Remember when mysterious novelist, abuse survivor and rentboy JT Leroy was the It author of the moment, befriended by rock stars and the literary elite? And then do you remember when the whole thing was exposed as a grand hoax? Filmmaker Jeff Feuerzeig — whose The Devil and Daniel Johnston is an extraordinary rock doc — sifts through the strange tale of how Laura Albert invented an imaginary alter ego and then watched her creation eclipse her several times over. DF
FRIDAY, JANUARY 22ND, 2016
If you followed pop culture in the late ‘90s, the name JT LeRoy was inescapable and in many ways inscrutable. Thought to be a 15 year-old, drug-abusing transgender prostitute from rural West Virginia, LeRoy’s byline began to appear in magazines. Soon, two novels, Sarah and The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things, were published to great acclaim and even greater fanfare. LeRoy began hobnobbing with scene makers such as Courtney Love, Bono, and Gus Van Sant. There was no real LeRoy. He’d been the creation of Laura Albert, a talented, seductive middle-aged phone sex-operator from Brooklyn who used her androgynous friend Savannah Knoop to impersonate LeRoy, who she considered her “avatar,” in a floppy blond wig, dark glasses and a black hat. As people became more curious and, perhaps naturally, more suspicious of LeRoy, the truth was eventually uncovered by an investigative journalist in The New York Times in 2006 and the ruse was widely hailed as “the literary hoax of the century.”
In 2005 Jeff Feuerzeig premiered The Devil and Daniel Johnston , a compelling chronicle of the fascinating cult musician and artist, at Sundance and took home the Directing Award in the Documentary Competition for his effort. Since then he’s helmed The Real Rocky, a look at boxer Chuck Wepner, believed to have inspired the Sylvester Stallone franchise; co-written (with pal Jerry Stahl) a screenplay titled The Bleeder, about Wepner’s 1975 match against heavyweight champ Muhammad Ali; and now returns to Sundance with Author: The JT LeRoy Story.
Feuerzeig recently spoke with Sundance about how he convinced Laura Albert to tell her side of the story, his love of subjective filmmaking, and how winning a Sundance directing award a decade ago affected his career.
What is it about JT LeRoy’s story that continues to keep us so spellbound?
When I got turned on to the story a few years ago by a friend who is a journalist — he knows how much I love unique stories — he thought I’d enjoy it. I’d heard of JT LeRoy but didn’t know anything about him. There are a lot of major publications [that] had weighed in on this story. The New York Times had covered it elaborately. Rolling Stone and Vanity Fair did a huge piece – so did Salon.com. I read all these pieces and everyone had something to say. The hook, of course, was this is the greatest literary hoax of our time. There was just one voice missing from all these elaborate think pieces and it was the person who wrote the books. She had never told her story. That was the story I wanted to hear. I sought out Laura Albert. She had been exposed by The New York Times. She had seen The Devil and Daniel Johnston and based on that she trusted me. I wanted to give her a forum to tell her story. It’s a very subjective film. I loved The Kid Stays in the Picture and Tyson and Jerry Stahl’s I, Fatty. I love first-person narration journeys. That’s the kind of storytelling I enjoy. I’m not interested in judging. I’m interested in going on an antihero’s journey.
In other hands, this could easily have become an indictment against Laura. How did you convince her to let you tell her story?
Very simply. She watched The Devil and Daniel Johnston and that was enough. I find the intersection of art and madness infinitely fascinating. Daniel Johnston, like Laura Albert, [is] off the spectrum. At the time I had not yet read her books. I only knew her story and wanted to know if she’d be interested. It was really The Devil and Daniel Johnston . It didn’t hurt that we’d both come out of punk rock. That meant something to her. Then I read her books. It was very important for me to experience her art. I absolutely loved the books. It didn’t surprise me. Sarah and The Heart is Deceitful Above All Things were international bestsellers. They were well-reviewed. These books were a zeitgeist moment in transgressive fiction. It’s not J.K. Rowling. This is tough material. It’s very rare to pack bookstores around the world like a rock concert. It’s tough to get 17 friends to come to a bookstore for a reading so how did this happen? [ Laughs] I’m a big Southern Gothic fan and I loved Flannery O’Conner’s writing in college. It was an aspect of literature I’d explored, along with Tennessee Williams. I was hooked by the story and I loved the art, but I wondered, ‘What’s the story behind the story? How did it happen and why did it happen?’ Those, of course, were unknowns. The one part of this puzzle that was missing is what this film will hopefully fill in. It doesn’t negate the other accounts of the story.
