Porn Stars, Pop Culture, and Celebrities: Bailey & Barbato's Wonderful World

by Eugene Hernandez

Outside at the opening night of Outfest for their L.A. debut of "Party Monster," co-directors Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato, with star Seth Green and "Disco Bloodbath" author (and one of the film's subjects) James St. James in the middle. Photo credit: Jonny Leahan

Based at the historic Shane Building in the heart of Hollywood is World of Wonder, one of the busiest TV production companies that is creating and developing some of the more unique series and shows available on cable television today. With a current staff of more than 60 in Los Angeles and another 30 in London, World of Wonder is the 13-year-old outfit from well-know indie filmmakers Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato ("Party Monster," "The Eyes of Tammy Faye"). Among its projects are tonight's "Gay Hollywood" and next week's "Totally Gay," a narrative feature this fall, and a new doc about "Deep Throat."

Bailey and Barbato met at graduate film school at NYU in the late 1980s. In 1990, the pair founded World of Wonder, the busy documentary production company that has since created more than 120 programs for television. The pair is busy overseeing the production of programming for a wide range of networks, including HBO, Cinemax, MTV, VH1, Showtime, Bravo, CourtTV, and AMC in the United States and Channel 4, Channel 5 and the BBC in the UK. The latest program from World of Wonder, "The AMC Project: Gay Hollywood," debuts tonight on AMC.

"Gay Hollywood" explores the lives of gay men in Hollywood today, following five guys trying to make it in the film business. Directed by Jeremy Simmons ("School's Out: The Life of a Gay High School in Texas," MTV 2003) and executive produced by Bailey and Barbato, the program profiles filmmakers Lance Black ("My Life With Count Dracula," "On The Bus") and Allan Brocka ("Rick & Steve: The Happiest Gay Couple in All the World"Robert Laughlin, actor and performer (a.k.a. Bridgette of Madison County), and writer Benjamin Morgan.

Shows such as "Dark Roots: The Unauthorized Anne Nicole," "Blockbuster Imperative," "Andy Warhol: The Complete Picture," "The History of Masturbation," and many others have earned World of Wonder a name as producers of shows and series that are driven by a unique perspective on celebrities and pop culture.

"We are more interested in the pop than in the culture of pop culture," Barbato said in a conversation with indieWIRE last week. "Things that strike a chord with the mainstream, those odd zeitgesit-y moments, things that capture everyone's imagination or interest." Continuing he explained, "The reality is that all of those things that fascinate us, I think, are often perceived as marginal but in fact they are very much connected to the mainstream in one way or another."

"We live in a 'celebritocracy." offered Barbato, "From the moment you wake up to the moment you go to bed, we are bombarded with (celebrities)."

It is no doubt a unique moment to examine the impact of celebrities on the culture of our society -- a time when an actor who was one of the biggest action stars in the world has embarked upon a high-profile campaign to be the governor of the largest state in the country. The reality of California state politics is in fact not far from an idea that Bailey and Barbato developed nearly 10 years ago. The two were pitching a project entitled "The Emperor of California," based on the prospect that a superstar actor from Germany might become the governor of California and ultimately the state would secede from the Union. "At the meetings, people thought it was too farfetched to ever become a reality," said Barbato with a laugh, just days after Arnold Schwarzenegger declared his candidacy on "The Tonight Show."

Bailey and Barbato certainly don't step behind the camera for most of their programs, but they maintain a hand in each show, usually as executive producers. That said, they are developing a roster of filmmakers and producers with similar interests. "There are some incredible people who work here," said Barbato. "Getting people who can do critical analysis, who can write, who can contribute tomaking a program that is unique in its vision, that has taken us years and years -- we have the coolest people working here, we pride ourselves on that."

"Fenton and I built World of Wonder (because) we are obsessed with Andy Warhol -- we like to think that we are the new Factory, literally building this company with directors and editors and producers who are really talented and provide opportunities for them."

As an example of how World of Wonder develops its roster of in-house talent, Bailey and Barbato looked to Jeremy Simmons to direct the "Gay Hollywood" project. Simmons edited Bailey and Barbato's upcoming dramatic feature, "Party Monster" as well as a number docs, including the 2002 HBO project, "Monica In Black in White," which was directed by Bailey and Barbato and featured Monica Lewinsky in her own words.

The "Gay Hollywood" project is one that was close to Bailey and Barbato, who are partners in life as well as work. The program actually began as a historical documentary about lesbians in Hollywood, looking at "the '20s and '30s, when women ruled in Hollywood," said Barbato. Even though "Gay Hollywood" evolved, the project about lesbians in Hollywood remains a goal.

"The film is really a small, intimate film," Barbato said, referring to the program, "I think what you get from it is how universal everyone's story is." Continuing he explained, "The title misrepresents it in a way, it says less about the state of gay Hollywood and more about the fact that gays in Hollywood are kind of like anybody else."

Indeed the program about homosexuals in Hollywood, in this case five men, comes as a time when a handful of gay-themed series like "Queer Eye for the Straight Guy" and "Boy Meets Boy" are gaining widespread media attention and a sizable viewership.

Another World of Wonder program, "Totally Gay," will debut on VH1 one week from today. It looks at the wider acceptance of gays and lesbians and the affect that sexual openness is having on mainstream culture.

"It was inevititable," said Barbato, "America is more sophisticated than people really give it credit for. People are surrounded by gay people." Continuing, he explained that the entertainment industry can no longer "protect the America from the gay people." He explained, "The world will not come to an end when there are gay characters or gay TV shows, it represents what (people) already know -- everyone has a gay brother, or a gay sister, a gay co-worker, or gay beautician," Barbato said with a chuckle.

Bailey and Barbato have hired Allan Brocka, one of the filmmakers tracked in "Gay Hollywood," as one of the directors of a new 13 episode reality series that will examine the leading porn studio, Vivid Entertainment. The program, financed by Britain's Channel Four and SkyTV, will first air in the U.K. A United States distributor has not yet been set, but a deal with be made for airing in this country. And it's not the only project they have that is exploring pornography and sexuality.

While Bailey and Barbato are gearing up for the theatrical release of their passion project "Party Monster," which Strand will release next month, they are also in the middle of production on what they call their "big" baby. Their doc, aimed at a theatrical release, explores the legendary early 1970s porn film, "Deep Throat." The pair were approached by Imagine Entertainment producer Brian Grazer ("8 Mile," "Liar, Liar," "Kindergarten Cop") about doing a dramatic feature film about "Deep Throat" star Linda Lovelace, that idea soon morphed into a depper look at the film itself. Bailey and Barbato have already interviewed more than 50 people for the movie, including director Gerard Damiano, and they have shot more than 120 hours of footage. Editing will begin in about three weeks and the filmmakers will begin to shape the movie. HBO is one of the primary funders on the project. Barbato assures that it will have a theatrical life before it screens on the cable network.

Among the other upcoming World of Wonder programs are "Reality of Reality," a four-night Bravo series (narrated by Kyle Maclachlan) that looks at the explosion of reality television, and "Brilliant But Canceled," a documentary for TRIO about television pilots that never made it on the air (narrated by Paul Rudd). Also for TRIO, World of Wonder has created "The Top Ten Miniseries of All Time," a look at famous mini-series (narrated by Jane Seymour.)

Concluding the conversation with indieWIRE, Barbato added, "TV has never been as exciting as it is right now."