The rise and fall of JT LeRoy has been a piece of strange, unresolved cultural flotsam for a decade. LeRoy was a literary sensation in the early 2000s following the publication of his novel and short story collection Sarah and The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things. These works were thought to be thinly veiled accounts of LeRoy’s life as a HIV-positive teenage prostitute who went from sex work in the truck stops of rural West Virginia to inhabiting the Tenderloin neighborhood of San Francisco, where he turned to writing to deal with his psychological trauma. Said to be debilitatingly shy, at first LeRoy never appeared in public, instead having others recite his work at readings. As LeRoy became more famous, this task was soon taken over by people like Winona Ryder, one of many celebrity admirers he cultivated friendships with, largely over the phone. Eventually LeRoy (the JT was an abbreviation of Jeremiah and Terminator) began appearing in the world, usually wearing oversize sunglasses and a wig.
While there were always innuendos around LeRoy’s identity, things started to come apart following a 2005 article in New York magazine that implicated Laura Albert, a 39-year-old woman from Brooklyn who had posed as LeRoy’s English manager/handler Speedie, as the true creator. Several months later, the New York Times published a piece that revealed that the person who appeared in public as JT LeRoy was really a woman named Savannah Knoop, the half-sister of Laura Albert’s partner and bandmate, Geoffrey Knoop. Soon Geoffrey Knoop admitted to the Times that Albert had written everything credited to JT LeRoy and conducted phone conversations as him. Amid this coverage, and over the following 10 years, Laura Albert rarely spoke. The second New York Times article ended with the lines, “Mr. Knoop said he did not believe Ms. Albert would ever admit to her role in the JT LeRoy scheme. ‘For her, it’s very personal,’ he said. ‘It’s not a hoax. It’s a part of her.’”
The depth of Knoop’s statement becomes clear in the new documentary Author: The JT LeRoy Story, which will be released this Friday. In it, director Jeff Feuerzeig has Laura Albert publicly give her perspective, as she reveals not only the trajectory of the JT LeRoy story, but her own history with gender identity, mental illness, and sexual abuse. Feuerzeig uses an array of devices to tell the tale — including home movies and taped phone conversations from Albert’s massive personal archive, animated passages of LeRoy’s fiction, and interviews with some of the others involved — but the focus is resolutely on Albert.
Two of Feuerzeig’s previous documentaries were The Devil and Daniel Johnston and Half Japanese: The Band That Would Be King, films about outsiders in the world of indie music. Albert has said part of the reason she trusted Feuerzeig was that they were both Jewish East Coast kids who were shaped by punk rock in the late ’70s and early ’80s. MTV News spoke with Feuerzeig about being selectively obsessive and why some generations might not understand what the big deal was about the Laura Albert/JT LeRoy controversy.
How do you pick what you want to make films about?
Jeff Feuerzeig: My whole life is nonfiction. There’s nothing I like more than a truth-is-stranger-than-fiction story. [Author] was brought to me by a buddy, a journalist, Paul Cullum. I didn’t know what a JT LeRoy was, nor had I heard of the scandal when it happened, nor had I read the books, so I was a blank slate.
At the time the scandal broke, it was being labeled, quote unquote, “the biggest literary hoax of all time.” It generated a massive amount of ink, and I read it all. But when I read it, I had this feeling that there was much to this story that we were not being told. The voice of the author, Laura Albert — the voice of the fiction both on and off the page — had held her story back. So I reached out to her. She had been excommunicated by the literary community, she had been labeled a pariah, she had been found guilty of fraud in a court of law for signing the name JT LeRoy to a movie contract, and she had been financially ruined by that trial. That’s the person who I found.
I sent her my film The Devil and Daniel Johnston, which deals vividly with the intersection of madness and creativity. It was at that point that she decided she would share her story with me. I came to learn that other documentarians and Hollywood [people] had approached her over the years, and she had said no to everyone, but because of The Devil and Daniel Johnston, she decided to go down this road with me.
The story broke and Laura Albert’s construction fell apart in 2006, but there have been a lot of changes in our culture and technology over these past 10 years. We have more language and understanding now about mental health and gender fluidity, and there are many more avenues or independent online outlets in which Albert could have responded if she didn’t trust the press to tell her side of the story. If this happened today, do you think the perception would have been different?
Feuerzeig: Many people have asked me what you’re asking, and I don’t have an answer for that. I will tell you what young people have been saying to me. I’ve now screened this film in London, Paris, and all over the States, and young people come up to me and they say, “What’s the big deal? Doesn’t everybody have an avatar?”
I didn’t grow up on the internet, so I don’t have an avatar. I can only say that perhaps it would be perceived differently now. Certainly that was not the point of the film. The gender fluidity is baked into the story; it was not the thesis, it just happens to be a zeitgeist moment. Laura speaks about that better than I’m able to address it. The point of the film, for me, was strictly to tell a true story and to tell it well. With all those themes in the saga of JT, it’s just there and it just happens to be 10 years later and the internet and culture has changed and it’s a different world now.