Laura described JT as her avatar, but she had other personas, including Speedie, a confidant of JT’s. It’s quite a tangled web. How would you describe her?
I can’t diagnose her. I’m not a psychologist or a psychiatrist. I didn’t diagnose Daniel Johnston, either. We learned he’s bipolar, but he has a lot of other things going on. When you’re on the spectrum of DSM-IV, and she’s on the spectrum… The point is she’s clearly super-intelligent. As an artist, she’s very, very talented. As far as where she is on the spectrum, it’s for people with bigger degrees than me to decide.
The structure you use is perfect for such a complex story. It’s as if you’re peeling back layers until the full truth is revealed.
The film is a tapestry. Her A-story is the anti-hero’s journey in three very careful acts I constructed because the structure of the film was very complicated to figure out because the story was so complicated. Of course, the other strand is her backstory and how it all comes together. It’s like Memento. The backstory is playing out in reverse and catches up to itself. That was by design. I give you information, you carry it with you then I give you more information. There’s hopefully satisfaction at the end when it all comes together.
She gave you access to a stunning amount of archival footage. The answering machine messages left by JT’s celeb friends defending him when the exposé was published is a highlight of the film.
Her archive was incredible. It’s all the photos, all the audio and almost all the video. It’s somebody who had an entire archive of her life, so it was an incredible gift for me. As a non-fiction filmmaker, my goal is to create the most immersive experience I can give you… I’m hoping that if you go along on this ride and I construct it carefully, you can forget it’s a documentary and it plays like a narrative film and I’ve done my job. That’s my goal.
How do you think her books would have been received if they’d been published under her real name?
It’s an unanswerable question. I’ve talked to a lot of other writers about this. If the film does anything, I hope, it takes you inside what it’s like to be the writer of fiction. What is fiction? I’m in the W.G.A. I write screenplays. Anybody who is a writer who writes characters is channeling those characters. You have to write voices. Writers write male and female voices. The characters ultimately live inside them and talk to them and they have to put it on the page. She’s hardly the first person on earth to use a pseudonym. We just now find out why she used a pseudonym.
You directed The Real Rocky about Chuck Wepner, and your script The Bleeder has been made into a feature with Liev Schrieber and Naomi Watts. What’s the commonality between this and JT LeRoy and The Devil and Daniel Johnston? You seem to be drawn to very complex, enigmatic characters?
They’re all different flavors. To me, story is king. When I go to the movies I want to see a well-told story with twists and turns that I can’t predict. It’s such a cliché to say this but obviously truth is stranger than fiction. I love true stories so I seek them out. I’m just trying to apply the new journalism that inspired me: Tom Wolfe, Gay Talese, Terry Southern, Hunter Thompson – those writers all blew my mind. They inspired me to try to apply that to my version of non-fiction filmmaking. I’m looking for a deeper truth.
You won the Directing Award at Sundance in 2005. How did that affect your career?
That put me on the map. I’ve been a commercial director my whole life, but that’s the reason The Real Rocky got made – and The Bleeder. I’m a working filmmaker because of that. I don’t write on spec. It’s the greatest thing that ever happened. It was my dream to just continue to make films and that directing prize put me on the map.
By Eric Kohn | Indiewire
January 25, 2016
The tale of the brilliant non-fiction writer who didn’t exist is retold by his inventor.
The world first knew bestselling teen author JT LeRoy as a truck stop prostitute who started writing at the age of 15, not the 40-year-old mother from Brooklyn who invented him. By the time the truth came out in 2005, San Francisco-based writer Laura Albert had already published several alleged memoirs and attained global stardom. In “Author: The JT LeRoy Story,” director Jeff Feuerzeig tracks Albert’s bizarre scheme in her own words, constructing a fascinating treatise on creative desire, internal grievances and fame as compelling as anything the writer herself dreamed up.
Initially writing under the pseudonym “Terminator,” Albert garnered the interest of the publishing industry for genuine reasons. As one of her early agents puts it, her writing “spoke to an aspect of American culture we hadn’t heard before.” While these talking heads flesh out Albert’s process of shielding her identity, Feuerzeig mainly takes cues from Albert herself, a lively leather-clad woman who narrates her unorthodox rise against a backdrop of her own writing. The visual metaphor is clear enough — she lives in the confines of her own made-up stories — but the twists keep coming. Even those familiar with the basics won’t anticipate every detail Albert offers up.
