interview with Randy Barbato, Fenton Bailey and James St James
THE PARTY MONSTER MASH
an interview with Randy Barbato, Fenton Bailey and James St James – directors and writer of Party Monster.
For the review of Party Monster click here.
by Neil Young
N : Disco Bloodbath is a great title. Why did you change it to Party Monster?
J : Thank youuuuu! I can tell we’re gonna get along great.
F : Party Monster actually was the name of the documentary that came before Disco Bloodbath, and that actually helped to ‘birth’ Disco Bloodbath. And then Disco Bloodbath the book came, and we wanted the movie to be called Disco Bloodbath, but, the people who were giving us money refused to give us money unless we changed.
J : That’s what they say, that’s the story that they’re sticking by.
F : I’m saying that on the record – hello!
N : Maybe it sounds too much like a horror movie?
R : I think it was more a feeling of, not that there’s anything wrong with like ‘Die Mommie Die’.
J : They thought it sounded a little too camp.
N : And Party Monster sounds. butch?
J : ‘Disco Bloodbath’is a little ‘bottom’, ‘Party Monster’is a bit ‘top’ – it’s totally straight, ‘Disco Bloodbath’ is a bit gay. And this is a straight movie.
N : So, it started as a documentary, then you wrote the book.
J : The book works well with the documentary, but it stands on its own. It was just my account of what happened. So now they’ve turned my book into Party Monster.
F : Excuse me, but I remember, as you were finishing the book, I distinctly recall a conversation where you were like ‘Why don’t we just call the book ‘Party Monster’?’
J : (appalled) Where did you pull that out of?
F : I’m going to have to go through my e-mails.
J : You’re going to have to! To me, it’s terribly confusing, and people are going to see the movie, and go out to try and buy ‘Disco Bloodbath’, and they’re going to say ‘Disco Bloodbath is out of print’.
R : It says in very small print, ‘Previously published as ‘Disco Bloodbath’.’
J : But, I’m back in print again, so who am I to argue?
N : The subject of it is yourself (James) and Michael Alig. Previously Randy and Fenton’s movies have been about people who we’ve heard of like Monica Lewinsky. In England, I don’t know anybody who knew much about Michael Alig before this movie.
R : Honey, where have you been? It’s interesting though – joking aside, this story has had greater play in the UK than in the States. There’s just been an incredible fascination from the UK – the first publisher on board for James’s book was in the UK.
J : I got my UK deal before I got anything in America.
F : And the first money we got for the documentary was from Channel Four.
J : Michael has a real cult status in England.
F : Sure, he’s not as famous as Monica Lewinsky.
J : The story is out there, and the website gets 250,000 a week. People on the web – it’s a big thing.
N : What was it about this project that appealed to you as film-makers?
R : We’ve always been fascinated by fame and celebrity.
N : Variety called you ‘celebrity ambulance chasers.’
F : That’s great! I loved that review because it was kindof mean about the (Anna Nicole Smith) film, but then went on to describe the film in such a way that, had we not made it, I would have been, like ‘Omigod, I have to see this film!’ But it was simultaneously being kinda snotty.
R : You were talking about our obsession with celebrity. The interesting thing about the ‘Club Kids’ was that from the outset they were a kind of parody of fame. When Michael Alig first came to New York, no-one would pay any attention to him. The way for him to get noticed was for him to be a brat, to misbehave. He fed off the attention, and once he got on that ‘cycle’, he realised that was to get more attention, or to sustain the attention he got, was to do more bad things, and then more bad things, so it was kind of helter-skelter.
N : Until eventually the tail started wagging the dog, and he started to believe his own publicity?
R : I think that’s fairly fair to say. I think in a way everybody’s responsible for Michael Alig’s “success” because Michael Alig couldn’t have done anything without an audience egging him on.
N : In England we’ve seen films like The Last Days of Disco, and the Studio 54 movie – there’s lots of movies about the New York club scene.
F : There’s never been a good movie about the New York club scene. It’s one of those things that you just can’t capture on film – clubbing is a visceral experience.
R : There is one exception to that – 24 Hour Party People.
F : Oh, I haven’t seen it.
R : It’s fabulous!
N : In that film there’s also a very self-aware, self-referential tone, as in your film.
F : The problem with doing a club movie, is that whoever makes these movies, thinks that the clubbing experience is worth the price of admission. But this is really the story about two friends, the story of a murder, the story of how the murder changes the dynamic of the friendship. It’s character-driven and plot-driven, instead of just being about the crazy-wacky-people-in-a-nightclub. That’s the important thing – most of this movie isn’t in a nightclub.
