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Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato
Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato (sitting).

While the decision to shoot digital rather than film
is a big decision for any first-time feature moviemaker, Fenton
Bailey and Randy Barbato are not typical first-time helmers. Though Party Monster marks their feature directorial debuts, they
have been working together in the non-fiction realm for several
years now, with such films as The Eyes of Tammy Faye and Monica in Black and White to their credit. And while digital
wasn’t their first choice of format on Party Monster, it
turned out to be a blessing. Recounting the relationship between
convicted murderer Michael Alig and writer James St. James, New
York City’s original “Club Kids,” the film revisits the scene of
their earlier documentary of the same name. Here, the directors
speak with MM about the differences between documentary and
feature moviemaking, how the digital format lent itself to their
subject and why a good caterer can make all the difference.

Jennifer Wood (MM): You guys have been making
documentaries for several years, but
Party Monster marks
your feature film debut. What was it about this story that made
you want to tell it as a feature film-particularly considering that
you had explored the lives of Michael Alig and James St. James in
an earlier doc?

Fenton Bailey (FB): The doc is more about the
scene, whereas the film is more about this incredible relationship
between James and Michael. Most movies about relationships deal
in terms of love (good) or hate (bad), but perhaps what is truer
to life is that our relationships involve ambivalent feelings of
love and hate intertwined. For us, the co-dependant relationship
between James and Michael was the ultimate example of this.

Randy Barbato (RB): The doc essentially became
pre-production for the dramatic. During the course of making the
doc we really only skimmed the surface, particularly of the sick
and twisted relationship between James St. James and Michael Alig.
While making the doc, we suggested that James write a book about
this relationship, which he did. It’s called Disco Bloodbath, and we used that book, along with the doc, as the source for the
dramatic film.

MM: For each of you, how did the feature
moviemaking process differ most from the documentary moviemaking
process? What were some of the biggest challenges you faced?

FB: It’s similar in that whether it’s a
doc or a feature, it’s all about trying to create a safe space for
either the actor (if it’s a feature), or the real person (if it’s
a documentary) to feel comfortable as they reveal themselves. And
then in the edit room it’s also very similar; you’re trying to find
the best way to tell the story.

RB: That’s right. For us they are very similar
experiences. In both instances you’re trying to tell a truth, and
creating an environment that helps people contribute in an honest
way-whether they’re actors or “real people”-is at the heart of it.
Also, though, whether we are making a documentary or a dramatic
film, the key is in the story. And for us, we not only want to tell
a great story, but we also always want to fiddle around with the
storytelling-to try and tell a story in a fresh and interesting
way. That’s as important as the story itself, and that applies to
a documentary or a narrative.

MM: What are the things you prefer about
documentary moviemaking over feature moviemaking, and vice versa?

FB: It’s all a nail-biting nightmare. The catering
on Party Monster the feature was fantastic. We put on tons
of weight. On Party Monster the doc we lost tons of weight
because there was never anything to eat.

RB: And with Party Monster the doc,
we were lugging around equipment and setting up lights, and had
the talent releases in our back pockets. At least with a feature,
even with the tiny budget we had, we had some help doing that stuff-and
we were very fortunate to have an incredible team who made our jobs
much easier. Bottom line: docs can often be a one-man band, and
narratives can be, well, considering our budget, a two-man band!
The more the merrier, we like to say!

MM: For many feature moviemakers these days,
the decision to shoot a film on digital versus film is usually a
huge one. Coming from a documentary background, where digital is
often the format choice, did it seem logical that this was the way
you wanted to go from the beginning?

FB: Not really. Originally we had visions of
shooting IMAX, but the funds we were able to raise for this extremely
unusual story didn’t allow for that. So we ended up with digital.
However, sometimes we don’t know what’s good for us and shooting
digitally with PD150s-small format cameras-was the absolute best
thing we could do. Because the fact was the club kids were the first
generation who used palmcorders to record themselves. They lived
in the eye of each other’s lenses. And then, of course, the lightness
and maneuverability of the cameras allowed us to shoot handheld
and documentary-style. So it really was a blessing we didn’t have
the budget that we originally hoped for.

RB: The other big thing for us was that once
we decided to shoot on digital, we went for it in a big way. So
many moviemakers who decide to shoot digitally think they’re somehow
going to be forced not to make a cinematic film. But Fenton,
myself and our DP, Teo Maniaci, along with our producing partner,
Jon Marcus, knew we wanted something cinematic, so we spent an enormous
amount pre-production time preparing for this. We did a ton of digital
shoot-outs, testing film stocks, costumes, color palettes, make-up.
We literally got all the departments involved, because our goal
was to make digital look cinematic. It can be done!

I think a lot of people decide to shoot digitally
and they think that when they make that decision they don’t have to
worry about lighting, but actually it’s the opposite. Lighting becomes
so crucial when shooting digitally; it becomes the difference between
gorgeous film shoot-outs and noisy, sloppy artifacting.

