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Exclusive Interview: Tom Donahue for "Guest of Cindy Sherman"

By Paul Fischer Thursday March 26th 2009 11:25AM
Tom Donahue for "Guest of Cindy Sherman"

Non-fiction or documentary cinema is sometimes as fascinating and emotionally involving as its fictional counterparts. Such is the case of "The Guest of Cindy Sherman" that takes a look at New York’s art scene of the last few decades through the eyes of publicity shy artist Cindy Sherman, and her rather odd relationship with one Paul Hasegawa-Overacker or Paul H-O for short.

Throughout this often funny and idiosyncratic film, Brooklyn-born and raised videographer Paul H-O [who co-directed the film] must confront issues of ego and identity when he begins a relationship with the reclusive Cindy Sherman.

With unprecedented access, the documentary places us in the company of the artist and offers a critique of the ever-inflated New York art market and the culture of celebrity.

In this exclusive interview with PAUL FISCHER, director Donahue discusses this and some of the other films on which he is currently working, including a psychological thriller and a doc on casting directors.

Question: How did this project come to you? I mean, did Paul come to you? Were you aware of –

Donahue: Yeah. Well – when I said, “It came to me,” it was a little more organic, I guess. Is that Spencer Kunick – I had edited two documentaries for HBO, called Naked States and Naked World, about the art of Spencer Kunick, who gets thousands of people naked around the world. And Spencer called me and said, “Tom, there’s this guy, Paul H-O. He’s Cindy Sherman’s lover. I sublet a studio with him. He’s sitting on all this incredible footage about the art world in the ‘90s. Footage where he falls in love with Cindy on camera. And maybe you two could make a movie out of this.” So I looked at the footage, with Paul.

What I saw was a great, strong first act. But not enough to kind of justify a feature film. And that month, Paul went through this psychological crisis, with the name card. And he called me and said, “Tom, I put together this little monologue thing. I’m gonna record it with my camera. I’d love for you to come. I’m gonna get, like, 20 people together.” And he did this Spaulding Gray-like thing behind a desk. Where – what you see at the end of the movie, where he’s going off to Sean Kelly. And that kind of – what I saw there was – okay, a great first act. They fall in love, they meet cute. And then he goes through the psychological crisis. That’s kind of the arc of the film.

So, let’s start figuring out how to actually tell that story. And we proceeded, with Cindy’s support, to get about 40 or 50 interviews at that point, to kind of sketch out Paul’s story, sketch out Cindy’s story, and find couples, like Molly Ringwald and Jeanne Tripplehorn-- people who are in relationships where there’s power imbalance – and have them talk about their stories. We tried to get Meryl Streep and her artist husband, but she declined.

So, we started filling in the gaps. Then a few years in, Cindy and Paul break up. We kind of were in a boat without a paddle. We didn’t have an ending. We didn’t have a third act. And as we continued to make the film, the film was really something else until they broke up. And we’re like, “Okay, now we know what the ending is.”

Question: And of course, Cindy was very instrumental in getting this movie off the ground, but she has subsequently decided not to support the movie.

Donahue: Yeah. I mean, she’s been involved, even as late as the trailer. You know, what she’ll allow in the trailer, and what she won’t. At this point, we communicate through her lawyer. But she’d been on a couple shoots, and she was supportive. Never so much that she would ever do an interview. It was kind of like, “What you have of me is what you have of me. You know, when my friends ask if they can be interviewed, I’ll say yes. But otherwise, I’m not doing anything else.” And then they broke up. And everything was fine, I think, until David Byrne entered the picture. And then it was like, Cindy suddenly had to distance herself from the film, I think, because people were constantly badgering her about it. And I think she never expected the film to become the success it’s becoming. I think she thought it would kind of be in, like, galleries – it would be made, and would go away. [LAUGHTER] Didn’t happen.

Question: To what extent is this film a portrait of the ‘90s art scene, as much as it is about Cindy and her world?

