he story of Pepe the Frog is one many people on the internet are familiar with to some degree. But the tale of this complicated green amphibian was mostly isolated to those exposed to his countless variations online or those who remember his vilified appearances in mainstream media coverage. Depending on where you get your information, that story can wildly differ between sources. Enter Arthur Jones and Giorgio Angelini, the pair behind a new documentary that focuses on Pepe’s storied past, present and potential future. In their upcoming film, Feels Good Man, they follow the trail of Pepe beginning with Matt Furie’s original conception of the character in his comic book, Boy’s Club, all the way up to more recent events. As one of the first meme documentaries of its kind, we caught up with them to learn more about how the film came together after seeing it for ourselves. Although it won’t be released until September this year, here’s a little on what to expect from Feels Good Man when it drops.
Q: Hello, everyone. To begin, can one of you sum up the scope of the documentary and tell us what it’s all about? Also, could each of you quickly introduce yourself and tell us a little about who you are and your role in the film?
Arthur Jones (director, producer, writer, animator): “Feels Good Man” is the story of Pepe the Frog and his creator, Matt Furie. Pepe started out in 2005 as a character in a beloved but obscure comic book series “Boy’s Club.” From there, Pepe was adopted and repurposed by internet message board culture. He became a popular reaction image and an emotional signifier for a generation of hyper-online kids. During this period, Matt was largely oblivious to Pepe’s internet popularity. Around 2015, things got weird for Pepe, and he became a weapon in the culture war. On social media, he was used by celebrities, edge lords and extremists for their own agendas. He was retweeted by Donald Trump, vilified by Hillary Clinton and officially declared a “hate symbol” by the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) in late 2016.
Our film tells the story of Matt Furie dealing with the Pepe phenomenon in all of its complexity. The film is also a potent case study in how extremism spreads online and how trolling moved off message boards into mainstream politics. It’s a thought-provoking movie that tackles difficult subject matter in a funny and irreverent fashion. I directed the film, created all the motion graphics and animated some of the film’s cartoon sequences that bring “Boy’s Club” to life. This story was an obsession of mine. I’m an old-school “Boy’s Club” fan, and I know the underground comic scene Matt is part of. I also understand the reactionary youth culture of 4chan. I grew up in a small Missouri town in the fog of right-wing media, Rush Limbaugh, Fox News, etc. I had been an edgy, self-righteous, conservative teenager. I was a little too old to be part of the 4chan generation, but I felt like I understood their mindset because I had lived it as a youth.
Giorgio Angelini (producer, writer, cinematographer): Arthur was helping me finish my documentary, “OWNED: A Tale of Two Americas,” back at the end of 2017. Doing some great animation work and motion graphics for the film. At that time, Arthur was also beginning the process of starting production on “Feels Good Man.” And he was gracious enough to ask me to come on board and help him with his vision. I am one of the producers, and also helped write the film and animated sequences, as well as shot many of the scenes. I also did a bit of the music, including the closing track, which I co-wrote with Sharon Van Etten and my long-time music collaborator, Mike Semple. We’re super excited about the song! It’s a real tear-jerker -- trying to get those feels going.
I came into film from a kind of mash-up career in the creative arts. I think that’s why Arthur and I work so well together. We’re both often working in several different mediums at once. I toured in a few different bands for most of my 20s (The Rosebuds and Bishop Allen, primarily) until the housing crash happened, which destroyed the touring market. So I went back to grad school to study architecture, which led me to make “OWNED,” which led me to Arthur, which then led me to inner peace.
(One of the original "Boy's Club" comics by Furie. Credit: David Usui)
Q: I’d like to know more about the origin of the documentary. When did you come up with the concept for it, and how did you initially reach out to Matt Furie about it? What was his reaction to the idea at first?
Arthur: I met Matt on a hike and found him to be a really charming, funny person. He was friends with my girlfriend, Kerry (some of the archival footage of Matt was shot by her, long before I knew either of them). They had both lived in the Mission in San Francisco and been involved in the art scene there. At first, Matt and I wanted to collaborate on a cartoon together, but when we pitched the idea to various production companies, it became clear that the negative Pepe baggage was too much to overcome.
