LeRoy Was Here: Jeff Feuerzeig’s ‘Author’ tells the untold story of a literary scandal

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“I thought it was the wildest story about story I had ever heard.”

Filmmaker Jeff Feuerzeig is talking about the saga of JT LeRoy, the literary sensation who earned high acclaim in 1999 for his novel Sarah and collection of short stories entitled The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things. What made LeRoy especially fascinating was his past as a heroin-addicted, cross-dressing teenage truck-stop prostitute from a broken home in West Virginia. This singular young wunderkind attracted legions of celebrity fans, among them Lou Reed, Courtney Love, Tom Waits, Winona Ryder, Gus Van Sant and Bono. Then, in 2005 and 2006, articles in New York magazine and The New York Times revealed that JT LeRoy did not exist, but was in fact a middle-aged mother from Brooklyn named Laura Albert; when the media swirl began, Albert had sent out her sister-in-law, Savannah Knoop, in a blonde wig and sunglasses to pose as the shy, elusive JT in public appearances, with Albert herself often on the sidelines, posing as a British confidant named “Speedie.” The general response was scorn and outrage over this elaborate literary deception.

“I didn’t know anything about JT LeRoy when the story broke in late 2005,” Feuerzeig says. “I didn’t know beans. But I used to be a huge reader of The New York Press back in its heyday in the late ’80s into the ’90s. So I read all of those writers, and I kind of remembered JT having a byline doing these celebrity pieces… But I was a blank slate. I hadn’t read the books, nor had I heard about the story when it broke.

“Then my buddy Paul Cullum said, ‘Hey, you oughta check this out, this might be up your alley.’ Simple as that. I’m always looking for a great story, and there was quite a bit of ink generated around the scandal, so I read all those pieces. And there were some well-written, great pieces. But after reading them, two things hit me. First of all, the initial hook was the same for everybody: It was being called the biggest literary hoax of our time. But after reading all those pieces, I believed there was much more to the story than we were being told, and of course there was one voice glaringly missing from all these accounts: the voice of the author of the fiction on and off the page, Laura Albert. She had held her story back, and I said: Wow! That’s the voice I would like to hear. I would love to hear that point of view. It seems to me that would be fascinating.”

The result, Author: The JT LeRoy Story, opening Sept. 9 from Magnolia Pictures and Amazon Studios, is indeed fascinating, a first-person account of the traumas and demons that led Albert to create her teenage avatar and to perpetuate the charade once her writing gained notoriety. It’s told in a kaleidoscopic style that incorporates Albert’s riveting on-camera account of her journey and her readings of her fiction brought to life with animation. Feuerzeig was also able to tap Albert’s voluminous personal archives: “She had thousands of photos. Her mother had started the process with elaborate photo albums, all with little details and notes. Every article she had ever written, the first thing she published as a young girl, drawings, doodles, all these young-girl notebooks including pages and pages of telephone hotline numbers, because she had a hotline addiction, and hundreds and hundreds of little boy-girl doodles in the margins, which I animated. It just kept going.”

That hotline addiction birthed the JT persona. As the film ultimately reveals, Albert was a victim of sexual abuse at a very young age, an experience that found its way into her searing fiction (and spurred her to adopt other personas as a defense mechanism). Telephone hotlines were a frequent refuge, and on one of those calls, posing as a boy named “Terminator” (the “T” in JT), she formed a bond with sympathetic therapist Dr. Terrance Owens, who suggested that Terminator channel his feelings into writing. The JT phenomenon started when Albert reached out to some authors she admired and received glowing feedback. As Albert explains it, her burgeoning success wasn’t a calculated move but “an accident.”

Feuerzeig comments, “Hopefully what I hope the film does show is…initially it was called a hoax, and though there’s a lot of deceit throughout the journey—Laura is the first one to tell you that—it was a very organic journey. The story I found was someone who felt like a zero and had so much self-loathing, she felt she just didn’t have any value, and that manifested itself in her weight and food disorders and telephone addiction and wanting to be a boy—it’s a very unique psychology and behavior. And she goes through a metamorphosis. She’s obviously very creative and she found a voice to express herself. Fiction was her oxygen. Being on the telephone was also like live writing. She told me when she would call it was like a one-armed bandit—she never knew who would pick up on the hotlines and she never knew where the stories were going to go.”

Feuerzeig won Albert’s trust largely due to his Sundance prize-winning 2005 film The Devil and Daniel Johnston, about the cult singer-songwriter and his battle with schizophrenia. “She watched it and it really resonated with her, because it deals so vividly with the intersection of madness and creativity,” the director notes. And, like Albert, Johnston had a massive amount of personal archival material which the director drew on for his “immersive” approach.

“Then it was on me. I read Sarah first—I read it in one sitting… I was a huge fan of Southern Gothic literature in college, I devoured every word Flannery O’Connor had written, and Tennessee Williams hit me hard. Reading Sarah, it was obvious to me that this was similar to the Southern Gothic literature that I loved, it was out of that tradition. I thought it was fantastic writing and I loved it.”

