Read Shockya's exclusive interview with director Billy Corben, whose newest documentary, ‘Limelight.’ is set to hit theaters on September 23, 2011. The film tells the story of legendary nightclub owner Peter Gatien, who rose to fame with his New York City nightclubs Limelight, Tunnel, Palladium and Club USA in the 1980s and ’90s. While Gatien initially served as the figurehead for New York nightlife for a generation and defined the image of an era, he was eventually brought down during Mayor Rudy Giuliani’s determined crackdown on clubs. ‘Limelight’ features interviews with notorious players of the 1980s and ’90s club era, key informants in Gatien’s tax evasion trials and the nightclub owner himself. Corben discusses with us, among other things, how he became involved with the film, and what kind of research he did before he began filming.
Written by: Karen Benardello
Shockya (SY): What was your motivation in telling Peter’s story, and chronicling the rise and fall of his nightclub empire?
Billy Corben (BC): Well, his daughter, Jen Gatien, who is a producer on this project, had seen ‘Cocaine Cowboys,’ which was a movie we made in 2006. She is an accomplished indie film producer, and was looking to partner with someone to tell her father’s story in a non-fiction film. She liked ‘Cocaine Cowboys,’ the style of it and our approach, and wanted us to get involved in the project. We talked about it internally for awhile. It was our first outside of Florida project, it was our first non-Miami centric project, and was really the first project that was instigated by someone not in house. It was someone else’s idea, that we didn’t develop. So we thought about it, and (Corben’s producing partner) Alfred (Spellman) called her back and said we’d have to get final cut, because for us, this is not an image rehabilitation piece. We’re not going to be the PR wing of the Gatien family. I came up with this line early on that this movie is not going to be ‘Memoirs of a Gatien.’ If he wants to do that, he can set up a camera and tell his own story his own way. We were going to have to have all creative control, and all control over the edit. We know that’s true, because Peter’s not happy with the movie. (laughs) He and I got into a shouting match at the TIFF theater in Toronto. So I guess I did something right (laughs).
SY: Was that the first time Peter had seen the film, in Toronto?
BC: No, he had seen it before, which is why he was pissed. (laughs) He had taken out several pieces of paper that he had folded up in his pocket, and he had notes for me. (laughs)
SY: When you first began filming ‘Limelight,’ did you have any apprehension or concerns about telling Peter’s story?
BC: The concerns were access, because this is pretty recent history. It was a real sore subject for almost everybody involved, whether it was the DEA agents, the US attorneys, Peter, any of the witnesses against him, any of his co-defendants. Obviously, this was a very sensitive subject, and a subject that many people did not fair well. They did not come out of it unscathed, reputationally, occupationally or otherwise. So that was the concern, who was going to talk on-camera, and who’s not. Fortunately, we were not only able to get a lot of access on-camera, but anyone we didn’t speak to on-camera, we spoke to many of them off-camera. That helped to influence our base of knowledge, the edit of the movie, based on things we were able to learn. I spoke with two of the three US attorneys who prosecuted the case. We spoke with, either on-camera or off-camera, almost every government witness in the United States vs. Peter Gatien case. We spoke to one of the two primary DEA agents, who didn’t want to give an on-camera interview, but at least we got a little information from him. We got just as much, if not more, information off-camera as we did on-camera. But that’s reflected in the final piece. The audience does get the benefit of the information from the sources we had that weren’t on-camera. It helped shape the piece, and make it stronger, I think. But ultimately, a lot of people did not want to talk about this.
SY: So what was the process like in getting people to agree to appear in the movie, or at least talk to you off-camera?
BC: Well, one of the benefits we had, of course, was Jen (Gatien), who knew the witnesses even against Peter. She knew that at one point in time, they were all friendly back in the day. (laughs) So Jen was extremely helpful in that regard. Also, having her as a producer on the project made access on the other side less helpful, regardless of our contractual relationship, i.e., we have complete creative control over the project. There’s a certain perception, obviously, at having her involved on that level, that made people, like the US attorney’s office and the DEA, who were already not enthusiastic about participating, even less so, if that’s possible. So that was both a help and a hinderence with access.
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