Matt felt really frustrated with how the media had covered the Pepe controversy, so I pitched him the idea of making a documentary film that could examine the story from his perspective. I didn’t want it to be some sensationalistic cable news documentary about the alt-right. I wanted the film to be nuanced, complicated and artistic. I talked to Matt and Aiyana (his partner who is also an amazing artist) about my vision for the project, and from there, we slowly built a mutual trust. At first, they were understandably nervous, and I was too. I was learning how to direct a documentary, and they were learning how to be subjects of a documentary. They saw how hard-working I was and observed how talented and smart all my collaborators were. In those first few months, I really leaned on a talented group of experienced filmmaker friends: Aaron Wickenden, Giorgio, Kurt Keppeler and Christian Bruno. My relationships with them were my film school.
Q: Prior to coming up with the concept for “Feels Good Man,” how many of you were already knowledgeable about memes and internet culture? Was this always an interest of yours, or did you more so learn about it along the way?
Arthur: Being a “Boy’s Club” fan, I was always surprised when I saw Pepe online. The Pepe I knew was from Matt’s comics, so I always felt protective of the character when I saw him in particularly offensive or poorly drawn memes. I first heard of 4chan around 2007 when a musician friend of mine made a surprising amount of money selling psychostrobic video loops on the site. Before shooting interviews for the film, I spent several months researching 4chan. I read books about the history of the site and spent a lot of time on various boards, mostly lurking on /pol, /b/ and /r9k/.
There is a syntax and lingo used within 4chan that you have to absorb to really understand the site’s discourse. I definitely read a lot of entries on Encyclopedia Dramatica and KYM to help understand the layer upon layer of 4chan in-jokes. But even after I understood the format of the site, I was constantly surprised by the diversity of the community. For example, /fit/ was run by the gay kids. The /LBGT/ board was run by the trans kids etc. The MSM [mainstream media] usually focuses on /pol/, but 4chan is more than that. During this period, I also talked a number of 4chan “Old Fags” about how the site’s ethos had changed over the years and struck up a dialogue with Dale Beran. Dale would go on to become a consultant on the film and our primary cultural talking head. Dale was really amazing because he is also a cartoonist. He felt like someone Matt or I would hang out with. He was writing his book “It Came From Something Awful” as we were making the film.
Giorgio: I’d never really spent much time on 4chan. But having gone through a particularly low time in my life in the late 2000s and early 2010s while in grad school, and seeing how my Reddit usage was so neatly tied to that experience, this project spoke to me in very direct ways. Looking back, I can see how my own sense of isolation and feeling like I had no one to talk to about my problems -- or not wanting to burden my friends or family with them -- meant me turning to a community of anonymous people to vent my frustrations. In some ways, it was very liberating and useful. But often, it turned into a kind of unfortunate reinforcement of typical IRL desires: to be wanted, to be validated, to be seen, etc.
So then creating funny memes or writing pithy jokes, all to seek imaginary internet points, became a regular part of my daily life. There was definitely an excitement being on Reddit in those early years, especially. And being a visual-thinking person, meme culture felt like a very liberating way to talk about complex problems in a more fluid kind of way. It was like a burgeoning new form of linguistics I found immediately fascinating. Funny enough, one of my favorite current meme accounts is an architecture account called “Dank Lloyd Wright.” The power of memes is their potential to inject emotions into rhetoric in a way that mere words cannot do. For that reason, it’s also a potentially dark art, too.
(Matt Furie Drawing Pepe. Credit: Kurt Keppeler)
Q: What about Pepe the Frog? How familiar were you with that particular meme and its extensive history?
Arthur: Before starting the film, I knew the page of “Boy’s Club” that the “Feels Good Man” meme originated from, but I was unaware of all the twists and turns in his trajectory. I was also unaware of the history of memes explored by academics like Richard Dawkins, Susan Blackmore and Daniel Dennett. It was all uncharted territory for me. We had three editors on the film: Aaron Wickenden, Kat Taylor and Drew Blatman. It was a steep learning curve for each of them. This film felt like writing a very intense collaborative research paper.
