Interview with Jeff Feuerzeig

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American director and screenwriter Jeff Feuerzeig is best known for his film The Devil and Daniel Johnston, for which he won Best Director at Sundance in 2005. Now he is back with a new documentary, Author: The JT Leroy Story. Following Laura Albert, a highly creative if troubled writer whose fictionalised abuse stories first enthralled then scandalised the publishing world, we described the film in our four star review as “the 21st century’s take on F for Fake.” Jeff kindly agreed to answer some of our questions regarding his latest work, live from sunny LA.

When did you first hear about JT Leroy?

I was not aware of the scandal when it broke in 2006, and nor had I read the books. So I was a blank slate. A friend of mine, a journalist, turned me into the story a few years ago. That was my first real experience with the scandal.

Why a documentary?

First of all, I’m known for documentaries. I would not have the power to snap my fingers and make a multi-million dollar [fiction] script, so that was never an option, nor desirable. Very simply, I’m a huge fan of stranger-than-fiction stories, as with my previous work. I was fascinated by the story when I read all the articles – it generated quite a bit of ink, when the scandal broke – and it was absolutely fascinating on so many levels. I thought there had to be more to the story that we were being told, because the author had not had yet told her story. So I reached out to her [Laura Albert] and sent her The Devil and Daniel Johnston, which deals very vividly with the intersection of madness with creativity. That film really spoke to her. I then learned other documentarians in Hollywood had previously approached her, and she had turned them all down. But upon seeing The Devil and Daniel Johnston she decided that the story that she had held back for so many years, she would share it with me. At that point I read the books. I was a huge of Southern Gothic literature in college, particularly Flannery O’Connor and Harry Crews. And I was immediately taken with Sarah, which I thought belonged to that tradition. It was great writing, and I wasn’t surprised, after reading it, that it was so well reviewed back in the day, as well as becoming an international bestseller. Then I read the book of short stories, The Heart is Deceitful Above All Things, and I was equally taken. It’s a much darker book, but the writing was exceptional. So at that point I began raising the money.

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One of the things I really enjoyed in the film is that you never make a judgment about Laura, you treat her with respect and let her tell her story freely, but also let other opinions and views appear on the table.

You could fairly say that about all my films. Author… is a subjective film, it’s a choice I’ve made. One of my greatest influences is the New Journalism of the late 60s and early 70s – Tom Wolfe, Gay Talese, Joan Didion, Norman Mailer… Those were my heroes and they inspired me to do what they’ve done with documentaries. I think that through subjectivity there’s a more direct route to what Werner Herzog called ‘the ecstatic truth’. I find that much more fascinating and interesting. I also admire documentaries like The Kid Stays In The Picture and James Toback’s Tyson. It’s a choice, and I’m glad that you enjoyed the results. I believe that is the goal – whatever you feel emotionally or intellectually at the end of the film, every audience member can have their own experience. That’s what you get by making a subjective film rather than some of the films in this genre that are more ‘traditional documentaries,’ whatever that means.

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One of the questions that is raised in the film is that what is legitimate to do, for art’s sake. Do you believe there’s a line that should not be crossed, even in Art?

I’m gonna say this, because it’s a subjective film, it does not, and nor do I seek to moralize from day one. Anyone can feel whatever they want to feel or say what they want to say. Some people want to judge her actions. They’re welcome to do it, it doesn’t necessarily matter what I feel. It’s a true story, which happened, and I believe in this telling you’re learning through all the revelations of the backstory, why this happened. She tells us why she was unable to write as herself. The themes in her fiction included sexual abuse, chemical abuse, genderphilia. Tragically, we came to learn she was sexually abused, and that she, as a teenager, would go out in public as a British person. When she met Skinhead Mike, and fell in love with him, it took him months to learn she wasn’t British! We learn that she was sending her sister out as an avatar during her punk rock salvation. Punk rock saved her life, she was just a young girl, but she had so much self-loathing and body issues that she sent her sister out. That’s the same when, years later, she was sending out Savannah as JT. So these behaviours are long baked into her psychology and actions. We also learn, maybe not surprisingly, that mental illness was a factor. Hopefully these revelations add up to a deeper understanding of how all of this was created, and why it went so far. What was fascinating to me and hopefully it’s clear in the film, is that here you have Laura who is choosing to tell her story, and she shared everything, including all of the deceit. 

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One of the most fascinating things was to learn that she had hotline addiction since she was a very young girl. She was calling as boys, and she never knew who was going to pick up the phone. She didn’t know if the story was gonna last one day or a week, or how the story was gonna go. That’s a very unique behaviour. When she called Doctor Terence Owen, that could have been the seventeenth thousand hotline call she ever made. I found her young girl notebooks, with pages and pages of hotlines, and in the margins were all these little boy-girl doodles. I’ve animated them in the film. I found them to be revelatory, showing how deep this goes and how long ago it came from. There were so many layers, and as a storyteller and as a new journalist documentarian, to spend two years inside this mind, inside all this material, all this self-documentation… I think it’s the biggest archive ever excavated in documentary history. It was massive. She saved everything. Super 8 movies… almost all the photos in the film are snapshots of hers. Even recordings of her young girl voice… I couldn’t believe what I had. It took multiple vans to take it from San Francisco to my editing room in Los Angeles. It took two years to go through it all and understand it. It was a lot of work. The Devil and Daniel Johnston was a massive film to make as well, identical materials and close to similar amount of archive, but this was massive.

Jeff Feuerzeig, director of AUTHOR: THE JT LEROY STORY outside of the Castro Theatre for the 59th San Francisco International Film Festival.

Would you ever be tempted to follow her example, and release a film under a pseudonym?

I think everything is possible, but I’m certainly not interested. I work so hard on my films, I’m very proud to put my name to them, so… (laughs) that’s a lot of work not to take credit for!

What can we expect from you in the future?

I’m in the middle of another true story, the story of Mingering Mike. I’m writing the screenplay right now. The true story of an outsider artist from the 1970s who went awol during Vietnam, and became the biggest R&B soul singer in the world… in his imagination. I think you’ll like it.

Author: The JT Leroy Story will be playing in UK cinemas from 25th July 2016.

Sara is originally from Coimbra, Portugal, where she studied Film Studies before moving to London to enrol in film school. Having made her first short film about her neighbour's chickens when she was 9 (a dystopian sci-fi, still her favourite genre), she is now a London-based film director and editor, and also a writer for the Portuguese Take Magazine. She is a huge fan of Lars Von Trier, Krysztof Kiéslowski, and David Lean.