Scotty and the Secret History of Hollywood Director Matt Tyrnauer is back with a new feature-length documentary which takes us behind the velvet rope of the world’s most famous nightclub, New York’s Studio 54. Although the club was open in its original incarnation for only 33 months, looking back it encapsulates so much of what defined that late Seventies disco era before the arrival of HIV/AIDS. Largely thanks to the images of its celebrity patrons and anecdotes about the club’s strict door policy, it has remained an indelible icon of popular culture for four decades.
Ahead of Studio 54’s New York opening today, Friday 5th October at the IFC Center before a nationwide US expansion, James Kleinmann spoke with Matt Tyrnauer about setting out to reveal the untold tale of the club’s history.
James Kleinmann: We’re used to seeing the same twenty or so black and white photographs of Studio 54 and then we come to your film and we get to see that filmed footage on the dance-floor and the archive interviews that you include and new photographs that certainly I had never seen before. What were your guiding principles when it came to selecting archive material to include in the film?
Matt Tyrnauer: I tried to chose things that weren’t the obvious images. As you pointed out, there are maybe ten or fifteen iconic photos of Studio that everyone has seen. I think Bianca Jagger on the horse and the marquee outside are kind of like the two logos of the club. I don’t dwell on Bianca and the horse in the film, it’s something you either know or you don’t, I’m not going to retell that story for ninety minutes!
I went with my archival team on a deep dive. We looked at hundreds of thousands of images that had never been published before. We went to photographers’ archives and and we looked at the alternate frames that weren’t selected and a lot of times the contact sheets had never seen the light of day. The images were either too explicit for the time or they were not appropriate or they were part of a private collection from people who had worked at the club. So we pulled mostly images from that. A big stroke of luck was finding several hours of 16mm film that was shot inside the club and had never been processed. That proved to be the visual foundation for the ride you go in the film and you’ve literally never seen Studio 54 like this before, because no one has seen this footage before. There were very few video cameras let in, let alone film cameras, so we probably got the only film ever shot inside the club.
How vital was Studio 54 co-founder Ian Schrager’s involvement in the film and how open was he to talking to you? Were any areas off-limits for the interview
Ian Schrager’s participation was essential, I don’t think I would have set about making the movie without Ian. Over the years since Studio 54, Ian’s never told his story. I’ve known him for quite some time in other contexts, for architecture and design for instance. My first article for Vanity Fair was a profile on him. But all the years I’ve known him, I’ve never really asked him about Studio 54. I sensed that he didn’t want to be asked about it. The fact that he was willing to talk about it so many years on and to have a kind of reckoning about it, what it meant to him and what it means in general, I think was very significant and it was a great foundation for me to build upon for this film. Nothing was left off the table, I have final cut on all my films. Ian was cautious and felt exposed. He’s very private, almost pathologically private, so it was brave of him to go there with this. I took him to places that he did not want to explore and wasn’t even ready to think about talking about until last year.
One of the things I loved about the film was that it’s not just the story of the club, but it captures so much of what was happening socially and politically at that time. How apparent was that aspect to you as you set out making he film?
The sex, drugs and celebrities angle of Studio really held no interest for me. I think everyone knows that story and I think you can encapsulate it with saying “sex, drugs and celebrities”, we all know what those things are! That’s the story everyone thinks they know about Studio 54. It’s one of those things that people think they know all about, but they probably don’t know the full story and for me the imperative was excavating down to the layers that are not widely known. Ian’s participation was essential to that. As the co-founder of the club he knows more than anybody else, but of course Ian has a particular perspective which was the God’s eye view as he was one of the two bosses. There are other perspectives provided in the film from the people who were actually behind the bar, at the door working security or the privileged club-goers. So you get a little bit of a Rashomon view of things, but you also get a multi-angle perspective on what I thought was a bigger story with hindsight; what Studio means, putting it all in context and examining why people still talk about this nightclub. That seemed to me what was worth looking into.
