It’s not a sentiment you hear often amongst documentary filmmakers, but Jeffrey Schwarz is happiest making audiences laugh.
“I really love making movies with a lot of humor because you know people are enjoying the movie because you can hear the response literally,” says Schwarz, a showman not all that far removed from subjects like William Castle and Divine, whose desire to entertain knew no end.
Yet Schwarz hasn’t only mastered the ability to make films as engaging as his subjects, but also find the real person inside of the big, brash persona that they are known for in public, and his latest film “The Fabulous Allan Carr” is no exception. While Carr may not be well-known outside of Hollywood, his brash antics and extravagant parties at Ingrid Bergman’s former estate Hillhaven Lodge were worthy of a movie all its own, and Schwarz charts his rise from an overweight teen who dreamed of becoming a matinee idol and found his calling as a savvy marketer and producer, eventually bringing “Grease” to big screen and adapting the French blockbuster “La Cage Aux Folles” for Broadway.
Befitting of Carr’s flashy style, from the caftans he wore to the attention-grabbing stunts he masterminded such as setting up the post-premiere party for “Tommy” in the stretch of subway station just underneath Lincoln Center in New York, “The Fabulous Allan Carr” hustles through history, literally animated at times when it isn’t merely lively, with interviews running the gamut from former studio heads such as Paramount’s Sherry Lansing and Universal’s Thom Mount to actresses Marlo Thomas and Connie Stevens to writers Bruce Vilanch and Paul Rudnick. And as affectionate a portrait it is, Schwarz doesn’t shy away from delving into Carr’s personal and professional shortcomings, whether it was overseeing the infamous 1989 Oscars or the Village People fiasco “Can’t Stop the Music,” while demonstrating how his risk-taking led to innovations, such as creating the foundation for the modern Oscar season with his theatrical release plan for “The Deer Hunter.”
Following a celebrated premiere at the Seattle Film Festival, “The Fabulous Allan Carr” is having its hometown debut at Outfest in Los Angeles this week, and Schwarz graciously took the time to talk about telling a larger story than just Carr’s with this incisive profile, as well as tracking down a treasure trove of archival material and the stories that he anguished over cutting from the final film.
I was one of those kids who grew up loving “Grease,” totally obsessed with that movie – I had the soundtrack, the trading cards, the posters — but I didn’t really know that there was a mastermind behind all magic and his name was Allan Carr. I heard about him over the years, but I never really knew his story until a biography about him came out called “Party Animal.” That really connected all the dots and it indicated to me that there would be a great opportunity to make a really fun and hilarious documentary about his life.
The visual style of the film really reflects that. Did the look of the film come to you immediately?
Allan Carr is a colorful, over-the-top, vivacious, flamboyant guy, so I wanted the filmmaking style to match his personality. Every choice we made was to further that and that even went down to the backdrops [for interviews], but also the animation, the motion graphics, and the style of how quickly things move along in the movie. His career is a rollercoaster, so he had his successes, but he also had some huge failures and also he was a complicated guy with a lot of problems, so along the way we wanted to highlight those aspects in his life which hopefully make him more human and identifiable.
Was that a difficult tone to strike? The movie continues to be very upbeat, even as it covers drugs, AIDS and professional disappointments, which must’ve been a challenge.
The kind of movies I make may seem on the surface like they’re a lot of fun, but they’re all social histories in a way. One of the reasons why I wanted to do the Allan Carr movie, aside from his fabulous life, was that it was a chance to talk about a gay social history from pre-Stonewall where little gay boys would go to the movies and worship at the altar of divas like Judy Garland at the movies through the ‘70s and then after gay liberation, there was an embrace of the sensual. Gay men were exploring their sensuality, including Allan, who was kind of a late bloomer, and [that] takes us through the 1980s when the AIDS epidemic hit and it really ended the party, literally. We could talk about all those things through the prism of Allan’s life.
One of the things I always love about your biographies is that you go back to the hometown and talk to people who knew your subjects before they’re known for. Do you have a pretty good idea who someone like Allan is before making that trip or does that change the equation?
Well, certainly. Allan Carr was flamboyant, colorful and bigger than life, but that was a character he created. It wasn’t that it was a fiction, but a protective armor. So you go back and you talk to the people that knew him before he created that persona — people that went to school with him or grew up with him when they were kids together. There’s a woman named Joanne, who’s in the film and is not a showbiz person, and she had a totally different perspective on Allan because she wasn’t part of that glamorous scene. She knew what was in his heart, and she saw the pain and discomfort that was there in his life. So it’s really important to talk to those people because you want to see a progression. When Allan grew up, he always wanted to be the center of attention. Even though he was an awkward gay kid, he always had this ability to make people like him, and and he was famous for throwing parties in Hollywood, but that all started when he was a kid. It was a way to be popular and even though he wasn’t one of the beautiful people, he could surround himself with them. Then just by osmosis, he could be one of them.
