SIFF Interview: Jeffrey Schwarz talks about his great new documentary, THE FABULOUS ALLAN CARR

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The Sunbreak
SIFF Interview: Jeffrey Schwarz talks about his great new documentary, THE FABULOUS ALLAN CARR
By Jeffrey Schwarz
May 19, 2017

One of the movies playing at SIFF I was most anxious to see when the lineup was announced was The Fabulous Allan Carr, a new feature-length documentary about the legendary Hollywood producer from director Jeffrey Schwarz. Schwarz has been a prolific documentarian over the past several years, most notably for films about John Waters’ muse Divine, and closeted 1950’s teen heartthrob Tab Hunter.

Allan Carr died in 1999 but he had left an undeniable legacy as the producer of Grease and groundbreaking Broadway hit La Cage Aux Folles, as well as the infamous 1989 Academy Awards spectacle that opened with a musical number of Snow White and Rob Lowe in duet, and the Village People vehicle Can’t Stop the Music (which trivia buffs will know as the first movie to ever “win” a Golden Raspberry Award for “Worst Picture”). The movie, though, details how Carr came to Hollywood without knowing anyone and became one of the most well-known and in-demand producers, until he wasn’t. Schwarz interspersed clips of Carr on talk shows with interviews with those who got to know him, and there are some deliciously fun Hollywood stories mixed in with a more complete picture of Carr than he let the public be privy to. I enjoyed, for example, Steve Guttenberg’s telling of how he was discovered for Can’t Stop the Music.

I spoke to Jeffrey Schwarz by phone, the day before he would fly to Seattle for the world premiere of The Fabulous Allan Carr.

I really enjoyed the movie, so I’m really glad I got the chance to talk to you about it.

Oh, I’m glad. I haven’t talked to very many people who are seeing it for the first time, so that’s great to hear.

It’s fantastic. I’m a big John Waters fan, so I became a fan of your work with I Am Divine. Every time you make a movie, I try to see it.

Thanks. So, this is another movie about somebody with a very big personality, like Divine, and so there’s this crossover with all the movies and this is another movie about a larger than life personality and somebody who invented themselves, so there’s definitely themes that are carrying through with all these movies.

Well, I guess that’s what I wanted to ask you for my first question is I asked you is there something, you think, in common with Divine and Tab Hunter and Allan Carr and the other subjects of your documentaries?

Yeah, I mean, I’m certainly interested in personalities who are larger than life, and people who have insecurities or ways or visions that they have and they sort of invent a persona to move forward in the world. A, sort of, larger than life persona to move forward in the world. And people who have big dreams and set about making those dreams come true and Allan Carr certainly fits into that category. I mean, he grew up loving movies, loving glamour, loving show business. He had no connections to Hollywood, but he envisioned the life that he wanted and he went about and did that. And part of going about doing that was to, sort of, invent a character, in a sense, that could empower him. And that’s- a lot of the other people that I’ve made films about have done as well.

Was there something- was there anything, maybe, that changed your perception of Allan Carr while making the film and researching him?

Well, I wasn’t too familiar with Allan’s inner life when I started the project, because, you know, the biography that inspired the documentary is terrific, and it did get into Allan’s inner life to some degree, but it wasn’t really until talking to his close friends that I started to get a sense of what was going on with him.

In particular, his reaction to what happened to him after the Academy Awards in 1989. I got a sense that that really hurt him very deeply and that he definitely withdrew and for somebody who was so exuberant and out there to withdraw into himself into such pain and depression was very hard to hear from his friends. So, I really appreciate that people who were close to Allan were able to give me that perspective and help me understand him a little bit more.

When watching the movie, I thought about it is that even though that was bad for him and bad for his career, it feels like he was kind of vindicated with the way the Oscars, and all the award shows, kind of have been since then, because, I mean, Billy Crystal always does a campy, musical number to open every time he hosts…

Yeah. Well, I think it’s- there had been musical numbers prior to what Allan was doing, but I feel that he was gonna do something other than anything that had ever been done, because that’s just who he was, you know, so even though there had been musical numbers before, he was gonna take that balloon and blow it up even further. And, you know, I guess he felt that the Oscars needed a gilt of energy and needed a gilt of fabulousness, which is what he did and they hired him to do that. It wasn’t like they were hiring somebody who was going to do something very stayed and low key. I mean, he was doing something crazy and insane and that’s why they hired him.