Giorgio: I’d spent a lot of time on Reddit in the early days and through grad school. So I was quite familiar with Pepe as a meme. But I’m embarrassed to say that I had no idea about Matt, “Boy’s Club” or what the provenance of Pepe’s image was. I knew Pepe probably as most people knew him in 2010. Initially, I identified him as this kind of loveable sad sack. And after leaving Reddit around 2012, and then coming back on around 2014 with the Gamergate controversy, it was really jarring to see his transformation. It’s like I skipped ahead a few chapters in a novel. Even before Arthur talked to me about the film idea, I was trying to understand Pepe’s transformation.
Q: Despite some of the negative associations with Pepe you addressed in the film, there are also many positives, such as his use in Hong Kong or his appearance on Twitch and Discord. What are your thoughts about the current state of Pepe today?
Arthur: It’s hard to say. He’s still omnipresent on various message boards and within gaming communities. I think the emotion surrounding the character that was expressed in 2014/2015 has dissipated. I think Sad Frog is a worldwide phenomenon and here to stay.
Giorgio: As John Michael Greer says in our film, Pepe is an omen. And we must hear what he has to say. I sort of really believe that. Matt’s gift to the world was drawing a cartoon character that operated on a certain emotional valence that connected with millions of young people across the world. All without a single marketing dollar ever spent. All in the power of his drawing. But I think the connective idea behind all of this is that he’s sort of like a canary in a coal mine, or a “frog on a forum.” Wherever you see Pepe popping up, it tends to signify a kind of youth unrest. And it’s happening all over the world.
In America, you had a large number of disaffected youth who felt like they had no place in organized society. For as long as there has existed an organized white supremacist movement, they have always sought out to exploit young, white men experiencing this kind of alienation. Pepe provided a convenient way to identify these people and manipulate their anger for the organization’s own self-interest. In Hong Kong, however, you have a similar kind of alienation, but based on a far more fundamental, existential threat. Actual authoritarianism. But the Pepe experience there was completely different. It was about collectivism. It was about unity. It was about peace. It was a show of righteous love in the face of the darkest of cynicism.
(Matt Furie prepping for his meeting with the ADL. Credit: Giorgio Angelini)
Q: Was there a specific goal you set out to achieve with the documentary? Did that goal change or evolve as it progressed?
Arthur: We aren’t naive enough to think the film can “save” or “reclaim” Pepe. Our hope is that audiences will rediscover “Boy’s Club” and understand Pepe as Matt originally intended the character. Matt Furie knows that Pepe, to some extent, belongs to the masses, and he hopes people can understand the unique awkwardness of his position. Matt knows he can’t control the internet, but he can try to assert his copyright when Pepe is used by extremists for financial gain. In time, we hope the ADL won’t feel the need to have Pepe on its database of hate symbols. The more the public understands the story and understands Matt’s point of view, the more that is possible. Pepe is a case study in how the irreality of the internet can quickly become reality. It’s a film about media literacy. To understand the human experience in 2020, you need to understand the internet.
Giorgio: I think memes are incredibly powerful tools to communicate complex ideas in extraordinarily efficient ways. That’s both good and bad. For me personally, I just hope that in this brave new world, where internet culture is overwhelmingly defining our lived reality, that we be more judicious with how we interpret the information we accumulate online, and how we let it affect our IRL lives. There’s been a kind of dangerous union of our digital and IRL selves. Where it was once a very clear separation, it’s now becoming so entangled that it’s hard to distinguish between your internet persona and your physical personhood.
From my perspective, I think we need to find ways to compartmentalize those experiences a bit more and regain some actual personal freedom -- not be so beholden to our internet identities -- because what’s happening now is you have a lot of people who spend an inordinate amount of time living online, becoming susceptible to the internet's irreality, and it’s resulting in a toxic lived experience. More generally speaking, I think the early hopes of a kind of utopia that the internet promised society have not panned out as we hoped. As the internet has become commoditized, it has had the net effect of dividing us and shaming us out of compassion and empathy -- making us all more nihilistic and cynical. I hope that this story gets people to snap out of this internet delusion and encourage people to reclaim their lived reality and take charge of their futures in more meaningful and emotionally productive ways.
