Get your tickets now for a special screening of original documentary Party Monster at ArcLight Cinemas Hollywood! The show starts at 7:30pm on Monday, November 3rd followed by a Q&A with featured subject James St. James and directors Fenton Baileyand Randy Barbato. Tickets are selling fast, be sure to get yours here!
This past week Michael Alig was released from prison. His longtime friend and WOW Report writer James St James went to document their re-union. Cue a starburst of indignation and instant judgement on social media. Many people think Michael Alig shouldn’t ever be let out of jail. Others think it was wrong of us to be filming in the first place. But there is a justice system and we are storytellers, and this is a story that has fascinated us for many years. It is a story that fascinates others too, or his release would have passed without comment. Yes, it is violent and horrific as so many of the stories are (both scripted and unscripted) that confront us as news or entertainment on a daily basis.
In both the documentary and the feature film James’ complicated relationship with Michael was at the core. Theirs is an unresolved relationship. It was extreme, but also completely relateable. Our friends and loved ones can do cruel and unkind things. But we don’t unfriend them. Because life is not a Facebook page, and morality is more complex than a tweet.
So we asked James to help document the reunion of two people caught up in a horrible event that set them on different paths. How does James now relate to Michael? How does Michael relate to James and the strange new world around him? Only time will tell but we hope that Michael, who has been given a second chance, can build a purposeful life and use his talents to help others.
Here’s our take on the experience of producing and directing Party Monster the documentary and the feature from our book The World According To Wonder.
One night before Christmas, in 1996, we sat in the Hollywood Canteen waiting for James St James to arrive for dinner. From the moment he swept into the restaurant, it was clear that he had something on his mind. Throughout dinner he regaled us with the mother of all stories: How Michael Alig had turned from being king of the club kids to club-kid killer; how Michael’s roommate Freeze had hammered someone called Angel (so-called because of his habit of wearing feathered wings with a six-foot span) over the head; how Michael had injected the unconscious Angel with Drano; how they had dumped the body in their bathtub and left it for a week or more before hacking the legs off, stuffing the torso in a box, and dumping it into the East River. James apparently knew all the gory details and spared us none.
The gist of this amazing story was not unfamiliar. All year long we had heard the rumors of a murder in Manhattan. First there was a blind item in the Village Voice by gossip columnist Michael Musto. Then there was a cover story in the Village Voice by reporter Frank Owen that named names and went into even more detail. There were also reports in the New York Post and Daily News, and a bizarre feature in Details magazine, complete with pictures by David LaChapelle, anointing Michael as a postmodern murderer – naughty but nice.
But in spite of the press we didn’t believe it. In fact, because of the press we didn’t believe it. We thought Michael had conceived the whole thing as one of his situationist pranks: Angel disappears and Michael goes around telling everyone that he killed him, going so far as to write “Guilty” on his forehead, and just as the police were about to arrest him he would throw a huge party and Angel would come down from the ceiling wearing his wings. It seemed another of Michael’s brilliant attention-getting devices, the drumbeat of press merely confirming the success of Michael’s clever media virus. For sure, Michael needed something to give his career a boost. For several years he had been throwing an annual gore-themed party called “Blood Feast,” inspired by Herschell Gordon Lewis’ similarly titled splatter classic of the ’60s. Michael even pictured himself on the invitation with his brains bashed out, a bloody hammer lying nearby. But the novelty of these parties was wearing thin. To have Angel reappear as if back from the dead would be just the kind of coup that Michael, wunderkind turned drug mess, desperately needed.
And so we waited for the invitation.
We had known Michael almost as long as we had known James. We first met him within a few weeks of his arrival in New York. Still in his teens, he was a shy kid, cute as a button, who had somehow persuaded management he was old enough to work as a busboy at Danceteria.
Instead of joining the existing scene, he quietly created his own. No one paid him any attention as he gathered a bunch of kids around him with wacky monikers like Christopher Comp, Jonathan Junkie, Julius Teaser, and Jenny Talia – “like the mother goose creating all the little fairy-tale characters,” as Michael Musto put it. The club kids, as they became known, lived up to their cartoony names with outfits spawned out of a channel-surfing psychosis, sampling consumer and celebrity culture like kids in a candy store. At Disco 2000, Michael’s weekly club circus freak show, he created a surreal playground where they could cavort with other post-cartoon creations such as Clara the Carefree Chicken and Dan Dan the Naked Man.
We loved the club kids and their nutty aesthetic, and tried to raise money to make a documentary about them. But we hit a wall. What to us was “modern art on legs” (to borrow Boy George’s description of Leigh Bowery, a major inspiration for Michael) was to television executives just a bunch of kids making an exhibition of themselves: “Who wants to know about a bunch of clubbers running round thinking they are famous?”
