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Interview: Marjorie Sturm Talks ‘The Cult of JT LeRoy’

Interview: Marjorie Sturm Talks 'The Cult of JT LeRoy'

“The Cult of JT LeRoy” is a doc that’s gained momentum playing the likes of DOC NYC, Hot Docs, Outfest, QDoc and won the jury prize for best documentary at the SF Indie Fest is an astonishingly transfixing look at the hoax that fooled an entire artistic community. JT LeRoy was a supposed homeless queer youth who rose to notoriety after the publication of her autobiographical works “Sarah” and “The Heart is Deceitful Above All Things.” But on the heels of scandal and suspicion, she was eventually unveiled as the pen-name-cum-Frankenstein’s-monster-persona of Laura Albert, a world-class manipulator who deceived the public by hiring a young woman, Savannah Knoop, to play the criminally shy transgender voice behind the literary sensation. In the documentary, Marjorie Sturm summons interviews with the acquaintances who believed they knew LeRoy best, only to discover they were pawns in Albert’s ruthless rise to the top. I got a chance to sit down with Sturm to pick her brain, a brain that’s been attached to the entire phenomenon since it began, on very different terms, all the way back in 2002. 

I’m wondering what the genesis of the project was? It was clearly a very long time in the making, from when you initially picked up that camera until its festival premieres.

I was working with the homeless mentally ill while working in San Francisco’s Tenderloin district and finishing up film school, and then this guy that I just started dating called me. He said “This writer is right up your alley… this is going to be something you’re interested in,” because I was interested in homelessness and poetry. At this time John Waters was super into JT, and Tom Waits and all these people, and I was like “huh? what is this?” So I worked on the film for 10 months in 2002/2003. Then JT became very sensitive and didn’t want the film made anymore, and I had always thought it was really strange that I was filming JT in the first place because he was so sensitive. So I said “sure, I’ll stop filming you, no problem.” 

After that, when Stephen Beachy wrote that huge New York Magazine piece, I wrote him a quick email saying “Hey, you resolved this really unresolved experience in my life,” and then he encouraged me to re-open the unfinished film. The day before the New York Times broke the piece I actually wrote JT, and I said: “Hey JT, I’d love an interview with Laura Albert.” I didn’t hear back from Laura Albert for many months, and when I did it was really aggressive and crazy. She was actually legally threatening Hot Docs. So that’s been extra added craziness to the whole process. She was so aggressive and threatening and off the hook that I just had to be like “No way. You’re not gonna bully me.” 

She kept saying “This is my story to tell.” But her story overlapped with a lot of other peoples’ lives… so it wasn’t just her story anymore. In documentary filmmaking you have the right to examine a public figure or an issue of public concern. So I started working on the film again from 2006 to 2008. I’ll spare you but the industry is crazy. I had some really bad experiences producing the film.

In what sense?

The same issues that were in the film. Like diseased ambition, deception, manipulation, sexism. It was off the hook and crazy.

So then I didn’t have funding for 4 years, and the hard drive just sat at my desk until I found funding again. I’d rather the film not be made than do something that mocks my interviewees, or puts them up on trial, or makes people look like pedophiles… I would rather it sit than it be an untrue representation. I don’t have any other enemy in the world besides Laura Albert, and I can live with that one. 

That’s such a long period.

Isn’t it? You were probably ten or something. I did other things in between — I raised two kids and made other films, but with this one I knew I was sitting on something interesting. 

Did you know that from the get-go? Did you sense the underlying craziness? Because what it started out as and what it ended up being were utterly different things.

I bought it hook, line and sinker. JT was right in front of me, and when people said he didn’t exist it was like “How do I know you’re Oliver? How do you know I’m Marjorie?” Here we are taking reality’s word for it. But with that said, there were always weird things going on and stuff happening and cagey answers that did not meet up. Then there was all the mystery around him. It was very obsessive for people who were trying to figure it out. I had this one experience with Savannah Knoop on a bus. You were not supposed to say hello or greet her, so I just walked by her and didn’t address her, and when I got home I emailed JT and said “Funny to see you on the bus today.” I got this email response saying “JT is in London for the premiere of The Heart is Deceitful Above All Things,” and I wrote back: “Unless JT learned to astral project, I saw JT on the bus today.” I knew who I saw. I had stared at the image so much through video, I was 100% sure. Then I get that email, and I think “that does not make sense.” But a lot about JT didn’t make sense. And JT was everywhere — you’d go into a bookstore and every magazine would be JT, JT, JT! It was like a meme. JT as a brand. 

