Following closing night festival screenings at Toronto and BFI Flare, director Justin Kelly’s JT LeRoy opens in select US cinemas, on demand and digital this Friday 26th April 2019. The compelling film chronicles the fascinating real life events that saw Savannah Knoop take on the public persona of celebrated author JT Leroy, who was eventually revealed to be the creation and nom de plume of writer Laura Albert.
Whereas the 2016 documentary Author: The JT Leroy Story focused largely on Albert, Kelly’s JT LeRoy is based on the memoir Girl Boy Girl: How I Became JT LeRoy by Savannah Knoop, who also co-wrote the screenplay, and recounts how events unfolded largely from their perspective. The film stars Laura Dern as Laura Albert and Kristen Stewart as Savannah Knoop, while the cast also features Courtney Love, Jim Sturgess and Diane Kruger.
James Kleinmann spoke exclusively to Justin Kelly and Savannah Knoop for HeyUGuys.
James Kleinmann: It’s such a compelling story and raises so many questions and there are so many themes that come up like identity, gender, truth and fiction, so there’s a lot to talk about. Justin, I wondered what it was in particular that really drew you in and made you want to put Savannah’s story on the screen?
Justin Kelly: “Well, I guess it started with the fact I lived in San Francisco during the rise and fall of JT LeRoy, as I call it. I was fascinated by the initial books and then the character of JT who was so odd and mysterious and then by the unveiling, when it was revealed to be not what it had seemed. I was so blown away by that. So that was enough, but in addition, as you know from my previous films I Am Michael and King Cobra, I find myself really drawn to stories about shifting identities; people who try to be someone else or to be perceived as someone else. I just find it really interesting and this was the ultimate, most extreme version of masquerading as someone else. I was just really drawn to it.
“It was really after reading the memoir where I realised it would make such a great film, because I didn’t have all the information before. I didn’t know why and how they’d pulled this off and when I read the book I was kind of blown away by how interesting the story was. People thought it was about two people trying to become rich and famous and I realised it was so not that. It was far more interesting and multilayered and an incredible story to explore in a film.”
Savannah, you wrote in the new introduction to your book, Girl Boy Girl: How I Became JT LeRoy, on which the film is based, “there are other versions of the story from other points of view”, this is your experience of events. What was your initial reaction to the idea of a film being made of your book?
Savannah Knoop: “I’d never thought of a film. When I wrote the memoir, shortly after the unveiling, or soon enough after that it was really raw, I was just trying to figure out what had happened and how it could have happened. To figure out how something went from being just a one time thing, to being something that you do for so many years and you get so deep into. It became this thing that took over my life. In terms of having it be adapted into a film, somebody had approached me about that when the book first came out and they were definitely not the right person to do it, but that did open the door of me even thinking about adapting it. Then meeting Justin, I just felt so much trust. It was about meeting Justin actually, that’s what propelled this film forward.”
Justin Kelly: “I followed Savannah around and I was like ‘please!’
Savannah Knoop: “I watched all of his short films and thought ‘this person is amazing!’ I feel like we kept running into each other in San Francisco and it all worked out.”
Justin Kelly: “That was ten years ago!”
Savannah, could you talk a bit about your collaboration with Justin in terms of co-writing the screenplay and your involvement during the production and post-production.
Savannah Knoop: “We did a lot of writing together, either we would sit in a room together and write and talk through it or do screen sharing, or work with cards and move things around. Justin has shown so much respect in the way this story has been told. I went to the set for a couple of days, but then I ended up staying the whole time, partly because it was useful to be there if we had to edit something. We had another consultant who helped us too, but we would just be in the background and be a pair of eyes on the script and the details, and be there for the actors if they had questions. I could be a primarily source for them. I also donated all my clothes to the costume designer for Kristen, my favourite rags. It’s been a really interesting process, to have Justin include me in so many aspects and getting to see how it unfolded in terms of the editing, all of it.”
Justin Kelly: “Also the process changed a lot, because we started off working side by side in San Francisco and then we moved to different cities so we’d FaceTime and screen share. It worked out somewhat organically over the course of almost eight or nine years of writing into production, fortunately we were great collaborators. Sav was really great at treating their character as a character, and not getting in the way or tying to make the Savannah character look better in certain situations. It was actually really like I was working with someone who wasn’t involved in the story creatively, but who had all of the information.”
Savannah Knoop: “I think that’s in the interest of the film too.”
It does feel objective.
Savannah Knoop: “That’s good.”
You’ve had some incredible acting talent on all of your films so far Justin and this is no exception, I just wondered how the cast came together?
Justin Kelly: We always had Kristen and Laura in mind, a completely wild dream team! We even had Laura Dern’s photos in the look book we made in 2011 or so. They luckily both really vibed with it, so we met in person and talked everything through and it all clicked. We feel incredibly lucky. They’re obviously both such pros, incredible, but collaborative and had great ideas. I remember being on set on day 1 of shooting, after close to nine years working on the script, and feeling like they knew their characters better than I did and I thought that was pretty wild! We were very fortunate.”
Savannah Knoop: “They did a lot of research too and they came to the set with all of that research in mind. Laura Dern had this amazing impulse when she would play the Speedie character, she would go improv often and sort of riff. That was just so perfect for that Speedie character. That feeling of what are they going to say next? And you’d get these great reactions from the cast through her doing that.”
What about Courtney Love being in the cast, because Savannah you met her as JT in “real life” but she’s not playing herself in this film, could you talk a bit about her being involved?
