Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato are riding high on the buzz from their documentary’s first screening at Miami Dade College’s Miami International Film Festival. They were surprised at the number of moving comments from festivalgoers who stood up to ask questions after the East Coast premiere of their documentary about the famed and controversial American photographer Robert Mapplethorpe. The following morning, during an interview with New Times, the two Los Angeles-based filmmakers shared the epiphanies they had while discovering their subject during the making of Mapplethorpe: Look at the Pictures.
Bailey admits they didn’t know much about the man when they began working on the documentary. He calls it a process of discovery for the pair, who have been producing and directing documentaries together since the late '90s. They knew that Sen. Jesse Helms railed against the photographer's work as pornographic, which led to an obscenity trial that made national headlines. But the filmmakers really came to understand Mapplethorpe as a man driven to document his life through photography.
“In a way, we can sort of relate," Bailey says. "He’s kind of like a documentary artist.”
When Mapplethorpe began his career, he wasn't taken seriously as an artist. Could it have been the naked self-portrait in which he's bent over with the handle of bullwhip inserted into his anus? “He was very prescient,” Bailey says, “because we live in these very narcissistic, ambitious times. He’s a pioneer of today’s selfie-taking, social-media-addicted kids... One wonders what he would have done with a selfie stick.”
Because the subject of their film passed away in 1989, the directors used old recordings of the photographer's voice to create empathy in the audience. Mapplethorpe was interviewed often and loved having journalists write about him. He even hired writer Patricia Morrisroe to pen his biography after he learned he was dying from AIDS.
To further connect viewers to Mapplethorpe, the festival worked with the filmmakers to design a multimedia exhibition featuring photographs of the man alongside his voice recordings. The installation was on view over the weekend. There was an outdoor projection of about 20 images on shipping containers that held more images inside. The organization and scale of the exhibit impressed even the filmmakers.
Inside, the pictures were put together thematically and presented at eye level inside boxes for viewing privacy. A speaker above conveyed Mapplethorpe’s voice as soon as a visitor pressed the play button on the digital display. By Sunday, it was all packed up to travel to New York City to hype the film’s eventual release on HBO next month on April 4.
Asked why they are so interested in sex and scandal, Bailey explains, “The weird thing about sex is we live in a very sexualized culture — we’re surrounded by pornography. But the irony is there is no real talking about it. There’s a huge amount of shame or reticence to even consider taking it seriously... We seem to sort of talk about sex or think about sex as somehow wrong or dirty.”
“We tried not to judge him,” codirector Barbato says about making the film. "And our experience was very much a journey for us because we started out with, Oh, I don’t know if I like this guy, but what we found was that he led this very honest and authentic life.”
Though the film is now only premiering, Barbato reveals that he and Bailey have just begun working on their next project, which they haven’t officially told anyone about until now. “Our next movie is going to be about Trump.”
He says the decision to make Donald Trump their next subject came from discussions at their production company, World of Wonder. Barbato says their office staff, which also produces reality shows such as RuPaul’s Drag Race, has become obsessed with Trump even though politics was rarely discussed until recently.
“We figured we just finished making a movie about dicks — our next one should be about an asshole," Barbato quips.
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"The world’s biggest,” chimes in Bailey.
Mapplethorpe: Look at the Pictures
Screens Saturday, March 12, at 7 p.m. at Regal Cinemas South Beach as part of the Miami International Film Festival. For tickets, visit miamifilmfestival.com.
Follow Hans Morgenstern on Twitter: @HansMorgenstern.