In the late 1990s, ‘JT LeRoy’ was the toast of literary circles and media culture. Author, editor, credited music artist biographer but above all an enigmatic figure, he penned a number of high-profile essays, magazine articles, journals and books between 1996 and 2005, until the truth finally came out. In what the Washington Post’s David Segal described as “one of the greatest literary hoaxes of our day”, ‘JT LeRoy’ was exposed as a fabrication, a persona created by one Laura Albert. Author: The JT LeRoy Story is the first cinematic venture into that scandal that really sits Laura Albert herself – in front of the cameras to tell both their stories. We sat down with the film’s director, Jeff Feuerzeig, to talk about his ideas, the process of making a documentary, working with Laura Albert and storytelling:
The Metropolist: First of all, we really liked the movie. We think it’s fascinating – both the story and the documentary.
Jeff Feuerzeig: Oh, thank you!
TM: I was wondering, when was the first time you heard about JT Leroy?
JF: A few years ago. I was not aware of JT Leroy when the story broke and I have not read the books. A friend of mine – who is a journalist – turned me onto the story. I love non-fiction, truth stranger than fiction type of stories ,so he told me I should check this out. So I read – there were a lot of articles already – and I thought wow, this is fascinating! I felt like I’d like to know more, I felt like there’s more to the story that we haven’t heard, haven’t been told yet. And there’s of course the author, Laura Albert – who had not told her story. That seemed like something I wanted to hear.
TM: Did you start thinking about a documentary straight away? Can you tell us a bit about your process and how it all came together?
JF: I do a massive amount of research, like any writer and then I try to take all the pieces together. There’s a massive archive that I’ve worked with – photographs, super 8 movies and videos – I try to make an immersive experience. I think I did 8 days of interviews with Laura, allowed her to take us through her entire life – and that became the spine of the story. There’s no pre-conversations, those days are sacred. And after, I tried to take elements of the backstory to create what you’ve seen – trying to find the parallels of what happened to her as a child to what she did in the present. That was the toughest thing, but that’s what I do and enjoy.
TM: Was it difficult to work with a writer? Laura Albert is a fascinating storyteller but did that make things easier or more difficult? How was your experience working with her?
JF: It was great. Film is storytelling and I’m a storyteller. It was a pleasure to have someone who was such a good storyteller as an interviewee. I’ve interviewed many-many people in my life and not everybody is an amazing storyteller, even though they are talented, interesting people. Some of us are natural storytellers – she is. It was a pleasant surprise.
TM: It’s such a huge story, it really is impressive that you managed to keep it clear and coherent all the way through the film.
JF: It’s a complex story. I’m glad that you were able to comprehend. That was my challenge.
TM: We found it really interesting that even though the interviews are shown in a linear way, all the bits from the archives, phone conversations are not in chronological order. That’s a very good idea.
JF: I agree. Well, the A-story is linear but the backstory is told in a different way. We are going back in time and then it catches up at the end. I’ve been playing with those ideas in my work for many years. I find the fact that you are able to do flashbacks in cinema really satisfying. And I think backstories are really fascinating, you can learn a lot about people, about their childhood from those. So when I learned her unique and tragic backstory, I felt it was powerful to slowly unveil it to the audience. For instance that as a young girl, she is calling hotlines as a boy. She has a very unique hotline addiction. Or that she is using her sister as an avatar in her punk-rock years – and then later Savannah is the avatar. Or that she pretended to be British in the grouphome with the skinhead boy, Mike – and then later in life, Speedie is British. All these patterns I thought were fascinating to put them in the film, in this kind of structural way.
TM: Speaking of avatars and addiction, I was thinking about how both of your documentaries (Author and The Devil and Daniel Johnston) have protagonists who struggle with mental health issues. Which is a really interesting and important subject – but it’s also hard to talk about. Is this something that you were aware of when you chose subjects?
JF: Yes. Well, it’s a coincidence. I find the intersection of creativity and madness infinitely fascinating and a lot of art has come out of it. I don’t know why, but I find it captivating. This happened to be part of her story – as you learned in the film, she was institutionalized multiple times in her childhood.
TM: Was it always going to be just about Laura? I mean there’s a lot of people involved through the archives, we hear their side of the story as well but did you ever think about interviewing others in the present?
JF: Well, I love subjective storytelling. Some of my favourite films have one voice – like The Kid Stays in the Picture, the Robert Evans movie by Brett Morgen – you get no other voice. My film actually has four or five other voices. But I admire these films that are unconventional that way, I find them to be unique. So I wanted my film to also be that way. It was the most interesting way to present this. There were other people who didn’t want to be in the film, that’s also true but it’s okay. I wanted to hear her as a protagonist, because she was the writer of the fiction – on and off the page, she created it all. I felt that would be the most compelling film.
TM: Yeah, it is her story to tell.
JF: And also, we read those pieces from others’ point of view – this was the unheard, untold story. I want to hear the person who did it, who put pen to paper, who was the voice on the telephone of JT, who was Speedie in public. I wanted to hear that person’s version because that has to be a wild tale.
TM: You mentioned the other voices in your film. You interviewed Savannah and other writers – how did their story fit in with Laura’s?
JF: Bruce Benderson, Dennis Cooper, Ira Silverberg – they are voices in my movie. They are telling exactly what they heard on the phone from JT. They were a necessity and important to have in the film, because who else could talk about those conversations. And when the books are published and the film (The Heart is Deceitful) takes on, from that point, I have material to work with. The protagonist can take over and take us through the journey – and that’s what’s happened, it was organic. As I said, I don’t like conventional films, I’m bored by that. I’d like to push cinema as much as I can in non-fiction.
TM: Did you get the archives from Laura?
JF: Yes. She gave me everything. I had a free hand to do whatever I want.
TM: Did you have a chance to ask her why she started to record all this?
JF: Well, she documented her whole life. Her mum started the process with all the photoalbums; she was a writer, a creative person and Laura as well. She saved everything – her dolls, thousands of photos, all her writing from childhood. It’s amazing. And Daniel Johnston’s done the same thing. Documented his whole life, recorded his mum yelling at him.
TM: I guess it’s a way of coping with everything that’s happening to us.
JF: Yeah. I find it fascinating and as a documentarian, a non-fiction filmmaker, it gives me the tool to unfold the layers of this complex story and get inside, to make it a cinematic immersive experience. It’s lucky to have that. The interview is great but it couldn’t work without these pieces.
TM: Do you have any upcoming projects, any ideas in your mind that you could tell us about?
JF: Yeah! I only work with true stories, I’ve always been that person. I’m writing the true story of Mingering Mike right now. He is known as a legendary soul, R’n’B superstar – that’s why I’m wearing a Marvin Gaye T-shirt, I’m immersing myself in ’70s culture.
TM: We will look it up! Thank you for having us!
JF: I hope it was good! I appreciate that you liked the movie.