Whether fiction or non-fiction, there’s no story this year as wildly unbelievable as the one documented in Author: The JT LeRoy Story, the new documentary from writer-director Jeff Feuerzeig. Billed as the greatest literary hoax of all-time, Author: The JT LeRoy Story tells the story from the perspective of Laura Albert, who over the course of years adopted an alter ego that eventually became a best-selling author and a literary celebrity. Two best-selling novels, collaborations with prestigious filmmakers, and hobnobbing with multiple celebrities, the reality behind this elaborate ruse was exposed.
“It was massive,” the director says in a deadpan manner before laughing when trying to elaborate on the massive undertaking of the film.
“So The Devil and Daniel Johnston deals vividly with the intersection of madness and creativity. That’s a subject that I find infinitely fascinating,” Feuerzeig said of the film’s origins. “[Laura Albert] watched [The Devil and Daniel Johnston], and the film and those themes very much spoke to her because that’s a very large part of this story. That’s when she decided to share her story with me. She’d been approached previously by other documentarians and Hollywood, I came to learn, and she said no to everyone. I come out of punk rock, so that’s a paradigm that we both coincidentally shared. And if you came out of punk rock years ago, you’d know that you didn’t trust anybody that wasn’t punk rock.”
Now Author is truly a piece of subjective storytelling, with Feuerzeig never injecting his opinions or commentary on the Laura Albert’s story. “I love subjective storytelling. I find it incredibly refreshing, because not enough people do it. It’s my biggest influence. My whole trip is the New Journalism. For me, it’s all about the man in the white suit, Tom Wolfe.,” Feuerzeig told me. “So what had happened in the late ‘60s was that himself, Gay Talese, Joan Didion, Terry Southern, Norman Mailer, Lester Bangs, Hunter S. Thompson – all these great writer, totally different styles. They all, like punk rock was a reaction against bloated classic rock that came before it, a lot of these guys – Gay Talese worked at the New York Times, Tom Wolfe worked at the New York Herald Tribune – they were reacting against the shackles of objectivity. They found that through subjectivity they could take what they loved in novels, the great American novel which, in their opinion, they though was dead as a doornail at that point, stale and old like classic rock, and flip it on its head and invent the New Journalism which actually became, they couldn’t imagine it, huge bestsellers. It became a movement.”
“So I had this idea – years ago, when I started in documentary it was pretty stale,” he continued. “I loved the [Albert and David] Maysles and [D.A.] Pennebaker, documentary filmmakers of the ‘60s that were doing cinéma vérité, what they were calling direct cinema. I loved it, but I don’t do that. Then there was this huge gap. It wasn’t that exciting. So I had this idea that I could take those ideas of the New Journalists and apply it to documentary it would become powerful, cinematic non-fiction film.”
Feuerzeig is adamant about sticking to subjective storytelling, resisting the urge to editorialize on the events no matter how unbelievable. “Here’s the deal: I’m her documentarian. I’m not her priest. I’m not her rabbi. And it’s not a court of law. I don’t seek to moralize. The film and the story, the true story, is filled with a massive amount of deceit, which she shares openly,” he said. “Wanna know what it’s like to be on the phone with JT LeRoy? No problem, you’ll experience it. It’s all in the film. It’s an immersive journey.”
Sadly, not every bit can make it into the finished film. “I came to learn that a young Laura Albert at age 11, believe it or not, is in Taxi Driver. She’s telling me this story and she’s explaining the outfit she was wearing, which was blue overalls,” Feuerzeig explained of a sequence cut from the film. “She explains this to me on set. Of course, myself and my assistants go through Taxi Driver looking for this scene and there she is. There’s this little girl bouncing up and down like a jumping bean throughout the entire shot. I took an arrow and it’s like follow the bouncing ball. She tells the story and there’s Laura Albert in Taxi Driver. She wasn’t cast. She was an extra. She stands out in the whole crowd because nobody else is bouncing around like a jumping bean. And I’m like, ‘Holy shit. How much crazier does it get? She’s even in Taxi Driver!’”
With everyone living a life online with a trail of evidence left behind though social media, could something as outrageous as the events of Author happen again? “I think it can, but in a different way. Back then, of course, I don’t think this could’ve happened without the telephone. And the telephone back then – we didn’t have FaceTime,” Feuerzeig explained. “I know young people come to me after seeing the film and, I have no idea, I didn’t grow up on the internet, and they say, ‘Oh, what’s the big deal? Doesn’t everyone have an avatar?’ And I laugh. I don’t. I guess people present their better selves online, or other selves.”
“She wrote great books, great writing that got passed around and published. She didn’t even try to get published, he said of Albert’s work as JT LeRoy. “The avatar came years later. You don’t know you’re going to get great reviews and have two international best-sellers. You can’t predict that. You’re just writing. She’s just writing her themes in fiction, channeling her own personal themes. For whatever reason it resonated with so many people. Reasons I don’t know, but it touched them.”
Author: The JT LeRoy brings forth questions about the nature of fiction and reality, a line that is blurred by the story of Laura Albert. “I found at the end it raised interesting questions as to what is fiction and where does it come from. I found that fascinating. It seems to be a large part of the dialogue that is provoked at the end of these screenings,” Feuerzeig said.
“It’s a process. It’s like writing the great American novel. It can take years,” Feuerzeig says of his work and taking the story wherever it leads him. “These are long term journeys. I’m always open to new revelation, which I discovered so many from Laura which became those Super 8 backstories. If I’m not open to revelation, what’s the point? And then through that finding that stuff and somehow structurally putting that together to hopefully arrive at the end of this journey, which is a pretty mad journey, at a deeper truth or what I love what Werner Herzog calls ‘the ecstatic truth.’”
As the interview winded down, I felt compelled to ask Feuerzeig about comments he made on a recent episode of The Best Show, where the director proclaimed that Billy Childish was a better guitarist than Eric Clapton – something that may be controversial to some but music to my ears. “There’s no doubt in my mind that Billy Childish is the greatest living artist on the planet Earth today right next to Daniel Johnston.”
When I asked him if it was possible that he might helm a documentary on the garage punk icon, he said, “In all seriousness, I’ve thought about it for years.”
Any hopes for a Billy Childish documentary should be put on the backburner, as Feuerzeig is already at work on his next project which, once again, would appear to deal with the intersection of madness and creativity. “The Mingering Mike Story, a screenplay,” he told me. “He’s the imaginary soul superstar who went AWOL and deserted during Vietnam and hid in his own bedroom from the military police for seven years. And like Rip Van Winkle, imagined this incredible soul, R&B career and rendered it all in paint and was discovered in a church parking lot by an R&B, soul record geek. He made 30-something albums, all imaginary and painted all the grooves. Now it’s all in the Smithsonian. You can look it all up, there’s a lot of ink on it.”
Author: The JT LeRoy Story opens in select theaters on September 9th before expanding to more theaters in subsequent weeks.