Based on an unbelievable true story and on the memoir of the protagonist Savannah Knoop, JT LeRoy is the fourth feature-length film from director Justin Kelly. Kelly has worked with James Franco and Zachary Quinto (I Am Michael), Christian Slater and Molly Ringwald (King Cobra), and Caleb Landry-Jones and Riley Keough (Welcome the Stranger). In JT LeRoy, he has brought together the dream pairing of Kristen Stewart and Laura Dern to tell the story of an author – Laura Albert (Dern) who used a pseudonym to write a ‘memoir’ of a fictional boy (JT LeRoy) and his mother Sarah. Albert then took the pseudonym a little too far, by pretending to be JT on the phone, while having her sister-in-law Savannah (Stewart) pose as JT in photos. Albert also adopted the persona of ‘Speedie’, JT’s manager (with a British accent). When they were finally exposed, in around 2005-2006, it was seen as a huge literary fraud and Albert was sued for signing away the film rights to the book as JT LeRoy.
The film addresses themes of androgyny and identity, including creating an alternative persona to help cope with trauma. We spoke to director Justin Kelly about some of these themes and how he used costume design and music to evoke the time, place and these real-life people.
How were you introduced to the story – was it from the actual JT LeRoy books themselves or through Savannah’s memoir?
It was initially from the books themselves. I read Sarah (the first book ostensibly by ‘JT LeRoy’) when it came out back in 2001 and shortly thereafter ending up moving to San Francisco, for film school actually. He was the celeb of the Bay Area – everyone thought that he was real. So I was really kind of intrigued by the book and the story and even more so from seeing JT in magazines, with the whole wig-hat-sunglasses mysterious Warholian look. I wasn’t a mega-fan, but I was intrigued by this person and this persona. And then when the whole thing was unveiled in early 2006, I was just completely blown away, but not in an angry way, I was just fascinated, I was dying to know how it could ever be pulled off and more importantly why Laura and Savannah did this. I met Savannah, by chance, through friends right after the memoir came out, I realised how complicated the story was. A lot of people didn’t know what went on behind the scenes because those that felt betrayed, they didn’t really care to know. The memoir had such a fascinating story, so much went on – the insight into how and why they pulled it off and I just thought it would make a really great film.
Were there any challenges in persuading Savannah (or any of the other real people involved) to make it into a film, did you come across any obstacles in doing that?
It took a little while, I would say six months or so to get Savannah on board. Luckily we became friends and she also wanted someone within her community – the queer artistic community – to take the story on, as opposed to the kind of more “Hollywood” companies who were expressing some interest in optioning the memoir. At that time, I hadn’t made a film, I had made short films, I was fresh out of film school but I’d also worked in the editing room on Milk for quite a long time. I think there was enough trust in what I had done at that point, career-wise, they had seen the vision behind my short films. Savannah decided to entrust me with it, as long as we wrote it together, which we did and it ended up being a really amazing collaborative process and we clicked creatively, luckily.
Was there any question of the real Laura being involved, or is that relationship (between Laura and Savannah) estranged?
After the memoir came out, there was some talk of including Laura at some point, but initially it was really all about adapting Savannah’s memoir, even though Laura is in the film a lot, I was more interested in Savannah’s angle in terms of a young person, coming of age, embracing their queer identity, while pretending to be someone else, which is so bizarre. I treated it more from Savannah’s perspective with the Laura character of course a strong presence. Once we moved closer to it being real, it became a bit too complicated rights-wise to officially include Laura, although she did read the script and wished us success.
You hit the absolute jackpot in terms of casting, it must have been dream casting for you to have Laura Dern and Kristen Stewart. How did they get involved and how much did they know of the story beforehand?
Yes, complete complete dream casting! They had heard of the story but much like a lot of people – most people had heard of it but didn’t really know the details because of the betrayal on so many people, in Hollywood and musicians. So when people hear about it, they think it’s the story of someone who lied and tricked people, they don’t really know the intricacies, they don’t realise it was two people, not one. People assume they did it just for fame and money, but no one was getting rich off being JT. So they were fascinated to read the script, read the backstory and then after casting them, the documentary ended up coming out, so they had to watch and consider as well. I just got really lucky, you know? They both really responded to the material, luckily for me, they liked the other films that I made. We had the benefit of talking through and we clicked on the character ideas. When people like Kristen and Laura do more intimate films, they’re not doing it for the love of a paycheck, they’re doing it for the love of the art and the character. They had so much to bring, idea-wise and I knew from the first meeting it was going to be a great working relationship and I was right!
I have to ask you about the costuming and the wigs, which are phenomenal. Collaborating on all of that costume design must have been such a huge task, but a really rewarding and involving one. Can you talk me through some of those costume and wig choices?
