Dimensions of character

Gay Talese on Voyeur and the difference between reading and viewing

by Anne-Katrin Titze

Gay Talese on casting the Steven Spielberg, Sam Mendes film that never happened:
Gay Talese on casting the Steven Spielberg, Sam Mendes film that never happened: "The voyeur - this is not an attractive person. It's not like George Clooney." Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

In the second instalment of my conversation with Gay Talese, the subject of Myles Kane and Josh Koury's Voyeur, The Voyeur's Motel author sheds some more light on the collapse of the movie deal with Steven Spielberg and Sam Mendes. The Washington Post's research on his book, Joan Didion being seen as "a beloved angel", Nan Talese's reaction to the documentary, and the genre of Gay Talese storytelling are bared before the world premiere screening of Voyeur in the Spotlight on Documentary programme of the 55th New York Film Festival.

Anne-Katrin Titze: Steven Spielberg and Sam Mendes pulled out on their film project.

Gay Talese: It's not that they saw it [Voyeur, the documentary]. This guy Myles Kane gave them a sort of a summary or synopsis of maybe scenes, I don't know what. And they said: "That's very good and that's right at the approach we were going to have and we feel blindsided. Why didn't you tell us, Gay Talese? Why didn't you tell us?" I said: "I thought they were doing me, not the fucking voyeur!" So that's how the whole thing collapsed. That I talked to you about. That was like a year ago, right?

Gay Talese with Tony Bennett at the First Time Fest tribute to Harvey Weinstein
Gay Talese with Tony Bennett at the First Time Fest tribute to Harvey Weinstein Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

AKT: Right.

GT: Now, about a month ago, Myles Kane said, "Finally, this thing is going to go in the New York Film Festival. I think you want to see it first." I said, "Yes, you owe me that." So they had a little room in Tribeca and I went there with Nan and my editor for the book publisher Grove/Atlantic, George Gibson. And we sat and saw it. And I thought, well, what do I think?

AKT: Well?

GT: I can't argue with it. It's all accurate. Do I like it all? No. So I'm in the situation of being reporter reported upon. Which isn't always a pleasant experience. If Maureen Dowd were reported upon, if Maggie Haberman, instead of reporting upon Trump, would be reported upon - none of us would like to be. That goes for anybody - on television, in the movies.

AKT: That's why I wondered if you had been anxious to see it.

GT: I'm all through this and so is the voyeur. There's a time in my experience with The Voyeur's Motel as a book where I was very embarrassed and furious. The reason was The Washington Post dug up the information that the voyeur didn't own the motel all the time he said he did. But the point was, that all my book takes place when the voyeur did own the motel.

But the voyeur sold the motel for a period of time. He later reaquired it. So when this guy from The Washington Post says "Do you realise there's somebody else?" I said "Who?" and he gave me the name. I said, "Here's the voyeur's phone number, but give me the phone number of this guy who said he'd owned the motel." So I call this guy. Meanwhile the story is in The Washington Post - about how the voyeur lied to me.

Gay Talese on Nan Talese's reaction to Voyeur:
Gay Talese on Nan Talese's reaction to Voyeur: "She's been through - for almost sixty years of marriage - she's been through Thy Neighbor's Wife and a lot of stuff."

The Washington Post dug this up because they checked the real-estate records or something. I was doing other things. So I find out after the book was published, or about to be published. The Washington Post calls me up. Jesus Christ. So I say, "Listen, this is terrible news. My book is down the toilet!" I said. And they quoted me actually - Talese Book Down the Toilet. Then I do a little research. But at that time the damage was done. All of this is on this movie!

AKT: I can't wait to see it.

GT: Later on, what I told you then, I come on to some big national television show at NBC [Late Night with Seth Meyers]. And I'm telling the host what I told you. Meanwhile, the documentary crew is watching the voyeur watch me on television.

AKT: What did you think when you saw this scene, his reaction to you on television?

GT: That's the interesting thing, one voyeur watching another, it gets convoluted. And here's the irony, this is what Sam Mendes wanted to do with his film. Voyeurs and how we're all encompassed and don't even know it, snooping on one another.

