eMy ambition was to tell the story of Steve Madden beyond the facts, and get into his psyche to experience the type of person who builds a billion dollar empire. My goal was to take the viewer on the journey through the life of a man chasing the American Dream, who has had ups and downs that could track perfectly to a Hollywood screenplay in the best of ways.
The initial challenge of making Maddman was convincing Steve to do the film in the first place. I had worked with the Steve Madden shoe company for a number for years shooting videos and producing fashion photography. I always thought Steve was a really fascinating character. Over the years while on advertising shoots, I would film extra footage when Steve was around, feeling that someday it could be put to use. The Steve Madden brand is essentially a house hold name for any common day consumer in shopping malls around the world but I found that many people had no idea who the actual guy really was. Finally, when Steve was portrayed in Martin Scorsese’s Wolf of Wall Street, I decided to put together a concept edit and when we presented it to Steve he loved the piece. We shook on the idea of doing the documentary and agreed that the portrayal needed to be honest and we would have to be true to who he was for better or for worse. So we chased the carrot of potential. At any point Steve could have killed the film. We got close when we started to get into the drugs, the prison, and the dark side of success, but Steve stuck with the project and years later we had a final film which we are all very proud of.
As we started to interview some key people from Steve’s life and learned the otherwise unknown story of Steve, we came upon some serious challenges to drawing out the story of his journey. There were very few assets readily available and while we were able to uncover some gems through research and digging, some things just didn’t exist. This film needed to be visually exciting and I constantly needed something to cut away to from the interviews.
A key scene in the film’s second act is when Steve is sent to prison for his crimes with Stratton Oakmont which was depicted in Wolf of Wall Street. There were only a few pictures, and none of Steve, that we could find. I decided that we’d create a nightmarish raw dream-like world through black and white animated illustration depicting what life in prison would feel like for Steve. I enlisted two collaborators, Matt Sablan and Ed Benitez, from my first film, Sweet Micky for President, to develop the style and animation technique. By keeping the renderings simple, we were able to produce the scenes quickly and keep costs managed while delivering the experience of Steve being locked up when Steve is at one of his lowest points.
In a film where the subject telling the story is running a billion dollar company and has text book ADD, the interviews tend to be a bit disjointed, only capturing bits and pieces at a time. I would go on trips with Steve, just me and my C300. My goal was to have him tell his story as a series of flash back story threads. I noticed that when he knew the camera was on he would be come self aware and less authentic. Like the Heisenberg principle of observation, my attempt to get truth from my subject was changed when he was aware, so I would begin a warm up chat with the camera hanging by my side but rolling. As Steve got warmed up, I’d adjust the camera to a normal shot in slow mode style, but I would keep eye contact to maintain his engagement checking the shot and focus whenever Steve looked off which was often. We had many many interviews with Steve to talk about various parts of his life.
We had a big challenge of taking this mountain of footage that included interviews with Steve, key people in his life and work as well as archival to craft into an enthralling story arc. While we had transcripts of everything, this wouldn’t tell us the the tone or sound quality. My editor Jose Flores and I did audio – only “radio edits” of each act, so we could build the foundation of the story and envision how the visuals and verite scenes would play over and among the rhythm of the film. In many instances we would have to create needed soundbites from interviews that spanned a number of years. I made the film with paralleling narratives, one was of the past and the other present day so that at the end of the movie we catch up with current times and lessons learned.
The first cuts of the film were inevitably too long and we needed to figure out what was most in service of the story. I implemented a technique my mentor Steve Oedekerk taught me on my first film Sweet Micky for President. We cut everything out that was non essential to tell the core logical story. Once we watched that, the story made sense but was void of much of the essence and flow we were working toward. Now we had a keen perspective on the scenes that needed to earn their way back in. By doing so it was easier to “kill the babies” and make certain that everything in the film was essential. It’s still hard to look back and see some of the stuff that didn’t make it in. Perhaps those will be in the DVD extras.
Once we locked down the pace and length of the film we implemented another lesson I learned from Steve Oedekerk which was simply make funny funnier and sad sadder, and where ever there is an emotional moment, find ways for it to land the best it can. This again sounds stupid simple, but sometimes in documentary such a moment we can take for granted.
I set out to tell Steve’s story, tracking the arc of a man who built a billion dollar empire and along the way learns what truly matters in life. There’s a little bit of Steve in all of us. MM
Maddman: The Steve Madden Story is now available on iTunes.