The Polar Bear Express
'The Beaufort Diaries' animated journey from book to screen
"I'm on the train," says T Cooper, en route from New York City to the upstate home where he lives with his family. "I'm trying to have people next to me not hear me being such an asshole."
It's all my fault. After a couple of technology-induced false starts and an adjustment to the tin-can phone reception, we've finally settled into a workable back-and-forth when I ask him a question that pretty much gets on its knees and begs for a pretentious answer: Who are the literary antecedents of the main character in his 2010 graphic novel, The Beaufort Diaries?
Because he's not an asshole – the complete opposite, in fact, and he clearly can't pretend to be one – Cooper handles the moment with the bluntness, humor, and artfulness one would expect from the author of, among other fine works, the novel Lipshitz Six, or Two Angry Blondes. ("Odysseus" is the short answer.)
With its tender, funny story of a polar bear who finds celebrity and its fetching illustrations by Alex Petrowsky, The Beaufort Diaries was quite a departure from Lipshitz; still, it's no surprise that the shorter book is now an animated film narrated by David Duchovny, that master of deadpan and subtle sorrow. The charismatic and completely unpretentious Cooper spoke with the Chronicle shortly before heading down for South by Southwest, where the film will screen in the Animated Shorts program.
Austin Chronicle: Did you originally envision the book becoming a little cartoon?
T Cooper: I think it happened when I saw how it was turning out. Looking at the imagery, it felt like I wanted to see it come alive.
AC: You met Alex on Craigslist?
TC: I did. I tried to illustrate it myself, and it was so bad. It was really bad. I thought I could do better than I did. It became clear that 30 illustrations was going to be way beyond my ability. I put an ad out, and it really blatantly said, "I don't know if I'm going to get paid, so if you want to get paid now, don't write me back." Essentially, everyone who wrote back asked "How much am I going to get paid?" except for two people, and one of them was Alex. He obviously had the skills to bring it about, and I did not.
AC: What inspired the story?
TC: I don't know if I remembered it from reality or it was a dream or what, but I had this vision of [Sarah Palin] shooting polar bears from a helicopter. There was a lot of legislation that Bush was shoving through before his term ended – basically opening up the refuge up there. I just started thinking about how funny it would be to have the polar bears have nowhere to go but to live among humans.
AC: Why did you want Beaufort to go to Hollywood?
TC: I feel like there's nowhere else he could go. Where our culture is right now, I feel like every time someone posts something on their blog or tweets it, it's looking at Hollywood. The lens through which we see everything now is so self-conscious and so about how it would play on the screen.
AC: How did David Duchovny become involved?
TC: I knew I wanted to have some sort of narration, a human voice. David's wife is a really good friend of mine, and David is a friend too, as a result. I just asked him, and he was down with it.
AC: I just read that your dad was a songwriter and that he wrote songs for Donna Fargo.
TC: They had a huge hit, "You Can't Be a Beacon If Your Light Don't Shine." He also wrote one of Donny & Marie's big songs: "A Little Bit Country, A Little Bit Rock & Roll." I guess my mom was the country, and he was the rock & roll.
AC: And what are you?
TC: I guess some sort of amalgamation of the two.
AC: An urban cowboy of sorts?
TC: Yes, I'm an urban cowboy of sorts [laughs]. It's in my genes. Actually, all my family is from Texas. It's a weird place. My grandfather, who I never knew, for a Jew, he ran [Amarillo, one of the settings in Lipshitz]. He literally won his business in a poker game – a jewelry business. Then he parlayed it into more and more businesses. He ran away with the circus when he was like 13. My grandmother, who already lived in Texas, she's the one who came over, and when they were at Ellis Island, her brother was lost. You can't make stuff like that up.
The Beaufort Diaries film screens in Animated Shorts, Sunday, March 13, 1:30pm, at the Alamo South Lamar A (see www.sxsw.com/film for additional screenings). T Cooper will sign copies of the book on Monday, March 14, 1pm, at the Austin Convention Center, Ballroom D Foyer.