MM: What were the basic details of the film:
what camera did you use, how long was your shooting schedule, total
budget, etc.?

FB: We shot in 25 days. The actual budget is
top secret. Well, it was under 10. Actually it was under five. If
the truth be known, it was under two. We shot it in 25 days, which
was amazing given that we had to get through about 40 set-ups a
day. And then there are about 1,000 costumes in this movie. So frankly,
it was a tall order and much kudos to Teo Maniaci the DP and Michael
Lerman the AD and Michael Wilkinson in wardrobe and Kabuki in make-up
who managed to make it all happen on time and on budget.

RB: We knew going into it we had very little
room for error, so we spent several weeks, with Teo storyboarding
virtually every shot. We even went so far as to find the most mundane
locations to match storyboards and/or redo them based on locations.
Because we had so many set-ups each day, we knew that we couldn’t
spend the time at locations trying to figure things out-we also
knew that we had to limit some of the more ambitious things we wanted
to do, which we were happy to sacrifice in order to get the coverage
we needed to tell the story. We figured we could do the ambitious
stuff the next time around (when we have a big budget-ya know, $2
mill or something).

MM: The film has a very documentary-like
style to it. Stylistically, what sort of look were you looking to
achieve, and how did DV help you to achieve this?

FB: The one thing we did with DV was a huge
risk that paid off by sheer good fortune: We decided, as we shot,
to force the white balance of the camera to give us a variety of different
heavily-saturated looks. We have a golden palate, a bluish palate
and a sickly green palate. It was the only way we knew to get the
rich look we wanted, since we had done all sorts of color correction
tests and nothing else came close to the textured look we wanted.

RB: That was a big commitment we were making,
forcing the white balances. But in all of our pre-production tests,
trying to achieve the saturation we wanted in color correction just
looked lame. Also, we knew we didn’t have the luxury to “fix it
in the mix.” We knew that our post-production budget was as tiny
as our production budget.

MM: The film has a very intimate feel-which
is only aided by the tones of the film and the easy dialogue between
the actors. Do you think that this same sort of “intimacy” could
have been achieved with film?

FB: Doing it digitally was great because we
just kept shooting. We’d let the camera keep rolling at the end
of takes or keep it rolling and just do more takes. About halfway
through Anthony Pettine, our script supervisor, took us aside and
said that our shooting ratio had just surpassed Eyes Wide Shut.

RB: Also, we made a commitment early on to
feature lots of close-ups. Partly because of our pre-production
shoot-out testing, but also because we knew that this film was about
characters and given the extreme nature of these characters we wanted
them in your face-we wanted to linger on all the tics. We
wanted extreme intimacy and, of course, we knew our limitations
to deliver endless wide shot spectacles.

MM: In what ways did you feel most limited
by the digital format?

FB: We didn’t really feel limited at all.
Actually, that’s not true; because the PD-150s have no fixed focus,
you have to manually guess focus, which makes a lot of dolly and tracking
shots extremely hard to do. So we just threw them out and went handheld.
And we’re very glad we did, because a lot of those traditional filmic
moves convey a kind of contrived ploddingness that just doesn’t keep
pace with the audience’s extremely advanced degree of visual literacy.

RB: And of course there are all the textbook
things to be aware of-set design/costume design juxtaposing extremely
contrasting colors, too much red, losing detail on wide shots-and
focus
. Oh my god, and sync, of course, which is a royal pain.
Most people who shoot on PAL are quite happy to either slow down
the audio in the transfer or speed it up, but for us, we had all
these incredible music cues and we wanted to keep the integrity
of their BPMs and we wanted to keep the tonality of actors voices
(and not slow ’em down)-so the mix was a challenge!

MM: What’s the most important piece of advice
you’d give a moviemaker looking to shoot his/her first feature film-and
deciding between film and video?

FB: Shoot video!

RB: You can never be over-prepared.

MM: What’s up next for you guys?

FB: We’re doing a documentary feature about
the sexual revolution as seen through the prism of Deep Throat which, to this day, remains the most profitable film of all time.
It cost $25,000 and has grossed an estimated $600 million. Now there’s
something to aim for!

RB: It’s a hugely ambitious project-with many
big ideas to share. Brian Grazer is producing. We did an enormous
amount of camera testing for this film, as well, and we decided
to go with the new Sony IMX cameras. Surprise-we are shooting in
NTSC. We made that decision after doing a number of shoot-out tests-and
working very closely with Sony. We have an enormous amount of archive
from a huge variety of sources and the prospect of post-production
sync issues had us biting our nails, but we discovered that the
IMX Sony NTSC can look flawless when you blow it up to film. Again,
you just have to be very careful what you are shooting and how you
are shooting it.

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