(Matt Furie in his art studio. Credit: Kurt Keppeler)
Q: As for the name itself, how did you ultimately settle on “Feels Good Man?” Were there any other titles in consideration?
Arthur: Before we started shooting, I wrote a really wild document called the “Transcendental Pepe at the End of Time.” It was based on this quote from Terence McKenna. In the ‘90s, McKenna did a series of influential lectures about the utopian possibilities of the internet. My hope in writing the document was to explore some creative ways we might approach the Pepe story. In hindsight, it was a really pretentious exercise, but it allowed me to research the film in a manner that felt fun and creative and didn’t give too much power to the nihilism of 4chan. Once we started filming, I immediately deleted the document and realized that to make a good film, we’d have to listen to the footage and let that be our guide.
Giorgio: I mean, “Feels Good Man” … it’s the phrase that started it all. I don’t think there was ever any question of what the film would be called. The pithiness of the statement seems to contain everything you need to know about the film. It works on a lot of different levels.
Q: The artwork was one of my favorite aspects of the documentary when I watched it. How did the team bring all these different contributors together, and what was the creative process like behind the scenes?
Giorgio: Arthur and I knew we wanted the film to have a lot of animation. In a sense, part of the mission of the film was to canonize Pepe, once and for all. To reverse engineer his context, so that when people see derivations of him online, they understand them to be precisely what they are … interpretations. Not gospel. SpongeBob obviously has a lot of nasty derivations and meme versions that I’m sure Nickelodeon isn’t too jazzed about. But the general public understands very clearly that when they see SpongeBob sporting a Hitler mustache, that it’s a derivation. Pepe never had that benefit of the doubt. So with that said, we also had a very emotionally challenging film to make. Where we ride the line between some of the absolute darkest topics imaginable, to some of the more whimsical and hopeful. And animation is a great medium in which to mediate those transitions.
We knew we had to put together a team. So through a network of me and Arthur’s friends in the animation world, we were incredibly lucky to meet our final team: Jenna Caravello, Nicole Stafford and Khylin Woodrow. None of us (besides me and Arthur) knew each other, but we immediately bonded over the subject matter. It was an incredibly collaborative project where everyone contributed storyboard ideas. It was really sweet because it wasn’t until Sundance that we all finally got to be together in the same place. And it was a really great moment to come together for the first time and see their love and hard work splayed out across the big screen. It was a very moving experience.
Arthur: Yeah, it was such a satisfying collaboration. Giorgio shouted out our amazing animators, but the other person who really made the animation feel alive was our sound designer, Lawrence Everson. He brought so much magic to the film. At one point, he had a bunch of keyboards mic’d up and he was hitting the keys in a way that they sounded like a crackling campfire. He’s the best.
(The original "Boy's Club" comic book. Credit: Guy Mossman)
Q: Given the obscure subject matter covered in the documentary, what sort of internet or meme experts did you consult with to ensure that it was accurately discussing those areas?
Giorgio: We spoke to so many people! There’s an entire other film we could cut with the interviews we, unfortunately, could not fit in the final film. Making a documentary is really an exercise of constantly killing your darlings. The film ultimately utilizes the voices of a select group of people who all bring a different, specific perspective to the topic of meme culture. Dale Beran, the author of “It Came From Something Awful,” gave us the kind of academic and social backbones of the film, contextualizing meme culture in the broader context of the economy and internet culture at large. Occultist, John Michael Greer, brought an incredible perspective on meme magic. His interview was so critical because after interviewing so many people in the more formal social sciences, attempting to explain the almost inexplicable case of Pepe, it was John’s interview that really congealed the entire film into the surreal and wonderful thing it wound up becoming.