What’s your personal take on the morality and ethics of it all? At the end of movie Laura Albert says “I’m punk.” Is there any form of artistic justification for the way she fleshed out a false identity from behind this mask?

On one level you don’t always want to say, as the director, what you think exactly — but I will. I tried to create the film as a kind of ethical Rorshach test, because I really want people to have to think about it. I’m bringing up all these issues around the industry, child abuse, sexism, punk. The bottom line is, ethically, we never have the right to oppose on other people for art or for our therapeutic needs. Once we cross over that line of opposing on other people, we’ve crossed. And it’s fucked up. 

But the problem is we live in a capitalist society in America, going strong, wherein we’re used to that. We’re used to a culture where we’re opposing on other people to get ahead. That’s what I had during the making of my film: people feeling very comfortable with their ambition, their money, drive or whatever it was, do whatever they thought they needed to do to me. Personally, I don’t think any one person’s artistic ambition — she might have had a bad childhood, but it does not give her the right to market herself as an HIV-positive street kid to push her writing ahead. What’s very cultish about it is is people rationalize things for their own self-interest. She’s completely rationalizing things, she’s continuing to play the victim, and she continues to blame other people. She lied to everyone else and we’re supposed to feel bad for her. I feel like, without exception, every person I interviewed really reflected on how they were complicit in it. We were all involved, myself included, and everyone else had a whole bunch of self-reflection that occurred, and they’re responsible for it… but she’s not there yet. 

That’s what I really feel around the ethics of it. I have friends in film school who are women who had been like “Go girl!”; that’s what it takes as a women to get ahead in a male dominated industry. I’ve experienced so many fucked up things with this film to do with sexism, but that wouldn’t give me the right to exploit another women next to me. Or because there’s sexism in the industry, am I going to take advantage of a bunch of gay, sympathetic men? It just does not add up. I don’t buy it.

Do you think Savannah Knoop is at all to blame?

That’s always an interesting question. I think there’s definitely culpability for Savannah. Some people think she’s off the hook because she’s young, but she was 22 at the time, and she was or is a masterful manipulator. Or we could compare her to Patty Hearst. But she has written a book, and she’s been given the platform to come forward and apologize. I don’t think she has. I think she’s ambivalent about it, but the fact that she would have a sexual relationship with Asia Argento in another persona is pretty reprehensible. That would be a major mind fuck.

The thing I hear over and over again is: “You could so tell Savannah is a girl.” But in San Francisco there’s so much sensitivity about letting someone’s sexuality be whatever it is, and not really looking to judge or see who’s passing and who isn’t passing. So I accepted that JT’s sexuality was whatever JT wanted. There were years and years of gender confusion that masked the issue of biography. No one went to the question: is this biography real? Does JT really exist? Quite honestly, transgender politics were nowhere near where they are now. There was no Laverne Cox in 2002. It was a much smaller group of people who were sympathetic and yearning for any exposure for the transgender population. 

But I believe Savannah was paid. Everyone who was paid for their involvement with JT have a lighter approach because it was a job. People work for Bechtel that make nuclear weapons. She was paid for this job that was unethical, but get in line for 50% of the employment opportunities in the United States. So much of the work we do is potentially unethical.

Exactly. The people working for these corporations are getting paid, but the real masterminds behind it are a whole different story.

It’s trippy, right? There’s so many ways you can walk down that line.

The way you presented Laura Albert really spooked me. I found it haunting. Was that your intention?

