ND/NF INTERVIEW: The Visionaries Behind "The Eyes of Tammy Faye"
by Brandon Judell
(indieWIRE/3.30.2000) -- "You don't have to be dowdy to be a Christian." -- Tammy Faye Bakker-Messner
If Tammy Faye Bakker was the very last person you ever thought you'd want as a best friend or more, the startlingly enjoyable new documentary, "The Eyes of Tammy Faye," will change all that. Filled with sock puppets, narration by RuPaul, and wads of mascara, this solid piece of reporting goes far behind the media created image of a woman who served as our Clown Princess for quite some time.
Much of the credit must go to its two directors, Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato, a duo who seem to be everywhere nowadays, at least in my home. This weekend as a cable special on preserving Hollywood's costumes came to an end, their names were there. And when I was turning over my futon mattress a few hours later, I discovered an unwatched copy of their "Juror #5: 59 Days of Duty on the OJ Simpson Civil Trial."
These founders of World of Wonder productions' other features include "Party Monster: The Michael Alig Story"; "Drop Dead Gorgeous," a feature on an HIV positive comedian which won a Cable Ace Award; and "The Real Ellen Story," everything you needed to know about Anne Heche's paramour. But the boys' most anticipated feature is "101 Rent Boys," a very close look at -- not movie producers as I first guessed -- but Los Angeles hustlers. Recently, indieWIRE spoke only with Mr. Barbato, but he was more than enough.
indieWIRE: Now you end the film with Tammy Faye's second husband, Roe Messner, getting out of jail. Was that the planned ending? Or did that finale just pop up during the editing process?
Randy Barbato: Well, so little of the whole film was planned. (Laughs) We know we wanted to make a film about Tammy. We didn't know a lot about the backstory when we started doing it. We knew that Roe was in prison. We knew that he was in prison for about a year . . . . I mean the whole time we were like, "God! if we're not going to complete this film before he gets out . . ." We just wanted to be done earlier than when he got out of jail but everything just took so long that it worked out perfectly.
iW: Now how long did you work on this Tammy documentary?
Barbato: A little more than a year and a half. Almost two years when you add everything together. It took a long time to persuade Tammy to let us make this film. She was very reluctant at first.
iW: Now did Tammy make you sign papers or did she have to sign papers? It must be scary for documentarians when your subject matter is one person. There's always the chance she might want to pull out in the middle of the filming.
Barbato: That is a scary thing, and there's a lot of trust. That's why it took so long. It's like building up that trust. I mean you know we started out by shooting a lot of . . . Fenton and I just shooting digital video with her when we'd go out there to visit her. I think it was a very vulnerable time for Tammy. She was alone in the desert, and after we really started bonding, she said to us, "I think God has sent you." We sort of helped fill a space in her life that was empty.
iW: Now the fabulous Sheila Nevins is listed as your Executive Producer here, and it seems every important documentary is somehow tied to Ms. Nevins. What was it like working with her?
Barbato: She's been the mentor of our filmmaking career pretty much from day one. We've made a lot of films with her and for her, and they're very different from the other stuff that she does. She's been really good about letting us go places that I think sometimes make her anxious. We have an incredibly creative relationship, also one that's incredibly provocative. Sheila really makes us think about all the choices that we make.
It's very funny you should bring her up because we just met with her last night about our upcoming documentary, "101 Rent Boys." It's been really interesting, her take on that. I mean she's really pushed us because of our very nontraditional approach to documentary filmmaking. We'd done this incredible film with her called "Juror No. 5" for HBO that kind of mixes performance and documentary. It really went to new places, and Sheila's such a cheerleader and so excited about some of the things we did. We're also really into playing around with postproduction and trying all different kinds of . . . just experimenting with the way we put stories together and the way we cut things together. She has been very liberal about letting us do stuff like that. We're really lucky.
"It was a very vulnerable time for Tammy. She was alone in the desert, and after we really started bonding, she said to us, 'I think God has sent you.' We sort of helped fill a space in her life."
iW: Now with "101 Rent Boys," that's eventually going to be shown on HBO too?
iW: Oh, Cinemax! That's a more daring outlet?
Barbato: Yes. (Laughs) I think the thing is that Cinemax is more about them purchasing filmmakers, you know. They license stuff or they give topping fees. HBO, they work with signouts and are much more involved in the whole creative process.
iW: But "The Eyes of Tammy Faye" is HBO?
Barbato: It's actually for Cinemax.
iW: You would think Tammy would be perfect for HBO. . . . Well, one less question about HBO and working with them. They had a big problem with the extremely entertaining documentary "Frat House" which they decided never to air because supposedly some of the scenes were faked. I think you worked with the channel both before and after "Frat House." Have the rules changed? Is HBO stricter?
Barbato: You know, the truth is I never heard anything about "Frat House" until a couple of weeks ago. There's always been a very clear concern about the ethics of how one goes about making a film. That's never changed. That's always been the same and, you know, Sheila's always been with us concerned about the shooting, that we should have an honest approach to everything. What everyone wonders about, for example, is that we do pay every single person in that film, "101 Rent Boys." We pay them on camera. It's part of the film. So I think the way we've been sort of trained is everything is pure, honest and upfront from the get go.
iW: Do we get to see 101 penises in that film?