There are a few audio recordings of Allan in the film that feel particularly intimate. Where did those come from?
We tried to find archival material of Allan and we did find some real treasures. There’s some interviews he did on talk shows, but there was one bit of audio that was so interesting because it was some audio interview that a Rolling Stone reporter had done during the making of “Can’t Stop the Music” in Allan’s office, and all during the interview, you could hear Allan picking up his phone constantly and yelling at people and eating a sandwich — all this stuff that was really hilarious. We couldn’t use a lot of it in the film, but we pulled one moment out of that, which is basically Allan yelling at one of his assistants on the phone and slamming the phone down, which gave you a real sense of what he might be like to work for, which is not easy.
It was. It’s always an archeological dig and on this one, it was challenging because on some of my other films I’ve worked with maybe the family or partners of the subject, but on this one, there’s no family left really and there’s no archive. I don’t know what happened to a lot of his stuff – his photo albums and things like that, so we just had to figure it out as we went. We did end up licensing a lot of material from archive houses. NBC had some really wonderful material of Allan on Tom Snyder’s late-night talk show and they had footage of Allan unveiling his billboard on Sunset Boulevard – I’m actually literally standing where that billboard was unveiled right at this moment. [Finding and licensing clips is] always a challenge, but on this one, it was maybe more of a challenge, which led us to come up with some inventive ways to tell the story, like animation, which is something I haven’t really done a lot of in my films, but I’m so happy with the way it turned out. We basically created a little Allan Carr cartoon character to illustrate some of these episodes in his life, which was really, really fun to do.
What was that process like? I imagine chest hair is an unusual request, for instance.
The animator is a guy named Sean Nadeau, who’s incredibly talented. I’ve worked with him before, so I would just choose these moments in the movie where it seemed like it would be fun to see it illustrated, like Allan would be telling a story about how he put the movie “Grease” together, and we decided it would be great to see Allan at Robert Stigwood’s office, pitching the movie and Sean came up with this great idea that when Allan’s pitching the movie to Robert Stigwood, he’s doing the hand-jive dance. [Sean] came up with all these really inventive things [in terms of] his body movement and every little gesture he did, and then Drew Droege, who you might know as the actor who does the Chloe videos, came in and does the voice of Allan Carr. It wasn’t dialogue, but just little grunts and groans and whenever Allan was excited about something, Drew would do a little “woohoo!” These little noises were so much fun, and I hope people recognize Drew Droege’s voice in there when they see the film.
I wanted to circle back to something you said earlier, which is that given that Allan didn’t have much of a family and your desire to tell a larger story about gay history, did that open things up in terms of who you wanted to talk to? You cast a really large net.
Yeah, I’m so happy with the cast we got because it’s a really eclectic group of people. There’s people who worked with him on his movies, like Steve Guttenberg, who’s the star of “Can’t Stop the Music” and there’s people like Paul Rudnick, who’s a cultural critic, but also a writer and had a brush with Allan Carr where Allan wanted him to write one of his movies and he’s just such a great observer of people. [Then there’s] people like Bruce Vilanch, who knew Allan from the early ‘70s or late ‘60s/early ‘70s, all the way through to the Academy Awards, so he got a look at the entire span of Allan’s career …maybe too close of a point of view. [laughs] So it was great. We got Maxwell Caulfield of “Grease 2” to talk about that experience and people really wanted to be in the movie, even people who had a difficult relationship with him. People who worked for him didn’t know from day to day which version of Allan Carr would walk through the door, [because] he could be a difficult guy. But you couldn’t ignore him. You either loved him or you hated him, but you couldn’t be indifferent to him.
There’s so much material. I shot maybe somewhere between 50 and 60 interviews for the movie, so obviously there’s a lot of material that’s got to hit the cutting room floor. There were so many great stories, especially with the story of the whole making of the 1989 Oscars. There’s so much more to that — the fact that the style of that came from a show up in San Francisco called “Beach Blanket Babylon” that Allan saw and basically imported to the Academy Awards. There was even a Snow White character in “Beach Blanket Babylon,” and he worked with this visionary producer up there to bring it down to Hollywood. We couldn’t really get into any of that detail unfortunately, but that’s a whole other story in and of itself.
What’s it’s been like to bring this out into the world?
It’s been so much fun. I’ve seen it now with maybe seven or eight different audiences and this took about three years to make and you never really know sitting in a little editing room if things are going to play. But I love that the audience doesn’t necessarily know who Allan is going in, but then as they watch it, they realize just how much of Allan Carr’s legacy they’ve been a part of. People have this very special relationship with “Grease,” they love “La Cage Aux Folles,” they remember “Can’t Stop the Music” or the Oscars, but they don’t know that one guy was responsible for all of that stuff, so it connects the dots for people culturally and they realize what an impact he made on pop culture. I just love bringing people back that I feel have been marginalized or are in danger of being forgotten and champion them and make a movie that an audience can connect with and hopefully fall in love with these people, warts and all.