It is scary, isn’t it? It was my initial feeling and then it was reinforced by a lot of people. I don’t want to spend my whole life fact-checking people. I want to trust people, I don’t want to be wary. The aftermath of being deceived is that you’re wary of people. I’m better now, but I was really paranoid conducting interviews in the beginning. But I really had so many odd experiences. I don’t think that’s human nature necessarily, I think it’s a cultural aberration that we don’t get to live and be who we are, express ourselves and feel free. Maybe I’ve been living in San Francisco a long time, but I feel like most people there have a culture of acceptance and freedom. The thing with that is that Laura’s able to live fine there too. 

That’s where she is right now right, San Francisco? Does that kind of scare you?

Not anymore. Now I feel like “I’m not leaving, I’ve been here a while.” I really mean it: I wish her well. I mean her no harm. But I don’t wish her the ability to harm others. That’s really the dance. I hope she changes and grows and learns and heals and all that stuff that she wants. I also think that part of peoples’ process is eventually coming forward and admitting to wrongdoing, whereas she’s not even close to that. 

I really wasn’t trying to be vindictive towards her. But I don’t think that she should be able to control my creative expression either. You can’t do this. Well, she can’t create a performance art piece, a roleplay, whatever the hell she wants to call it, that involves 1000 cultural figures and then say “I’m the only one who gets to control this expression about it.” That’s what the Scientologists do. They sue everyone who tries to critique them.

She’s a very dark character. My producer watched my demo and was all: “She’s a rapist. That’s rape.” To pretend to be suicidal and ask people to have phone sex is a form of rape. The thing that’s all genderfuck again is that we don’t expect these characters to be women; we’re not used to watching that go on. Some people go “You were really even-handed,” and I go “Really? I compared her to a demon.” I had titled the film “The Exorcism of JT LeRoy” and then I changed it to “Cult.” Stephen Beachy’s analogy to the gay priest in “The Exorcist” really did speak to me even though it also comes across humorous. The priest says: “The demon is a liar. He tries to mix facts with lies, in order to confuse us, in order to best attack us.” 

Another question of mine was about Laura’s appropriation of LGBT culture and the narrative of the impoverished.

Stephen Beachy said to me “It’s always someone out in a barn that’s pimping out their child.” Because it is. It’s always white trash culture and these urban sophisticates thinking like “Oh, that’s what going on in the Appalachian Mountains!” And we can really believe it because it wouldn’t happen in our sophisticated urban culture. I think she may be gay friendly, but the question around appropriation is “Does a straight woman have the right to impersonate a more marginalized population? Transgender? Gay? Homeless?” It all may be funny for some people, but it wasn’t for a lot of homeless queer youth. She knew non-fiction was more marketable. It was all quite sensational. She did her research on homeless youth, and she met them and she marketed it. If she kept it as fiction and she didn’t have Savannah run around, it could’ve possibly been okay. You don’t always have to write your own identity in fiction. But those books were absolutely always marketed as autobiographical fiction with a bio to match. After ten years of her confusing the art with the artist, where all suppose to peel back the deception and try to evaluate the art on its’ own terms. Why exactly? There’s so much great art out there that I personally don’t think its’ worth the effort.

Do you think having someone stand in as JT LeRoy was all planned from the beginning, or did it spiral out of control to that incomprehensible point? 

It spiralled. Savannah was really just the puppet, the prop. 

Did Savannah have a life before? Was her life just put on hold one day?

Basically she dropped out of college, and she was home from school undergoing a little bit of a flux period. That’s always how you get pulled into a cult. You’re a little bit lonely and a little bit vulnerable, which 95% of the population at any given moment might be. There’s a lot of time that we have to fill in this long life. She was just trying to find herself and Laura kind of started hiring her, and she dropped out of being JT at times. She was ambivalent about it, she would drop out and keep getting pulled back into it… Laura would up the money or keep bribing her with a new sewing machine. Crazy, right?

Look for “JT” at upcoming festivals like the Vancouver Queer Film Festival, Palm Springs Queer Film Festival, Queer Lisbon Film Festival, Oslo Gay and Lesbian Film Festival and CineAgenzia Festivaletteratura.

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