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Josh Koury and Myles Kane on Their Controversial Gay Talese Documentary Voyeur

Gerald Foos and Gay Talese in Voyeur (Photo by Cris Moris, courtesy of Netflix)

With character driven films such as Journey to Planet X and We are Wizards, duo Josh Koury and Myles Kane have carved out a reputation as observational filmmakers. Their Voyeur — which premiered at NYFF and is now streaming on Netflix — explores the unique relationship between famed writer Gay Talese and former motel owner/self declared voyeur Gerald Foos.

Foos, who claims to have secretly watched guests having sex at his Colorado motel for several decades, sent Talese an anonymous handwritten letter detailing his “secret life” back in 1980. Intrigued by the subject matter, the writer agreed to fly up to Colorado for a meeting. There, the motel owner would give Talese a tour of his “observation platform” — an attic above the motel rooms that allowed Foos to view guests through air vents — and access to a log of several guests he had been secretly watching over the years. A particularly disturbing log details a murder Foos claims to have witnessed from the attic — a murder he unintentionally prompted. Despite granting Talese considerable access to his “secret life,” Foos did not want his name or the name of the motel to be shared with the public until he sanctioned Talese to do so. Thus began a long and complicated history between the two larger-than-life characters.

Fast-forward thirty-five years, and Foos was finally ready to share his story via Talese’s book, The Voyeur’s Motel. Kane caught word of the upcoming book in his time working at The New Yorker and promptly informed his longtime collaborator. The directing duo saw this not as an opportunity to make a biopic about a legendary journalist, but as a chance to capture “a real time narrative of a journalist at work,” which they found much more compelling.

Koury and Kane were given the grueling task of exploring an intimate portrait of these colorful characters, while also covering the very public release of the book. This provided unpredictable turns, including a media storm after Talese publicly condemned his own book due to certain inaccuracies introduced by Foos. Moreover, the directors eventually found themselves clashing heads with Talese, putting their own existence as documentary filmmakers within the journalistic landscape into perspective. Considering all these layers, Voyeur presents an absorbing, intimate portrayal of the journalist-subject dynamic.

Filmmaker: How did you feel about Gerald going into your first interview with him?

Koury: Strangely, he was a lot less creepy than I thought he was going to be. I mean, he’s definitely got his personality, and he can be very creepy to a lot of people, but he seemed very jovial and happy. It’s not like he’s this man in the shadows; he was this guy who’s walking around and being himself. It was a strange dynamic with Gerald and Gay in that first shoot. We weren’t sure what to expect, and we didn’t know how much more we were going to get with them together, so every moment felt precious. We shot fifty hours. It was a marathon, but we didn’t know if we were ever going to get another chance to come back.

Filmmaker: So if you never knew when you were going to come back, when did you guys decide it was time to start putting a story together?

Kane: That first shoot with Gerald opened the potential of the film to this new dimension. Before that it was all Gay, and obviously there’s a lot of fascinating things about his whole world, but to have the subject of the author’s book alone was like, “Now we kind of have both sides of the journalistic experience,” which was exciting to think. You couldn’t ask for better doc characters. In some ways they put up a real front. They’re such big personalities, but they’re both amazing storytellers, and very vocal and big.

Filmmaker: If you wanted to, you probably could have made a series out of this. What was it about the narrative format that was important to stick to?

Kane: There was this natural arc, this story of a doomed relationship. The way our access to the characters worked out and our understanding of the project evolved, it ended up working narratively in this way. The first half of the movie is the idealized, romanticized story as told by Gerald and Gay, the seductive story that Gay fell in love with. It’s this great, pulpy story that seems fascinating. So first you’re fed that, and then as we got more access and the facts started to unravel a bit and questions arose, the story, visually and narratively, took on a different tone. It became less sexy, less composed, and suddenly the realness of this messy dynamic between characters and the difficulties and the hardships of journalism and telling non-fiction come up. Of course we were obsessed with the voyeur story — anyone would be.

Filmmaker: One of the most impressive parts about this film is the emotional range, balancing the funny with the eerie. Did you find it hard to nail down a certain tone or did you like the variety?

Koury: When we started making films back in college, we were making comedic narrative fiction films. Then we went go to see American Movie, and we both realized that documentaries can be very funny, very important and character driven. It was a huge inspiration for us. I remember telling some friends before the world premiere at New York Film Festival, “Our work is comedic to a degree, but this one’s not really funny.” And then of course there was lots of laughter, and it’s great, but it kind of goes to the core of who we are as filmmakers. There’s no joke – it’s a copy of real life. It’s dark humor and it’s what we are attracted to: characters that are grey. Not heroes, not villains, but grey. It’s what we do.

Kane: The humor wouldn’t work if you tried to hit it too hard. It’s being earnest in your portrayal of people and showing them in various lights, not trying to force the character into a certain role, and just showing their flaws. A lot of the comedy in this movie is just people saying what they really feel, and you get a laugh because it’s a release for the audience. [Gerald’s wife] Anita has these moments where she says the one thing everyone’s thinking, except for the two other guys in the room. Whether she’s calling her husband a creep or just telling it like it is, that can be so rewarding for the audience who’s waiting for someone to call out the elephant in the room. Sometimes there’s comedy in truth and fact, you know?

Filmmaker: As co-directors, how has your dynamic has evolved and changed over the years?