The film has played film festivals like Sundance and Tribeca, and was also the opening night selection at the Los Angeles LGBTQ film festival OUTFEST and closed San Francisco’s Frameline. One element that really struck me was the archive interview of some LGBTQ people saying they felt safe there inside the club. Often it’s the celebrity clientele that’s focused on rather than this element of the story, that non-judgemental, inclusive environment that was created.
Yes I found that interesting. I was never there, I was too young. I think I would’ve been in the second grade in Los Angeles at the time! But I’d thought of Studio as being a kind of celebrity den that had party boys and girls writhing on the dance-floor, but I was very struck by the message and the feeling of inclusiveness that pervaded Studio. There was a nice observation by a photographer who was there who said transgender people took their lives in their hands walking down the street in New York, but once they were inside the disco they were safe, they were included, they were part of the scene. And Steve Rubell as kind of the curator of the crowd there was really ahead of his time in being so inclusive and creating this mix and actually really understanding that the diversity of the club was one of the keys to its success. Andy Warhol had a line about Studio which was ‘it was a dictatorship on the outside and and a democracy on the inside’, which was quite accurate actually.
From the paparazzi images of Studio 54 you think that it was just Donna Summer, Sylvester Stallone, Diana Ross, Olivia Newton John and Brooke Shields and occasionally Elizabeth Taylor. Halston and Liza. Well, not really. There had to be hundreds of people on the dance-floor each night who were unknown doing the dancing and the exhibitionism and really making the club a spectacle. It was kind of a push and pull between participation and voyeurism, but who were the participants? That’s something I never fully grasped. This was a party boy culture of the time, very gay driven; disco was a gay, underground dance form that was the derivative of funk and in some places was a merging of African American and gay cultures. This was happening in underground New York at the time, gay guys and women who liked to be in their company were the core constituency of Studio. They were the people who actually made the club a fun place to be and those people were decimated by the HIV/AIDS crisis. That culture was almost knocked down in the most tragic way possible, the cruelest way and I think that story is interesting because that was a culture that really made New York City tick. People talk about what New York lost and how it’s not good anymore, it’s not what it was or whatever nostalgic perspective you want to have, but you can’t underestimate the devastation caused by the loss of so many of its gay citizens.
The story of the club takes a dark turn with both the co-founders serving prison time. How important was it to you to focus in depth on this aspect of the story rather than purely on the success of the club?
My codeword for the production was ‘Disco Noir”. I really saw it as the movie Scorsese forgot to make about two guys from the outer Boroughs who were nothing and almost overnight conquered the world; one gay, one straight. This seemed to me to be really the great untold tale of New York in the Seventies. So Scorsese never made that film because he doesn’t really deal with gay characters as principal players. Rubell was a significant figure in his time. His life was tragically cut short by HIV/AIDS, so he became a real symbolic figure of a lost world. Schrager got to have the full comeback and is a fascinating figure who reinvented himself more thoroughly almost than anyone else in America. There’s the famous F Scott Fitzgerald cliché that “there are no second acts in American lives”, well Schrager certainly disproved that.
What surprised you the most as you researched and went about putting the film together?
I think it was all the nuances. What was the relationship between Rubell and Schrager? Schrager describes the relationship at the end of the film by saying ‘Steve and I were like a married couple, I’m not sure which one was the husband and which one was the wife’. Nothing shocked me more than hearing him say that. Here’s this straight Jewish guy in his seventies from Brooklyn, from lower class circumstances, whose best friend was a gay guy and he was totally fine with that and not only that, he refers to him as his husband. There’s something really wonderfully accepting and avant garde about that, so it was those details that helped me tell a more definitive, more subtle and more meaningful version of the oft-told tale of the Studio 54 myth.
Saturday 6th October: Q&As with Matt Tyrnauer following the 5:25pm and 7:45pm screenings.