Yeah – it was of course so important – costume, hair and make up. I know it’s important in every film, but we had something that was period and some wigs that needed to look real and some which needed to look really bad and make up to help with passage of time, the film covers a couple of years and then wardrobe – I mean JT’s style is of course needed to mirror some real-life looks, Savannah’s style in her real life is almost as eclectic (as JT) but in a different way. So it was complicated, but we had Avery Plewes for costume design, who just nailed it and when it came to picking people to work with it, I knew she was right, based on everything she said in our initial Skype about the time period and about how to dress each actress based on their body type and their strengths. Savannah actually came in and consulted a bit on set, I thought it was important to show Savannah’s eclectic style when she’s not JT, to show what kind of artists they are, it might help people understand even a bit more why she would enjoy playing this character who gets to dress up in these really loud outfits. So it was very difficult and complicated, but Avery our costume designer really nailed it.
And as for hair, Sarah Stamp did hair and Sarah is Kristen Stewart’s kind of personal hair person. We were lucky enough to have her work with both Kristen and Laura, so she really nailed the wigs and it’s funny I keep hearing comments about how bad the wigs look and people don’t get that they’re supposed to look bad.
With the score and the soundtrack, did you take any influence from Geoff/Astor’s band?* Because music is involved in the story, did you take that as a jumping-off point for the score and soundtrack?
*Geoff is Savannah’s brother and was married to Laura. Laura wrote lyrics for his band and he also used a pseudonym – Astor.
Yeah, definitely. We wanted to capture the time period – the early 2000s and also take musical inspirations for both Laura and Savannah, so we tried to get a lot of punk music and female vocals, feminist bands. Which is why we have Lydia Lunch and Courtney Love and I was excited to get those. On an indie film budget it’s really difficult, of course there were some pieces that we couldn’t get or couldn’t afford, but we were lucky that we had the incredible Stephanie Springfield piece that played over the Cannes scene. We did have the song that Geoff and Laura write in the film – an original Geoff piece and we had Hole’s Celebrity Skin over the credits and we had Jim Sturgess himself (who plays Geoff) singing the song that Geoff wrote, which I thought was really cool.
And as for score, we had Tim Kvasnosky, who has done all my films, he’s just incredible and we work really well together and for a score piece to play in between needle drops, it was actually really difficult to find the palette for the film. Even the temp music that the editor used, it’s usually not that hard to find stuff to drop in between how scenes work, it was really hard to find things, we were dropping in a lot of Philip Glass and things that were a bit weirder, almost circusy and it felt really exciting….so it took a while to find the score palette. But I kept hearing flutes and harps, it adds to the weirdness and a sort of circusy, performance aspect of the story.
I was wondering if you felt that the story could only really have happened at the time it did happen? Because it is in the internet age, but it’s pre-social media (pre Facebook and Twitter), so it’s a snapshot of a very specific time, in terms of being able to catfish and get away with pretending to be somebody else…
Yeah, I definitely think that with the whole idea of JT, the fact that it lasted for so long, people wondered of course; “how in the hell did this ever work?” But if you watch the documentary and/or the film, they both show basically that they didn’t really try that hard! The actors and the crew involved in the film would Google photos and be like; “that looks like a woman wearing a wig, I don’t get it” And it’s exactly what you said, if it had been earlier before the internet was so powerful, it wouldn’t have worked and if it had been later with Facebook, people would have easily uncovered them. So it was like a magical window where the internet was powerful enough to be able to send messages out there. To get someone like JT, who at the time, was thought of as a young queer author, to get their work out there, it was the perfect vehicle for that and then it was the perfect combination of being able to pull this off because of the lack of Facebook and Instagram etc. I mean, MySpace was just starting to come out but it wasn’t quite big enough. So, yeah it was a very special time period and I don’t think it could happen now, unless someone were to deeply plan something and catfish in a way that meant crafting a fake ID, but as you can see in the film, they weren’t actually crafting that much. There wasn’t this big plan to pull off this heist, it was ” throw on this wig and glasses and do a weird voice” that was it.
That leads me neatly into my final question, which is what is your opinion on Laura? Do you think her creation of JT came from a genuine need on her part to process her trauma, or how much of it, do you think, was more cynical and manipulative?
It’s interesting because the goal behind the script was to of course tell the story in a completely non-judgmental way. I had dealt with a lot, especially with I Am Michael, because as a queer person to tell a story about a gay person who becomes straight, that’s something I don’t believe in, but I thought it would be an interesting story. I love finding these difficult stories and bringing them to life and saying “here’s what happened” and the audience can decide at the end. That being said, we did speak with and discuss this project with the real Laura and I understand why people felt betrayed. I will say though, based on what I read, research and from the documentary, I do kind of understand where Laura was coming from. Of course, I don’t think it was cool to lie so in-depth to people, especially on the phone, we don’t see it a lot in the film, but we touch upon it, but Laura spoke every single day, for 3-8 hours on the phone to people, gaining their sympathy by pretending to be this boy. I don’t agree with that and I understand why people felt betrayed. But based on Laura’s backstory and the fact that JT really mirrored her own upbringing, I kind of get it. She used him as a means of therapy and it spiralled out of control, so it’s a difficult thing for me to comment on. I can’t say I support it, but I really do understand it. So I don’t see Laura as this evil person, I see her as an eccentric genius who created something to kind of help her live life and that creation kind of took off unexpectedly.