We also spoke with Susan Blackmore, a British academic who literally wrote the book on memetics. We got to spend some time with her in her insanely pastoral and beautiful English country cottage. But there were also some incredible interviews we weren’t able to fit in, like Steven Heller. He’s one of the most important graphic designers of his generation and has written so much on the topic of iconography. Funny enough, he’s also the father of Instagram super-star New York Nico! And we also spent some time with resident conspiracy theory beat reporter Will Sommer. But beyond the more academic side of things, we also spent a lot of time with the culture, with the people at the center of this story. Our two principal characters from 4chan, Pizza and Mills, give the audience a more nuanced and less cartoonish perspective on the kinds of people steeped in meme culture.
Q: The documentary covered a lot of key points from the meme’s history over the years, so how did you decide on which moments to focus on? Were there any other points you wanted to address that got cut in the end?
Arthur: I’m sure people will be upset that we don’t cover every little twist and turn of the online Pepe drama, but I think we will also surprise folks who think they know the whole story. We found some new turns in the story, too. Ultimately, we wanted to make a film about how emotion spreads online. When I think of 4chan, a quote from Marshall McLuhan comes to mind: “Jokes Are Based on Grievances.” The humor of 4chan is angry and cathartic, and Pepe’s various expressions are an extension of that. He’s the Frog that feels good, bad, sad, smug and angry. We used those emotions to organize the film. Our producer, Aaron Wickenden, really helped structure the film. “Follow the thin green line” became his mantra.
Q: What were a few of the biggest challenges or hurdles you faced while making it? Were there any particularly tricky aspects you struggled with throughout the process?
Giorgio: With making any doc, you’re filming while life is happening around you. So you have to be really nimble with your story and your expectations. Part of what makes any great doc actually great, I think, is just plain ol’ luck and your ability to properly respond to that luck. From the beginning, we knew that finding the ending was going to be a challenge. Then, Matt finally found some incredibly generous and talented lawyers who were willing to work with him pro-bono to fight a lot of the opportunists, like Alex Jones, who were using Pepe specifically to make money and push their own personal agendas.
So, when Alex Jones began selling a poster with a literal tracing of Pepe from one of Matt’s comic panels, that was a clear issue for Matt. After Jones refused to settle and pushed everything towards a jury trial, we thought for sure the court case and its conclusion would make a perfect ending. And, conveniently enough, the federal courthouse where it was all going down was just around the corner from our office. But then, after months and months of depositions and motions and legal what-have-yous, Alex Jones finally decided to settle -- quite out of the blue. Funny enough, he settled for the exact thing Matt wanted in the first place … to stop selling the poster and hand over any profits he made from it. So while that was a psychic win for Matt, as filmmakers, we were sorta stuck with a great film with no third act and ending. Then, one morning, we woke up to our phones blowing up with messages from friends, all linking to images from Hong Kong, the anti-authoritarian demonstrations happening there and Pepe’s iconic status amongst the movement. It provided an ending we never could’ve imagined -- capturing Pepe’s transformation in real-time, shifting from an icon of cynicism to one of hope and collective action.
We also just wanted to make sure the film represented the story accurately. Obviously, the web community is very protective of their narrative, and it was important to us that this story feels as nuanced and authentic as possible. We didn’t want the story to feel scoldy or judgy, but we also didn’t want to pull any punches either. Riding that line was a constant struggle, but I think, based on the feedback anyway, that we succeeded in that. The film deals with a lot of dark issues, but it also deals with some pretty absurd and whimsical ones as well. Oscillating between those two poles was incredibly challenging. We had to find the right mix of archival storytelling, animation and Matt’s personal narrative. That was probably the most challenging aspect of all of this -- making sure one plotline didn’t dilute or subvert the other.
Q: After it was completed and the team began showing it off early on, what was the reception like? Can you describe how it was received?
Giorgio: Our premiere at Sundance was legitimately one of the most moving experiences of my life. Everyone was incredibly emotional, from the filmmaking team to the audience who’d just seen it for the first time. We were encouraged right from the get-go to find that both older audiences and younger audiences found the story compelling, but often for very different reasons. I think for the boomer generation, the film explains a lot about this cultural moment in ways they never understood before. For younger people, it’s a film about the internet age. Very early on, we also received an email from a 4chan user that I found very moving as well. We posted it to our IG.