Donahue: Well, I think it’s a portrait of the art world. Actually, if you think about – if you look at the film structurally, it’s about a guy and his relationship to the art world, because Cindy doesn’t enter the picture until 15 minutes in. And the last five minutes after they break up, are about Paul and the art world. So in the end, he’s thrown out of the art world, and he becomes, like, primal man on the beach without a shirt against the waves. And that’s—I think the idea is really, here’s a guy who is an outsider in this world that he loves, gets to see what it’s like on the inside, and like Icarus, whose wings burn off – you know, he’s left stranded.

Question: What are the challenges in cutting a film like this, to create a narrative through-line that audiences will be able to respond to?

Donahue: Well, the challenge for Paul and I in our collaboration is that this is about him. This is about his life. And I’ve done documentaries before. So for me, he’s a character. What really happens matters less than what’s going to tell a good – what’s going to make a good story. And when you’re co-directing with a subject in a film, that’s really hard, because he wants his story to go out the way it really is. And it seems like that’s what all documentaries should be. But of course, it’s never the case. So, there was always this battle in structuring the film so that we tell a good story, but we tell the truth. I mean, it was difficult. It’s kind of like, we knew what the basic story was, but we had to get all the interviews, and all the evidence, to kind of prove, or make that story alive.

Question: You obviously had access to a lot of footage for this, was it difficult to cull through it all?

Donahue: Oh, yeah. We did about – ultimately, 70, 75 interviews. We had about 100 hours of gallery beat footage over eight years. Not to mention the stuff – the verite. We were also – we didn’t have a third act. We were shooting Charlie Clough and John Sherman, Cindy’s brother. We have massive amounts of footage on them. Because what my original idea was – Paul is one of a bunch of guests of Cindy Sherman. A bunch of men that she came up with, who had to live in the shadow of this more famous, more powerful woman. And how are they each dealing with it? But then when they broke up, it’s like, “Okay, this is really a story about Paul and Cindy.”

Question: What do you hope audiences who are not particularly au fait with the subject matter – or, for that matter, with that period of American art, to get away from seeing this?

Donahue: Exactly. Well, you know, we’ve played at 25 festivals around the world. So, I have a sense of how people react to it. I think it’s entertaining – and if you look at our movie poster, it doesn’t have anything to do with art on the poster. It’s a guy standing in a woman’s shadow, holding wilted flowers in his hand. And the idea is that this is a movie about men and women. About relationships. And that’s – I think – you know, I compare it to, like, Forgetting Sarah Marshall. You know, you don’t know who Sarah Marshall is, but you get a sense she’s somebody important in this guy’s life, and he’s being overshadowed by her. So, you know, I’d want people to go in with an understanding – I think some people are going to go in – it’s not that they care about the ‘90s art world or not. They’re gonna think, “Ooh, I’ve got to learn more about Cindy Sherman.” And they’re gonna go in, and I think – everybody goes in, I think – in the movie, they come out having no idea that this is the movie they were going in to see. Because you can’t expect, I think, what the movie ultimately delivers.

Question: I understand Cindy’s already seen the film.

Donahue: She had to. She approved her performance, and because – she’s seen – yeah. She’s seen it over and over again. I think her last e-mail was like, “I don’t ever want to watch it again.”

Question: Have you had any comments, direct or indirectly, from her about the movie?

Donahue: Nothing I can comment on the record, but no, not really.

Question: What else does the movie say about the role of the documentarian, in cinema?

Donahue: That’s a really good, smart question, because in today’s culture, I think, to make a film really marketable, it needs to almost have a first person quality about it. So that it’s not just another – what we didn’t want to do is another artist bio-pic. Boring, PBS-style documentary. And Paul is a great character in that way, because he’s the antithesis of that. And yeah, I think you couldn’t tell this story without that first person voice. I mean, I was gonna try. But ultimately, it wouldn’t work. Something needs to hold this footage together.

Question: Is it difficult for you as a documentary filmmaker to come up with, to find subjects that really interest you to the point where you can devote – because I think you’ve spent how many years on this? Four or five years now.

