"As soon as people hear it's the Chris Crocker story," Crocker himself told Indiewire, "people are like 'There's so many other stories that deserve a documentary.'"
[Editor's Note: This interview originally ran during the 2012 Sundance Film Festival where "Me @ the Zoo" world premiered. The documentary is getting its broadcast premiere tonight on HBO at 9pm.]
Crocker became an Internet sensation after he took to YouTube to shame the media and America for intruding too far into Britney Spears' personal life. His "Leave Britney Alone" video has over 42 million views. The reaction Crocker describes others having to the film is unsurprising, sure, but "Me @ the Zoo" is an exciting exploration of Internet media culture.
The film also shows Crocker take his genderbending personae around his small Tennessee town and, following his Internet-fueled fame, around the world. Those not familiar with Crocker's videos beyond "Leave Britney Alone," may be surprised at how artful Crocker is, and his story of finding connection to a larger world through YouTube is a success story from the wired generation.
Indiewire sat down with Crocker and the film's filmmakers, Chris Moukarbel and Valerie Veatch, who are making their feature film debut with "Me @ the Zoo," which was picked up by HBO early in the festival.
How has it been showing your film to Sundance audiences?
Veatch: The audience response so far has been really great – people have been laughing, hooting.
Crocker: It's really weird for me because I'm so used to reading people's responses. Posting videos online is a completely different experience than being in a theater hearing laughter and other responses. At the end of the Q&A's I feel really understood by the audience. They really get it. They had really smart questions. There's also the distinction between real life and the Internet. For the reactions to be in quote unquote real life, the line is blurred now.
How did you come to Chris's story?
Veatch: Our project started as a broader survey of reality performance on television and social media. We filmed a lot of random videos of different people. We initially interviewed Chris to be a part of that film. And we interviewed him in New York, and once we started cutting his media into that other project, it just became very clear that his story is really emblematic of a lot of the themes we were trying to get at in that larger story.
Moukarbel: In a lot of ways it's also been an archival project, because it's this sort of snapshot in this moment of time in early internet history. Because Chris was in the first wave of video bloggers and really mastered social media, it was nice to use his media and help him tell his story and also tell a piece of Internet history. With a whole generation of people growing up watching reality TV and a whole generation watching people perform themselves, acting is no longer the medium of our time. And so Chris seemed like this natural progression of that. For economic reasons, the industry cut out the actors and the writers, and then what Chris does is he basically cuts out the producers and the networks and he's just self-publishing.
One thing that's interesting about your videos and performance is that you're not acting as yourself all the time.
Crocker: I sort of leave it up to the audience to tell when I'm being myself and vulnerable and straight from the heart and what is me just playing on people's stereotypes. I think that's what got me the initial online. People were so confused; my personalities in all these videos were different. Maybe that's performance, but it's all from a real place. Even if it's me portraying a stereotype or perceptions of me that existed or gays or whatever, it's all trying to get a point across even if I'm personifying that stereotype, I really liked leaving it up to people to draw their own conclusions.
Veatch: In some ways it was probably always about Chris Crocker. It was hard to not be really excited and inspired by his media.
Moukarbel: We just became friends too. It was a natural progression. In the beginning, he was going to be in this other film. And he was gonna be the end of it — this tipping point at Chris Crocker. It became clear, especially as we became friends and began to understand his story a little bit better, we realized it was completely deserving of its own film and we knew we were the people that should tell it.
Veatch: Chris's story helped us get to so many other things that are so much more interesting than the project we started. The whole Britney story. That we got to tell the Britney story was amazing. It's hard to make a feminist statement in this media sphere where we've sort of exhausted the liberation of the female but there's clearly still a repressed female in the media sphere. To use Britney's story to tell that whole thing was so exciting.
Moukarbel: Not to spoil the movie here, but there are parallels between Chris's mother's story and Britney's story. The need that Chris felt to protect Britney — he wasn't so much conscious of it at the time, but it came up in interviews over the years – there was this moment where he realized "Wow, maybe my mother and Britney have a lot in common and maybe that's why i did feel so emotional about it."
Veatch: It was so tempting and fun to make it all about Chris, and the other movie became very boring for us to think about. When you start editing together a bunch of Chris Crocker videos, that's all you want to watch.
Crocker: I would just film myself in my everyday life and I was just like "Here you go, guys, have whatever." That too gave me a way to weave together.
Veatch: We had thousands of videos.
How many have you uploaded?
Crocker: There are like 400, but I would just record myself walking outside. Going to the grocery story – that I never put online because I knew it would be boring. It's such a daily process for me. I just wake up and turn on the camera. It's a self-analysis — there was a story that I wasn't telling online, which they got to see.
Moukarbel: It was like Christmas when he gave us the hard drive with all of his videos. It was this really rich archive of his life. It was also this tremendous responsibility.
How is it to see all of your content edited together by other people?
Crocker: There's certain things that I wanted to forget that I put out. There are other things that make me squeamish. There are other things I'm really proud of. It's a mixture of feelings. It still will be the most surreal thing that has ever happened to me. It's weird. It's jarring.
Moukarbel: We're playing of perceptions of high and low. A lot of the media is talking about the Internet as being low culture, but a lot of it is high, because it's coming from Chris. Taking it out of that context and putting it into the context of cinema, people have to confront it in another way.
Crocker: I think that's exactly it. You can easily disregard me online and be like whatever. But the film makes you confront it. Like someone was asking me in the Q&A, what does it mean for you to be in this fine art institution. And I was like "I always do fine art." I was joking but it completely does change.
What is your reaction to now knowing it's going to be on HBO?
Crocker: What was it Sheila [Nevins, head of HBO's documentary division] said? The film is everything she wants HBO to represent. That's numbing, that's paralyzing. When I met her, I was like you're like a real life Cruella Deville. And she goes, "And you're my puppy!" She brought Britney perfume for me to the screening.
Veatch: There's a New York Times article today that said that she left the Marina Abramovic silent party early to bring Chris Crocker a bottle of Britney Spears perfume. HBO is awesome and they lend a certain brand reification. If we would have shown up to Sundance with a pile of Internet footage and a screaming queens. But HBO has a reputation for representing American outsiders. We're like verified freaks instead of just freaks.
Crocker: I'm shocked, excited. I just hope people give it a chance. As soon as people hear it's the Chris Crocker story, people are like "There's so many other stories that deserve a documentary." I look at it as less my story and more like a story for teens to relate to. It touches on a lot of things, like my mom's drug use. I think I'm a radical example, but there's a lot of things the film shows that everyone can relate to.