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‘Studio 54’ Director Matt Tyrnauer Had Two Rules for His Documentary: No Disco, and No Celebrities

His acclaimed documentary recently played as part of the IDA screening series.

Behind the scenes of shooting "Studio 54"

Behind the scenes of shooting “Studio 54”

courtesy of filmmakers

Except for the lucky few who entered the legendary nightclub on New York’s 54th Street, most people’s impressions of Studio 54 come from newspaper photographs and an extremely fictionalized 1998 movie. But director Matt Tyrnauer opens the doors to the general public with his new documentary, “Studio 54.”

Tyrnauer told the crowd after a showing of his film at the International Documentary Association’s annual screening series that “in a way, it’s the most-told story but it’s the least-told story.”

Studio 54 may have produced iconic pictures and made headlines for years (both during its ultra-exclusive heyday and after, when owners Steve Rubell and Ian Schrager went to prison for tax evasion), but few know the real story. Rubell died in 1989, and Schrager hadn’t spoken about it publicly — until Tyrnauer’s film.

The filmmaker, who is also a Vanity Fair correspondent, interviewed Schrager for a story about one of his hotels (Schrager and Rubell had begun working in hotels before the latter’s death). Years later, Schrager agreed to speak to him about his time at Studio 54. Tyrnauer interviewed him on and off for a year, and said he was “a dream as an interview subject.”

“I thought he was a superstar from day one,” Tyrnauer said. With Schrager involved — plus never-before-seen 16mm footage one of his producers tracked down that a group of NYU students had filmed for a project they never made — Tyrnauer knew he had the makings of a truly unique film.

“Studio 54”

Ian Schrager (r) and Steve Rubell outside Studio 54. Photo Credit: Photofest. STUDIO 54. A film by Matt Tyrnauer. A Zeitgeist Films release in association with Kino Lorber.

One thing he knew he didn’t want to include in it: too much disco music. The soundtrack is almost anti-disco, save for a few judicious uses of iconic disco tracks. (Tyrnauer got real playlists from the club so the only disco the film includes are songs actually played there.) The other rule: No celebrities.

“I didn’t want it to be the celebrity rap session, sex drugs and disco gloss film,” Tyrnauer said. “I made a resolution to myself — no celebrities — early on, which was controversial with the producer.”

He thought the stars would overshadow other remarkable scenes, like Jane Pauley interviewing Rubell when a young Michael Jackson walked in, and his other star, Schrager. “I had Ian Schrager. No one ever had Ian Schrager before, so I wanted him to be the star of the film in that way.”

While the film is a more comprehensive look at Studio 54 than ever seen before, Tyrnauer said that he actually views it as a buddy movie more than anything else.

“It’s a marriage movie, really. It’s about this unlikely couple,” he said — Schrager and Rubell. With the end of ’70s decadence and liberation and the beginning of the ’80s and the onset of the AIDS crisis, the story of Studio 54 is “one of the darkest tragedies imaginable.”

The IDA Documentary Screening Series brings some of the year’s most acclaimed documentary films to the IDA community and members of industry guilds and organizations. Films selected for the Series receive exclusive access to an audience of tastemakers and doc lovers during the important Awards campaigning season from September through November. For more information about the series, and a complete schedule, visit IDA.

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