Stranger than fiction

Jeff Feuerzeig on documenting the creation of a 'literary myth' in Author: The JT Leroy Story

by Amber Wilkinson

Feuerzeig on Laura Albert: 'If I had a choice, there would be no other voices in this film'
Feuerzeig on Laura Albert: 'If I had a choice, there would be no other voices in this film' Photo: Courtesy of Dogwoof
Author: The JT LeRoy Story takes a first-person look at the woman behind what could either be considered an elaborate literary hoax or one of the most convincing pieces of performance art and character creation of the past 30 years. Director Jeff Feuerzeig makes extensive use of Laura Albert's archive and first-person interviews with her to reveal how this Brooklyn mum created the character of a truck stop prostitute's HIV positive son as a pseudonym and watched him become a critical sensation and an international celebrity. I spoke to Feuerzeig about his documentary before screened at Sundance London.

Amber Wilkinson: What attracted you to the story?

Jeff Feuerzeig I'm always looking for great, true stories and I love non-fiction. A friend of mine who is a journalist turned me on to the story. When it broke it was in the New York Times and Vanity Fair - all these big publications had covered it - so I read all of those. The initial hook of these stories was that they were basically saying, ‘This is the biggest literary hoax of our time’. That was a hook for me as well - I didn't know until making the film that perhaps it wasn't a hoax - but it was portrayed in the media that way, so that was intriguing.

AW: How did you get Laura Albert involved, presumably she was feeling quite burnt by the media by that point?

JF: She had not spoken to the media at that point, her voice was very much missing. I wanted to hear her side of the story. I wanted to hear from the author, I wanted to hear from the person who, on the telephone, was the voice of the young boy. I wanted to hear from the person who went out there in the public as British woman Speedie. I thought: “Wow, this is the person who created the whole thing, wrote the books and did all this? If there's a person I want to hear from, it would be her.” So, I reached out to her, and she watched my other film, The Devil And Daniel Johnston - which is really the film that put me on the map. That film deals vividly with madness and creativity and she watched it and loved it. Simply, she said, “I'm going to work with you - for two reasons, one, you're Jewish and the other is you're punk rock” - and they're both true. I came out of punk rock and she also came out of punk rock. She decided that she would work with me.

AW: Were you surprised by the size of the archive of material that she had?

JF: First of all, I love working with archive. Up to this point, I believed the archive I worked with for The Devil And Daniel Johnston was the largest archive in documentary history. No one's keeping score but I really do think I might well have held the record on that. But I had no idea what Laura had. She lives in San Francisco and when I went up to get her archive, I showed up with a minivan and we had to return the minivan and get a van because it wouldn't fit. It was massive because she had kept everything. She had thousands of photos, which you see in the film, and she had all these beautiful Super 8 movies and videos. An incredible amount of the material you see in the film really came from her archive.

Feuerzeig: 'I think she recognised that this is one hell of a story and that it should be documented in some way.
Feuerzeig: 'I think she recognised that this is one hell of a story and that it should be documented in some way. Photo: Courtesy of Dogwoof
As a non-fiction filmmaker that's my dream - to work with an archive to seek the truth. You can't make a film without it, well, not a good one, so that was a gift. I wouldn't say I was shocked. Put it this way, she's a writer. She collects things and she takes things from her life and makes fiction out of it.

AW: Why do you think she collected the archive?

JF: I think it speaks for itself. I think as someone who was a storyteller as she is and she's living inside this elaborate fiction outside of the page she is writing, I think she recognised that this is one hell of a story and that it should be documented in some way.

AW: You tell the film almost entirely from Albert’s perspective, can you tell us a bit about that decision.

JF: Very simply, this is a choice I made because these are the kind of films I like to see. One of my biggest influences is the New Journalism of the Sixties and Seventies. What was so inspiring to me about those great writers like Tom Wolfe, Gay Talese, Norman Mailer and Terry Southern was the use of the first-person voice. When you watch a great film, for example, The Kid Stays In The Picture, it's singular and I love that film or films like Tyson, it's the same thing. I find those films to be riveting and immersive in the telling. I wanted to do that - if I had a choice, there would be no other voices in this film. There are a few others, used sparingly, in the early years when Laura is hiding behind a telephone - and it felt important to see what it was like to answer that phone call from their perspective. Those people felt necessary. But my goal was to tell this film as a subjective telling of Laura. That's what I chose to do and I did.

