Sundance 2016 - JT Leroy

LA Times Sundance 2016: ‘Author: The JT Leroy Story’ turns a forgotten controversy into a thrilling exploration

By Steven Zeitchik – Contact Reporter

For many people, the JT Leroy scandal of a decade ago was a passing headline, a story that had lasting resonance to a few publishing insiders at best.

But as the indie-film director Jeff Feuerzeig discovered, the Leroy affair was much more than we know — a strange, existential and ultimately thrilling story of a woman donning identities with a degree of spy-novel ambition (and, sometimes, Mel Brooks absurdity).

Feuerzeig is the director of “Author: The JT Leroy Story,” a new documentary about the nearly decade-long invention pulled off by the writer Laura Albert. The movie premiered at the Sundance Film Festival this weekend ahead of playing on A&E and likely in theaters later this year. With vast access to Albert’s copious archives and thoughtful on-camera remembrances, Feuerzeig constructs a tightly woven and almost unbelievable yarn.

“If I didn’t live through making the movie, I don’t know if I would have believed what happened,” Feuerzeig said in an interview at a condo here shortly after the film premiered this weekend.

Albert, the film tells us, was a depressed person struggling with body image and a penchant for calling phone-help lines when she decided to seek out the experimental writers Bruce Benderson and Dennis Cooper in the mid-1990s. Albert had been noodling with some gritty experimental fiction, and soon enough she had accrued some allies and, eventually, a publishing deal.

She also created a rather rich biography. Rather than the 30-ish woman living with her boyfriend in San Francisco she actually was, Albert claimed she was Terminator (later Jeremiah Terminator, later JT, later JT Leroy), a 20-year-old, gender-questioning boy who grew up in truck stops with a prostitute mother, a young man who had struggled with drugs, suffered from HIV and flived 100 lives in just a few years.

Soon her (his) celebrity grew, Leroy’s fiction (and back story) attracting a raft of famous fans–not just in the publishing world but superstar musical acts like U2 and global celebs including Asia Argento.

What follows is the kind of identity-swapping scheme that a Hollywood producer would reject as too fantastic. At first Albert just pretended Leroy was a recluse (in one of several remarkable bits of video, she attended a reading in which other authors read from the work as she sat anonymously in the audience).

Actors and filmmakers visit the L.A. Times photo and video studio at the 2016 Sundance Film Festival. The festival takes place annually in Utah and is one of the largest independent film festivals in the United States.
Soon, though, Albert needed more characters to feed the beast. Savannah Knoop, the sister of Albert’s husband, was enlisted to pose as Leroy in public appearances, in sunglasses and colorful headwear.

Sound crazy? It gets wilder. Albert herself started becoming different people too, including “Speedie,” an assistant who was always accompanying Leroy. This was as complicated as it sounded–not only because Albert had to find ways to pull the strings, puppeteer-style, with her sister-in-law when Leroy appeared in public but because she had to keep track of who was saying what to whom. When Savannah met, as Leroy, with Gus van Sant over a planned film adaptation, Albert had to line up that conversation with what she was saying to Van Sant on the phone as Leroy.

This became even more complicated when Savannah, as Leroy, had an affair with Argento.

“My reaction to this story was the same as everyone else’s,” Feuerzeig said. “It’s a great literary hoax, and that was that. But as I started reading all these stories I thought, ‘There’s more here; there’s something we’re not hearing.'”

Albert had never told her story in full before, and might have turned down Feuerzeig if he hadn’t directed “The Devil and Daniel Johnston,” a Sundance standout from a decade ago about another notable but tortured artist, the titular songwriter. That had helped convince her, Fuerzeig said, that he would give her fair hearing and her tale full weight. (Albert also said at the screening that she was won over by the fact that “he was Jewish and he was punk rock,” which, she said, meant he rejected certain societal norms.)

The movie offers some intriguing theories about why Albert, who had an exceedingly difficult childhood, was so prone to creating these personae. (As a teenager she was using other people as “avatars” in the real world, which is as unusual as it sounds.) But it also raises universal questions about identity and selfhood. After all, who hasn’t adjusted or even created guises depending on context? Was Albert fundamentally different from the rest of us, the movie asks, or just more ambitious and public about it?

Albert did mislead a lot of people, and the sight on-screen of publishing stalwarts, like the agent Ira Silverberg, coming to terms with what she had done is pointed and won’t win Albert any sympathy.

