It goes without comment when Laura Albert recalls the first time she was at a real truck stop in “Author: The JT Leroy Story,” describing matter-of-factly when she was in Nashville for the filming of Asia Argento’s adaptation of her book of short stories, “The Heart is Deceitful Above All Things.” Another filmmaker might’ve gone to great pains to point out the irony in Albert having to watch a film being made from a book purported to be the experience of her creation Leroy, the literary phenomenon who was exposed as a hoax, in order to see it for herself, but director Jeff Feuerzeig allows the observation come and go, recognizing it’s hardly the strangest thing to happen to Albert and in letting it pass, opens up the question of whether Leroy’s vivid descriptions of frequenting such truck stops actually contained more truth — at least in how deeply it reaches the person receiving it — than this pallid recounting now.
Feuerzeig structures “Author: The JT Leroy Story” in such a way that Albert’s and Leroy’s stories frequently intersect, revealing how a troubled young woman who filtered her own painful memories and desires through a host of different personalities ultimately became overshadowed by one of them, with the series of machinations employed by Albert to obfuscate Leroy’s true identity, such as having Savannah Knoop, the half-sister of her boyfriend Geoffrey, appear as Leroy in public, only fueling the author’s rise. While there’s an interesting conversation to be had about whether Albert would’ve ever been able to achieve the same success as Leroy under her own name, the film raises an even more provocative one as Albert recounts tells her story directly, showing off the same way with words that captivated readers of Leroy’s breakout novel “Sarah” and the authentic emotions that informed them. In doing so, “Author” asks the viewer to contemplate the context of truth in fiction and the stories we tell ourselves to accept something.
Of course, “Author: The JT Leroy Story” additionally recounts a remarkable biography, a specialty of Feuerzeig, who previously directed “The Devil and Daniel Johnston” about the Austin-based multidisciplinary artist, and “The Real Rocky,” a profile of Chuck Wepner, the boxer that inspired Sylvester Stallone’s 1976 drama, that Feuerzeig and Jerry Stahl adapted into a fictional film, “The Bleeder” that premiered last week to great acclaim at the Venice Film Festival. In the midst of a busy fall, the director took the time to talk about his attraction to crazy life stories, drawing upon a wealth of personal material collected over the years by Albert to detail her fragile mental state and Leroy’s experience as a high society sensation, and earning her trust.
My whole life is nonfiction and New Journalism and when the scandal broke in 2006, I did not know what a JT LeRoy was, nor had I really heard of the scandal. A journalist buddy of mine, Paul Cullum, turned me onto the story. It had generated a massive amount of ink and I read all the pieces, and I just had this feeling that there was more to the story than we were being told. There was one voice glaringly missing. That was the voice of the author of the fiction on and off the page, Laura Albert. She had held her story back.
I believed if I could get her to tell her story we might arrive at a deeper truth. I sent her my film “The Devil and Daniel Johnston,” [which] deals vividly with the intersection of madness and creativity, a subject I find infinitely fascinating, and she watched it, and the film and its themes very much spoke to her. I came to learn that other documentarians over the years as well as Hollywood had approached her and she’d said no to everyone, but because my work, she decided that I was the person she’d share her story with.
In dealing with subjects that are mentally fragile, is it a greater challenge to convey their truth?
Film by choice is a subjective telling. I love subjective storytelling in nonfiction writing as well as in nonfiction film and with Daniel and Laura or any of my subjects, I don’t interrogate these subjects. I’m an empathetic listener. My films don’t moralize. I’m not interested. In this case, this true story is filled with a massive amount of deceit, which Laura, I believe, tells in the most forthcoming way. She shared everything. She held nothing back. It was her time to share and she shared. I’m her documentarian. I’m not her priest. I’m not her rabbi. That’s not the purpose of my storytelling.
When she said yes, it was time to read the books. I read the novel “Sarah” first in one sitting on a plane and I immediately loved it. In college, I was obsessed with Southern Gothic literature, particularly Flannery O’Connor, Harry Crews, and Tennessee Williams, so I felt this writing was very much of that tradition, and it did not surprise me to learn that the books were so well- reviewed at the time of their publication and had become international bestsellers. “The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things,” which is a much, much darker book of short stories, I loved equally. To be honest, as I started reading it, I just got lost inside the writing and I was not thinking about Laura Albert or JT LeRoy, whose name was on the cover.
Laura’s life is remarkably well-documented. At what point, did you receive those archives?
