Director Matt Tyrnauer on making ‘Studio 54,’ finding the story beyond the sex, drugs and disco
October 4, 2018
Before the surprising and illuminating documentary "Studio 54" screened to a sold-out audience at Aspen Filmfest last weekend, Aspen Film Executive Director Susan Wrubel took the stage and asked if anyone in the crowd had actually been to the fabled Manhattan nightclub during its brief run four decades ago.
The vast majority of audience members in the orchestra seats enthusiastically raised their hands. (In the few minutes between the time I sat down and the lights dimmed in the Wheeler Opera House, two strangers in my row also managed to tell me they got in.)
So, audience-wise, Studio 54 is a thornier subject for documentarian Matt Tyrnauer than one might imagine: a mythic discotheque with a living audience invested in seeing the legend burnished and their youthful coolness celebrated; it's also in part an actual myth, much repeated through the decades about an exclusive utopia of flesh, fashion, cocaine and celebrity.
"Studio 54 is a story that everyone thinks they know, but they don't really know," Tyrnauer said on Saturday in an interview at Gorsuch Ski & Café in Aspen. "The trick with a movie like this is you need to make it both for the people who were there, who want to see it and have it reflect their reality, and you want to make an immersive experience for people who never set foot there, so that they can feel the satisfaction of what it must have been like."
His clear-eyed chronicle serves both of those masters, while steering clear of the glittery, celebrity-mad depiction we've all seen and read before. His "Studio 54" is a darker, sadder story than you might expect — the tragic denouement of the period of sexual freedom between the invention of the birth control pill and the advent of the AIDS plague.
"I knew I didn't want to do the sex, drugs, disco, celebrity film," Tyrnauer said.
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Instead, he wanted to look at it as social history. The club was the locus of an ecstatic moment of gay liberation and trans refuge during its 33-month run from 1977 to 1980, before giving way to AIDS and the conservative Reagan era.
"It's the volcanic last moment of the sexual revolution," he said. "When you play it out, it unavoidably becomes a very tragic story."
More subtly, the film — which begins its theatrical run Friday in New York — suggests that 54, which invented the now-ubiquitous velvet rope and the door policy, also birthed the concept of "FOMO" and the miserable-making lifestyle porn of Instagram. It suggests that maybe we cling to Studio 54 in our collective memory as a fabulous paradise because it symbolizes all we lost to AIDS and the Reagan revolution.
But there is also great joy here (and plenty of famous faces in old photos). Early on, the film gives viewers a heart-pounding play-by-play of what it was like to walk into the club — out of the hordes outside, through a mirrored hallway and into the inner sanctum filled with beautiful people, shirtless waiters and throbbing dance music. It makes fantastic use of never-before-seen film footage — shot by a group of NYU film students but not developed until Tynauer dug it out of an upstate New York attic — that places the viewer thrillingly on the dance floor.
"You walk through those blacked-out doors and you're in another world," one club-goer explains in the film.
"Studio 54" also exquisitely details the nuts and bolts of how visionary co-owners Steve Rubell and Ian Schrager created the magic of 54 by harnessing the energy of gay clubs and combining it with an over-the-top theatrical experience that was lit and designed by Broadway professionals and cost $40,000 to $50,000 a night to produce.
And it recounts the hubris and recklessness that led to the club getting shuttered for a liquor license violation and then raided by the IRS, putting the Brooklyn-bred owners publicly at odds with Jimmy Carter's White House and sending both to prison for tax evasion.
The film's reason for being is that it has co-founder Schrager going on camera for the first time to talk about the rise and fall of Studio 54. Tyrnauer has known Schrager for some 25 years. One of his first assignments for Vanity Fair was to cover the opening of Schrager's Delano Hotel in Miami. Just 18 months ago, Schrager suggested the idea of making a documentary.
"He said, 'Do you think a movie on Studio 54 would be good?" Tyrnauer recalled. "And I said, 'Yeah, if you talked.'"
While he did agree to talk — even fielding questions about his financial crimes — that doesn't necessarily mean he's being honest. In the film, we see Schrager visibly squirm as he equivocates about ratting on other club owners to federal prosecutors, for example.
"I think people are allowed to be evasive and the audience might interpret what that evasiveness means," Tyrnauer explained.
Tyrnauer has coined the phrase "disco noir" to describe the milieu of the film, capturing the violent and bankrupt malaise of late-1970s "Taxi Driver"-era New York and the incongruous nightly bacchanal inside Studio 54.
"It seemed to me that this movie was the movie that Martin Scorsese forgot to make," he said. "It's about two outer borough guys who lose control of their tremendous rise and fall."
"Studio 54" is the latest in a remarkable run of three feature-length documentaries in about three years for Tyrnauer, following "Citizen Jane" about the urban preservationist Jane Jacobs and "Scotty and the Secret History of Hollywood" about the gay escort-to-the-stars Scotty Bowers. Tyrnauer is writing scripts to adapt all three into feature films.
Tyrnauer only recently left the masthead of Vanity Fair, the magazine where he made his name as a deep-diving and perceptive feature writer since the early 1990s. He's found a new home as a visual storyteller.
"I think I was a born documentarian in a certain way," he said. "I believe my magazine writing is similar to my documentary filmmaking. It's very observational. I thought it would be a good challenge for me to take a leap from that observational journalism to a visual documentary journalism."
He began his directing career with the acclaimed 2008 doc "Valentino," about fashion designer Valentino Garavani.
His next subject is the infamous attorney — and Donald Trump mentor — Roy Cohn, who pops up in Studio 54 as the club's lawyer.
"It was the mystical merging of me having made a 'Studio 54' movie and Donald Trump winning the presidency — me in a room watching Roy Cohn in archival footage and realizing that Trump is the child of Roy Cohn," Tyrnauer said of the project. "And being determined to make that movie because someone needed to do it."