Savannah Knoop: “I think it’s such a beautiful thing, because Courtney is one of the people that has borne witness to all of the different phases of this saga and has had such a generous and beautiful reaction to it all. She’s like ‘I don’t care who was on the phone, I like that person, that person was my friend’. So to have her in this film as this multifaceted character is wonderful. It’s a hybrid of different people we met over the years, one of them being Carrie Fisher as well as others, it’s this person who is really supportive of JT. It’s a beautiful thing to have her play this hybrid character.”
Justin Kelly: “There was a very funny moment on her first day on set when she saw Savaanah and said ‘I’ve met you before!’ That was kind of great!
Savannah Knoop: “She so game!”
And you’ve got Celebrity Skin, one of my favourite songs on the end credits, it’s great to end the movie with that.
Savannah Knoop: “Oh yeah!”
Thinking of the phone, as you say Courtney Love would have spoken to Laura as JT back in the day. There’s a scene towards the beginning of the film where Laura first asks Savannah if she’ll be JT. When I was first watching the film I thought ‘oh, it’s quite a strange scene to have on the phone’, because generally on film you’d have a big scene like that face to face, but of course as the story goes on you realise how vital the phone is. Maybe you could talk a bit about that aspect in real life Savannah; and Justin how you make it work in filmic terms, because phone conversations aren’t always the most filmic things?
Justin Kelly: “That’s a very interesting question.”
Savannah Knoop: “Yes, great!”
Justin Kelly: “It did used to be in person in a very early draft of the script for that exact reason. That’s a big important thing, she could just go to the restaurant where Savannah works and ask her there. Another thing with phone calls, for logistical reasons like cutting the script down, having to trim things on set are factored in. Laura was on the phone so much more than we can show in the film because obviously it’s not that exciting to see someone talk on the phone for an entire movie!”
Savannah Knoop: “In some ways the phone is acting almost as a character itself, sort of like it’s a prosthesis, that filtering system, and in this story you always have all these different layers and filters to kind of navigate the world through. In some ways the phone ends up being a main character and I do so enjoy a lot of the phone moments, for instance where we see Laura’s body language when she’s talking on the phone in that initial phone call with Sav, where she’s said she’s just read the book. You get at how that is the art of communication and that’s how this person is loving, it’s through this prosthesis, through the filter of the phone.”
I’m intrigued by the layers of this story and also the layers that are added when making this movie. I’m thinking especially of the service station or truck stop film set scene in this movie, they are on a recreation of the set of The Heart is Deceitful Above All Things and you were there Savannah on set on this film and of course you were also there on set the first time around as JT…does it make your head explode?
Savannah Knoop: “It’s so psychedelic, I don’t know how else to explain it! It was so bizarre.”
Justin Kelly: “The whole truck stop scene was just one night, we were on a very tight schedule and I remember being there and watching Savannah watching the monitor of Kristen as JT on the film set, and I was like ‘oh my God, this is so wild!'”
Savannah Knoop: “Also it was so beautiful, because you had the film crew setting up the film within a film, our film crew went to work doing the thing that they would be doing for the camera.”
So it was meta for everyone in a way! Looking back, I wondered what did playing, or embodying JT LeRoy allow you to explore and discover about yourself?
Savannah Knoop: “I started playing JT LeRoy for Laura, the first few times I was eighteen or just going on nineteen, and had just gotten out of high school and was working as a waiter, was in community college, you know the things that nineteen year olds do. I wasn’t about to got to art school. It wasn’t clear to me what my path was at that moment and I think it probably was a yearning for some creative path, but I hadn’t quite figured that out. I loved the book as a young person and when Laura asked me to do it I think it did tap into this greater longing as a young person to be seen and to make art and to be queer. I was able to act on all this stuff as this movie portrays in this bizarre, contained way where the work is not your own, you are not yourself, and the terms are totally different.”
We see towards the end of the film where Laura says to Savannah ‘just because you played a writer doesn’t mean you are one’ and I believe she did actually say that to you, and I wondered now that you’ve written your memoir and co-written this screenplay, would you describe yourself as a writer?
Savannah Knoop: “I come from a movement background and think about it almost as sculpture. I identify more as a visual artist and as a performer, but I have always used writing ever since I was young as a tool. Basically when you’re making art, the one thing we get to have is freedom of form, so to me I feel like writing is a very important tool, but I wouldn’t necessarily identify as a writer, even though I use it a lot. Writing is an important tool in my tool belt, definitely!”
Justin Kelly: “Although, I would say yes, Sav’s a writer!”
JT LeRoy opens in select US cinemas, on demand and digital this Friday 26th April 2019. For release details head to the film’s official website here.
Based on Savannah Knoop’s memoir Girl Boy Girl: How I Became JT LeRoy, this captivating true story goes beyond the headlines to tell the story of the most compelling literary ‘hoax’ of recent times. Laura Albert (Laura Dern) writes as her “avatar,” a disenfranchised young queer man named JT LeRoy. When her debut novel becomes a best-seller and JT becomes the darling of the literary world, she comes up with a unique solution to preserve her anonymity but give life to her nom-de-plume.
Enter her boyfriend’s androgynous fun-loving sister Savannah Knoop (Kristen Stewart), who connects with Laura’s punk, feminist, outsider universe and agrees to be JT in the public eye. Together, they embark on a wild ride of double lives, infiltrating the Hollywood and literary elite, only to discover who they are while pretending to be someone else.