R : There’s only one wide-shot in a nightclub.
F : Hallways and stuff like that. Mainly it’s just the story of these people who just happen to live their lives in nightclubs.
N : The image used in publicity shots is the fantasy sequence which would make people think the film was set in an amazing nightclub where people dressed up as angels.
F : Well, but there are a lot of crazy outfits anyway. I don’t think people are going to walk away thinking there weren’t enough costumes!
N : What percentage of the budget was spent on costumes on hair.
F : We had a tiny budget anyway, so we had a budget that was about 10 per cent of what it should be.
J : All the extras are actually ‘Club Kids’ who came in with a lot of their old outfits, and did their own makeup and their own hair, and helped with everybody else so that adds to the authenticity.
N : How accurate is Seth Green’s look? Were you more tame or wilder?
J : Some of them are actual outfits that I gave to Seth.
R : So he can’t deny the accuracy of those!
J : Right! I had given Seth a box of pictures of different looks that I had and he tried to recreate some of them. Sometimes it worked, sometimes it didn’t! I think it’s true to the spirit of the times, if not the letter of the actual look.
N : You’re taller than Seth.
J : Seth is a hobbit!
N : Chloe Sevigny isn’t the tallest woman in the world, and she towers over him.
J : Mac too – Macaulay [Culkin] is a little boy, and both of the two of them. Seth is my ‘Mini-Me.’
N : A reference to Seth’s alternative career in the Austin Powers movies.
J : The one that makes him money! So, a lot of Seth’s looks, you gotta give him credit – I remember when I first met him and we had dinner, I sat down and I started testing him. I said “You gotta have a blue face and antlers – you can’t have a blue face and not the antlers!”
N : The ‘Troll’ look works really well for Seth.
J : He never blinked when I was telling him this – he never questioned it. I would say “You gotta wear a hoop skirt and diapers!” and said OK. So he really did have no qualms about dressing like a complete idiot.
N : This is one film where you could never say anything was too much, presumably.
J : Yes, and that’s the essence of the scene, you know.
N : But when you were filming, was anything deemed ‘too much’ and taken out?
F : We took a lot of stuff out.
R : We took true stuff out, because we thought people won’t believe it, even though it’s true.
J : There was the time when Michael went to the club with ‘guilt’ written all over his face – he really did that after the murder, he wrote ‘Guilty’ and walked around.
F : That just didn’t feel real.
R : There’s a scene where Michael is on the way to the airport, and because he’s going to miss his plane he pulls the cab over and calls in a bomb threat, delaying the plane.
J : Michael really did do that – he would call in bomb threats all the time. But it just didn’t feel appropriate.
F : The costuming though, the stuff is really authentic – but there were one or two times where we deviayed from the facts. James probably wouldn’t have worn the ‘third eye’ in that ‘Troll’ look.
J : I said, green face or third eye, or a witchy-poo nose, but not all three at the same time. I’m a simple girl with a simple look! Keep it simple!
F : We made this effort to get the ‘Club Kid’ aesthetic and make it real, even though to most people it must seem completely insane and over-the-top.
N : Well, in England we had the New Romantics, which periodically threatens to make a comeback.
J : And you had the Taboo scene, with Leigh Bowery.
N : Some of the costumes are very reminiscent of Leigh Bowery.
R : Well, Michael Alig ‘bought’ Leigh Bowery, lock stock and barrel. Michael ripped a lot off from Bowery.
J : Both those scenes – the Taboo and the Club Kid scenes – were both at the same time, and there was a lot of give and take between the two. People would go back and forth. Leigh would over to the Club Kids – every time he would come over it was like lightbulbs going on in everyone’s head. It was like ‘Oh, that‘s what we’re trying to do!’
N : There’s a ‘mask-dress’ that’s completely Leigh Bowery – it might be a cast-off except he was a lot bigger.
J : The actual outfit was a Gaultier that was like a houndstooth print – I think Gaultier was giving homage to Leigh with that look. I think Leigh really was an inspiration to everybody, but both scenes were rising at the same time, and there was give and take on both sides.
N : Were people physically travelling between New York and London – in the eighties it was quite an expedition, and much more costly than now.