Donahue: Yeah, no, it’s very difficult. And you don’t do it unless one comes to you, or you find one.

Question: Where do you find the inspiration?

Donahue: I mean, it’s all over the place. I’m working on a film now that I’m editing and producing, about illegal street racing. And the main character kills his brother, and it became – it was shot over two years, in ’04 and ’05.

Question: Does that have any similarities with Hollywood’s version of that subject matter, in Fast and the Furious?

Donahue: It’s actually kind of a subversive real-life rendering of that, because that actually allowed street racing to become a huge fad in New York, which then allowed the cops to crack down on it. So, the impact of that movie is actually felt in the documentary. I ended up doing another on Hollywood casting directors, and one in particular, Marion Dougherty, who pioneered the role of the casting director. But it’s really a movie about women in Hollywood, in a way that in Guest of Cindy Sherman, a lot of it is about women in the art world. I mean, there’s a similarity there.

Question: How far back do you go, in terms of looking at Hollywood’s casting directors?

Donahue: I go back – I go to the studio system, and trace it all the way back to – I guess when Marion retires, in 2000. It’s the only main title category without an Oscar category, so, we’re trying to get casting directors Oscars. We’ve got Clint Eastwood on board. We interviewed Glenn Close. So, it’s a pretty sizable project.

Question: So, you’re doing two projects almost simultaneously? How does that affect your social life?

Donahue: Yeah, I’m also doing a psychological thriller, but, I mean, the way it works is, you get the money and you go shoot. And you get the money for the other thing, and you shoot that at the same time. And you work on them both together in the editing room. So it’s a patchwork.

Question: So, you’re now going from documentary to narrative feature. Is that correct?

Donahue: Yeah. I’m doing them both.

Question: What’s the psychological thriller about?

Donahue: It’s about three kids in Louisiana in the 1950s, who find a dead body. It’s kind of Stand By Me meets Night of the Hunter. It’s really, really well-written. I did not write it.

Question: Do you have a title?

Donahue: Yeah, it’s called Beard’s Creek.

Question: And a cast?

Donahue: It’s Stuart Townsend, who played Lestat in Interview with a Vampire and also, Emilie De Ravin, who’s one of the stars of Lost.

Question: Oh, that’s interesting and I presume it’s an indie.

Donahue: Oh, yeah. It’s like – you know, under – well, I shouldn’t say how much, but, under Hollywood budget.

Question: Are you going to try and get it ready in time for the festivals?

Donahue: Well, we’re still getting the finance – we lost the financing because of the financial crisis. And we’ll try to cobble it back together.

Question: So, I take it being an independent filmmaker sucks at this particular economic time.

Donahue: Well, it’s funny you say that. Because it’s also – it’s great right now, for this movie, because I don’t know if you know, Valentino came out over the weekend. It’s the highest-grossing doc of the year. It did really well. And if we get 10 percent of that audience, we’re gonna be successful. So, I’m happy – I’m excited that people are coming out now to see films so much. It’s really record numbers.

Question: But Cindy Sherman has got a very limited theatrical release, hasn’t it?

Donahue: We’re planning on an LA release. We’re opening in Santa Fe Friday, too. If it does well enough in New York, we’ll – it’s so easy to open, now, technologically. You just give an HD-cam tape to – you know, a theatre in Seattle, and they give you a 60-40 split. You don’t have the prints and advertising expenses that we used to have. Although, you know, we still have to take out ad– it’s still gonna cost about $5000 a market.

Question: Now, having worked as a documentarian, are you confident that you’ll be able to work well with a variety of actors, in order to make that transition from nonfiction to fiction?

Donahue: Yeah. Well, I’ve made some short films, so I’ve learned how to work with actors, and I really enjoy it. It’s a very different process, but I love it just as much. And then when you’re in the editing room, you’re trying to tell a good story. It doesn’t matter what the material is, ultimately.

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