Docs

Netflix’s “Voyeur” shows audiences an unexplored side of Gay Talese

Myles Kane first met Gay Talese several years ago at the New Yorker, where Kane was then working as a video producer and Talese was serving as contributing writer. Kane ...
November 22, 2017

Myles Kane first met Gay Talese several years ago at the New Yorker, where Kane was then working as a video producer and Talese was serving as contributing writer. Kane says he was immediately struck by the American journalist.

“He was so fascinating as this living legend – the types of stories he wrote, his appearance, his researching style,” Kane recalls.

So, when Kane and fellow filmmaker Josh Koury were deliberating on the subject for their next doc project, Talese (pictured, right) registered as a natural choice.

Koury and Kane had previously teamed on Harry Potter documentary We Are Wizards (2008) and scripted comedy feature Journey to Planet X (2012).

From the start, the pair agreed that they weren’t interested in making a traditional biographical documentary which would involve looking back on their subject’s life.

“The feeling was that ideally, you could get a much more true portrait of a person if you could see them in the present day, struggling in real time, as opposed to looking back at their careers once all the chapters have been closed,” Kane explains. “It was much more exciting, and I think much more illuminating about Gay as a writer – as a character – to see him live in action.”

An opportunity to see Talese at work arose when he began writing his most recent book The Voyeur’s Motel, which was released in the summer of 2016 shortly after a widely sensationalized excerpt was published in the New Yorker. As opportunities go, the scandal of Talese’s project – which roused complex questions about journalistic, sexual and even sociological ethics – was difficult to rival.

The story is well-known today. In 1980, Talese received a letter from an anonymous motel owner in Colorado who had decided to reach out to the reporter after finding out about his soon-to-be-published examination of post-war sexual practices, Thy Neighbour’s Wife. The letter described at length the writer’s voyeuristic desires, which he had bought his motel to satisfy; in the years that he operated the business, he secretly watched his tenants having sex through vents that he had installed across the floor of the motel’s attic.

At the letter’s end, the motel owner invited Talese to inspect his operation on the condition that the journalist keep it a secret. After several days of deliberation, Talese agreed to the owner’s stipulation, and met him in Denver. The two men would proceed to maintain a correspondence, through letters and phone calls, over the next three and a half decades.

Voyeur looks back at this correspondence and uses it to contextualize the more recent work that went into the publication of The Voyeur’s Motel. The observational documentary chronicles Talese’s work on the book, including his meeting with the voyeur – a man named Gerald Foos (pictured, left).

“Everything has drama,” laughs Koury. “This voyeur project just happens to be extra crazy.”

Both he and Kane say that following Talese as he navigated his project was revelatory, especially when it came to the journalist’s decades-honed media savvy. “He’s never been in a documentary, but he is a public figure,” says Kane. “And not only a public figure, but a non-fiction writer… it took a long time to get close to Gay in certain ways. He’s so used to giving interviews. He’s so used to talking about himself, about his legacy.”

Talese extended this savvy to the documentary’s representation of Foos. In effect, Talese directed how much of the film would unfold during production by providing and withholding access to both himself and his subject. “What was interesting about this piece was the layers of storytellers all packed into it,” says Kane. “Gay was very much in control of his own relationship with Gerald, but also how and when we saw him.”

The resulting film illustrates not only Talese’s relationship with his subjects; it sheds light on how he negotiates his own representation.

This authority slackened somewhat during the film’s second half, when Talese sent the film’s production crew to Colorado to shoot Gerald, while he remained in New York attending to controversies surrounding the book’s release. With less fettered access to Foos, Koury and Kane were able to capture facets of his relationship with the journalist that they had previously not seen. “Gerald Foos really added another dimension to the movie,” says Kane. “It’s an equal story of two characters navigating this relationship.”

At the story’s core, though, is Foos. One of the doc’s challenges was providing audiences with enough visuals to guide them through years of illicit anecdotal material. Developing b-roll footage, much of which involved miniatures, was made easier by financial support from documentary film fund Impact Partners.

“Tricia Koury, who is our producer, and myself and Myles have been making movies for a long time,” says Koury. “This is the very first film we’ve ever had proper financing for.”

He continues. “Being able to concentrate for 16, 18 months… to let this process be our job, our day and night, to spend the time that you really need to craft the film that is so complicated – just having that privilege is really transformative for the film.”

That Netflix joined the project in early 2017 also felt transformative: the filmmakers are hoping that the platform’s reach will help them garner a larger audience than ever before.

“They’re the popular company right now, but that’s not why we did it,” Koury says of working with Netflix. “We did it because we felt like they were the best company to get this film in front of the most eyes possible.”

“We’re kind of awash in a documentary world right now,” he continues. “There are biopics. And they’re fascinating and exciting, and I love biopics myself. But the emphasis from our end, from the very beginning, was to tell the story of Gay Talese as a writer in a new way, in a way exclusive to Gay and his experiences, and in a way that reflects Gay’s writing style.

“It’s chaotic, and it’s sexualized, but it’s dangerous. And it always has been.”

Voyeur is a Netflix original documentary, in association with Impact Partners, and was produced by Brooklyn Underground Films in association with Chicago Media Project and Public Record.

The film premieres on Netflix on Dec. 1.

About The Author
Daniele Alcinii is a news reporter at realscreen, the leading international publisher of non-fiction film and television industry news and content. He joins the rs team with journalism experience following a stint out west with Sun Media in Edmonton's Capital Region, and communications work in Melbourne, Australia and Toronto. You can follow him on Twitter at @danielealcinii.

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