In the early scenes of “Maddman,” unsuspecting shoppers at Steve Madden’s flagship store on 540 Broadway can be seen being approached by a feisty middle-aged man in a ballcap, offering advice on finding the right shoe fit as if he were just another store clerk. If he decided to tell them, they’d probably be surprised that it was he who has his name on the door, and likely several of their shoeboxes back home, and despite it being obvious that the scene has been engineered to highlight Madden’s anonymity, even as he’s built a global company that encompasses 310 stores in 76 countries, the ease with which he approaches customers suggests that he might be hustling shoes the same way he once sold them out of the back of his car today whether cameras were there or not.
Madden is equally unabashed in recounting his rags-to-riches story in Ben Patterson’s engaging biography of the entrepreneur. Charting how Madden started out in the basement of a shoe store, forced into a job by his father, and used the view to be inspired to design platform shoes while coming of age during the glam rock era, “Maddman” details a wild ride that comes to include quaalude trips and orgies, rivaling “The Wolf of Wall Street,” Madden’s other notable big screen appearance, where he was portrayed (by Jake Hoffman) as a deer in the headlights when pitching investors at Jordan Belfort’s brokerage Stratton Oakmont, co-founded by his childhood friend Daniel Porush. While their investment would ultimately help Madden become a ubiquitous brand, the connection also landed Madden in prison after the whole thing came crashing down in stock fraud cases, with Patterson around to see him pick up the pieces just after being released in 2013.
While gregarious recollections from Madden, as well as family and friends are entertaining enough, Patterson, who previously found his way into unbelievable situations in the Haitian election doc “Sweet Micky for President,” zips around New York and beyond to bring his history to life, drawing on rare footage of Madden’s days of slinging shoes out of a red Nissan sedan in Florida and using animation to show how he built a business based on mackerel in prison to ease his stay and ultimately taught other inmates how they could parlay their street savvy into practical entrepreneurial skills. Although keeping up with Madden seems like a tall order, “Maddman” manages to do so and shortly before it debuts on iTunes following its recent premiere at DOC NYC, Patterson spoke about how he talked his subject into making a movie and getting candid assessments of tough times and working with limited resources.
How did this come about?
I live and work in New York and I had been doing advertising work for the Madden company for a number of years. I didn’t really know Steve because it’s a big company, but over time, I started to have more interactions with him and found him to be such an amazing personality, just a force of nature. I also found him to be the least likely person to be Steve Madden. [laughs] For a guy who was such a profoundly successful designer of women’s shoes and businessman, he wasn’t what you’d expect, and after “The Wolf of Wall Street” came out, I thought that it would be interesting to know a little bit more about his story and to potentially one day tell it. As I got to know Steve, we talked about “Let’s do a movie,” and you never know what’s going to happen. He’ll say something [like], “Yeah, let’s do it. Let’s make a movie,” and then you wouldn’t hear about it, but I started to cut together some of the material that I had filmed over the years for the company that had Steve in it — I would oftentimes just kind of keep the camera rolling sometimes because I thought there would be some interesting moments that one day might find their place — and that’s kind of how things kicked off. One day we just ended up with a feature-length piece.
You visit old haunts with Steve – was he immediately open with you once it was decided you’d make a film?
When I started this, I didn’t really know all the stories. Sometimes when you do films, you have some source material that you’re beginning with or an initial interview. Honestly with Steve, it was a bit of an archeological dig, not necessarily through pictures and files, but just conversations. He’s so perpetually in the moment, he sometimes doesn’t think about things that are actually significant moments that would be great for the movie, so a lot of times I would note things that he’d mention and they’d become key story beats. So there was a trust that Steve had with me, knowing that I didn’t want to make this a puff piece [since] I’m not a filmmaker that’s interested in that, but I wanted to make sure what we did is tell Steve’s truth as best as we could. That’s why in the movie we really talk about his fight with [various] addictions, his being willing to do anything to succeed and his time in prison. It certainly took some level of convincing as to how far we needed to take it, but at the end of the day, we talked a lot about it. It’s a hard thing to have your life out there like that, so he was onboard that it should be part of the movie, but the discussions were really about how much needs to come out for it to really land for the audience and he certainly let me take it to where I think it needed to go, but also be fair and not overdoing it.