In her terms, Terminator comes to her as a kind of alternate identity eager to express itself; she often discusses him in the third person. But the most compelling storytelling ingredient here comes from the bountiful tapes of phone calls between Albert and various figures from her real life drama. Slipping in and out of character, Albert initially talks through her personality issues with a therapist, but in short order she’s donning her avatar for conversations with a wide spectrum of big names who admire her work — even if they don’t realize the reality of its conception.
Worshipful callers range from Tom Waits and Courtney Love to Gus Van Sant and Asia Argento, with the last two eagerly pursuing film adaptations of LeRoy’s work. The tapes provide so much insight into Albert’s ability to play her part over the phone that they raise questions of their authenticity, though this uncertainty only adds to the allure of the subject matter.
While hardly a straightforward look at the LeRoy saga, “Author” crams in the highlights, from the immediate ripple effect of fandom surrounding Albert’s first novel “Sarah” to the even greater embrace of “The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things.” By the time LeRoy becomes a bonafide rock star of the literary scene, Albert has constructed an entire infrastructure to support the plan, including her husband Geoff and Savannah Knoop, who grows more accustomed to playing LeRoy in public than Albert would like. To hear her tell it, even she can’t believe how much she gets away with the idea.
Because “Author” remains in the grip of an unreliable narrator, it leaves many questions on the table.
“It was like magic,” she says, and “Author” allows you to get swept up in it, as Feuerzeig threads together her story with a lively pileup of images, animation and those ubiquitous tapes. The fragmented approach mirrors Albert’s piecemeal construction of her public image.
“Author” hits its most compelling notes as Albert recalls her ability to hack the showbiz circuit, watching her sister-in-law receive praise from U2 (“the Bono talk”) and hang with the seductive Argento. But it’s Albert’s decision to confide in Smashing Pumpkins frontman Billy Corgan and “Deadwood” creator David Milch about her identity that stands out, less for her candor than their reactions to it. While many felt betrayed by Albert’s choices, the open-minded perspectives of this pair suggest a deeper reading of her decision. Was JT LeRoy truly a hoax — or, in an era defined by slippery personalities hiding behind digital veils, somehow also real?
Because “Author” remains in the grip of an unreliable narrator, it leaves many questions on the table. Albert’s family — her husband and young child — remain shadowy figures only discussed through Albert’s asides. The specifics of her finances and legal processes remain underserved. But Feuerzeig, who previously explored a troubled artistic recluse with the comparatively traditional “The Devil and Daniel Johnston,” does a fine job of keeping the focus on the abstract, existential dilemma as Albert faces it. Visiting the set of Argento’s “Heart” adaptation, she recalls the strangeness of watching Argento play an invented character as if it had once existed. Albert is especially adroit at explaining her conundrum. “My Barbie dolls have come to life,” she says.
As “Author” wrestles with the nature of identity as well as Albert’s shaky moral standing, it builds toward a finale in which everything falls apart. It’s tricky to parse the extent to which Albert deserves the ire sent her way, given how much she presents herself as a victim of a fragile emotional state. Even Albert can’t sort it all out. “The levels of it are absurd,” she says, and at least this much we know to be true.
By Bilge Ebiri
January 22, 2016
A very emotional Laura Albert, who once wrote (and fooled the entire literary world) as renegade, former-hustler-turned-teen-punk author JT LeRoy, took the stage to a warm round of applause this afternoon in Park City, at the end of the Sundance world premiere of Jeff Feuerzeig’s film Author: The JT LeRoy Story. How was she? Teary. Relieved. Maybe even at peace. She told the audience that she’s working on a memoir and continued to insist that, for her, JT LeRoy remains very real as a persona. Her appearance was a touching, intriguing moment, but it was also slightly anticlimactic — in a good way. Because Feuerzeig’s documentary makes Albert’s case about as thoroughly and eloquently as possible, even while chronicling the unthinkable strangeness of this tale, which might be considered one of the greatest literary hoaxes of all time.