Arthur: My favorite moment was a screening at the True/False film festival in Columbia, Missouri. I grew up not far from Columbia, so it was a very full-circle moment for me. Around 1,500 people showed up to one of the screenings and the Q&A lasted an hour. It was a really civil discussion in a very divided area of the country. We were lucky to have IRL screenings at three festivals before the COVID shutdowns.
Q: As we’re nearing the release of “Feels Good Man” to the public, what do you want viewers to take away from it in the end? What do hope to ultimately accomplish through the documentary in a broader sense?
Arthur: “Feels Good Man” deals with big subjects like the pitfalls of the attention economy, artistic agency in the internet age and online extremism. But Matt’s story conveys a simple truth: if you have a problem, you can’t hide from that problem, you have to deal with it. Dealing with that problem might be uncomfortable or open you up to ridicule but dealing with it allows you to become a stronger person and positively affect our society. As Matt’s pal Skinner (who is in the movie) often says, “If you work on yourself, it allows you to become a warrior for good.” Matt never wanted to be famous. He’s not comfortable being an activist. Suing people sucks. But he’s making an honest effort to fight for peace and justice in the ways he can.
Giorgio: I’ve always been taken by the popularity of the “born to feel” Wojak meme. Because, the ultimate irony in all of this is, the internet has actually stripped us out of our capacity to feel. It’s made us more nihilistic and cynical. It has not brought us closer together. It has actually done quite the opposite. At least for a certain generation. And my hope is that people walk away from this movie and understand that they don’t have to be shamed out of their capacity for empathy. Because we are “born to feel.” That’s what makes us human. So, don’t let some anon shame you out of that desire. Go hug your mom and tell her you’re sorry. Again, all my hopes and desires of the film are really built in this meme.
Arthur: Giorgio wrote that meme. It’s his “pièce de résistance.”
Q: Now that you guys are pretty savvy on Pepe, are there any other memes you’d like to cover similarly in the future? Will we see another meme documentary in your future, or are there other topics you’re interested in?
Giorgio: Making a movie about the internet feel cinematic was incredibly challenging. I’d like to film trees or something now. Unless someone wants to hire us to remake Sandra Bullock’s “The Net,” it’s back to nature for me!
Arthur: My favorite meme right now is “Jamming with Jesus Molina.” I love how global and good-natured it is. Seeing smooth-jazz nerds from all over the world vibing out makes me genuinely happy. I’m also a sucker for obscure music meme accounts, like Inzane Johnny. I know “Merzbow” memes aren’t for everybody, but they are for me. I don’t see the box office potential in either of those.
Q: So where can people check out “Feels Good Man,” and when is it getting released to the public?
Giorgio: “Feels Good Man” is coming out Sept. 4th digitally across all major platforms (iTunes, Amazon, Google Play, Vimeo, etc.). We’re going to have some select virtual sneak preview screenings on the weekend of Aug. 28th, so stay tuned for that! They’ll be hosted by some special guests for post-viewing Q&As.
Arthur: Every day we get emails asking, “When is the film going to be on Netflix?” Some folks seem authentically mad that it isn’t going to appear for free on a streaming service. The assumption is that every film at Sundance gets a blank check from a streamer, but the truth is that the streamers don’t think there is a market for this film. We’ve been told it’s too niche. We’ve been told it’s too controversial. The powers that be are scared of a frog JPEG. If you think this is an important story, please rent it. It costs less than a Sweet Onion Chicken Teriyaki Sandwich at Subway. The film is good. You will like it. I poured every ounce of my being into it. My hand is still cramped into the shape of a lobster claw from making all the graphics for the film. We need your meme magic to get it off our hard drive and into your eyeballs.
Q: Any final word or addition info?
Arthur: Yes! Please follow us on Instagram, Facebook, TikTok and on Twitter. Our website is feelsgoodmanfilm.com. If you sign up for our newsletter, we’ll be giving away early access to our limited number of sneak preview screening tickets. We’ll also be doing a Reddit AMA on Aug. 6th hosted by /r/MemeEconomy.