In 2000 a controversial novel entitled Sarah was released, marketed as the semi-autobiographical account of a teenage prostitute. Its author, JT LeRoy, was notoriously shy and during the book-tour circuit would often have surrogates show up on his behalf to read excerpts. LeRoy would only conduct interviews by phone or email, and soon became something of a mysterious legend. His story, as told in Sarah and its followup, The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things, was that his mother had pimped him as a teenage cross-dressing prostitute at truck stops in the South. LeRoy became a literary sensation, his writing admired by high-profile supporters, including Madonna, Bono, Courtney Love and Winona Ryder. Then, in 2005, the literary world was shaken when an exposé was published that unmasked the wunderkind, whose tough prose about his sordid childhood had captivated readers, critics, and celebrities worldwide. It turned out LeRoy didn’t actually exist. 19-year-old JT LeRoy was really 40-year-old author Laura Albert.
Filmmaker Jeff Feuerzeig had never heard of JT LeRoy until a journalist introduced him to this tangled tale. Feuerzeig, whose documentary Devil and Daniel Johnston won the Best Director prize at Sundance in 2005, was fascinated by the story and approached Laura Albert to be the subject of his next documentary. She agreed, and the end result is Author: The JT LeRoy Story. Feuerzeig reveals layer after layer, and there’s plenty of layers to uncover in this film that features abundant archive footage of Albert explaining her motives and methods. I recently caught up with Feuerzeig in Beverly Hills to talk about this deeply engrossing documentary.
JF: Where are you from?
JF: I was there about a month and a half ago with the film.
AD: Yes, I saw that it was out there. It blew my mind. I know you’ve heard it a million times. The book was recommended to me when I first moved here, but I never got around to it. So I saw the documentary without knowing the story. Watching it is quite a revelation. How did you come across the story?
JF: When the scandal broke in 2006, I’d never heard of a JT LeRoy, nor did I hear of the scandal when it broke, nor had I read the books, so I was a blank slate. I love truth is stranger than fiction stories, and a journalist friend of mine turned me on to the story a few years later. When the scandal broke it generated a massive amount of ink. I read all these pieces in the New York Times, New York Magazine. It was fascinating and being labeled “the biggest literary hoax of all time,” and that was certainly the hook for me. When I read all these pieces, I felt there was much more to the story than we were being told. I reached out to Laura Albert. At that point in time, she had been ex-communicated by the literary community. She’d been found guilty of fraud in a court of law for signing her name JT LeRoy for the book Sarah. She was labeled a pariah and when I found her she was curled up in a ball. I sent her my film, The Devil and Daniel Johnston. It deals vividly with the intersection of madness and creativity. Laura watched that and it really spoke to her, and at that point in time she decided she would share her story with me, and then I read the books.
AD: Well, it’s a subjective story and you are a subjective filmmaker. That’s what I love about it. You didn’t say, “this is my opinion.” You left it to Laura Albert herself.
JF: Absolutely, this is a subjective film. I love new journalism, that’s my biggest influence. That’s a choice that I’m proud of by having it subjective.
AD: When did you say I’m going to turn this into a documentary and how long did it take from that idea to getting it made?
JF: Once Laura agreed to tell her story, it took a couple of years to raise the funds. I don’t believe in undertaking these projects unless you do them really well, not just intellectually but also aesthetically. Once I had the funds, it was a two-year journey. The Devil and Daniel Johnston took me five years. What can I say — the intersection of madness and creativity is infinitely fascinating. I go into these rabbit holes and disappear from the world, then I reappear, and it’s fun to go into someone else’s mind. In this case, it was two years.
AD: Was it hard to go inside her mind? Was it hard to get inside her mind? She’s also a storyteller.
JF: She has multiple voices. In the film, what’s fascinating, is that obviously, she’s Laura Albert, but back during JT LeRoy there’s no such thing as a Laura Albert. In the film, she is the voice on the telephone of Jeremiah Terminator/JT LeRoy, she is also out in public as the British handler of JT LeRoy as Speedy, and she also becomes Emily. She invents the characters of Astor and her son Thor, it’s a huge cast, yet it’s only one person. In some ways, it’s like watching Peter Sellers in a Stanley Kubrick film. It’s fun to be inside a house of mirrors. It’s a true story, it happened, and all I’m trying to do is understand it for myself and tell it well so that an audience can understand it along with me.
When I was making it, and I still believe that it’s the wildest story about story that I’ve ever heard.
