Documentary filmmaker Billy Corben and his films talk a mile a minute. He’s prone to running off on tangents, and it’s hard to keep up, but luckily, that’s not the case with his new film “Limelight,” a slick, fast-paced and intelligent documentary on the rise and fall of Peter Gatien, the legendary New York nightclub owner. The director behind “Cocaine Cowboys” sat down with indieWIRE to discuss the new project.
“Limelight” was released this weekend by Magnolia Pictures.
What brought you to the story? Was it something you followed as it was happening?
No, it was brought to us. Jen Gatien, Peter’s daughter, who is an established indie film producer, she wanted to do a nonfiction piece about her father. She’d seen “Cocaine Cowboys” and got in touch with us at Raconteur and spoke with Alfred Spellman, my producing partner, and said she really liked what you guys did with that and if we’d like to do the story, which we did know about contemporaneously, but we didn’t follow it closely at all in the 19. I graduated from an arts high school in 1996, so a lot of my friends came up here for college, so of course we spent a lot of time at Peter’s venues in the late 19. Everybody had been to Limelight. My grandparents went to Limelight. It was a tourist destination; you know, Broadway show, Statue of Liberty, Limelight. I mean, you could go to a nightclub and get fucked up in a church.
This was our first non-Florida project, and one of the first projects we’ve taken on that we didn’t develop in-house. Someone else came to us with the access and the financing. What we really liked about it was that the story had what a lot of documentary filmmakers go for: The micro/macro. The micro is these individual first-person stories from Peter Gatien, the city, the law enforcement, the promoters, the DJs, et cetera, and each of them is a tile in a mosaic, and the macro is the big picture that we put them together to represent, which is the Giuliani revolution of the 19, and how these nightclubs were put into the cross-hairs. To be fair, these venues became venues for drugs and debauchery, but there wasn’t any effort to work with business owners to give them opportunities to be compliant, and they needed a scapegoat, a sinister face, to put on a wanted sign, and who could be better than Peter Gatien, the guy with the eye patch?
What drew you to Peter Gatien?
Peter’s creativity and his willingness to adapt and embrace new musical genres and subcultures; it’s staggering. He owned four of the biggest clubs in the world in one city simultaneously, and Club USA, the smallest of them, held 2500 people. He was able to corral and hire all of the most interesting, creative people in town to keep things fresh. I don’t know how many nightclubs these days have art installations or invite artists to hang paintings or aim to make an impact in multiple artistic disciplines, not just music. That, combined with the debauchery in a church appeal, just kept people coming. He found a way to keep it interesting for himself and his patrons.
What does Gatien think of the movie?
We agreed to do the project on the condition that we’d have final cut and complete creative control, which they agreed to. It was never going to be Memoirs of a Getien. He got the opportunity to speak in his interviews, but I told him that this was going to be an objective piece, and we’re going to investigate it from scratch. We interviewed almost every single government witness in People of the United States vs. Peter Gatien, and I spoke with two of the three U.S. attorneys. Everybody had a chance to have their voice heard; everyone had a fair shake. Most of them would agree, except Peter. We got into an argument during Hot Docs, where we had our premiere. He was carrying around pages and pages of notes after the premiere. The guy wanted to give me notes, and that’s the first time I’d ever experienced that.
I guess he figured he was entitled because Jen’s name is on the project, but Jen wasn’t even contractually entitled to that. Once cooler heads prevailed, we sat down and I heard him out, but it didn’t impact the cut of the movie at all. He’s still dissatisfied with that, and I think that means we did it right. I was taught in high school that the meaning of compromise is that both sides are unhappy. We didn’t compromise. I’m happy, and he’s not.
You live in Miami, but knowing what you know about New York from this project, how do you think this story would have panned out in present day New York, or would there have even been a Peter Gatien today?