In fact, for all the criticism that that show got, it did better in the ratings than many of the shows previously and we’re still talking about it today. I mean, how many opening numbers do you really remember? I mean, I kind of- I love watching The Oscars. I watch them every year, but I don’t really, necessarily, remember the openings, but this one, I’ll never forget it. I don’t think the world will forget it. I think the Academy might like to forget it, but I hope that this movie leads to a reevaluation of that opening number. Not that it’s great art or anything, but that it’s so audacious and insane that I think people should give it props for that, for sure. And it’s, like sixteen minutes long, I think. I haven’t timed it, but I think it’s something like sixteen minutes long. It’s just crazy. And no one’s ever topped it, that’s for sure.

Like you said, it was really over the top, but I just thought it was brilliant and it was something that really did shake up the Academy and I could see why they might not like it, but, like you said, that’s what they hired him for, it wasn’t a surprise that it was campy and over the top.

Yeah, they hired the guy who produced Can’t Stop The Music I to make the Oscars.

Certainly at that time, people knew what they were getting when they hire Allan Carr. And he was really coming at it from such love and respect for the Academy. He just didn’t want to see the Academy take itself too seriously. And he wanted to have fun with it. And it definitely went off the rails, because, I think he just wanted- he had this in his mind, he had a vision. The people around him were doing everything they could to execute his vision and when they would tell him, “This is getting too big, this is getting too expensive, this is getting too insane,” he wouldn’t listen. I’m kind of glad that he didn’t listen, because, like I said, we’re still (talking about it today). Eileen Bowman, Snow White, could talk about her experience doing it, because she was right in the eye of the hurricane. She had some hilarious stories about working on that.

I mean, Allan did make some contributions to the Academy Awards that are still being done today, like- the biggest one is probably the change from, “and the winner is..” to, “and the Oscar goes to…” Which is something that he- that had not happened before his Academy Awards. He was hoping that that would change that would stay, and that would stick, and they’re still doing that today, and all the other award shows that copied that.

Yeah, absolutely. I feel like that’s definitely a such lasting impact and it’s a big improvement from just saying, “and the winner is…”

Yeah, and there were other things that he did too. You know, like the red carpet, and the, sort of fashion show aspect to the Academy Awards that, you know, there was a red carpet, but it was pretty utilitarian. It wasn’t- I mean, Allan came along and really wanted to make that an event and make that special and big and bring in designers and bring in name brands to dress up the stars and, you know, these were things that he definitely highlighted and- I don’t know.

I think it really, if you look at the rest of the show, you know, the opening number is all anybody talks about, but the rest of the show is terrific and there’s some- I had forgotten that that show was Bruce Vilanch’s first Oscars as a writer and he definitely changed the tone of the Academy Awards over the years that he was involved. There were some moments on that show, like Carrie Fischer and Martin Short walking on stage wearing the same dress. I’d forgotten that that was in that Academy Awards. Roger Moore and Sean Connery reuniting and Lucille Ball and Bob Hope reuniting and some really great, terrific, memorable moments aside from that opening.

Maybe we can talk a little bit about putting the film together. How long did it take, because weren’t you just here at SIFF for your Tab Hunter movie two years ago?

I’ve been very lucky to have these films, sort of, come out every couple of years, but they all, kind of, overlap, so I’ve been working on this one really for about three years aggressively, but it’s been in development maybe for about five years or so. So, I always say that these films take anywhere from five to seven years to complete, so this one was pretty much right on track. From the first moment, that ah-ha moment after reading Robert Hofler’s book, it’s almost about five and a half years. We’ve been working on this, aggressively, for about the last two and a half, three years. Myself and my producer, John Boccardo, and the team that we put together to make the movie.