Feuerzeig spent eight days filming Albert addressing the camera. “It was all on her—it’s a subjective film on purpose, I love subjectivity. I admire The Kid Stays in the Picture, James Toback’s Tyson, The Unknown Known, The Fog of War—those are all singular films with one voice. And my goal was to do that with Laura… Maybe I shouldn’t have been surprised—she was a fantastic storyteller on camera. She wanted to tell her story and she shared everything, very openly, including all her deceit. She didn’t hold anything back.

“Everyone who felt betrayed had every right to feel betrayed,” Feuerzeig declares. “There was a mosaic of responses of how people felt when it all broke. What I found was that how they felt was often based on people’s proximity to the story. I tried to reflect that in the film: You get to hear what was happening in the moment the day it broke, on the answering machine. Some people were saying, ‘Oh my God, this is horrible, I’m totally betrayed,’ and that’s valid. Other people were like, ‘This is the greatest thing since sliced cheese, it’s fantastic.’ Some people like Gus Van Sant were totally cool about it. I tried to reflect a mosaic of responses in the film, but in the moment.”

As you watch Albert’s story play out, a sense of foreboding creeps in. “Act three is a media shitstorm taking place as it’s happening,” Feuerzeig observes. “It’s like a thriller, you’re on the edge of your seat. I believe I was able to create much better cinema. I’m not a fan of conventional talking-head films, nor conventional moralistic wrap-ups. This film doesn’t judge. That’s a choice.”

Albert did have some strong allies when the scandal erupted, people with whom she had confided her true identity, like rock star Billy Corgan and writer-producer David Milch, for whom she worked on an episode of “Deadwood.” “She wanted to become beautiful and come into her own, and she started to do that,” Feuerzeig notes. “After all those years of being a Cyrano-like figure to her own creation, she starts stepping into the spotlight, at least privately to Corgan and Milch. And she starts to write under her own name, and then it all comes apart.”

Author premiered at last January’s Sundance Film Festival to exuberant crowds, and the film has been making the festival rounds since, often with Albert in attendance. Albert is working on her memoirs, and Sarah and The Heart is Deceitful are being reissued this summer by HarperCollins, the latter with seven “lost” stories and an introduction by Feuerzeig.

At screenings, the director says, “Young people who grew up on the Internet come up to me and say, ‘What’s the big deal? Doesn’t everybody have an avatar?’ People coming to the movie clean with no baggage have been reacting very much that way. And other people who thought they knew the story learn a hell of a lot more through this film.”

Feuerzeig says he’s “thrilled” that Amazon acquired the film at Sundance. “Ted Hope [head of production at Amazon Studios] was the executive producer of The Devil and Daniel Johnston, so we have a long-term relationship. He was always very supportive of this film. The Amazon model and the Netflix model are the new model. The difference is that Amazon does a true theatrical [release] with a 90-day window, and then it’s VOD. I like the model, I love going to the theatre. I hope we can promote a cinema-going culture with young people, because we seem to have lost them. To quote Bob Berney at Amazon when he bought the film, he said, ‘We believe this is a documentary that people who don’t watch documentaries will go to.’ Because it plays in such a captivating way.”

Like Albert, Feuerzeig has roots in the ’80s punk-rock music scene; his first feature, in 1993, was Half Japanese: The Band That Would Be King, about the cult rock band. His recent work includes The Real Rocky (2011), a one-hour documentary for ESPN Films about boxer Chuck Wepner, who inspired the Sylvester Stallone character Rocky Balboa, and the USA Network short “The Dude,” about Jeff “The Dude” Dowd, the colorful producer’s rep who inspired the Jeff Bridges character in the Coen Brothers’ The Big Lebowski. With Jerry Stahl, he co-wrote the screenplay for the upcoming Liev Schreiber-Naomi Watts feature The Bleeder, and he’s currently writing a narrative film about Mingering Mike, “an African-American outsider artist who went AWOL during Vietnam and hid in his own bedroom for seven years, and in his mind became the biggest R&B star in the world.”

As a filmmaker, Feuerzeig says his greatest inspiration is the New Journalism of the late ’60s and early ’70s. “It’s all about Tom Wolfe, the man in the white suit, and Gay Talese, Terry Southern, Norman Mailer, Joan Didion, all those writers. That was my biggest influence in making these films, not actually watching other films. It’s my version of taking the ideas of New Journalism and subjectivity and applying them to documentary. [Werner] Herzog said it best: Through subjectivity you’re trying to find the ecstatic truth. I find that to be fascinating.

“I worked with Albert Maysles and I love the Maysles and [D.A.] Pennebaker. But I don’t do anything like that—those are vérité films… When I got into all this, outside of the ’60s and Pennebaker and Maysles and the idea of vérité and direct cinema, which was fantastic, documentary was really stale. And I had this idea that [documentary] was the last vestige of truly independent film and you could empower yourself in very DIY, punk-rock way and go make something unique. I saw it as a really blank canvas to paint on. Whereas narrative filmmaking just seemed unattainable, because of the packaging and getting actors. I felt doc was a way to paint on a larger blank canvas and try all these crazy new ideas I had coming out of New Journalism, whether it’s point-of-view recreations or animation or internal monologue. I thought I could apply that to a three-act narrative and blur the idea of ‘I saw a great documentary.’ I hope people walk away saying, ‘I watched a really great film.’ Documentaries don’t have to be the redheaded stepchild to narrative film.”