But as the director said, it’s also clear the story was not as simple as that of a con man — as seen here, Albert was less a fame-hungry opportunist than a confused person and artist who, in struggling to figure out who she was, fell backward into fame.

“This wasn’t something she was looking for. The books stood on their own. and the fans — including the celebrity fans — came to her,” Feuerzeig said.

Noted Albert at the screening: “My motives were not the motives that were attributed to me.”

(Most of her celebrity relationships, it should be said, were of the superficial sort–with two major exceptions. She formed a close relationship with “Deadwood” creator and resident Hollywood philosopher-poet David Milch, even working on an episode of the HBO show, as well as Smashing Pumpkins frontman Billy Corgan. Long before journalists began uncovering her deceptions, she spilled all her secrets to both of them; they maintained her confidence.)

Whether her books would have been as successful without the Leroy biography is a question the movie leaves open. Certainly it’s fair to think they fueled her success.

But Albert was also, in the end, a fiction writer. Her books, especially bestseller “The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things,” garnered attention because of the quality of its prose. Her biography, mattered, but only partly.

“Author” also implicitly raises the question of whether our demands from fiction writers are unfair and contradictory. On the one hand, we want them to possess the flair for wild imagination that leads to great work, but we want that imagination to stop short in every other realm of life.

The film provides no easy answers, choosing instead to become a more complex exploration on the nature of self and story. “I don’t blame anyone on the receiving end of what Laura was doing,” Feuerzeig said in the interview. “But I don’t want to judge and I don’t want to moralize. I just want to show what this woman did, and what she went through.”

Whatever one’s conclusions, it’s clear that categorizing the Leroy affair as a simple huckster tale is insufficient. “I’m not a hoax, I’m a metaphor,” Albert says in the film to a skeptical reporter. She may be splitting the atom. Or she may be engaging in one more brilliant creation.

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Fandor The Nature of it All: Sundance 2016

By Susan Gerhard | January 28, 2016

JT Leroy Story

One of the most talked-about triumphs of the early days of Sundance 2016 was Author: the JT Leroy Story, Amazon’s first documentary pick-up at the festival. You can’t escape the universe of the film without coming to love its troubled protagonist, a girl struggling with the size of her body, the scope of her imagination and the growing dimensions of her closet full of trauma—who emerges from troubled family and group-home life to create a second set of selves. Those selves don’t just take the literary world by storm, they also achieve the heights of glamour—magazine fashion spreads, celebrity confidences, a victorious sweep through Cannes and consort with the likes of Asia Argento, Billy Corgan and Bono—until the byline doing the flyover is brought back down to earth.

It is, of course, the very same story that left its author, Laura Albert, a.k.a. “JT Leroy,” and her family and friends who participated in creating the character, pariahs for a time in San Francisco and in very particular circles all over the world after their true identities were revealed in a New York Magazine story (followed by many others). So what’s incredibly artistic about Author by The Devil and Daniel Johnston creator Jeff Feuerzeig’s effort is his ability to build sympathy and yes, authenticity, back into a story about the art and practice of what many considered a “con.” Albert herself is a true partner in this endeavor and—as the one voice left out of the “reveal” in previous episodes—is a breath of fresh air as she retells the story from her own perspective. She relishes the details, fills in the blanks and proposes a new way of understanding JT Leroy—as an unexpected voice within herself, one she has a true, personal need to give life to in a way we’d now consider fairly workaday normal: as an avatar. It’s a take that has found its time—and Feuerzeig’s film feels this. As he explained in the post-screening Q&A at Park City’s Library Theater, this is a film of fairly radical subjectivity, like James Toback’s very different Tyson, as much journalism featuring the varied other sides to this story have been well trod.

Jeff Feuerzeig - Headshot

In this story as told, JT Leroy’s ascent is a victory for the People, as opposed to an assault against them. Albert takes us with her to the top, using the opportunity to draw our sympathy by bringing us more deeply into the growth—in unexpected fits and spurts—of the JT Leroy character, handing over a backstage pass to JT’s dalliances, loves and loyalties. She details what felt like an “initiation” into the highest levels of world celebrity as she meets U2, lets us share the intimacies exchanged with Asia Argento and reveals the way the close ties with The Smashing Pumpkins’ Billy Corgan and Deadwood‘s David Milch (who both eventually knew and accepted Laura Albert as Laura Albert—as well as “JT”) developed.