I think at the time that he was out doing his thing in the world, he was, I don’t know if he was a household name, but people knew who he was. I mean, he was definitely a brand. And then, you know, as time marches on, we have this problem with cultural amnesia. So, people maybe only remember, if they know anything about him, they’ll remember the Academy Awards, they might remember Grease. I don’t think many people really make all the connections between all the things that he did, but the same guy who did Grease did La Cage aux Folles and, oh, the same guy did Can’t Stop The Music and the Academy Awards.

I think there’s so much that can sort of, connect the dots for people, culturally, for people that are vaguely familiar with him, but definitely know his product. I mean, everyone knows Grease. That is one of the most iconic movies of all time. His vision for Grease is part of what makes that so memorable and so great. I mean, the candy colored aspect of it, the humor. They definitely transformed it from the original source material, which was much more gritty and tougher into something that has more of a candy colored camp feeling to it and that certainly was Allan’s vision and he brought along people to help him execute that vision, like, Randal Kleiser, the director, Pat Birch, the choreographer, and Bill Butler, the DP. You know, he was smart enough to bring on the best people to execute that vision for the movie.

Well, do you have a favorite story that you learned about Allan Carr from filming it, doing the interviews with people that were close to him?

Gosh, there’s so many. You never know what people are gonna bring to the table. You know, you think you know- when I do an interview, I have a pretty much of a sense of what I expect people to bring to the table especially after having read the biography, but then there’s some things that just totally surprised me, you know, when I was talking to a friend of his named Gary Putney who was a TV executive. He was talking about bringing Allan to Mexico for a vacation and while they were on that Mexican vacation, that’s were Gary bought Allan his first caftan. Allan’s so famous for his caftan. The genesis of all of that and where it all came from was this Mexican vacation.

Allan sort of crafted a persona around his look and the caftans were a big part of that. That was also the vacation where, apparently, Allan had his first experience with a man. Which I didn’t know that story. It says so much about Allan that he was in his early thirties by the time this happened, and so he seemed like he was so maybe uncomfortable in his own body that combination of sort of his experience with a man and getting his first caftan were things that actually really empowered him.

That’s not something I would’ve known going into it. It was really revealing. I mean, there’s so many hilarious stories that we couldn’t include in the movie, but I think that what we’ve got in there is a pretty well-rounded portrait of who he was.

I think I’ve probably taken up a lot of your morning already, but could you tell me what’s going on with the movie after it plays this weekend?

Well, this is a world premiere. So, I’m really excited about that. This is a thrill for me and our producers will be there too and then, right from SIFF were going to QDoc is Portland and then, we’re starting to book festivals all around the country and actually from other countries too. I’m looking for the roll out of this and getting to experience it with an audience for the first time. That’s the best feeling in the world for a filmmaker is to be sitting there after years of working on your project and sort of feel the energy in the room and hear the audience reaction. That’s my favorite part. It really makes it all worthwhile.

I think that people are really gonna love it and I’m really glad that I got the chance to watch it already and it’s really a great film and I have a feeling that everyone that sees it tonight will love it.

I hope that’s the case. I appreciate your enthusiasm for it. We’re living in a very strange time right now. It’s a time fraught with fear and anxiety. I’m certainly feeling that everyday, you know, and I hope that this movie will be a little bit of an escape valve. Allan Carr’s ethos was that movies can be a real source of joy and pleasure and can sort of help take us away from our daily problems for ninety minutes and I hope that this movie filled Allan’s requirements for what entertainment should be.

Let me ask one other thing. Is there a way where people can watch your other documentaries? Are they on any streaming services or anything?

Yeah! Tab Hunter Confidential is currently on Netflix and I Am Divine is available on iTunes. Vito is available on iTunes. Spine Tingler! The William Castle Story is available on Vimeo. Wrangler, I’m not sure where you can get that one now. I’m pretty sure you can get that one on Amazon. They all end up in strange places, but most of them are on iTunes at this point.

{The Fabulous Allan Carr makes its world premiere at SIFF tonight!, Friday, May 19 at 7:00pm at the Egyptian Theater, and then again on Saturday, May 20 at 11:00am at the Egyptian Theater.}