could scrap the idea and move on. Doing all the graphics ourselves meant we could keep our post-production costs minimal.
At one point in the film you meet this dude I just call “Lambo guy” who drives up in this fucking Lamborghini and talks about his rare Pepe crypto shit. To be honest I don't even understand what he was on about but all I knew is I wanted his car to be driven into the ocean. Please tell me more about this man I hate so much.
Arthur: Funnily enough, “Lambo guy” literally drove himself into the movie. We had made plans to do a section of the film on Pepeca$h.
We had found a guy who went by the name PepeCa$hMillionare and made plans to film with him. He told Peter that we were coming and Peter showed up on his own accord. He figured that if he appeared in the film that he could potentially sell his rare pepe for even more money.
I understand why you hate him, but Peter (Lambo guy’s name) is a very nice person and he’s grown a lot since we shot that sequence. When I first met Peter he invited me into the Lambo and immediately took me onto the highway at speeds of over 100 mpH. It was terrifying but also very fun.
Giorgio: Hahahaha. Peter is actually a genuinely nice person with maybe a specific view of the world that I don’t particularly share.
He was also very much hamming it up for the camera. Providing us a memorable performance in order to hopefully ultimately increase the value of his rare Homer-Pepe.
Peter is a man without politics. But there’s something deeply American about him. Where everything is an opportunity to make dollars. Nothing more. Nothing less.
But he was an incredible sport about all of this. And he even flew out to Sundance on his own dime to watch one of our screenings. And he brought us a big bottle of Dom to celebrate. No one else did that! Except our Executive Producers, of course. But they were contractually obligated.
Like all of us, Peter’s on his own path. Growing. Learning. Earning.
The wizard, the wise occult wizard who talked about meme magic. Did you KNOW he’d be that fucking good going into this film? Or was he this amazing discovery?
Arthur: We knew we wanted to address Meme Magic in Feels Good Man but no, we didn’t know how fucking good John Micheal Greer (the wise occult wizard) was going to be.
Everyone reading this should seek out his writing. He’s not all hocus pocus. In his work he talks about how historically Magic has been the politics of the unheard. He’s a lovely fellow who is really fascinating and prolific writer.
His interview had it’s own energy. It’s own special aura. The room felt alive. Half way through his shoot Giorgio left to go buy him a bottle of nice whiskey. It was a golden moment to be sure.
Note of clarification: John isn’t a wizard — he’s a druid!
Giorgio: He fell into our lap quite accidentally. I was doing a podcast about my last film, OWNED: A Tale of Two Americas. And at the end of the interview they asked what I was working on. I quietly mentioned this Pepe project, as we were trying to be quiet about it at the time.
Anyway, a listener heard that and reached out to me and recommended we get in touch with John. I passed the email along to Arthur and we started reading his work on Kek and meme magic and it all sounded pretty well thought through. Ultimately this is an insane story. And we thought, well. Why not interview an arch druid about it?
Arthur presciently recommended we interview him at the Providence Athenaeum. This old private library where Edgar Allen Poe once wrote.
The setting was perfect. And John was such a good sport about it. Understanding the underlying humor of it all. But also being intensely serious about it all. And within like 5 minutes of the interview I just got goosebumps bc I knew how good it was. He made the film.
So I walked out and bought him a bottle of nice bourbon to thank him while Arthur continued the interview.
After talking to psychologists, journalists, 4chan users and politicos — ultimately it took an occultist to properly explain this story to us in the most compelling way.
You go into a doc like this with so much already planned out - but what was your biggest surprise on this shoot that made you pinch yourself and go “this is why we make documentaries!!!”
Arthur: We were lucky to have so many pinch-able surprises along our journey. The deposition footage! The Hong Kong protests! The Lamborghini! It was truly a once in a lifetime, right place, right time sort of thing. How could any of that been planned for?
The thing about surprises is that you have to have the right collaborators who can maximise those experiences. Having Giorgio and Aaron (Producer, Editor) along for the ride made it possible to be smart and flexible as each curve ball came speeding our way.
Giorgio: John Michael Greer, certainly. But no doubt the Hong Kong Pepe protests were like divine intervention. It’s the kind of thing you can never ever plan for. But what makes documentary filmmaking so magical.
Luckily the doc gods smiled upon us and gave us this perfect ending at a moment when we were rushing to finish the film for Sundance submissions but still had no idea how to stick the landing. Magic.
I watched your film and sort of went THIS IS SO FUCKING IMPORTANT. But I also wonder when we reflect on this in 20 years time, will it still feel as important? I mean I ask that all the time of QAnon which I write about a lot, which is a similar septic place online. Like — DOES IT MATTER? I find myself screaming this into the night sky sometimes.
Arthur: The way social media has changed human interaction is the biggest story of our generation. So yeah, Feels Good Man is about a silly frog but it’s a really unique case study in how trolling moved off message boards and into every aspect of our lives.
Maybe in 20 years time Pepe will feel silly again, I hope so… but the bottom line is that we can’t organise our society around the attention economy. It’s too easy to exploit it through misinformation, hatred, and bullying.