Aside from the worth-the-price-of-admission Courtney Love phone cameo (in which she pauses the conversation to enjoy a “short” line of coke), the true genius of the film lies in showing Albert’s true authorial capacities. For most of its run-time, it’s Albert herself doing the talking, and the proving, that the she is, indeed a tale spinner, and a very good one, who deserved her moments in the sun. Would she have broken through with her fiction if she presented herself to literary agents as was? Doubtful. There was a reason beyond simple “personae” that so many readers adored her. If the reception to this film is any indication, it seems they will adore her again.

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Thompson on Hollywood Sundance: Truth Battles Fiction in Amazon Pickup ‘Author,’ Starring Laura Albert, the Real JT LeRoy, Sundance: Truth Battles Fiction in Amazon Pickup ‘Author,’ Starring Laura Albert, the Real JT LeRoy

Albert choked up at the Sundance Q & A for Jeff Feuerzeig’s fascinating portrait of the damaged writer behind JT LeRoy.

Laura Albert

I sat in the Amazon Studios row at the Park City Library with execs Roy Price, Ted Hope and the Amazon team, who are finalizing a deal to acquire their first documentary pickup, “Author: The JT Leroy Story.” Backed by A&E IndieFilms, Brett Ratner’s RatPac Documentary Films and Vice, writer-director Jeff Feuerzeig’s documentary weaves in and out of the mind of novelist Laura Albert, who finally steps forward to explain why she created several alternate personas, including novelist JT (Jeremiah Terminator) LeRoy.

Marie Therese Guirgis, Head of Documentary at Ratpac Entertainment, read Feuerzeig’s project proposal two years ago, “one of the most brilliant I’ve ever read,” she told me on the phone. “We jumped right in, it all came together with Vice and A & E. It’s been a long crazy journey.”

Albert’s many personas started first as characters on the written page, then as characters she would deploy on the phone. Some she played herself, others were taken on by her musician husband Geoffrey Knoop and his sister, Samantha, who played LeRoy in public.

JT Leroy Story

As always, past is prologue, and Albert couldn’t have concocted many of the narratives in “Author” (her novel “Sarah” and short story collection “The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things” were published in 1999) if she hadn’t suffered some dramatic abuse herself, with a single, promiscuous mother and others who neglected her in various ways, sending her in and out of mental hospitals and group homes. She coped by writing down her vivid fantasies. The film reenacts her playing with her Barbie dolls, naked and upside down, bloodied and maimed.

Feuerzeig reveals her back story in various ways, aided visually by Asia Argento’s film adaptation of LeRoy’s “The Heart is Deceitful Above All Things,” in which the director played LeRoy’s mother, a truck stop prostitute. Albert’s persona Speedie, an Australian assistant/manager to LeRoy, had to take a step back when the fetching young author/Knoop, who had announced he was undergoing a sex change, embarked on a sexy affair with Argento.

The movie lays bare that Albert herself was an ordinary looking fat girl who intuited that people, whether suicide hotline shrinks — one talked to her for years about her multiple personalities — literary agents, publishers or celebrities, would take her more seriously if she was male. LeRoy was a voice, a character inside her, and when Albert’s books took off, she first had celebrities fill in at readings for the shy writer (while she sat in the audience) and then dressed up Samantha Knoop, the sister of her husband, in a blonde wig and glasses. It worked like a charm.

Albert narrates the story, sometimes as herself, and often in voiceover as LeRoy. The most amazing thing that Feuerzeig was able to do was use all the telephone audio and video tapes Albert saved of many, many conversations, including with Gus Van Sant — who flirted with adapting “Sarah” and based “Elephant” on Albert’s uncredited screenplay — and Courtney Love, who talks about doing a line of coke on the audio.

LeRoy’s celebrity allure is another aspect of this story, as they were attracted to him like a moth to flame, from Winona Ryder and Matthew Modine to Shirley Manson and Bono. Of course in 2005 when the media investigated various hoaxes that arose about who LeRoy really was, his celebrity friends felt betrayed and angry, and Albert withdrew from the fray, supported by the chums who had divined her secret: “Smashing Pumpkins” frontman Brian Corgan and David Milch, who had hired her to write on “Deadwood.”

