A screen capture from the Steven Soderbergh film "Let Them All Talk" featuring Warren artist Thomas Paquette's piece, Phantom Canyon III. Photo courtesy Thomas Paquette.

From Canvas to Silver Screen: Local Artist’s Work Displayed in Streep, Soderbergh Film

December 21, 2020

He’d been down this road once before. Six years ago, in fact. The initial excitement was followed by a letdown. And so, he didn’t anticipate seeing it this time.

But then something happened. He started to get word that he would, in fact, see it this time. And not just a glimpse, but a long look. He had to go see for himself.

“The moment I saw it was like unexpectedly seeing a wild animal – in a second it would be gone. I probably held my breath – but the camera remained on it, and stayed, and didn’t move for what seemed a very long time.”

That was how Warren artist Thomas Paquette described seeing his painting, Phantom Canyon III, in the Steven Soderbergh film “Let Them All Talk” for the first time.

“After that one appearance, it was in at least four or five more scenes, mostly shown the same way, in the center of some long sequences of important dialogue, unobscured by anything else,” Paquette said. “It’s fair to say I was a bit stunned by its lingering presence.”

The film, directed by Soderbergh and starring Oscar-winner Meryl Streep, takes place aboard the Queen Mary 2. Streep portrays “a famous author (who) goes on a cruise trip with her friends and nephew in an effort to find fun and happiness while she comes to terms with her troubled past,” according to IMDB.

Phantom Canyon III was installed on the QM2 in the suite Streep occupied and can be seen in several scenes with the award-winning actress.

“I think it was so closely tied to Meryl Streep’s character, that Steven Soderbergh meant it as some sort of expression of her,” Paquette said. “That’s what I would take away if it were anyone’s painting other than mine, too.”

Paquette, who also serves as the Exhibitions Committee Chair at the Crary Art Gallery, knew the filmmakers were considering his work for inclusion in the film as he had to sign a release for them to be able to use it. But he thought it would appear in passing, at best.

Phantom Canyon III by Thomas Paquette. Courtesy of the artist.

“The cutting room floor is a big place, and most of a movie ends up there, not on the screen,” Paquette said. “That, combined with the impressiveness of the QM2 art collection, made it easy to guess that my painting would be like most and not be shown for even a millisecond.”

He had good reason to believe chances were slim for an on-screen appearance.

“In 2014, I had a 5 1/2 foot painting that was to be the so-called ‘hero piece’ in the living room of a football star played by Chadwick Boseman in Kevin Costner’s movie ‘Draft Day’,” Paquette said.

Following an issue where the originals were sent by the gallery to another location and an agreement made to use prints in their place, Paquette called just before the film’s opening to make sure his work was featured.

“I called the props person to get a final assurance that the paintings were actually in the film since I know much goes to the cutting room floor,” Paquette said. “She assured me that she witnessed a key climactic scene where Dennis Leary, Costner, and Boseman (I am not sure if she mentioned Jennifer Garner here) have an animated discussion in front of my painting.

“With that assurance, the day before the movie opened I let everyone on my mailing list know about it so they wouldn’t feel they had to go back to the theater a second time just to see my paintings, in case they planned to go on opening night. That was the first and last time I will ever promise appearances I haven’t already seen. The paintings were not in the movie as far as I could tell.”

The screen time for Phantom Canyon III in “Let Them All Talk” measured in minutes, an eternity by Hollywood standards.

“I was surprised it had any screen time at all,” Paquette said. “They didn’t tell me anything about the movie after I signed the papers, and mine was just one of a great number of amazing works on the ship. What were the chances of extended screen time?”

Paquette created Phantom Canyon III in 1993 as a guest artist at The Nature Conservancy’s Phantom Canyon Preserve. The State Department chose to include it in an exhibit at the U.S. Embassy in Chad for several years.

Having the work used at the embassy in Chad made sense to Paquette “for possible environmental similarities.” But on an ocean liner?

“Choosing a painting of a dry Western landscape in sharp tonal contrasts, for the collection of an ocean-going ship, that was much more of a mystery to me,” Paquette said. “And then to feature it almost emblematically in a movie taking place on the ship? But I have never been on a transatlantic crossing and I imagine marine-inspired paintings getting old very quickly on board.”

Whatever the reason, Paquette was pleased his work garnered such a prominent placement.

“Having a film of this quality with such a fine director and actors, with my painting so prominently shown, you must either question Soderbergh’s judgment on putting it in like that or accept that he found it to be precisely what he wanted,” Paquette said. “I’m inclined to think he knows exactly what he is doing, and that does have significance to me. My painting resonated with such an accomplished director.”

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