Would you say that Laura Albert was misunderstood when the scandal broke?
Feuerzeig: I’m not able to say that. Here’s the deal: The film is a subjective film, told by Laura Albert. And I love subjectivity. My biggest influence is New Journalism. My hero is the man in the white suit, Tom Wolfe. What I loved when I discovered the new journalism of Joan Didion, Gay Talese, Terry Southern, Norman Mailer, Lester Bangs, Hunter Thompson — the people who blew my mind with all different styles of writing — [was that] they chose subjectivity to get to a deeper truth. That’s my biggest inspiration of what I’m trying to do with nonfiction film.
[Author] does not judge or moralize, one way or the other. [Albert’s] story is filled with a massive amount of deceit, but I’m not her priest or her rabbi. That’s not my role. I’m her documentarian — that’s it. I’m interested in telling the story and letting the audience chew on those questions. The film raises many questions. It raises the question you just asked, but I can’t answer it.
When the scandal [breaks], the third act of the film puts you inside a media shit storm. You’re hearing the mosaic of reactions to what happened at the moment. That was exciting and visceral to me. You’re hearing:
A. “You’re a heretic and I want to burn you at the stake. How dare you?” That’s a valid reaction for some people based on the proximity they had to JT LeRoy or perhaps even the books.
B. “This is the greatest thing since sliced cheese. This is fantastic. Oh my god, this is even better.” That’s valid.
C. Some people who are totally neutral and OK with the whole thing.
Therefore, all are correct. It’s subjective to how you felt, and I would not take that away from anybody.
Since your films incorporate so many different methods of communicating information — your interviews with the main subject, interviews with other people, archival footage, animations — I imagine you have this mass of material to work with. How do you corral all of that and shape it into a film?
Feuerzeig: It’s complicated. I’m editing and writing and shooting all the time. I don’t go shoot and then go edit. That’s my sandbox that I play in.
I didn’t know Laura had all those materials, and so did Daniel Johnston. In the history of self-documentation, I think they both win. Nobody is necessarily keeping score, but I believed that after I made Devil that it was the biggest documentary excavation of an archive ever taken on. And Laura beat him. She had the same stuff — audio vérité, Super 8 home movies, thousands of photos, early childhood notebooks — you name it, they had it. Those materials allow me to create an immersive journey. It comes back to making a subjective, three-act, antihero’s journey, which is the goal.
The type of nonfiction filmmaking I’m doing doesn’t necessarily have a name right now. Brett Morgen with The Kid Stays in the Picture certainly did it. James Toback did it with Tyson. Certainly Errol Morris has done it with The Unknown Known and The Fog of War and Tabloid. And those are all great films, I love those films, but those are a small pile in this thing called documentary now. So whatever, I’m happy to be in this [category]. It’s not necessarily a genre, but it’s a subsect of nonfiction filmmaking. Subjective is definitely a separate category, and I’m proud to be in there, because it’s fun.
To get to what you’re asking, personally, years ago I had this idea that you could take all these disparate ideas that I loved that came out of New Journalism and Woody Allen and Stanley Kubrick films — internal monologues, the type of cutting I’m doing, animation, and point-of-view recreations without actors. I believed that they could coexist in a three-act narrative, and that’s what I've been doing, and it seems to be working. But you don’t know. It’s a living experiment.
While you’re in the middle of it, is it overwhelming?
Feuerzeig: One hundred percent overwhelming. I swear to god, it’s tough. I have a wall, a big wall, my wall is massive, and it’s filled with index cards. You’ve probably read about David Lynch or someone with his x-amount of cards on the wall. Those index cards are very important.
And then you’ve got three acts, and the three acts are God. And you’re trying to make three acts. It doesn’t mean you can’t mess around with structure and time, which I do with [Author], but you still have three acts to satisfy. A lot of the cards get winnowed away. There are some great scenes that go away in order to hopefully reach what [Werner] Herzog calls “the ecstatic truth.”
I read that you did eight interviews with Laura.
Feuerzeig: Eight days.
Was that all in a row?
Feuerzeig: In a row.
You never brought her back in while you were editing the film?
Feuerzeig: No, because you can’t. It will never match.
But what if you had extra questions?
Feuerzeig: It doesn’t matter.
Because you got what you got?
Feuerzeig: No. Eight days is a long time. Most people don’t do eight days. Eight days is massive. I prepared for that for over six months. I immersed myself in the archives and all the research first, then I did the interview.
Then you interviewed the other people in the film afterward?
Feuerzeig: I believe I did. I think I talked to her first. I don’t think it would have made sense to talk to anybody before that. It was a two-year process, so I’m trying to remember the order. I’m not sure it matters. I wanted to hear her tell the story. It turned out she was a great storyteller.