Gary Hustwit, a presence in the San Diego music scene through the '80s and '90s, thanked the cheering full house at Philadelphia's Drexel University last month after a screening of his directorial debut, Helvetica. The documentary concerns the sans serif typeface, invented in Switzerland by font designer Max Miedinger and unleashed on the world 50 years ago. Kicking off the Q&A, the director invited any questions "except [asking] if my next film is about Times New Roman -- then I will physically eject you...."
Hustwit, a former frustrated SDSU student ("I got kicked out twice"), managed SD bands (Charms, aMiniature); created and presided over the Independent Music Seminars at the height of SD's early/mid-'90s indie-hotspot heyday; and launched the music industry--oriented Incommunicado Press before moving to New York in 1999.
After a series of online ventures, Hustwit settled into building his DVD label and film-production company Plexifilm. He produced such documentaries as the award-winning Wilco feature I Am Trying to Break Your Heart; the Death Cab for Cutie tour film Drive Well, Sleep Carefully; and a bio-doc on electronic-music pioneer Robert Moog.
Helvetica "is the film I wanted to see a few years ago but it didn't exist," explained Hustwit, a dabbler in typeface design during his SD publishing days (he once held a font-release party at the Live Wire bar). "I just couldn't believe there hadn't been a film about [typography and] designers of type; just insane."
After Hustwit narrowed down his subject to the history and controversies of Helvetica, he went around the world to film its use and collect interviews with designers. Sixty hours of footage were whittled down to a document full of contradictions: Is Helvetica the contrived default typeface of conformity and capitalism or the mother-tongue font of democratic socialism? Is it obviously modernist or deceptively postmodern? Can you ever escape seeing the planet's most popular typeface once you learn to recognize it?
About the film's lush post-rock soundtrack, Hustwit said he "got five great Sonic Youth pieces, but I just could not fit them in." He did manage to fit in two acts with SD ties: the Album Leaf and El Ten Eleven, the instrumental duo of drummer Tim Fogarty and bassist/guitarist Kristian Dunn. El Ten Eleven contributed nine pieces.
"Our music is a perfect match for a film about an overused font," joked Dunn by e-mail. "We did bump Sonic Youth off of the soundtrack, though, and that is pretty cool."
This weekend finds Hustwit in Scandinavia for more Helvetica screenings. The SD premiere will be presented at the Museum of Contemporary Art in La Jolla on July 10, with Hustwit in attendance and a possible set from El Ten Eleven.