J : That’s why we remember. I remember every time Leigh came over, it was like a huge deal and everybody went to see wherever he was going to be. I remember the Bodymap kids coming over one time, and that was a huge deal that influenced New York fashion for a year to come. It wasn’t like now, where you just hop over and stuff. When they came over, it was a big deal.
N : It’s a little like in Hedwig and the Angry Inch where they go on their tour around America, and then there’s a big fanfare because they’ve “arrived” in New York.
J : That was one of Michael’s things too, he would organise these ‘Club Kid Tours’ and we would take a group of us to Cleveland, or Spokane, or wherever. We would go there and it would be a bunch of rednecks in a bar, open-mouthed, then we’d go back a year later and it was all Club Kid. So he would go and plant the seeds in Miami, or wherever.
N : A little like a Malcolm McLaren figure.
J : Or Charles Manson. A cross between Malcolm McLaren and Charles Manson!
R : He quite deliberately rolled out the Club Kid subculture nationwide by going on shows like the Geraldo show. And kids then literally picked up sticks wherever they were and went to New York.
N : As opposed to the Warhol scene, which was maybe more self-contained?
F : There wasn’t that media access. Subcultures remained subcultures in those days because the only people who were able to pick up on it were the people in Lower Manhattan.
R : When Midnight Cowboy came out Warhol was so pissed off and distraught, because his whole vision had been ripped off by Hollywood.
F : In those days the subcultures didn’t want to sell out, they didn’t want mainstream people. Even in the eighties, when the Club Kid scene started, the only place you could get your picture taken was in Details. There wasn’t much coverage of the club scene, there wasn’t social documentation.
R : I remember one morning when it was clear that the Club Kids were going to become a nationwide thing was when Michael Alig pulled off some kind of thing with Swatch at Macy’s. There was some kind of big Swatch event at Macy’s, and they were all in the windows doing a whole ‘thing’. I don’t know if you were invited, James.
J : Thanks a lot! Ten years laters and now you make me feel, like.
R : The thing was, it was a moment of like, oh my God, if the Club Kids are at Macy’s doing a promotional event for Swatch…!
N : Wasn’t that selling out?
J : Our whole idea was to sell out.
R : It was a spoof of celebrity right from the outset.
J : We wanted to be Zsa Zsa Gabor, or Jordan.
R : Posh Spice.
J : Exactly!
R : Posh Spice. she isn’t known as Victoria Beckham, she’s got a Club Kid name!
N : So it’s now fed into the mainstream.
F : The cover of The Face last month, it was Orlando Bloom, and it said ‘How a Club Kid from the sticks.’ And if you’d told me ten years ago that even the words ‘Club Kid’ would have been so current. It’s like, they don’t have to describe what a Club Kid is anymore. I think Michael succeeded on a larger level than he’s been given credit for.
R : Who did you say he was a cross between?
J : Malcolm McLaren and Marilyn Manson.
F : Charles Manson! “Aligula”.
N : Marilyn Manson, of course, appears in the film alongside Macaulay Culkin, who’s one of the two stars of the film.
R : There’s many stars in this film! They’re all stars!
N : An all-star cast. You’re on record as saying that the only actor you considered for this role was Macaulay Culkin – but he hadn’t acted in a movie for six years. Did you think luring him out of ‘retirement’ was a pipe-dream?
R : We lured him out of retirement.
J : They stalked him, they courted him.
F : It was years of major courting. Even before he did ‘Madame Melville’ in London – before he even decided to do that. Not only was he in retirement but he was also still suffering from agoraphobia in a major way.
J : He didn’t leave his apartment for two years.
F : We had these ‘meetings’ that would be set up. And we would find out the day before – we would have to meet at three o’clock at a certain bar, in the back of the Gramercy Park hotel, or something. These places that would be completely desolate. And he would come in with a hat and glasses, and he didn’t like to be out in public and I think in many ways this film has been a huge shift, and helped him. From when we first met him to Macaulay now, he comes out, he going to parties.
J : He knows how to work a room. At Sundance, Kieran [Culkin] came to support him and see the movie, and he didn’t want to go to the party afterwards. And Macaulay was like ‘We gotta go the party, we gotta work the room.’
N : So it gave him the confidence back – is he going to do more movies?
R : You know what happened, Macaulay was as a child star controlled by his father. And he decided as he became more of an adult that he just didn’t want to continue in that, so he stepped away from making movies. And I think that when he decided to act again in films, it was very much as his own decision-maker. When you read about what happens to most child stars, how it’s a short cut to. oblivion, and self-destructiveness. But he’s so down-to-earth and grounded.
