“If you’re purely after facts, please buy yourself the phone directory of Manhattan. It has four million correct facts. But it doesn’t illuminate.” – Werner Herzog
Illumination is the key. It separates mere facts from truth—more precisely, the “ecstatic truth”—as defined by Herzog. The ecstatic truth is subjective: a greater, more universal truth achieved through “fabrication, imagination and stylization.” Cinematically, Herzog pioneered the blurring of fiction and fact with films such as 1997’s Little Dieter Needs to Fly and 2005’s Grizzly Man. Since then, Herzog has become a brand name of sorts for fiercely independent filmmaking. But Herr Herzog just turned 74. Who is poised to seize his legacy?
Los Angeles-based documentarian Jeff Feuerzeig is a worthy candidate. His 2016 Sundance Grand Jury Prize-nominee Author: The JT LeRoy Story evinces a director at his zenith. The film explores San Francisco writer Laura Albert’s great literary hoax: her creation of the fictional writer JT LeRoy, the supposed literary star behind a handful of novels spanning 1999 to 2007, as well as the original screenplay for Gus Van Sant’s Elephant (LeRoy was in fact “played” at public appearances by Albert’s sister-in-law Savannah Knoop). Feuerzeig—like Herzog—is a filmmaker fascinated by the intersection of genius and madness.
It’s rich territory. Beginning with 1993’s Half-Japanese: The Band Who Would Be King, Feuerzeig laid the foundation for his signature style: crackling storytelling laced with the literary techniques of the “New Journalism” personified by the work of writer Tom Wolfe. Feuerzeig began firing on all cylinders with his 2005 film, The Devil and Daniel Johnston, a masterful portrait of bi-polar singer/songwriter/artist Daniel Johnston and a beautiful testament to life lived outside the realm of the ordinary. There are few more passionate storytellers working today than Jeff Feuerzeig.
Brian O’Hare, MovieMaker Magazine (MM): For many people, the process of making films is a kind of witchcraft.
Jeff Feuerzeig (JF): A truly great story is so powerful to me. They don’t grow on trees; there’s a finite amount. And to somehow get your hands on one is… a challenge. It’s an obligation to do whatever you can to honor that true story and take it to a place that lives up to the greats. You go into this “dark room” for a couple of years. These things take years of ruminating on them, researching them, producing and shooting, editing them—years. It’s fantastic to check out of life and just be fully immersed in one thing—what a gift to have that time to think about just one thing. It’s really satisfying to have the opportunity to play with these ideas. And I don’t take it for granted, because it’s been such a struggle to be financed to get to do it.
MM: How did you get your start?
JF: In college I did a column for the newspaper and did a radio show called “Radio of The Absurd,” comedy and punk rock—I was doing my version of what I had been reading in National Lampoon and Rolling Stone. Then the independent film thing in America hit, hard. And for a working class guy like me, from New Jersey, we never even heard the words “film school.” Nobody even thought of going to film school; we never met anybody who went to film school. No one thought about making films.
On any given weekend I was in New York or Philly, chasing punk rock music. And in New York, I saw Jarmusch’s Stranger Than Paradise and then, later on that afternoon, Down By Law—and my life changed. I was in DC later on and I see Spike Lee’s She’s Gotta Have It. And I think, “Hmmmm. I might be able to do that.”
But getting the money—the money, the money, the money—to go out and do what Jarmusch and Spike had done was not easy. Talk about obstacles. Who’s gonna write those checks, right? Documentaries to me, at this point in time—we’re talking ’88, ’89, ’90—were really stale. I got this idea I could make an independent film in that medium without having to ask permission or ask for money or cast actors, as long as I had a story I wanted to tell. That was a big light bulb that went off for me. And I just did it. I put my money where my mouth was.
The bread and butter of my life has been directing commercials. Selling burgers, political candidates, chicken—you name it, I’ve sold it all, for some corporations that I’m not proud to say that I worked for. But that allowed me to hone chops that really mattered. When I started out I had no sense of aesthetics whatsoever, so I bought myself a Nikon FM2 still camera to teach myself about lenses and depth-of-field and exposure. I’m not a cinematographer, but I taught myself that stuff. Working commercials allowed me to pay the rent. That’s all it’s meaningful for—paying the bills. Otherwise it’s like an “out of body” experience—I don’t even remember doing it.
MM: That’s how you financed Half-Japanese?
JF: I was so passionate about wanting to tell that story, by hook or by crook. I took $75,000 from commercial directing fees and threw it into this quixotic adventure on the story of Half-Japanese, who in my opinion were the “band who would be king,” had you ever heard of them. When I look at my heroes, they all made documentaries. Kubrick started with documentaries, Scorsese with Italian-American. I enjoyed knowing they made those documentaries more than I enjoyed watching them! I think they’d both say the same thing. Half-Japanese is not a “home-run;” the band is better than the film. You gotta start somewhere! No one is gonna invite you to the party—you have to kick the door in. And coming out of the punk-rock DIY spirit, that made perfect sense to me. Of course that’s how I’m going to do it.
MM: Talk to me about the New Journalism movement of the ’60s and how that impacted your work.