The doozy of a story is hard to summarize. JT LeRoy was a literary sensation in the late 1990s and early 2000s, his energetic, incantatory prose painting vivid portraits of horror and abuse in a rough, dead-end world. All that, we were told, had come from real life experience: JT had been made to dress as a girl and pimped out at truck stops by his hustler mother, and had later been homeless on the streets of San Francisco. Once his fame took off, however, people like Billy Corgan and Winona Ryder and Tom Waits and Courtney Love came calling. Gus Van Sant optioned a novel and had him write much of Elephant. Asia Argento adapted his collection of short stories The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things and premiered it at Cannes. Bono spoke in interviews about his books, and gave the young author the famed “Bono Talk” backstage at one of his shows, warning him about the perils of fame.
Of course, JT’s stories were really the work of Laura Albert. She was fifteen years older than JT, married with a child, and had never even seen a truck stop. (“A Brooklyn housewife” was how one outlet referred to her when the story finally broke.) But it was a bit more complicated than that. Though JT had initially refused to show himself to the public, he started making appearances as his fame spun out of control. It turned out, later, that the person pretending to be the physical manifestation of JT LeRoy was in fact Laura Albert’s sister-in-law Savannah Knoop, a petite, pretty, boyish partner-in-crime who wound up doing a remarkable job channeling LeRoy’s voice. Albert, however, continued to be the one writing the stories and having the phone conversations, and in public, she would accompany “JT” as his close friend and manager Speedie, speaking with a somewhat ridiculous British accent.
The film includes a wealth of phone recordings, which are pure gold: LeRoy apparently had a very tender, long-running relationship with Billy Corgan (or “The Corganator,” as he calls himself), who turns out to have been thoroughly supportive even when the truth came out. Deadwood creator David Milch was also an admirer, and found out early about Albert’s true identity — and gave her a gig writing on his show. Courtney Love was also a frequent caller and confidante, and in what must be the film’s biggest laugh, we hear her interrupt a talk about redemption to snort some cocaine; “there’s a really small line of coke here and I don’t want to put you on hold,” she tells JT.
Even those familiar with the details of the JT LeRoy story probably don’t know all its many folds. Bedeviled by body image issues and an almost galactic sense of self-loathing, Albert wasn’t exactly the product of a happy youth. Abused as a young girl, she had been committed multiple times as a teen, eventually becoming a ward of the state and living in a group home. She’d also been calling suicide hotlines and crisis centers all her life, always posing as someone else. “It never occurred to me to call as myself,” she says in a recording made as a young girl. “What other response would there be other than, ‘You’re fat and ugly and disgusting and you deserve it’?” When JT eventually emerged out of her, Albert claims, he wasn’t just an identity and a voice, but a virtually autonomous persona living inside her. (Right down to his first name, Terminator, which Albert herself says she would never have chosen, “because it was a stupid name … But that was his name.”)
It’s a maze of identity: A girl who dreams of herself as a boy who dreams of himself as a girl, played by a girl pretending to be a boy, all overseen by the girl herself, playing another, different girl. But there’s a fascinating, timeless artistic question here, too. Albert wrote the stories (which, she points out, were always labeled as fiction). Albert adopted the voice. Albert created everything about JT LeRoy that drew people to JT LeRoy. Does the revelation that a physical entity named JT LeRoy didn’t actually experience those things in real life tangibly change the fiction on the page? And LeRoy wasn’t willed out of pure fancy, either. He emerged from a stew of influences — the troubled kids at Albert’s group home, the fuck-all creative destruction of punk, as well as the real-life author’s own encounter with childhood sexual abuse.
That Feuerzeig can navigate this hall of mirrors so cleanly and effectively is positively supernatural. We’re never bored or confused during Author. We get brief reenactments, animated interludes, home movies, glimpses from films both random and pertinent. But Author’s core, the thing that holds it all together, is twofold: Albert herself, interviewed on camera, talking in frank detail about her life and work; and those scrupulously recorded phone conversations, most of them as JT, with everybody from her shrinks and her publishers to (later) her celebrity friends and collaborators.
It’s an ingenious approach, for it takes the film out of the realm of exposé or straight journalism and essentially turns it into a poetically inflected conversation between Laura Albert and JT LeRoy — a kind of freewheeling meditation on the liminal self. The resulting film is wildly entertaining and informative, but also alive and ever-changing, provoking new questions at each turn. It’s the movie this crazy, endlessly fascinating story deserves.