Of course it was impossible for me to know that Laura Albert had one of the biggest self- documentation archives in history, outside of Daniel Johnston, who I believed previously had held the world’s record. I don’t think anybody’s keeping score, but Daniel’s archive was massive — Super 8 films, child notebooks, videos, audio verite — and Laura had the same thing. How this happened to me, I do not know. I think these stories find me. It took a few years to raise the funds to make the film. I did receive a box from Brooklyn because a lot of her archive is stored where she grew up in Brooklyn. I refused to open this box until I was fully funded.
This box sat in my home office for about three years and the day I got funded, I finally opened that box. It was basically my dream come true. It was all home movies, the Super 8mm family films as well as some reel to reel tape of her at age 15, I believe, when she was institutionalized in the group home. That was just the beginning. Then I rented a minivan, took a trip up to San Francisco to get the rest of her archive and [after] I got to her place, I had to go back to the airport and get a full-size van because it was never going to fit it all. I took multiple trips over the course of that year-and-a half because there was just so much.
I love literary structure that’s challenging, and I love it in cinema as well. When flashback or internal monologue is done really well, it’s just something that blows my mind, so I had a lot of ideas to play with structure and memory going into this film, ideas that really were based on Woody Allen and Terrence Malick’s “Badlands.” Once I learned her tragic back story, which included physical abuse, sexual abuse, gender fluidity, calling help lines as a young boy, having an avatar — her sister, during her punk rock salvation — and pretending to be British during the group home when she met Skinhead Mike outside of The Who “Quadrophenia” movie, that was of course was [the basis for her alter ego] Speedy years later, it presented an opportunity to take this fictional creation of JT LeRoy and now this person hiding in the shadows, Laura Albert [and intertwine them]. There’s no such thing as Laura Albert. I felt like if I could possibly weave them together, the saga of JT LeRoy is the A story and the backstory of Laura Albert is the B story, and if I did it in reverse, it finally catches up with itself like “Memento” and that would add up to a whole person. It took two years of editing constantly and shooting constantly and playing with structure and writing constantly to just get there.
When you’ve got archival materials like this, whether there was something that you found that really changed the course of the film?
All of it. The biggest fear of taking on any nonfiction film project is not having photos or footage or archival material. I try to re-contextualize found footage and do interesting things with these materials, but not having it is a huge fear. What do you do to cover up these talking heads that people have been telling me for two decades they’re sick and tired of seeing and listening to? Having those materials allows me to create the most immersive cinematic experience I can imagine.
You mentioned gender fluidity earlier, which it feels like has only emerged in mainstream consciousness in more recent years — with people more accepting of it now than even a few years ago when you started this film. Did that affect how you told this story?
It’s just simply a coincidence, a good coincidence that LGBT is now having a zeitgeist moment, and I think it’s fantastic. It was absolutely not the agenda or thesis of this film. The goal of this film was to tell a true story, and those themes are just baked into this true story. The only thing I ever consider is just telling a true story well, and the themes then emerge. She could’ve told me she was a giraffe, and that would’ve been the story we told.
You seem to gravitate towards life stories both in your documentary and narrative work — a film you co-wrote with Jerry Stahl, “The Bleeder” about the boxer Chuck Wepner premieres at the Toronto Film Festival later this week. Since the degree of difficulty to these is so high, what keeps you coming back to biographies?
It’s very simple. I love biography and I love truth is stranger than fiction stories. That’s a big part of my bookshelf and I love exploring nonfiction in new and unique ways. When I read Jerry Stahl’s book “I, Fatty,” which is a first person telling of Fatty Arbuckle, for instance — that’s how I met Jerry — or what Nick Tosches did with “Dino” [about Dean Martin], these are the high watermarks to me. I don’t love the term biopic. It’s certainly become a dirty word in Hollywood, and some of my favorite films of all time are technically biopics — “Raging Bull,” “Lenny” by Bob Fosse — but nobody makes them like that anymore.
Some projects are more suitable for the documentary medium than the scripting medium. It just depends. With the Chuck story, I made “The Real Rocky” for ESPN, and then people wanted more because of course, it’s the myth of “Rocky” and it’s a crazy story. But these are all crazy stories. The JT LeRoy story, in my opinion, is the wildest story about story I have ever heard. Therefore, I really wanted to tell it because I like telling a crazy story. There’s nothing better. It provokes a lot of discussion. It raises lots of questions about where does fiction come from and I think that’s just a great conversation to start.
“Author: The JT Leroy Story” opens on September 9th in Los Angeles at the Arclight Cinemas in Hollywood and the Landmark, New York at the Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center and the Sunshine Cinema and San Francisco at the Embarcadero Center Cinemas. A full list of theaters and dates is here.