JF: Every director likes to talk about their film influences—the Maysles, Pennybaker, Kline’s The Greatest. But that’s not why I’m doing it. I love all that stuff and it influences the work, but really happened for me was discovering New Journalism. It’s all about the man in the white suit: Tom Wolfe. Wolfe wrote an article, “The Birth of the New Journalism,” published in New York magazine. For me it was like the invention of fire; that’s how profound this idea was. And it was 100-percent parallel to power of the birth of punk rock. And when you merge those two energies together, wow. It’s nuclear.
In every art movement, it’s always an action, then a reaction. It never stops. So it’s a reactionary movement against the shackles of objectivity. Subjectivity is a huge part of it. There’s a lot to be learned exploring nonfiction through subjectivity. It gives you a deeper window into humanity and psychology and into the soul. Wolfe believed that through subjectivity, they could find a deeper and more direct route to truth—what Herzog now calls “the ecstatic truth.” Subjectivity raises fascinating questions, not necessarily always answering them. And though Herzog named it years later, that’s what Wolfe, Mailer, Didion, Talese, and later gonzo Hunter S. Thompson, Nick Tosches—even later with my buddy Jerry Stahl—were doing. That writing is so mind-blowing. When you read that work, the words are crackling off the page, and within the subjectivity of the stories they’re telling, it’s no different than what you’re seeing in Devil and Daniel Johnston and Author. That’s what I’m trying to do: hold your attention. And keep it exciting and immersive.
MM: Devil was my entrance into your work. The way you used New Journalism techniques made for powerful storytelling.
JF: I knew that Daniel had “audio vérité.” And I worshipped Woody Allen’s Zelig. I love how they keep coming back to the therapy session. It’s like an internal monologue. What Woody did in Zelig is create a fake documentary. It has documentary structure. There are so many ideas in his work, “ideas” being the key word. I get excited about cinematic ideas, and he’s the king of ideas.
Daniel was an enigma, because he’s not interviewed in his own film! That’s a choice. So how do we get to the soul of Daniel Johnston? Well, he had audio diaries essentially. And that was powerful. So structurally, I conceived that the film would hang on this internal monologue of those tapes to check in on his mind while the action is going on around it.
MM: But you make the internal monologue visual as well.
JF: That was out of necessity. They’re POV recreations that I call “ghost recreations.” I would make radio plays. The visual to me is the least important element—it’s all about the sound. I wouldn’t even know what the visuals would be. I would take this incredible audio, for instance “Mountain Dew”—Daniel’s in the mental home and he’s recording himself and I thought I would make this radio play and was like, “Alright, I need visuals to immerse you in the story.” So I came up with this idea of Daniel’s POV recreations. For instance, he’ll get on a bus, he’s losing his mind, he’ll walk through the town in West Virginia, he’ll go across a bridge, and next thing you know he throws the old lady out the window because he believes she’s possessed by Satan. That’s a 100-percent POV recreation and I do it throughout the film, obviously. So now you have sound and point-of-view camera.
Point-of-view used to show up in a lot more films as an element in coverage of a scene. You don’t see that much anymore. POV is a really powerful tool. And it’s a very powerful tool in subjective nonfiction storytelling. And when I started applying the visuals and the sound to the storytelling, it gives it an energy. You’re never gonna fall asleep watching a Jeff Feuerzeig film. It’s not gonna happen.
MM: There’s such great texture in your films, audio texture. The sound of Daniel’s cassette tapes in Devil, the voice of JT in Author.
JF: I adore the texture of analog fucked-up sound, whether it’s a telephone, a micro-cassette, whatever, where you have to “squint your ears” around the beauty of this hiss. The poetry of sound. My other mind-blowing influence is what I call the “Sissy Spacek First-Person Internal Monologue” in Malick’s Badlands. That was massive to me. So in Author, when I read the “voice” of JT LeRoy—this young boy-girl from the truck-stop lot lizard world of West Virginia in the Southern Gothic, Flannery O’Connor-inspired literature of Sarah and The Heart is Deceitful Above All Things—I couldn’t stop hearing the Sissy Spacek internal monologue. I got to create and write from the fictional biography of JT LeRoy—a set piece scene in the beginning of Author—where JT LeRoy, the boy, the voice, narrates his whole story like Sissy Spacek. I got to do Badlands in miniature. That was my playground. I created a film within a film in Author. Taking the inspiration from Sissy Spacek in Badlands and having JT tell it to you, and me coming up with the Super-8 visuals of telling you that story. I can’t make a Terrence Malick-style film right now with actors, but you throw me in a dark room and give me a million bucks and I get to go make a Terrence Malick film in miniature. And I don’t have to ask permission. That’s empowering.
MM: Beyond New Journalism, what’s your storytelling philosophy?
JF: I’m approaching these stories with empathy and with openness to hearing whatever it is you want to tell me, good or bad. It’s the intersection of creativity and madness, which is the story of Daniel Johnston, and certainly plays a role in Laura Albert’s story. Everyone goes to film school and becomes so obsessed with “the camera” and “the equipment,” when they need to just go to “story school.” I just got lucky—I was always in love with story. Everybody wants to talk about the stupid camera. You could shoot it on your iPhone, but if the story’s not there, who cares? Story is king! MM
Author: The JT LeRoy Story opened on September 9, 2016, courtesy of Amazon Studios amd Magnolia Pictures.