F : For everything he’s been through he’s a really, like, together, rounded person. He went through his period – we all watched him, he got married at sixteen, had purple hair, and stuff. But he’s come through his child-stardom.
N : Great training for this movie, in a way.
R : He’s so opposite to someone like Michael Alig, who craves any kind of attention like oxygen. And Macaulay is the kind of person who shies away from any kind of attention. But they’re so opposite that they’re actually back-to-back, they’re two sides of the same coin.
N : And has Michael Alig seen the movie?
all : no.
N : Because in a conventional biopic, at the end of a movie, you find out what’s happened to the people since. You don’t do that, it just ends somewhat abruptly. What was the thinking behind that?
J : Well we don’t know what happens next at this point. Michael’s in prison, and the book and the movie have come out, so the next chapter hasn’t happened yet.
N : There’s not even ‘picture credits’ to show who played who.
F : We ran out of money when it came to the credits. Just plain ‘white on black.’
R : It’s also deliberate – this ride is going along, and it changes on you and gets really dark and then – bang – it’s over. The movie ends very very fast, there’s no soft landing, there’s no gentle, extended resolution of this and that, and picking up the bits. It’s a very unHollywood ending, like a neck-snap.
J : Which is how the Club Kid scene ended – it was like – it’s over! That’s very true to what happened. One day we were all traipsing around in ballgowns then the next day, we’re all in jail, or being hunted by the FBI!
N : But getting back to this complicated sort of cloak-and-dagger stuff behing getting Macaulay on board, at some point didn’t you just feel like saying ‘Sod it, let’s just get Jared Leto’ or somebody.
F : Jared Leto! He could have done it!
J : No-one else could do it. We wouldn’t have made the movie if Mac didn’t do it.
R : For a long time it looked like he wasn’t going to do it, so we thought ‘Who else could do it?’ and we came up empty-handed, we couldn’t think of anybody.
N : You’ve done lots of documentaries – non-fiction films. What was it about this story that made you think it would make a fictional feature film?
R : It’s a true story – even though it’s a narrative feature it’s still a true story. In some ways we shot it like it was a documentary.
J : I think when they were making the documentary they kept thinking ‘Gosh! This would be really great if they were just better looking, and said the words that we wanted them to say! We just don’t have enough control over these people!’
F : We never planned to make documentaries, we always planned to make dramatic features – and it took us like 20 years to do it. This was a story we knew, we knew the characters. We felt that we could do it, and do it right, and that nobody else could. We felt ‘We have to do this’.
R : Also, I think a lot of movies tell stories that don’t need to be told. Whereas I think this a story that’s so difficult and so unusual.
N : The Eyes of Tammy Faye contains those incredible clips of the TV-movie version of the same story, with Kevin Spacey. Was it a case that you were watching this cheesy TV movie, and thought –
R : – “Let’s make one!”
N : Will you do more fiction movies or documentaries?
F : We wanna do the Ben and J-Lo story!
N : Are there any British celebrities since you’ve been here, that you’d consider doing a movie on?
F : Gareth Gates! Oh my God, please God get me a date with Gareth Gates!
N : That might be difficult for a movie, because Gareth Gates is quite tall, and most people in movies aren’t tall.
F : Oh, I just wanna sleep with him! I thought that’s what we were talking about.
N : Do you see Gareth Gates as a kind of Club Kid modern equivalent.
J : Oh yeah! He would have been a really good. angel? No. He would have been a really good boyfriend for my character.
N : And do you watch things like Pop Idol?
J : I’m addicted to Heat magazine, so that’s where I get all my Jordan. Posh. Gareth news. It’s like Club Kids, they’re just famous for being famous. They’re cartoons of people, and I think that’s really appealing. I’ve always said that if you can reduce your look to like a caricature, or a cartoon, then that’s instantly translatable – and you can be branded. Like Jordan – she could be a cartoon, and you don’t lose anything. The surest way to fame is that if you can reduce your look to a cartoon.
R : Like RuPaul, I guess.
J : Exactly!
N : That was one thing in Britain that we picked up from Manhattan Cable, which you two were responsible for.
R : That was our idea – we were sitting in England, trying to watch TV, and there documentaries about fish on, and darts, and gardening. We thought, there are these amazing shows in New York and we miss them so much, these wacky public-access shows, so that’s where that idea came from.
