A Shrine to Storytelling

Filed Under: Inspiration , Article , Voice , critique

A magazine published by the great film director Francis Ford Coppola might be expected not to conform to formulaic notions of magazine production. Zoetrope: All-story, the quarterly magazine Coppola founded in 1997, is not a conventional magazine. It features eight to ten short stories per issue, carries barely any advertising, and has a different ‘guest designer’ for each issue. Coppola describes his magazine as “supporting the brightest young voices in fiction”–itself a revolutionary idea in this era of celebrity trivia and sound bite journalism.

Coppola’s magazine is a shrine to storytelling. Surprisingly, there are no screenplays or movie treatments, just 100 or so pages of prose. As he explains in a “letter to the reader”, published on the magazine’s website: “I have never met a person in the film business who enjoys reading a screenplay. It is usually a dreaded obligation that one does in sections of twenty or thirty pages, ending up with a skim-through of the last thirty pages.” Coppola contrasts the dread of the screenplay with the charm (and brevity) of the short story and notes that many great films have been made from short stories (Psycho, Rear Window, High Noon). He continues: “There was a storytelling tradition in force in the twenties and thirties that, among other things, inspired and taught the screenwriters who became responsible for the fine movie writing of the forties and fifties. Today, the heroes are the film directors, and many aspiring writers think that they must write a screenplay or movie treatment rather than focus on the story itself. If Zoetrope publishes a single short story that evolves into a memorable film then, in my mind, it would more than justify our efforts to produce this magazine.”

Most commercial magazine proprietors would consider producing a magazine that only featured short stories to be the publishing equivalent of going for a swim in a lead bathing suit. Nor is Coppola’s intriguing concept of a different guest designer for each issue likely to win him approval from a publishing industry that views magazines as brands rather than cultural artefacts. Yet each quarter, Coppola invites a different artist, designer, photographer, musician or filmmaker to shape the look of his publication. Past guest designers include Julian Schnabel, Mary Ellen Mark, Helmut Newton, David Bowie, Laurie Anderson, Jeff Koons, Peter Greenaway, Ed Ruscha, Dennis Hopper, David Byrne, Mike Salisbury and William Eggleston. Maverick director Gus Van Sant is at work on the next issue (Winter 2004).

“The idea was originally suggested to me by Mike Salisbury,” notes Coppola, via email. “He was responsible for the design of our old City Magazine as well as the breakthrough publication in LA, West. The notion was that it would refresh the look of the magazine with each issue, and, given that it was a short story publication, would give it visual excitement.” Coppola’s guests succeed admirably in imparting layers of “visual excitement” to his magazine, and without their contributions Zoetrope: All-story would have an academic dryness that might make it difficult to find an audience.

But Coppola’s use of the term “designer” is problematical. It’s a semantic usage that won’t trouble non-graphic designers, but for professional designers—and magazine designers in particular—it’s a controversial piece of nomenclature. Few of Coppola’s guest designers can be said to ‘design’ his magazine in the technical sense of the word. Most contributors appear to adopt the role of “guest illustrator” rather than “guest designer.” And, although each contributor is free to make whatever changes to the magazine’s appearance that they consider necessary, the periodical’s typography and internal architecture remain fairly constant: a two column grid, justified text, neo-classical typography and a sophisticated air of unhurried spaciousness in keeping with a magazine that is designed to be read rather than scanned at high-speed by a sensation hungry magazine junkies.

“We urge the guest designers to reinvent the magazine with every issue,” explains editor Tamara Straus, “but this must be done within the constraints of our budget. That often means we must use our very affordable type of paper and cover stock. Also, some guest designers prefer not to give typographical instructions and rely on our graphic designers to come up with a page layout that will respond to their artwork, which the guest designers then refine. Other guest designers have a hand in every aspect of the design of the magazine—from choice of font, to use of color, to positioning of columns of type, etc. There isn't a permanent design and layout team for the same reason that there isn't an in-house illustrator or art editor: we want to keep the look of the magazine in constant innovation.”

In practice, however, alterations to the magazine’s layout are minimal. Small typographic adjustments are made from issue to issue, but it’s doubtful if many of these will be noticed by non-designers. The Eggleston ‘designed’ issue is typical. The standard two column grid, with its book-like simplicity, is retained. Eggleston’s exquisite photographs are used sparingly throughout; most of them are full page reproductions, but some are incorporated into the text. None of the images are allowed to bleed. Each comes with a generous white border which imparts a distinctive photographic aesthetic and reinforces Eggleston’s famous detachment and his eye for the poetic framing of every day life.

The New York-based graphic designer Eric Baker takes a more designerly approach (Fig. 1). Baker is one of the few bona fide graphic designers to occupy the guest designer hot seat. In the Summer 2003 issue, Baker avoids the over-cooked approach favoured by contemporary magazine designers and publishers. The entire issue is based on passport imagery, and the result is a master class in subtle layout and the judicious handling of graphic ephemera.

Despite Coppola’s willingness to let individuals with strong visual intelligences loose on his magazine, a quiet, understated consistency runs through all issues. Despite a license to “do what they want”, none of his guest designers appear interested in compromising the primacy of the text by snubbing typographic convention or indulging in experimental layouts that impede the act of reading. So, while professional designers may quibble with Coppola’s use of the term ‘designer’, it is hard to quibble with the results. In truth, his contributors are really ‘guest art directors’, but you can understand why Coppola doesn’t use the term: for a non-designer readership, the term guest designer is more easily grasped.

Coppola’s record of choosing brilliant collaborators with which to make his films forms one of his principal claims to greatness: Dean Tavoularis (production design), Nino Rota (music), Walter Murch (sound montage) are inspirational collaborators chosen by Coppola to enhance the art of film making. Did Coppola regard appointing a guest designer as similar to the hiring of specialist talent by a movie director? “I would agree,” says Coppola. “Since our focus is on the writing, and also given the fact that the designers are given power over the final form rather than a fee, we are assured of something unusual. In a sense, the magazine reinvents itself with each issue.” How does Coppola choose his guest designers? “Very informally,’ he notes. ‘We toss around names of people who have a visual sense—artists, photographers, costume and theatrical designers—anyone who has a sense of visual imagery. I love the fact that each time the magazine comes out, it has a different look.”

Zoetrope: All-Story’s sales are split equally between subscription and copies sold at the newsstands. The magazine prints 20-30,000 copies per issue, and the last four issues have sold out—the most recent issue sold out in two months. As Straus notes: “Something about our formula is working, although, of course, we are still a very small circulation magazine.”