Was it an archeological dig in terms of finding archival material?
It was such a scavenger hunt. I’m like, “Alright, Steve, bring me all your old photographs,” and he’d have no idea where anything is. [laughs] We had to send production assistants over to the Madden storehouse and dig through boxes. It was pure discovery the whole way. Look, Steve’s ADD, so he’s not the most organized guy in that way He’ll tell you that and it was a big challenge finding supporting archival, but eventually got it done and I think he was happy to see some of the old stuff again.
The prison section where you blend what you have with animation is particularly effective. How did that sequence come about?
We only had two pictures from Steve in prison during that era, and that was such an interesting world that Steve went into and it was critical [to the film]. I wanted to make sure that this whole movie was not just exposition about Steve’s life, but a really fascinating journey, so in order to make that journey happen, I looked to a team of illustrators and animators to collaborate with, [asking] how can we tell this time in prison as if it was how he’d remember it and how it felt. We landed on a crude, rough style that represented to me what that time would’ve been like, so it was just really an effort to make sure the journey for the viewer was [satisfying].
Was there something you either came across in your research or a story you heard that changed the direction of what you thought this could be?
All along the way, there was certainly moments that broke open different aspects of the movie. What helps round out the film is the guys he was locked up with and the fact that some of them still worked for the company. They had a connection inside and remained in touch [with Steve], [which] was pretty fascinating to me and really changed the story and helped really round it out.
Anything left on the cutting room floor that were difficult to trim?
There were some things that were fascinating that didn’t end up making it in the movie. One of them [was] this great story [about] when he was getting sober and one of the people that really helped him out as this famous drag queen [International Chrysis] and she helped a lot of people in the Village during that period of time. She really helped guide him into recovery. [When the film] started to become too much about that, we ended up having to cut that out.
Since you started production in 2014, because so much has happened in Steve’s life, did you know when you’d stop filming?
Yeah, towards the end of production he was at this really interesting spot in his life, which is that he’s this guy who built this incredible empire and has all of this success, but is coming to terms with just life itself and that outside of work, there’s so much more to consider and to reconcile. He was [recently] divorced from his wife, his brother passed away and his company was still growing — it still is — and so he was at a point where he could reflect in the moment. His mom actually passed away during that time, which we didn’t really cover in the movie, and also his family breaking apart through the divorce so I just thought we could leave his story with a man who had all these ups and downs and second chances and has been able to recreate himself and come back stronger, but also he’s in a place where he’s realizing himself as a person and not just a business guy. For me, that made sense. And on top of that, Steve really wanted to get the movie done. [laughs] He was putting a lot of pressure on it.
Following the DOC NYC premiere, there was also a screening at the University of Michigan, which seemed to reflect a real passion for education that Steve exudes in the film, sharing what he’s learned. Did that seem important to him while you were filming and did he seem happy with the final product?
He’s someone that really feels his story is one that can help people on many different levels, and I think that certainly was a motive. I don’t know if that’s necessarily a mandate for Steve to go out and teach young entrepreneurs, talk about second chances for people that have been locked up, and also the people that are recovering addicts. But his story has a lot of things that a lot of people can identify and learn from and be inspired by, and he really cares about the next generation of entrepreneurs. He really thrives in his company with young people that he likes to work with and build careers, so in the same way, I think it’s the same thing with this film and the audience he hopes to get. I’m really proud of what we were able to tell with this story and Steve has seen it a number of times now, and he’s finally stopped asking me to change stuff. [laughs] Which I wouldn’t have been able to do anyway, but I think that he’s good and I’m happy with it.