Kane: I think it’s pretty similar. We both shoot, we both edit — the way we’re used to making films, I feel like we can’t help but add our own unique touch. Our goal, which maybe isn’t much different from other filmmakers, is to shoot anything and everything. Of course you’re trying to plan where the story might be going, you’re trying to set up certain situations, but ultimately you’re capturing anything and everything with the knowledge that the editing room is really where we can shape our tone and taste. That’s where the storytelling happens.

Koury: It’s a grassroots mentality that we have in terms of being editors/directors. Everyone’s wearing many hats. Our DP Chris Morrison, a friend from college that we’ve been working with for many years, has his own career, but we still work together on projects. Our producer Tricia Koury is someone we’ve worked with on a couple projects too. I married her (laughs).

Filmmaker: The intimacy definitely shows, to a point where you guys are eventually in the film, during in a scene involving a hostile engagement with you and Gay. Did you always plan on involving yourselves in the story or did that come up in the editing room?

Koury: I think our instinct is to not ever include ourselves, because that’s not something we’re interested in doing. I think it was inevitable, to a degree, because at the heart of the film is the subject-author relationship, or, one step removed, the author-filmmaker relationship, and by not implicating ourselves we would have almost been hiding part of the story. We were doing a lot of test screenings, and the more we subtly introduced ourselves as characters, the more people were responding to it, because it felt more genuine and more honest. By extension, which some people have picked up on, the final layer of voyeurism is the audience itself. It’s like, why are we attracted to documentaries? Why are we attracted to these movies? Because in vérité films we’re seeing moments that we wouldn’t otherwise have been able to see. We’re seeing characters, their flaws, and everything about them in ways that we wouldn’t otherwise know. That’s what makes them fascinating, and so it just continued.

Kane: Our involvement, for the most part, was when one of the subjects, either Gay or Gerald, is referring to us. So editorially/narratively we also wanted it to feel justified, not that we were inserted suddenly to make a point, but that the characters themselves are dragging us into the fray, literally calling us out.

Filmmaker: You spent years making this film, and then this media storm came out about the inaccuracies of Gay’s book. Some documentarians might look at it as the end of the film. Gay even says to the film crew, “Our fucking careers are over.” How did you view the controversy when it came up in terms of how would it affect the film? What did you decide to do moving forward?

Koury: We knew that we had to include it, obviously. It was definitely another complicated layer, because the story already had enough concerns at that point. We’ve worked with a lot of great filmmakers, and one was Marshall Curry, who’s great as counsel. He was saying, “What’s really important is that you guys have to include everything that we potentially know as an audience. If I feel like I know something that you’re not mentioning in the film, the film will lose that authenticity and become dishonest.” It was a turn that was so important. Everyone knows [the controversy] and  we tried our best to include all the complications of the story. It was difficult to make in a 90-minute film; hopefully it comes across.

Kane: I personally felt bad for Gay and Gerald. It’s tough to see that happen in the final act, but it felt like where it naturally should go. There’s questions being raised, things don’t seem to line up exactly. Narratively it helped us avoid having to become an investigative documentary, which we really were not interested in. Definitely in the midst of production, before all this hit the light of day, we certainly were considering, as nonfiction storytellers, “Do we started investigating this murder as part of the film? Do we interview police detectives? Do we go down that whole road?” It seems very likely that “Oh, maybe we do need to. We need to start asking these questions independently.” But the fact that happened naturally within the story through another reporter took that responsibility away from us in a sense and helped us just remain observational filmmakers, which was ultimately the kind of film we wanted to make. We never really wanted it to become, “Was the murder real or not, or do the dates line up?”

Filmmaker: I think that’s why this film is such a crowd pleaser. You didn’t let anything else get in the way of the characters shining.

Kane: We barely have any other interviews. We have the New Yorker [Susan Morrison] and the book publishers [Morgan Entriken and Jamison Stoltz] chime in, and we briefly hear from Gay’s wife, but it was definitely a very conscious decision of, “Are we gonna interview a bunch of people to give outside context?” It always felt like it betrayed the film. The world needed to stay small except when we absolutely needed outside context. The show-don’t-tell aspect is definitely always how we try to approach it. We’d rather just see Gay struggling as opposed to hearing some old colleague of his. We don’t want other people to tell these guys’ stories, we want them to tell it.

Filmmaker: Do you guys still keep in touch with Gerald and Gay?

Kane: We specifically flew out to Denver to show the film to Gerald and Anita a couple of days before the premiere. That was important to us. It was difficult (for them) to watch, but they also sort of liked it and were laughing at parts. Ultimately they approved of it even though it was difficult at times. Same with Gay. Gay also said that it was tough but fair and he respected it. To his credit, throughout production, Gay always was very clear: “I’m not in charge of you guys. Whatever you’re documenting, you’re documenting. I’ll watch the film, I’ll love it or hate it, but it’s your thing. I’m not a partner in this.”

Koury: In that showdown between everyone in that room, when Gay’s getting very heated with us, the end of that on his side is, “I’m the journalist, you’re the subject. You’re who you are and I’m my own goddamn person.” There’s that barrier that he wants as a writer and he wants that same barrier between us and the film. Ultimately, I guess he could then criticize it if he wanted to or whatever, but I don’t think it’s about that. I think it’s about — and maybe this is a little bit naïve — but I think he just respects the medium; he respects non-fiction, and wants his independence, and respects our independence.

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