N : There are also butch/camp aspects to darts of course, with some of the men getting dressed up in ridiculous outfits. It introduced a lot of British people to things in the early nineties – was that the rationale?
F : It was purely selfish. We were living in London at the time and we wanted something that we could watch on TV.
J : They made it for an audience of two!
F : Everybody who was on it were friends of ours, like the presenter, Laurie Pike. We needed a presenter and went through our Rolodex and took out ten names – I think yours was one of them James, but you ended up not making it to the final cut. Just like with Party Monster or with Tammy Faye or Monica, whatever we’re obsessed with that’s where we end up/
R : I do think it was also – and this sounds incredibly self-aggrandising – that Manhattan Cable was a turning-point for British television. Because it was the beginning of the end of that BBC-stuffy medium, and the beginning of a new type of programming.
N : That was how we’d first heard of RuPaul. Did Manhattan Cable discover or create RuPaul?
F : RuPaul created herself.
R : She was just waiting for the rest of the world to catch up, and we had a small part in that I guess.
N : What feedback have you got from British audiences so far?
F : The press seem to be nice about it.
J : I think it’s gonna do better over here than it will in America. It opens in San Francisco this week, then the official release is September 5th.
N : There is a niche for films like this – a little like Hedwig, The Last Days of Disco, 54.
J : You’re talking about movies about subcultures, and different aspects.
R : I’d say 24 Hour Party People was closer to what we’re doing, though we were shooting at the same time, so it wasn’t a case of one influencing the other.
F : The thing about subcultures today.
J : They don’t exist, because on the Internet there’s no way anything can be underground anymore, because the minute it happens, you’ve got 20,000 people in New Zealand logging on to catch the webcam of it. But it doesn’t allow subcultures to bubble up and define themselves before they get sold off in packagas.
F : There’s an upside to that, because there used to be this idea that ‘mainstream’ somehow needed to be protected from subcultures.
R : Manhattan Cable illustrates that point. Because there was a sense in TV that ‘these people don’t belong in TV’, these aren’t fit subjects for the ‘gravitas of the TV screen’. And we just said, Bullshit, we find these things really interesting, they should be on. And the audience felt that way.
F : I think the mainstream is now one big subculture, and mainstream has the ability to relate to the things everyone else feels the need to protect them from, and has a curiosity for that. The internet has brought together all these groups of people who felt marginalised, out from the underground. I think everybody can relate to that.
N : Unless you haven’t got a computer.
R : Oh, cafes!
F : But more and more, you’re not even going to need to do that, because all mainstream media. television. what’s happening on American television right now – any idea has the possibility to fly on American TV lately. Because there are so many channels, and the fringe is becoming more mainstream. There’s the fear that if you don’t entertain an idea, it’ll pass by and another network will pick it up. This has been revolutionary in the last couple of years, at least in America.
R : You just had it recently, with Queer Eye for the Straight Guy – which is on the face of it a niche format of four gay guys making over a straight guy. It starts out on a cable channel, gets huge ratings, and next week NBC is putting it on the network. That’s unheard of – it’s never happened before. The person sitting at home is watching television, and they give equal value regardless of whether it’s a network or a cable channel. BBC, Bravo, whatever. Any great idea is gonna cut through instantly. A great idea is a great idea!
N : You don’t fear that America is entering a new Eisenhower era, under Bush? There’s the movement by which these ‘subcultural’ ideas are breaking into the mainstream – is that strong enough to withstand the impact of the religious right? In five seconds!
F : The combination of what happened in the Supreme Court [re gay rights] and what’s happening on American television. the American people have already voted, they don’t care about Bush.
J : The extreme right is waning – they can’t fight the tidal wave that’s happening in culture right now.
R : That’s right. Someone said, aren’t you worried about a backlash against gay people under Bush? Media is what controls people’s lives – they don’t care what’s going on in the White House, it’s on TV.
F : When 10 million people tune in to a programme called Queer Eye for the Straight Guy it doesn’t matter what Bush says.
N : So when he makes these snotty comments about gay marriage never happening under his administration.
F : That was a direct response to the Supreme Court ruling, it happened two weeks later.
R : It illustrates that power has changed hands.
F : The opposition is always greatest at the moment it’s about to break.
R : The darkest hour is the hour before dawn!
Edinburgh International Film Festival, August 2003
For all the reviews from the 2003 Edinburgh Film Festical click here.
For a review of the film Party Monster click here.
by Neil Young