Feuerzeig was intrigued when a friend turned him onto the story, which was reported at length in Vanity Fair, Rolling Stone, Salon, The New York Times and New York Magazine, “these amazing massive pieces by great journalists who weighed in on the story,” he said at Sundance. “But one voice was glaringly missing from all this journalism: the voice of the person who wrote these books, a voice I’d love to hear.”

Jeff Feuerzeig and Laura Albert at Sundance

He reached out to Laura Albert, who checked out his 2005 film “The Devil and Daniel Johnston” and agreed to talk. She told him she liked two things about him: “You’re Jewish and you’re punk rock.”

Feuerzeig went out of his way to not judge her: “I wanted her to tell it, it’s a very subjective film, the theme of fiction and where does fiction come from came out of my research. It meant a lot to me to go deep into why did this happen and try to understand it, her back story, which was never told, and she shared that. That made me think about where fiction comes from, and writing; I write, have friends who write, anyone who has ever written channels voices and characters male and female.”

The director was impressed with two POV docs with unreliable narrators, “The Kid Stays in the Picture” and James Toback’s “Tyson,” as well as Jerry Stahl’s Fatty Arbuckle novel “I Fatty.” “Those are singular, strong choices,” he said. “Sometimes perhaps you want an outside perspective. I respect directors who stick to this idea of a story told in a singular voice. Everybody complains that they hate talking head documentaries: then don’t make one!”

Feuerzeig uses animation to bring some of Albert’s JT LeRoy stories to life, and did massive amounts of research, digging into Albert’s archive, “the largest on the planet, there’s nothing not saved. I went through it carefully. I tried to make sense of it for myself. Hopefully I will be able to tell it, it’s so complex, with layers of understanding. The onion kept unfolding, even watching it tonight, there are things I’m still discovering — what happened in the layers of her heart, all these great stories are hidden in the books, I had to find those pieces and work them into the narrative, like finding Paul is Dead on Beatles recordings.”

Clearly, the process of collaborating on the film has made it possible for Albert to continue the work in progress that is growing into her own body, so that her voice is her own. “This is a ‘This is Your Life’ moment,” she said as she joined the conversation after the first Sundance screening. “It’s such a complex opening. It’s difficult. An amazing night.” She chokes up. “This will take a lot of therapy to process.” She cited David Milch, who advised her to “give yourself over to the process of life.” “David Milch told me to shut the fuck up, I had to learn to do that,” she said. “Whenever there was pain I would eat. Whenever I needed to tell something I needed to go to another [persona]… If I could have I would have. I couldn’t turn this body into a boy.”

She thanked Feuerzeig for using his “craft and technique to allow me to come face to face with the story. I have a lot of loving people around me, who held my hand through the entire process. It’s a complex story, it could make a television series, this is like a piece of me. It’s phenomenal to be here. People laughed at shit I found funny. That’s really cool. It’s amazing to see people open to finding me.”

Feuerzeig “got hold of my paradigm,” she said. “Being Jewish was important, a certain way of being, there’s a way of rejecting societal norms or standards. My motives were not the motives attributed to me. I had somebody looking at it from the outside, who I felt I could trust. I trusted his artwork and his genius, I was grateful I didn’t have to do it, I was so down deep stuck in the hole I needed someone to get me out, I did not have the ability to get myself out.”

Thanks to the movie Albert feels safe again, and is writing a memoir, she said: “That to me is the biggest gift of this, I’m writing again, and I didn’t think that would happen. When everything gets crazy and I get into my shit, all this helps me to come more into myself. When I get to that point, I have a tool to write in an ordered universe that makes sense. Now I am going back and writing a memoir. It’s phenomenally powerful. I always had a directive. I don’t completely understand what I am here to do, but I know it’s of service. I hold so many peoples’ stories, from the group home and all the people I went through institutions with — ‘tell my fucking story.’ I can’t be bought, I know what I am here to do. By any means necessary it will get done.”

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JT Leroy Story

Rolling Stone – 25 Movies We Can’t Wait to See at Sundance 2016

JT Leroy Story

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

Read Article at Rolling Stone



I’m a big fan of director Jeff Feuerzeig’s work and today he’s posted a series of short films he directed for Pride Toronto and Google+. The series is called ‘Together: Stories by Pride & Google+’ and each short focuses on personal stories from individuals sharing some insights on various aspects of their lives as gay men and women. It’s a wonderfully made series and can be watched for free on YouTube. To make it easy for you, I’ve embedded all five films right here so go ahead and check them out!