The fact that these kids did nothing other than wanting to be famous was not just the point, but the whole entire point. In the post-Warhol era, Michael Alig realized that fame was not the reward of a meritocracy. Stardom was a chimera, nothing more than a reflexive act of self-invention. “Don’t dream it, be it,” as Frank-N-Furter advised. You didn’t have to be rich, you didn’t have to be beautiful, you didn’t even have to do anything. Once upon a time you might have had to be Calvin Klein, Liza Minnelli, or Halston to get into Studio 54. But to get into Disco 2000 all you had to be was fabulous.
And it didn’t matter if you had no money; out of nothing other than some ratty wigs and torn tights you could doll yourself up as some Dada bag lady from space and this absurd ensemble – worn with sufficient confidence – would sweep you past the velvet ropes of nightclubs into the VIP rooms. And it didn’t matter if you were ugly, either. Perhaps out of revenge for his own wretched school years, these were the very people that Michael wanted to empower – the poor huddled masses fresh out of junior high who didn’t fit in.
Moreover, Michael understood that instead of trying to assimilate into the current scene, the trick was to head in the other direction. Instead of trying to look cool, Michael and his gang played the fool and tried to look as ridiculous as possible. The club kids made spectacles of themselves by tottering around on absurdly high platform sneakers, wearing unitards with the butt cut out, and waving kiddie lunchboxes. Initially greeted with derision, the look soon caught on; the lunchbox and platforms became de rigueur.
Michael had big plans for his movement, envisioning the club kids as a brand/lifestyle that would at once copy and satirize the marketeers like Ralph Lauren and Martha Stewart. To maximize press coverage, he started his own magazine, Project X. He released a single for Clara the Carefree Chicken on his own record label. Then he persuaded Limelight’s owner Peter Gatien to pump millions into Club USA, which, packed with corporate logos and neon, was conceived as a parodic celebration of consumer culture, a simulacrum of Times Square actually in Times Square. In preparation for the opening, Michael went across the country on a club kid talent search. He was a veritable Pied Piper, bringing more misfit toys into his orbit.
But there was another side to Michael’s command performance as entrepreneur. From the Filthy Mouth contest to Ida Slapter’s champagne enema, Michael was trading in subversion. The person who created the cutesy club kid trading cards also wanted to launch a line of candy in the shape of drugs. There was always this anarchic edge to Michael’s plans that made them so tempting. As Ernie Glam said of those buttless pedophile romper suits he made for Michael, “It was some kind of perverted sex clown aesthetic where it was very childish and silly but at the same time kind of nasty and obscene.”
Michael’s brand of spectacle also depended on escalation. He had a thing about pee. “Urinvited,” read one of his invitations. Not a particularly original pun but when the invitation came written on a slip of paper in a vial of pee-colored liquid, the ick factor hit home. Then came Ernie the Pee Drinker, a man who would get on stage and drink a glass of his own pee. And Michael himself got into the habit of peeing into bottles of beer and handing them out as free drinks, and peeing off the balcony of Disco 2000 onto the people below.
Michael never peed on us, but it became clear how far he was prepared to take his commitment to extreme chic when we produced a commercial for the opening of Club USA. When it came time to get paid, we had to wait hours in the lobby of the club for Michael, who finally appeared with the money in loose bills in a brown paper bag. “Oh. Hi. There you are. Count it,” he said breathlessly. But we were too gobsmacked by his appearance to count it. It was winter, but Michael was wearing only lederhosen and a flimsy T-shirt. He had a cyst on the back of his neck the size of a grapefruit. But that was nothing compared to the hundreds of puncture wounds all over his body. Lips of flesh curled out like small mouths from the suppurating wounds. We were aghast. But Michael was his usual self: “Oh, some bum threw me through a storefront window,” he said with a wave of his hand.
When Michael reached his nadir as a drug mess, he thought he was the coolest. From the catwalk where the supermodels pranced to the sidewalk where River Phoenix expired, heroin chic was all the rage. Michael made sure he was its ultimate exponent: emaciated, a mass of bruises, cuts and sores, limping, covered in shit and piss and vomit. In this revolting extreme, perhaps he thought he was as iconogasmic as Clive Barker’s Pinhead. But Michael had crossed a line. The kid who had always laughed at junkies had become one. The life of the party who threw himself down stairs just to stir up more drama was now so fucked up that falling down stairs was all he could do.
Even at this point, we thought that the only person Michael would end up killing would be himself. But as he racked up overdose after overdose with casual flair, repeatedly bouncing back from the brink, it was clear he wasn’t going anywhere.