Barbato: (laughs) No, you don't get to see 101 but you'll probably get to see about 12 or 13.
iW: When you see the Madonna documentary, even though I don't know if it's true, the Material Girl seems to allow everything to hang out on screen. Was Tammy Faye more restrictive? Like you weren't following her into the bathroom. Weren't there only certain times of the day you were with her?
Barbato: Well, first of all I disagree with you about Madonna. I think Madonna's far more controlling and less revealing in "Truth Or Dare" than Tammy is in "The Eyes of Tammy Faye." Having said that, no, we didn't follow her into the bathroom or no, we weren't there in the morning watching her get out of bed. But, of course, all those moments in "Truth Or Dare" were completely choreographed as far as I'm concerned. The thing about Tammy was that were no real rules. We were respectful of her privacy to a large degree. We kept the cameras on as much as we could. Tammy's always on. She's always on even when the camera isn't on. When there are people there, she's on. So we definitely tried to find those moments where she was the least on. But the reality is that's who Tammy is. So she revealed herself, what she revealed is what she was. And there's degrees of it and certainly you know in the scene where on the airplane, for example, where she's just over it and tired. Those are the kind of moments that I think are rarely captured. For Tammy to allow herself to be captured in moments like that I think are probably rare for her kind of a personality.
"Everybody has laughed at this woman. . . . But by the end of this film, regardless of how you feel about people soliciting money for religion. . ., it's hard not to feel a little bit of guilt or shame for just unkindly judging someone that you don't know."
iW: Now at one point in the film I got teary-eyed. Of course, Tammy cries a lot throughout the film. Did you and Fenton have your moments?
Barbato: (Long silence) Teary eyed? Oh, man! I'm just thinking because I want to give you the real stuff here. Well, I know the most extreme emotional moment that I had, probably one of the most extreme emotions . . . I wasn't crying. I was cringing. It was when Tammy was pitching her ideas for TV programs to Steven Chao at the USA Network. That whole scene is incredibly cathartic because he was really kind of mean to her at first. But she was very aware of what he was doing. Steven was also kind of aware of what she was doing, and it was really uncomfortable. The great thing was that they both brought one another around. Like genuinely.
It was one of those moments where there's just something about Tammy where you just want to kind of protect her. She can take care of herself. And she's really good at getting other people to take care of her as well and look out for her. But that was one of those moments where I felt so awful as that was unfolding and I was watching it. There were a few moments where it felt cruel. Even though it's a short segment in the film, it actually went on for about an hour and a half. It was unbelievable, and there was a point where when we're editing this film, where we were going . . . where the entire film was going . . . The arc of the story was going to be based on that pitch. We were going to keep coming back to it because it was amazing to watch.
It goes back to one of your first questions. This incredibly spiritual person is in the room with this incredibly cynical person, and to watch those two forces kind of battle it out in a completely polite way but a very unsettling way, and you could feel it in the room. So I didn't shed a tear then, but it was amazing. I guess when Tammy went back to Tulsa and performed, I got a little verklempt in the room. (Silence) I'm sure I cried. (Laughs)
But you know . . . We've yet to get into the theater and watch this film from beginning to end. We couldn't get in at Sundance. When we finally managed to get two seats at one of the screenings, the film broke. And so I never really experienced watching the film in a theater.
iW: That's quite an experience you've missed. The audiences seem to adore Tammy.
Barbato: Yeah, I felt all warm and fuzzy after every screening when you walk in afterwards, which is like a million dollar feeling. Especially because a lot of people at the Q and A's in Sundance came to see the film because they disliked Tammy so much, and we'd share that. I think that part of the reason this film resonates so strongly with some people is because we live in a society where it feels really good to judge people. It's like such a great way to make yourself feel better, and to a certain degree we're all guilty of that. I think that everybody has laughed at this woman, and everyone has like had a party just cracking up about her and making fun of her. But by the end of this film, regardless of how you feel about people soliciting money for religion, regardless of how you feel about all the rest of the stuff, it's hard not to feel a little bit of guilt or shame for just unkindly judging someone that you don't know.
I think that's what resonates with people, and Tammy's the perfect person in a way to kind of be the messenger of this kind of message because at the end of day she just likes to make people feel good. And she does such a good job of that and what's wrong with that? Tammy is profoundly spiritual. Her intentions are genuinely good, and there should be lots of Tammy Fayes all over the place. We would all have such a good time. And you know she's a bit of a mess but that's okay because she's also fabulous. She's a fabulous mess and we're all messes. If only we could all be fabulous messes! It would feel great to go to work everyday with a bunch of fabulous messes. I don't know how much work would get done, but . . . .
[Brandon Judell is a contributing editor to Detour magazine and also writes regularly for The Bay Area Reporter, Flair, plus is an on-air film critic for MetroGuide.]