An interview with Fenton Bailey By Nick Prescott

in 52th Sydney Film Festival

by Nick Prescott

Nick Prescott: Can I begin by asking about the controversial subjects you’ve often chosen to make films about – you’ve made films about Monica Lewinsky, Tammy-Faye Bakker, and now Linda Lovelace and Deep Throat. Is there a sense in which you’re an investigative journalist as well as a filmmaker?

Fenton Bailey: Well, we’re not so much interested in controversy in its own sake, as these subject areas just intrigue us, I suppose. It often feels that these are subjects that are over-exposed but in many ways under-revealed. Even though everybody’s heard of Linda Lovelace or Deep Throat, we feel for example that the story of the film hasn’t really been told before, and so this is an opportunity to tell a story that I think people would be interested to know about; I think that’s often what motivates us.

NP: Regarding the recent rise of the documentary in mainstream cinemas (with the works of people like Michael Moore and Errol Morris and others), are your films a part of this emergence of documentary as a force in mainstream culture and debate?

FB: It’s lovely to be compared with those films – I hope our films do as well as theirs do – I think that the great thing is that technology has brought filmmakers so many more opportunities to tell stories in a whole variety of ways, and that documentaries have now been able to cast off, I think, the stereotype that they have of being earnest, worthy and quite boring. I think the renaissance of the documentary medium is very, very strong, and the key to it is that people are telling stories now in a much more subjective and personal way, rather than striving for this old-fashioned sense of objectivity, which really is a bit of a myth, and a bit futile, really, and I think that now that the audience members themselves are so much more sophisticated and understand that in the ‘media universe’ that we live in, with zillions of channels, and magazines and radio, you can as a consumer get multiple perspectives about any one thing, and it isn’t a question of watching just one film and being presented with the supposedly balanced truth; the truth is many, many, many different perspectives, and perhaps you can glimpse the truth when you see all of those.

NP: I think that Inside Deep Throat has an extraordinarily “cinematic” aesthetic – you’ve used a lot of fascinating visual and aural techniques to tell this story; it isn’t just talking heads . Is there a sense in which they are working very deliberately with a kind of cinematic look and feel – is that part of the way you chose to tell this story?

FB: I think we were trying to make a “film”, or a “movie”, rather than a documentary. We didn’t want the audience to be sitting there thinking that they were watching a documentary: we were therefore determined to keep it under two hours long, and use every device that we felt enhanced, and helped us to tell, the story. It wasn’t so very long ago that people looked askance [at such techniques]. One of our early documentaries, Party Monster, contained re-enactments. I remember at Sundance it was all a big issue; people were looking askance at the fact that a documentary filmmaker was using re-enactments. We weren’t trying to pass off these re-enactments as reality, and it seemed to us that the audience was evolving a really sophisticated understanding of the different kinds of media they’re being presented with. I think we’ve continually made the mistake of underestimating the audience’s intelligence, and especially their visual literacy. I think at this stage audiences are far more visually literate than they are textually literate. They know how to decode re-enactments, and how to order all these different forms and experiences and combine them to understand that they are all part of a sort of quilt that is the way that you can tell a story.

NP: I wanted to talk about the relationship that your film may or may not have with recent feature films about the adult film industry, and I’m thinking specifically about Paul Thomas Anderson’s film Boogie Nights. Is there a relationship between his film and yours?

FB: Well, I love Anderson’s film, and we weren’t actually thinking about Boogie Nights when we made our documentary, but people have reminded us that there are a couple of songs from Boogie Nights that are in Inside Deep Throat – and I guess that’s okay, right? [Laughing.] I mean, the story that Boogie Nights is telling is a true story, a story about how video blew the “auteur filmmaker” out of the water, and I think that is an element within our story, but also I think that Hollywood was never, ever going to embrace hardcore sex and sexuality, and so it wasn’t just video that “did in” the vision of independent filmmakers like Gerard Damiano, it was many more factors, and we touch on those, I think, in our film.

NP: Yesterday I saw a copy of the soundtrack to Deep Throat in a CD store. The film now seems to have entered popular culture in an extraordinary way; it has moved somehow from being a hardcore feature about sex to being adopted into wider popular culture. Is it the most significant adult feature ever made?

FB: Yes, it’s certainly the most notorious, or maybe the most known adult film. It’s certainly the most profitable adult film. I think there are other significant adult films; Damiano’s The Devil in Miss Jones is an amazingly intense film that is actually a sort of essay, I think, on the “frustration machine” that is pornography, and the fact that it excites desires that it cannot satisfy. So I think there are other [notable] films, but Deep Throat has definitely reached a sort of iconic status. Linda Lovelace wasn’t just famous, wasn’t just internationally famous, she was like a universal reference-point, you know, and people, years later, who have never seen the film, who weren’t even born when the film was made, who don’t even know what the film was about, know the name Linda Lovelace and know the name Deep Throat . I think Linda’s tragedy, ultimately, isn’t so much her exploitation by the adult film industry, as it is the fact that this one event in her life defined her entire life, because she wasn’t – unlike Madonna – someone who wanted to be famous. She was happy just to hang out with her grandchildren. I think that is the truth, and I think she found the level of fame and notoriety kind of unwelcome. It certainly defined her entire life, and that’s kind of sad.

NP: When dealing with this kind of sensitive and provocative subject matter, do you, as a filmmaker and documentarist, have to function as a lawyer and as a psychologist as well?

FB: Well, a lawyer, yes, because it’s a minefield, dealing with subject matter like this; there’s lots of things to take into consideration. A psychologist? Well, to some extent. I think we were reluctant though to presume too much and to kind of put words or ideas into Linda Lovelace’s mouth – I think so many people have done that for her, that we just tried to tell the story as she told it herself, and unfortunately for us she died before we started the film, so that kind of limited the extent that we could go into her story.but there is one thing she did that really stuck with us both: she watched the original film a few weeks before she died, and called up her friend the next day, and her final words about Deep Throat and her role in it were: “What is the big deal?”. I think that is really telling. It’s not a statement, it’s not “Every time you watch the film you’re seeing me being raped”; it’s a question, and who knows what’s behind that question, other than perhaps “Why did this thing have to define my entire life?”

NP: Moving from Inside Deep Throat to the future, do you have plans for what’s up next? Is there a project you’re developing now?

FB: Yes, actually. We have optioned a book called “Michael Jackson Was My Lover”. It’s based on the Jordy Chandler case (he’s the one who got the got the settlement from Michael Jackson for tens of millions of dollars back in 1993). Basically, he kept a diary of his relationship with Michael, which was published by a Chilean journalist in this book, and we’ve optioned the book and we’re turning it into a feature film. We’re in the middle of the script right now, so it should be – interesting.