AKT: So in general, the documentary …

GT: I mean, I wasn't thrilled to go through that again. Also realized because of that I didn't get the movie deal which should have been great. I tell you why. Because the movie deal would have had a character play the voyeur. And a character play me.

AKT: Did they have a cast in mind?

GT: No, no, but they had the script done. But I didn't see it. It all fell apart, I told you. The point is what I thought when I saw this screening: Oh Jesus! The voyeur - this is not an attractive person. It's not like George Clooney. Maybe the voyeur would have been played by some really good actor.

But when the real guy himself is given prominence in a documentary! It's really as much about him as me! I'm in it but he's in it - sometimes alone. Because they had access to him and his wife as well. What do I think exactly? I can't argue with it. That is factually accurate. So what am I bitching about? I'm not bitching about anything.

Gay Talese at the China: Through the Looking Glass exhibition at The Metropolitan Museum of Art
Gay Talese at the China: Through the Looking Glass exhibition at The Metropolitan Museum of Art Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

When you're doing a documentary you are dealing with the chosen facts as you do when you do a book or an article. You're selecting. I know as a researching writer, 80% I throw away of what I get. I use the 20%. But that choice, what is the 20% used, is very subjective. Very much your own agenda projects through it.

AKT: Absolutely. What do you think of their selection?

GT: What do I think now? I saw it. My wife saw it. She thought that it was alright. She's been through - for almost 60 years of marriage - she's been through Thy Neighbor's Wife and a lot of stuff.

AKT: Is she part of the film? Is she in it?

GT: Yeah. Yes, she is, come to think of it. I only saw it once. I can't remember a lot. I wish I saw it a second time before I'm talking to you now, but I didn't. These guys, Myles Kane and the three other people really did a good job.

AKT: Were there things that surprised you? Parts of this story you didn't know at all? About Foos or other things you weren't aware of?

GT: They shot so much film that they didn't use, of course.

AKT: I'm also thinking if something changed in how you see the voyeur. It does make a difference if you see someone on the screen or if you talk to someone in person. Sometimes impressions shift.

55th New York Film Festival poster designed by Richard Serra
55th New York Film Festival poster designed by Richard Serra

GT: Yeah. The voyeur is heavy-set, 80 years old, he walks slowly. When he was a voyeur, when he started, he was in his 40s. There are photographs of him; he was pretty ordinary but not unattractive. So for the American audience, particularly now, when we're dealing so much with sexual abuse or political correctness or the right of privacy - and you have this voyeur featured.

AKT: Sure, looks will factor into the reaction.

GT: It's not like Joan Didion. Joan Didion is a beloved angel. One dare not cast suspicion on the image of Joan Didion! She's a positive personality, as well as a talented person, of course. This is a story about a writer, reporter, dealing with scum. I have a scummy guy.

You know I have done these scummy people a lot. I'm not Faulkner writing about the agrarian revolution in Mississippi or Proust. But my people are generally somewhat disreputable. Ordinary people are really my meat and potatoes, my interest as a writer. So this voyeur would be in the genre of the Gay Talese storytelling.

AKT: But it's storytelling without visuals. You are the one who is shaping our image of these people.

GT: That's true. That's true enough.

AKT: And once you see him on screen, it becomes something else.

GT: You know what it does? It freezes me. A fluid complex character that I can see and write in a way, or a fiction writer can write. Someone like Philip Roth or F Scott Fitzgerald or whoever can bring dimensions to a character. They're not all one thing. But when you are flat out on screen, you're one thing. Whatever you say, however you look, projects to an audience immediately a sense of reality.

Read what Gay Talese had to say on the evolution of Voyeur.

The New York Film Festival is at Lincoln Center
The New York Film Festival is at Lincoln Center Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

Coming up in the final installment - Gay Talese on envisioning Anthony Hopkins playing a voyeur, Philip Roth's The Human Stain with Nicole Kidman ("what a cleaning lady!"), Dustin Hoffman and Jack Nicholson as Carl Bernstein, and how we should characterize a voyeur.

New York Film Festival Voyeur public screenings: Wednesday, October 4 at 9:30pm - Walter Reade Theater; Thursday, October 5 at 6:00pm - Howard Gilman Theater - Expected to attend: Gay Talese, Myles Kane and Josh Koury

The New York Film Festival runs from September 28 through October 15.

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