Ghoulishly, it was the tantalizing possibility that Michael might just have murdered someone that secured us some development money, six years after we first conceived the club kid documentary. Since we weren’t sure if Michael was going to be arrested or die from an overdose, we wanted to shoot as much footage as possible as soon as possible. One of the first things we filmed was an interview with Michael in James St James’ East Village loft. It was August, sweltering, and James’ apartment was in a state of junkie disarray, reeking of cat shit. James himself didn’t smell too good. His widow’s peak of green hair offset the pallid cast of his skin. But although he looked like death, he was his usual charming self. As we set up, James and Michael showed us how to bake Special K. Once this was snorted, they touched up their makeup and we filmed them. And that was when Michael jokingly said on camera that he had killed Angel. “I killed Angel. And – I’m sorry. That’s the kind of thing that gets me in trouble.” When pressed, Michael seemed to drift off and the words came slowly, one at a time: “I’m an easy target, because I was with him the day before… he… was… gone.” There was a long pause, some more
stammering, and then, “I have my own ideas.”
Later that night as we were packing up, James said he needed to get out of New York, and that he was thinking of moving to LA. He said he wanted to become a writer. We encouraged him to call us when he arrived in town.
So when James came to the end of this unbelievable story of how Michael had killed Angel there wasn’t much more to be said. There certainly was no longer any doubt in our minds. A few days later, Michael was arrested for Angel’s murder.
Things happened quickly after that; make of it what you will, but suddenly it wasn’t hard to raise the rest of the money to shoot the doc.
Along the way, we met this club kid with red hair called Thairin Smothers. We originally began talking because he had some footage of Angel he had shot. Plus he seemed to know everyone and all the club kids trusted him. He began helping us out on shoots and soon came on board as associate producer. Thairin was different from the others. He was present on – but not immersed in – the scene, and was not lost in a daze of K. He seemed to be watching everything and taking it in. As we got to know him, we learned he had worked on Jerry Springer’s show in Chicago before coming to New York with his video camera. When the film was over, he moved to LA and became our receptionist. Now, of course, he is a fantastic producer in his own right and very much at the heart of the whole company, whether it’s booking celebrity talent for Drag Race or whipping up a batch of guacamole for the potluck office lunches he organizes.
Party Monster: The Shockumentary, as it came to be known, was our first film to go to the Sundance Film Festival. But there was a sense that this was not quite what documentaries were supposed to be about. Before the film, Sundance ran a short PSA-type film about drunk driving. There was, perhaps, un certain regarde about the lack of moral positioning. And quite apart from that, something about the story felt untold to us. That we might have missed the real story: the love/hate, twisted-sister bond between Michael and James. So we decided to make a movie about the story.
When we first asked James to write his story as a kind of post-modern In Cold Blood, he refused. Somehow, we persuaded him (hint, ca-ching!). Then we took the simply amazing manuscript he wrote and got him a book deal. We wrote a screenplay based on his book, and couldn’t resist weaving in a few elements from the documentary. That was all relatively easy compared to the task of persuading financiers to come on board.
Christine Vachon, the legendary producer, suggested we write a mission statement to help get nervous nellies on board:
Disco Bloodbath is a buddy movie with a twist, or a twisted buddy movie. Its focus is the relationship between Michael Alig and James St James, two kids from the Midwest who come to New York where they re-invent themselves as fabulous people. Although it is not immediately clear to James, Michael instantly recognizes that they are soulmates and latches onto him. Shy outsiders as kids, they both learned to hide their feelings behind witty façades, and their bickering and barbed exchanges speak to a deep bond and co-dependency. Of the two, Michael is the quicker study, even though James is smarter and more learned. So although it is James who initiates Michael into New York nightlife, it is Michael who quickly rises to the top.
To get there, Michael was equipped with no special skills or qualifications other than his considerable charisma. He had a twinkle in his eye. A postmodern Peter Pan, he made no secret of the fact that he never wanted to grow up. The way he gulped his words, the way he gestured, projected a child-like vulnerability. Unfazed by being a misfit from the Midwest, Michael gathered around him similarly like-minded souls – the kids who had been teased and bullied in school – and gave them fabulous new club kid identities. They were the Lost Boys to his Peter Pan.
James could see that Michael’s chaotic and unruly behavior was a kind of genius performance art. Michael’s minting of superstars out of those least likely to be stars parodied society’s absurd obsession with celebrity. His attention-getting antics parodied the dysfunctional circuses of our talk show times. His surreal infantility parodied our culture’s overriding obsession with youth. The starburst that was Michael inevitably put James somewhat in the shade. But like him or loathe him – and James did both – he found it impossible to resist him. James was not alone in this. Everyone seemed unable to resist the Michael Alig Show.