AW: Were you ever tempted to include more of Savannah Knoop?

JF: To be quite honest, Savannah Knoop and Geoff Knoop both said, “No” when I reached out to them. They did not want to participate so that wasn't even an option. So, I'd already made the film and was in the final edit when I got a phone call one day and it was Savannah saying she wanted to be in it and I thought, “Too late”. But then I thought, “Well, it would be interesting to have just one moment with her as a surprise just at the end”. I flew to Virginia - she's studying in an MFA programme - and did just that. She's a very bright person but, regardless, it's Laura's story. Savannah is really someone who played a role and who is an actor. Savannah it seems like, to the public, was dominant, but the truth is she wasn't. Laura was doing this on the phone years before Savannah became involved and even when Savannah was involved, Laura was out there on the phone as JT as well as Speedie, giving Savannah direction. Laura was just surfing a wave of success and Savannah as JT - the avatar became a necessity, which I find fascinating.

Feuerzeig on using animation: 'I wanted to come up with these “edible bites”'
Feuerzeig on using animation: 'I wanted to come up with these “edible bites”' Photo: Courtesy of Dogwoof
To me, just watching Laura spin all those plates simultaneously is mesmerising. I thought that would be something to experience on film.

AW: Were you ever worried that you might become one of those plates?

JF: No, that wasn’t on my mind. I knew what I was doing in that I wanted it to be her telling. She would not have been able to make this film by herself. She had a room full of archive but it was never going to get sifted - so that's my job. To somehow try to make sense of this all for myself in order to be able to tell it to an audience, so that an audience can follow the story. It's a very complicated and elaborate story.

AW: Animation plays a key role in the film, why did you decide on that?

JF: I felt it was really important to experience the literature, the writing, and that's not something that's easily done. You can't read somebody a whole short story, let alone an entire novel, it's not going to work in a film. So I wanted to come up with these “edible bites” really. Almost like a small piece of music with a beginning, a middle and an end. I did this with The Devil And Daniel Johnston as well. My idea was to take a few key passages of the writing that weren't just pieces of writing - stuff that moved the narrative along and informed the story. There were a lot of hidden clues in her books, I discovered. I mean, even the title, The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things - the key word there is, of course, deceitful. So I wanted to take those pieces and illuminate them and I certainly wanted to hear the voice of JT Leroy - the boy's voice. So that was really something, to have her read, like a bedtime story, really.

Feuerzeig: 'She's an incredible story teller. There's nothing conventional about this film'
Feuerzeig: 'She's an incredible story teller. There's nothing conventional about this film' Photo: Courtesy of Dogwoof
The film's called author, it's about a writer - how do I get that writing through to the audience? I think she's a great writer, I love the books and I wanted to feel the power of that writing and that was my idea. Then I wrote little scripts and worked with two animators to make them come to life. For me, that was a joy. There are multiple voices - it's quite a cast of characters.

She's an incredible story teller. There's nothing conventional about this film. Every time we show this film, it provokes quite a lively discussion, it really gets into where does fiction come from? It's really fiction way off the page, we've never seen a pseudonym like this in literary history.

AW: What’s next for you?

JF: I make a living writing non-fiction screenplays so that's what I'm doing right now. Non-fiction filmmaking, whether it's scripted or the kinds of film I make, to me it's like documentary is not lesser to fiction films. I feel like a great film is a great film. With this and The Devil And Daniel Johnston I'm just doing my thing, trying to push the medium. There's so many ways to push it, using first person point of view recreations that I do in all these films and these immersive internal monologues with the use of these recordings and re-contextualising Super 8 and found footage in interesting ways, and animation. There are so many ways to make these films unique now, and more literary actually.

Author: The JT LeRoy Story is out in cinemas across the UK from July 29. For more information, visit the official site

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