Jeff Feuerzeig Documents the Intersection of Madness and Creativity
Until the New York Times exposed her, phone sex worker-turned-housewife Laura Albert had the public thinking that JT Leroy, a fictional writer she created, really existed. Albert recruited a friend to pose as the writer for public appearances. After she was discredited, Albert refused to talk to any member of media . . . until now. Documentary filmmaker Jeff Feuerzeig (The Devil and Daniel Johnston) tells her side of the story in his new documentary film Author: The JT Leroy Story. With an extensive interview with Albert and several of the people with whom she worked, the film presents the idea that the “hoax” had more to do with Albert’s creative imagination than any intention to willfully deceive her publishers and the general public. Feuerzeig recently phoned us to talk about his movie.
Talk about reaching out to Laura Albert. How did that process take place?
When the scandal broke in 2006, I was not aware of it nor had I heard of JT Leroy nor I had read the books. I was a blank slate. My whole life is devoted to non-fiction and new journalism. I’m always looking for a great story. A buddy of mine turned me onto the story a few years later. At the time, it was being called “the greatest literary hoax of our time.” That was the initial hook. It had generated a massive amount of ink. I read everything. I had this feeling that there was more to the story than we were being told. It turned out that I was right. The author of the fiction on and off the page had held back her story. At the point when I found her, she had been excommunicated by the literary community. She had been labeled a pariah. She been found guilty in a court of law for a signing the name JT Leroy on the contract for a movie option. She was financially ruined. She was basically curled up in a ball. I sent her my film, The Devil and Daniel Johnston, which deals vividly with the intersection of madness and creativity, a subject which I find infinitely fascinating. She watched it and it spoke to her. Based upon seeing my work, she decided to share her story with me. I came to learn that other documentarians had approached her and she had said no to everyone. That’s when we decided to go down this road together.
With a film like this, you have a huge amount of material. What method did you use to organize it all?
When I reached out to Laura, I had no idea how much self-documentation or archival material she had. When I made The Devil and Daniel Johnston it also had a massive amount of self-documentation including Super 8 films and audiotapes and notebooks and hundreds of photographs. I believed it was the biggest excavation of a documentary archive in history, though I don’t believe anyone is keeping score. Obviously, I couldn’t have known that Laura Albert had the same exact type of material. I would say even more. I went to her apartment in San Francisco and rented a minivan at the airport. When I got to her place, I had to turn around and go back to the airport and get a full size van. There was no way in hell it was going to fit in a minivan. There were multiple trips over the years. She had everything. She had audiotapes of herself at age 15 from the group home and hundreds of hours of tape recordings and incredible Super 8 home movies and her little girl notebooks. She had all these hotline numbers because I learned that she had a hotline addiction. There were hundreds of doodles, which I animated in the movie. None of it was organized. It took a year and a half to get through it all while I was making the movie. It’s a gift for the nonfiction films I make to have that material. It allows me to create a more immersive experience and puts you inside it. That’s the same thing I did with The Devil and Daniel Johnston. Without it, it’s difficult to create this style of film.
I’m sure plenty of duped people refused to be interviewed. How many people turned you down and what reasons did they give?
I don’t know if refused is the right word but respectfully declined is more correct. I didn’t keep score but the typical answer was “I really like The Devil and Daniel Johnston, but I would prefer not to be interviewed.” I respected that.
Writer Dennis Cooper was one of the guys that said yes. What were his reasons?
I don’t know if people gave reasons. They just accepted the invitation to speak about a unique experience. The people you see in the film, Ira Silverberg, who was the literary agent, and two of the excellent transgressive authors I came to read were very generous with their time. They enjoyed wanting to share this story. They are writers. It’s a non-fiction film and it’s a subjective film.
You interviewed the New York Times writer who broke the story. Will that footage be part of the DVD?
Absolutely. There are people who are not on camera in the film but are essential to the research. It was fantastic meeting him and learning from him what had transpired. David Milch also sat. What happened was that once Laura Albert’s eight-day interview had taken place, it was clear that she was a fantastic storyteller and it was my dream that she would carry the film. I couldn’t possibly know that she would hold our attention for two hours but she did.
Did she have any say over the final cut?
The rules that I’ve operated for all these years is that I have final cut and that you change one frame or we won’t go down that road together. She had no say whatsoever. That’s what takes place. I know some people do that but they seem to be celebrity pieces and I’m not interested in that.
Laura objects to it all being called a hoax. If she had written fiction, no one would have called her a hoax. But she passed off the work of fiction off as a memoir, didn’t she?
I don’t think you explained that correctly. As you learn in the film, she did not publish as memoir but she published as fiction. All the books were published as fiction. Because the pen name was also fiction, people largely took it as memoir. But they were not published as memoir. Would you like to re-ask the question?
Then why did it create such a scandal? You can make up whatever you want. Was it the way the publisher presented it?
It’s a true story, and I just report how it’s reported. Because there was so much deceit in this crazy journey, it was called a hoax. Laura, as you hear in the film, says it was not a hoax. A hoax is preplanned. This was an organic journey filled with massive amounts of deceit, probably more deceit than we have ever seen before. It wasn’t all preconceived. You couldn’t preconceive years of this ahead of time. That was interesting to me to explore and learn how organic this was. As you see in the film, what I found fascinating was how forthcoming she was about the entire saga of JT Leroy which is filled with deceit. She’s forthcoming about that as well as the backstory of her childhood, which was rather tragic.
Do you think she’s telling the truth about her childhood?
What you’re asking is fair given how much deceit there was in the saga. I was able to verify all the multiple institutionalizations are one hundred percent true. I was able to verify through multiple tellings when she’s 15 of the sexual and physical abuse as well as in writing of letters at the age to her mom and dad. I was able to verify everything. I met the other girls from the group home. They’re now older women. As crazy as it sounds, the hotline addiction, which is something I had never heard of before though I am familiar with the textbook addiction of going to food to keep the predator away, but the hotlines I could verify because I found her notebooks filled with the numbers. I saw boxes of phone bills that were enormous because she spent her whole teenage years on the phones. All those stories, I was able to verify. I understand the doubt. Maybe that’s what makes this type of storytelling interesting. Before she enters the screen, other journalists have said she’s a textbook definition of an unreliable narrator because she’s told so many lies. Because she’s held her story back for some many years, this was her chance to share and I couldn’t have predicted what she would say. Any road we wanted to go down, she went down. There was nothing she wouldn’t talk about.
In a sense, the film makes the case that she’s a literary talent that got a raw deal after the scandal broke. What do you think will become of her?
I read the books after she watched Devil. It’s a coincidence I was a fan of Southern gothic literature in college, particularly Flannery O’Connor and Harry Crews. I thought they were fantastic writings. I wasn’t think about her or JT. I got lost inside the story. I’m reading it years after she was unmasked. I love the books and wanted to honor that great art, which is no different than Daniel Johnston. Great art often comes out of madness. I wasn’t interested in moralizing. Both of the books have been republished by Harper Collins. After the daze, she got a breakthrough and has been writing her memoir for a couple of years now. I’ve seen pages. That’s her goal. She wants to finish it and have it out under her own name. She hopes to have that out by the end of next year. That’s what’s happening. People who have seen the film are interested in re-reading the books or reading them for the first time. The film has many revelations. There were reasons that she wrote as a man that were impossible to know in 2006. I just thought it was the wildest story about a story that I ever heard. That’s why I chose to tell it.