FENTON BAILEY AND RANDY BARBATO ON “PARTY MONSTER”

The new docudrama “Party Monster”–about the New York club kid culture of the 1990s, which centered on garishly ludicrous outfits and equally outrageous actions and culminated in the killing of one of its notable members (a drug dealer) by Michael Alig, the leader of the group–was preceded by a similarly-themed-and-titled “shockumentary” made by long-time non-fiction filmmakers Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato (“The Eyes of Tammy Faye”) in 1998. During a recent Dallas interview following the screening of the picture in the Deep Ellum Film Festival, the duo discussed the differences between the two projects.

“[People ask,] why would you make the film having made the documentary?” Bailey began. “As if it’s almost like telling the same story and doing the same thing over again. [But] from our perspective the documentary is part one of the story, and the film is like part two of the story. And really that’s the way it happened. We were literally finishing the documentary–in fact James [St. Clair, Alig’s mentor and confidant] was the last person we interviewed. He was sitting by the pool at the chateau, and he says…’Oh, Michael has always been awful,’ and there was this sort of stunned silence from us, because Michael and James have always been best friends, and he said, ‘Look, what’s the matter? Did I ruin the purpose of your documentary?’ And that last moment of the documentary is the first moment of the film.”

Barbato jumped in smoothly in a demonstration of their collaborative instincts. “Down to a T, literally,” he said. “We reshot it, [but] it was the same shot, the same location.”

“[At that moment] the light bulb went off,” Bailey continued. “It was like, oh, here’s this really interesting relationship between Michael and James, this love-hate [relationship]. We got James after that interview and said, ‘James, you really should write a book. You should write this story.’ So we persuaded him–with some cash money–to actually write the book.” St. James’s account, “Disco Bloodbath,” then served as the major source of the script by Bailey and Barbato.

“And the relationship has gone on,” Barbato added. “To the extent where like Friday Michael called us from prison…He’s somehow managed to get every single piece of press about the film sent to him in prison, and I guess he sits there with a highlighter and highlights everything we say…And he’s threatening to sue James St. Clair because of the things James is saying about him. The two of them are really competitive about [the portrayals of them]. They’re still competing about who came off better in the movie.”

But the focus of “Party Monster” isn’t just the relationship between Alig [played by Macaulay Culkin] and St. James [played by Seth Green], but the whole movement they represented and its influence on the wider culture. The last element was, as Barbato put it, “a key part of our obsession with the story. Because the thing about Michael Alig is that he couldn’t exist without the audience…There is this intoxicating power that he had–his bad behavior was intoxicating. It was refreshing. He would pee in someone’s drink, and everone would giggle. He would do these things and get away with them.”

Bailey added: “He was naughty, but everyone loved it.” Barbato finished the sentence: “And would egg him on to do more and more and more. He is [in jail] where he belongs, but there [was] this very strange dynamic between him and his actions and all the people surrounding him.”

The filmmakers also emphasized Alig’s canniness. Bailey pointed to “his idea of putting on a freak show that everyone would line up [for] and want to come to see. [That] basic circus, Barnum-and-Bailey philosophy totally worked. He was at first a very shrewd businessman…[The club kids] became cool, but they didn’t look cool. They were freaks, people that no one would pay attention to. And they managed to get people to pay attention to them by a negative approach, by saying, ‘I’m going to look so ridiculous, you have to look at me.’ It was a very savvy way of playing the obsession with celebrity to their own advantage.”

The cleverness extended to the use of the media, not only print but television. “Whatever people think about the club kids,” Bailey said, “Michael was very shrewd in realizing that they could make a very successful ratings spectacle on talk shows…The audience always went crazy. It was guaranteed. Michael used that as a nationwide outreach. At the time that all those cynical TV executives thought they were exploiting the club kids for their ratings, Michael was exploiting them to turn a New York movement into a nationwide thing. He turned it into a nationwide phenomenon very, very cannily.” And Barbato added, “There was an idea there–it was kind of prophetic in terms of the celebrity culture that we live in [now]. They were doing this before reality television, they were doing this at a time that “ET” [“Entertainment Tonight”] wasn’t even around. They were like these great post-Warhol celebutantes who were mocking our obsession with celebrity.”

The actual making of “Party Monster” was a long and arduous process. “We wrote it for Mac, for Macaulay,” Barbato said, “and we decided pretty early on…that was the only person we wanted to play the part of Michael. And [it] took a little over two years to persuade him. He was keen about the part and the project and the script and the idea of it, but he just wasn’t certain that he wanted to work again…Simultaneously we started talking to Seth Green, and they both knew each other, and when we started talking to Seth, we told him we really wanted Mac in this. So Seth kind of helped us bring Mac on board.” Since it took a couple of years more to secure financing, the two stars had a great deal of time to prepare for their roles. “They were immersed in the characters by the time we finally got the money,” Barbarto noted.

As to the differences between directing a documentary and a docudrama, the duo saw only minor differences. As Bailey put it, “It’s not that different. You’re just trying to tell a story, and the story determines how you tell it…[In] a documentary, you’re trying to coax the best performances out of your interviewees and other people, just by making them feel comfortable. That’s why I think the similarities are more than the dissimilarities, because [with] an actor, it’s the same thing. You’re trying to create a safe space in which they feel comfortable [enough] to give you their most vulnerable, most intimate, most revealing performance.”

Once on the set, Bailey and Barbato agreed, things went smoothly insofar as their own collaborative efforts were concerned. “We’ve worked together for twenty years…We know one of us does something and the other undoes it. That’s how it works,” Barbato said. Bailey added: “There was one time when we’d just done a take and Randy went up to Mac and said, ‘Just a little less’…and I came into the room and I said, ‘Just a little more.’ And Mac said, ‘Well, hang on a minute–you said less, and you said more.’ And we said, ‘Exactly…less and more.’”