Pride Toronto and Google+ present “Together,” a series of films by award-winning director Jeff Feuerzeig, with music performed by Stephin Merritt of The Magnetic Fields.

The Plain Dealer: New trend in advertising leads to unique take on holiday ads

Buy, buy. Buy. Buy this, buy that.
Black Friday, Cyber Monday, last day to ship, last-minutes sales.

We are inundated with products and ads every holiday season, with each more intense than the year before.

You know it. We all know it. Even the marketers know it – which has led Nokia to switch course.

Ads? Product? Sales? Um, how about short film instead — where there’s an actual storyline and no real sales pitch?

Roll “Holiday Realness.” The series features three films with holiday spirit that has little to do with, well, any of the Christmas-themed ads on TV or the Internet.

Once chronicles canine-obsessed people celebrating Christmas with their dogs. Another follows extreme Christmas carolers who go door to door at 3 a.m. The third is a valentine to surfin’ Santas and 1960s garage-rock legends, the Sonics.

“Traditional advertising has changed. These are not standard spots; in each case, there is nothing really being sold,” says Jeff Feuerzeig, the Los Angeles-based filmmaker that directed the series. “These are mostly unscripted stories about real characters, which is exactly the kind of work I love doing.”

Nokia - Surfing Santas

“Surfin’ Santas” is different from most ads, because it’s not really an ad. The short film — by filmmaker Jeff Feuerzeig, far right — has no sales pitch. It’s a film with a story, and part of a new trend in advertising.
Lucas Celler.

You might know Feuerzeig as director of Sundance award-winning documentary “The Devil and Daniel Johnston” or the popular ESPN film “The Real Rocky.”

Not exactly the ad man type – but that’s the point.

Companies are increasingly financing short films that have little to do with their products. Acclaimed filmmakers such as Albert Maysles have done long been involved with corporate work – films that are more than mere ads.

Earlier this year, German master Werner Herzog directed a chilling documentary on the hazards of texting, “From One Second to the Next,” that was financed by telephone companies AT&T, Verizon, Sprint and T-Mobile.

“More and more filmmakers are involved and they’re being given the freedom to tell a story,” says Feuerzeig, via phone from Los Angeles. “No one is going to spend 30 seconds watching an ad online, but it’s different if there’s a story.”

“Dove Real Beauty Sketches,” released in April, became a viral hit – getting 61 million plays on Youtube. The film features a forensic sketch artist sitting behind a curtain that draws the faces of women – one based on the woman’s self-description; the other based on description provided by friends. The objective is to show that women are more beautiful than they see themselves.
The short is considered a breakthrough for this segment of advertising – one that parallels the use of music in TV shows and movies, to connect with viewers and listeners on a level that goes beyond the hit-‘em-over-the-head approach of the past. The trend has provided an ancillary income to musicians and filmmakers facing an uncertain future in the free-download 21st century.

It’s going to continue to grow, as companies try to cultivate credibility and authenticity to differentiate themselves from one another.

“Agencies are dedicating more resources to longer form content,” says Darren Foldes, executive producer of Green Dot Films, which created the “Holiday Realness” films alongside the advertising agency Geometry Global. “More and more, we’re seeing less concern about hard selling to an audience and instead it’s becoming more and more about connecting with and relating to an audience by telling real and meaningful stories.”

Feuerzeig’s reputation as a straight-on filmmaker brought not only credibility to the brand, but also artistic freedom. There was a premise – to do non-traditional Christmas stories – but little input beyond that.

“I went through countless possibilities, but I picked the subjects that I wanted and found most interest, people you wouldn’t expect to find in ads,” says Feuerzeig. “I’ve always loved the Sonics and thought their song ‘Santa Claus’ was the greatest Christmas song – and loved the chance to make a movie around it.”

“There is a lot of creative collaboration and freedom, and I have the chance to insert myself into and craft so many unique off-the-radar stories,” adds Feuerzeig. “This isn’t a traditional ad, because I can’t pinpoint what exactly is being sold, other than a story – and telling a story is what filmmaking has always been about.”

By John Petkovic, The Plain Dealer
on December 20, 2013 at 7:00 AM