We did this movie called The U about the University of Miami football program in the 19, and they were the notorious bad boys of college football, and one of the common questions on that film was about whether that could ever happen again, if college football could be that iconoclastic and edgy again, and the answer is always no. The rules have changed and popular culture has changed. Limelight was very much a product of its time, and short of a Delorian and a flux capacitor, you can’t go back to that time or recreate that era. And New York, if not by mandate certainly by decision, decided that those type of venues were not going to exist in that way. It was like “Footloose” with the cabaret laws. Statistically, I don’t think that there’s any question that any good came from Giuliani’s initiatives. This was not a safe city to even walk in at night. I noticed that when I came to New York as a kid. We saw “Cats.” The city was pretty much how you saw it in the movies; it was disgusting and dirty.
When you were walking in the city at night, the danger felt palpable. It was tense. You felt like you could get mugged at any second. Then I came after high school, and I remember one night I left a friend’s house on 22nd and Park and I left at three in the morning and I started walking up 3rd, and I figured that if I felt sketched out, I’d just hail a cab. There were a few sketchy characters, but there were people jogging and walking their dogs, but before I knew it, I was back at home. And the last time I had been at New York, doing that would have been ludicrous. It wouldn’t have been something anyone would have done even eight years earlier. I noticed how cool that was that things could change so quickly.
Where’d you get the inspiration for the film’s frenzied audiovisual style?
Ecstasy. I answered a question in an interview where I had to describe the film in five words. I used seven: “From rolling on ecstasy to Kafka-esque K-hole.” That was the journey of the movie, the story and the visual. That’s the story of Peter Gatien and the scene. When we did “Godfathers of Ganja,” our 70’s pot-hauler film, the style sheet was all earth tones and an acoustic Jimmy Buffett kind of score to provide the right vibe. “Cocaine Cowboys,” our 80’s cocaine movie had fades to white instead of black, and the Miami Vice synth soundtrack, and this is our 90’s ecstasy movie, so I guess you could say we have all our drug decade trend covered. And we did it musically as well. Just for an example: Fast, who did the score for Limelight, was one of the members of Fun Loving Criminals, who met at Limelight, and they were gigging at Limelight, and they got signed by an A&R guy at Limelight.
What is the festival experience like for you and your films?
Well, we got to do Hot Docs, which he’d never done, and that’s a great, great festival. There are plenty of festivals that are known and respected, but they’re not very well organized. And then there are obscure festivals that aren’t as sexy or popular that are really well organized. Not that Hot Docs is one of those. It’s really popular and very well put together. We haven’t been invited back to Sundance since our first movie.
We don’t really make traditional film festival documentaries. A friend of ours calls what we do “pop docs.” We have a very narrative sensibility. By the beginning of next year, almost all of our documentaries will be optioned and in development for some sort of scripted development. They sort of serve as blueprints for the kind of characters and stories that would make compelling dramas.
There are plenty of documentaries that not only tell stories well but are also emotional and visceral, and we don’t really make those kind of movies. We get invited to very cool festivals, though, like Tribeca and CineVegas and Hot Docs. We make “pop docs,” so we go to festivals that appreciate that, but there’s not too many.
Do you have any advice for kids who are starting out in film school making documentaries?
This is the secret to filmmaking.There’s two simple steps. Find a good story and tell it well. If you find a good story and you tell it well, it’s going to be good. Easier said than done, but that’s it, and from there, you play the RAS game: Relevance, Access, Style.
Relevance. Who gives a shit? Indie documentaries are like the proverbial tree falling in the forest. Presumably, you tell these stories and make these movies so that someone will see them. Relevant is different from topical; just because something’s in the news doesn’t mean people are going to the theater or streaming something on Netflix to learn about it. Who cares about it?
Access. Do you have access to everything you need to tell the story: Access to the people, access to the funding, access to a script, access to actors, access to equipment, access to location, access to archival materials.
Style. Not just what you say, but how you say it, and why re you the best filmmaker to tell this story. What do you bring to the table as a filmmaker and storyteller?