To your question though, part of the solution seems to me is screaming — or at least staring — into the night sky and reengaging with a more pure human experience.
Giorgio: I hope it doesn’t matter. Honestly. But I think we made a film that even if the story feels antiquated, it’s humor and craft will live on in eternity.
After making this film and thinking a lot about the online world and it’s more annoying dark gross side, how do you feel about the reality we are living in right now?
Arthur: I think humanity is in a transitional phase. We aren’t equipped to deal with the pace and scope of social media. I haven’t processed all of the things the movie has conjured but I know we can’t build a global future for seven billion people based around hyper-individualism.
Media literacy is important. Truth is necessary.
Giorgio: I hate it. It keeps me up at night. And as we plod towards this election, I have an inescapable sense of anxiety and dread. But that’s also how fascism wins. When you let the despair overtake you capacity for hope, it’s game over.
Gotta just keep making art and hope it makes a difference. Otherwise what’s the point of living?
Things move so fast in this world. I mean, message boards, memes, fucking QAnon. Are you still chasing things in this space? What do you want to chase?
Arthur: We are all working on Q docs, right? Let’s talk.
Giorgio: It’s tough to imagine spending another several years of your life on this darkness…
You just made the film of the fucking year, and oh god, there is a pandemic and festivals aren’t really happening: how annoying was that? How exciting? I mean somehow it seems weirdly appropriate having your film exist online, on people’s seedy laptop screens. But then it's so beautiful and colourful I know it’s just built for a big screen….
Arthur: It has been annoying but I feel bad even saying that as we are approaching 200,000 Covid deaths in the United States.
We spent two and half years making it.
It was a film that didn’t give you any time off. No vacations. Long hours. Weekends. Every penny was left on screen.
We were looking forward to sharing it with audiences and other filmmakers this year. I was looking forward to traveling to countries I’ve never been to like New Zealand and Australia.
We did the True/False film festival right before the shut downs and I feel very lucky to have had that experience.
At one screening 1,500 folks were in attendance and most of them stayed for the one our long Q&A afterwards.
The subject matter of this film fascinates people and it’s a great conversation starter about where we are all at in the world.
Giorgio: We had grand plans to spend the summer in Australia and New Zealand for these film festivals. We were going to travel the world! Then we weren’t.
On top of baring witness to all the tragedy across the globe, and the sadness for all those impacted, to feel like this thing you worked on so hard for so long...that it was sort of all being taken away from you...It’s its own kind of grief or sadness.
It took a while before I could accept the fact that this film’s release was just going to be a much different thing than what we’d imagined.
After distributors were unwilling to commit to releasing the film before our presidential election due to the shutdowns, we ultimately decided to put it out ourselves.
It’s been a ton of work and a big learning curve. But ultimately I think it’s the only way this film really could’ve been released. Maybe that’s some post rationalisation. But it feels right.
That said, we did have a small theatrical release here in the states. The fine folks at Alamo Drafthouse gave us a limited theatrical release across the county in September. They’ve been big supporters of the film.
Which, in the depths of the crisis this summer, really put wind in our sails when we found out they were interested in supporting our film. So while the release has been complicated, it’s also been a great experience.
And who knows...maybe we get an Oscar nomination and a miracle vaccine comes out and we get a theatrical re release? We can still dream!
Oh finally, I think visually this film would seem appropriate to watch on some psychedelics, but then content-wise maybe that would be a nightmare?! Thoughts?
Giorgio: Not sure. I’ll try this weekend and let you know. But my guess is that a second viewing under psychedelics might be worthwhile. You do the first stone-cold sober. And the second, to set you free.
Arthur: Interesting! I think it depends on the drug. We constructed the final scene of the film to feel like a long slow poetic come down.
Feels Good Man on Mushrooms?
No. Mushrooms are to be enjoyed with nature. You have to let the experience unfold slowly. I don’t think Feels Good Man and mushrooms mix. BUT I would suggest listening to our AMAZING soundtrack of by Ari Balouzian and Ryan hope on mushrooms:
It’s a really interesting textural listen.
Feels Good Man on Acid?
Maybe. I worry that if you are on acid while watching the film that the very dark sections of the story will freak you out. I’d suggest watching it with someone who has already seen Feels Good Man. They can guide you through the trip. They can reassure you that the story isn’t going to leave you in the dark hole.
My other suggestion is to never take a shit on acid. Sometimes your consciousness will exit through your butthole and it’s a bad vibe.
Xanax — bad idea. I’d say your safest bet is Weed or MAYBE Adderall. Adderall could work. You’d be alert and it could help you absorb all the information. Or maybe you can pace around the room and relive the manic glory of punching Richard Spencer in the face all over again.
Thanks, you two.
God, I love this film. I actually just got off a zoom with Matt Furie himself, so I’ll edit that up and send it out next week.
If you live in America, Feels Good Man is out on Amazon Prime, Vimeo and Apple TV. In New Zealand and Australia, it’ll be over on DocPlay from October 22. As for the rest of the world, I am not too sure — but I’d suggest following the film’s twitter, and they have a list of current places you can watch it up at feelsgoodmanfilm.com.