Documentary goes down the rabbit hole with JT LeRoy
If You Go…
What: ‘Author: The JT LeRoy Story,’ presented by Aspen Film and the Aspen Institute
Where: Paepcke Auditorium
When: Monday, Aug. 8, 7 p.m.
How much: $20
Tickets: Wheeler Opera House box office; http://www.aspenshowtix.com
More info: Director Jeff Feuerzeig and Laura Albert, the writer behind the ‘JT LeRoy’ persona, will participate in a post-screening Q&A via Skype.
JT LeRoy published two bestselling books and drew legions of fans and celebrity admirers — the enigmatic HIV-positive, ex-prostitute novelist was a literary sensation.
But LeRoy also was a fiction, it turned out, invented by San Francisco writer Laura Albert. The revelation of Albert as the author of the LeRoy books was a massive literary scandal a decade ago, branded as a “hoax” in the media. Yet as the spellbinding new documentary “Author: The JT LeRoy Story” demonstrates, the LeRoy saga was far more complex than it seemed.
The film will screen Monday night as part of Aspen Film and the Aspen Institute’s New Views documentary series at Paepcke Auditorium. It is scheduled for a Sept. 9 theatrical release.
Albert gives her side of the story in the film, walking the viewer through a life where taking on different identities and personas was a survival tool, where writing as Jeremiah “Terminator” LeRoy allowed Albert a freedom she didn’t have as herself.
Filmmaker Jeff Feuerzeig, who won a directing award at Sundance for “The Devil and Daniel Johnston,” hadn’t followed the scandal as it broke in New York Magazine and the New York Times in 2006. But a few years ago, when a friend suggested he dig into it, the documentarian grew fascinated with Albert, devoured the LeRoy books and read through the reams of media attention that the scandal drew. He was shocked to find that Albert had never told her side of the story at length.
“There was one voice glaringly missing and that was the author of the fiction on and off the page: Laura Albert,” Feuerzeig recalled in a phone interview last week. “I was hooked on the saga. But I kept thinking, ‘There has to be so much more to this story that we don’t know.’”
He sent Albert a copy of the Daniel Johnston documentary, which helped convince her to open up to him on camera (Albert did not participate in the making of a previous documentary, 2015’s “The Cult of JT LeRoy”).
“This was her chance to finally tell her side of the story,” Feuerzeig said. “And to me that’s the most important side of the story.”
He filmed her over the course of eight days as she told her life story and detailed the creation of JT LeRoy and the web of lies that grew around the persona.
“She was incredibly forthcoming, especially about her deceit,” Feuerzeig said.
The film is propelled by extraordinary archival material, including childhood drawings and Albert’s recordings of phone conversations. We hear her calling a therapy hotline (as “Terminator”) and being encouraged to write the stories that would become the JT LeRoy books. We listen in on conversations between LeRoy friends and admirers from Smashing Pumpkins frontman Billy Corgan to filmmaker Gus Van Sant and rocker Courtney Love (who is heard apparently snorting drugs over the phone).
Albert kept the tape rolling on phone calls and conversations as the scandal broke, which means we hear messages from investigating reporters, supportive calls from friends who stuck around and one key rejection from a loved one.
All of this material is a documentarian’s dream. At times it seems quite literally incredible, given the subject. But the self-documentation is all real. Feuerzeig recalled going to Albert’s house in San Francisco to gather materials for the film. He brought a mini-van which, he found, couldn’t hold it all.
“We had to turn around and get a full-sized van because we could not contain the massive amount of all her childhood notebooks, dolls, Super 8 film, thousands of photos,” he recalled.
The scandal that played out in the media was that Albert was a frustrated writer who couldn’t get published, so she invented a male HIV-positive abuse victim and child prostitute as a more interesting author to sell to publishers. But, as we learn in the film, it wasn’t so simple. Albert had called hotlines as a boy since childhood, inhabiting different personas. She dated a man for several months in the guise of a British woman. She had used human avatars before LeRoy, too: dressing her sister up and creating a punk character to play in music clubs.
Albert began deceiving the public long after the writing. When demand for public appearance grew, she dressed up her sister-in-law as LeRoy to do public readings, to hobnob with celebrities and to walk the red carpet at Cannes. Albert herself began appearing as a British character named “Speedy” in LeRoy’s crew.
From Albert’s perspective — and there is no other perspective in the film — it all makes sense. “Author” makes you rethink the labeling of the affair as a “hoax.” It makes you wonder whether, if the JT LeRoy books had come out 10 years later in our age of gender fluidity, it would have played out differently for Albert. She didn’t plagiarize in a newspaper, like Jayson Blair. She didn’t make up events in a memoir, like James Frey. She wrote fiction and published it as fiction, albeit under what is probably literature’s most complex pseudonym.
“I found that it is an insanely crazy, convoluted, complex story — absolutely filled with a massive amount of deceit, which she cops to — but it was a very organic journey,” Feuerzieg said.
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