AD: I still left it thinking is this real? How did this go on so long in a town like Hollywood?
JF: It was fiction way off the page, we’ve never seen a pen name like this in history, one with an avatar. It did happen, and once again truth is stranger than fiction. When you’re watching you can not believe it. Nor could I possibly know what I was going to learn when I was exploring the story.
AD: What was the biggest surprise you learned while putting this together?
JF: That’s simple. Once again, back to that feeling that I had that there was more to the story. I believed that if I could find out the backstory of Laura Albert, the unknown story, what was the tragic story of physical and sexual abuse, the film is made up of many revelations through those home movies. Each one blew my mind individually, I couldn’t know any of this information. To learn that she had telephone hotline addictions, and she’d had that since she was a young girl, she’d been calling them as young boys. So, by the time she calls Dr. Terrence Owens twenty years later, that could have easily have been the 17,000th call she had made as a boy. I found all her young girl notebooks with pages and pages of helplines and hotlines, and in the margins I found hundreds of boy/girl doodles. I took those doodles and they became the animations in the film.
During her punk rock salvation, she would send her sister out as her avatar because she had so much shame about her body issues, that of course is a behavior she does twenty-seven years later again with Savannah Knoop her sister-in-law as JT in public. When she is in the group home and she goes to see The Who’s Quadrophenia and meets skinhead Mike, a Brit style skinhead, it’s natural for her to pretend to be British. She’s only 15 or 16, and she’s doing this years later as Speedy. When you add all those up, my mind is as blown as the audience itself, I don’t know what to say, wow.
AD: Exactly, in one word, wow!
JF: I’d never heard a story like this before. It’s crazy, and it’s true. It’s an insanely mad story filled with deceit that she shares in the most forthcoming way. She had a chance to tell, and she told. Nothing was off the table.
AD: What was great was the archives of the tapes. You didn’t tell the story in this linear way and you used flashback. How did you come up with that idea with having the A plot? And how did you get all the materials?
JF: Just like in The Devil and Daniel Johnston, which is also a massive amount of self-documentation, Super 8 home movies, childhood notebooks, videotapes, recordings. Laura had the same, she was a compulsive self-documenter. I could not have known this. With those materials it gives me the opportunity to create an immersive journey. In this case, an anti-hero’s journey, that to me is really powerful, and that really adds to the subjectivity because it authenticates what’s happening.
People ask what was it like, and well, now you know. You hear that accent.
Structurally, in The Devil and Daniel Johnston I do a similar thing with Super 8mm movies and learn the coming of age story about this artist. With this, I wanted to tell the saga of JT as best as possible, and that was the A story. The back story of Laura Albert, I also wanted to tell, and if I could parallel, weave the two of them together, at the end of the film we might understand a whole person. I had this idea that the saga going forward, the B story in reverse catching up with itself and the tragic molestation of her as a young girl by Uncle George. That’s where it all comes together, it was an idea I wanted to try and would fill in the blanks with parallel editing.
Non-fiction film is a blank canvas to have all these ideas that can co-exist inside a narrative that is more freeing for me personally than narrative fiction film making.
AD: It works in feature films with the A and B stories, and there’s no reason it can’t work in documentary. Amazon got the film in the end. What was your reaction when that finally happened?
JF: You make a film you never know how it’s going to be received. I went to Sundance and they bought it the first day. I’m thrilled because what’s different about Amazon than Netflix for instance, the world now consumes film more online, and that’s just how it goes, particularly in independent films and documentaries. But with Amazon, they believe in the cinematic experience of the theater and getting people to come out and leave the glow of their TV screens and have a communal experience. That’s something I’ve adored ever since I was a young boy, going to the theater. They do that, so each of the films they bought will go theatrical and then live online. The fact that people will be able to see this everywhere is fantastic. To quote, Bob Berney of Amazon, “This is a film that people who don’t watch documentaries will go to see.”
AD: I think people will be curious and if they like to read, they’ll read or re-read the books.
JF: I wrote an introduction for one of the books that’s been re-published and Laura now is writing as herself.
AD: What is art?
JF: As far as the books of JT LeRoy which were published as fiction, there is no doubt those books are art. I think art is something whether it’s visual or audible makes us feel humanity and connects us in some way. Or maybe it provokes us and is a reaction to something that came previously.
Art is fascinating and my life would be empty without it.
AUTHOR: THE JT LEROY STORY is in theaters September 9th