But just as David Bowie became trapped by his Ziggy Stardust creation, so Michael became hostage to his bratlike persona. He continually had to outdo himself with increasingly outrageous pranks. One day Michael went too far. He murdered Angel. When James first learned about this, he could almost let Michael get away with it. Angel had attacked Michael, hadn’t he? But even with Angel reduced to a mere sacrificial symbol, James was forced to recognize that no excuse could justify such a brutal thing. Even the surreal anarchic alternative universe they had created for themselves had to conform.
The goal of the film is to give viewers the ride of their lives, to be seduced by the scene, so that when tragedy strikes they feel implicated and discomfited. James may be the hero but he is a reluctant hero, and we want the audience to feel his sense of loss rather than lofty righteousness as he brings down the curtain on the Michael Alig Show. Instead of demonizing Michael as a freakish killer, we want to make viewers feel the very real connection between him and ourselves. When we look into his heart, we are looking into our own: Who has not at some point in their lives wished that they could stay young forever or stay out all night and never have to go to work? Who has not at some point even imagined killing someone?
Coming out of the theater, the audience should breathe a sigh of relief: There, but for the grace of God, go I.
Now that we had our mission statement, we needed a cast. Everyone agreed the perfect person to play Michael would be Macaulay Culkin, not least because it had been written with him in mind. But he didn’t seem particularly inclined to get back in front of the camera after his star turns in the Home Alone films made him the most famous kid on the planet.
So God bless Seth Green, because he was the first aboard and applied himself to help secure Mac. And once Mac signed on, we were spoiled with a truly amazing cast whose talents and generosity far exceeded our measly budget. Natasha Lyonne, Chloë Sevigny, Marilyn Manson, Diana Scarwid, Wilson Cruz, Mia Kirshner, Dylan McDermott, and the impossibly delicious Wilmer Valderrama bought a huge amount of goodwill to such a little project. For example, there were no dressing rooms. The only trailer on the entire production was for the wardrobe department and their bazillion costumes. We shot digitally on location in New York for twenty-five days and then headed back to LA and buried ourselves in the edit room to have it ready for Sundance. Which we did, in the nick of time.
The goal, of course, in taking the film to the festival was to bag a big fat distribution deal. Which, after the most amazing Bryan Rabin-produced party at Sundance that people still talk about to this day, seemed entirely possible.
So the next morning we expected to open the trades and read all about our multimillion-dollar distribution deal. These articles are in the press all the time during the festival, breathless accounts of all-night negotiations with Harvey Weinstein and Hollywood heavies battling it out in mountainside condos. But all we found was a decidedly ho-hum review in Variety. Funny thing about bad reviews is that when you get them no one tells you. People call you to get on the guest list, but they don’t call to tell you that you have a crap review. Understandably. But this means you could well be the last to know. As we were.
For months it seemed entirely possible that the movie would skip theatrical distribution and go straight to video. I don’t think we had anticipated that at all. And after all the years of work, that was a bitter pill to swallow.
But it was also a critical point. We had finally made a movie. And deep down there was the expectation that life would now be completely different. As if the clouds would part and we’d be whooshed off to Planet Glamour, where life was lived on the red carpet/pool side/gifting suite, and all our friends would be famous and everyone would want to take our picture all the time.
“Glamor is where you’re not,” Ru once pointed out. So true.
It didn’t turn out as planned, but it did turn out as panned. And that’s a good thing. Because life is much more fun when you are just living it rather than hurrying through it to get somewhere else. We thought we had to get to Glamourville. But there’s no place like home.
So although Steven Spielberg did not call, Marcus Hu and Jon Gerrans from Strand Releasing did. They gave the film a spirited release, and we got to go to Tokyo, Berlin, London, and New York. It was all wildly overstimulating, especially since everyone seemed to assume that making a film called Party Monster meant you were one yourself. By the time we reached the Edinburgh Film Festival, we were propping our eyes open with cocktail sticks.
And the party monster himself?
We have stayed in touch over the years. We have never sugar-coated or excused what he did.
One day soon he will emerge, blinking, into a world of apps and iPads, Mob Wives and Kardashians. Very much the ultracrass teletransformed society he anticipated at Club USA in the ’90s. He should feel right at home. In fact, the other day on the phone he said he wanted to produce reality shows.
But we want to give James St James the last word. After Disco Bloodbath he has written two more books, Freak Show (that can only have inspired Britney Spears’ classic hit) and the yet-unpublished Killer Grandpa, blowing the lid off his family’s secret about one of the last lynchings in the US. He also works as co-editor of the WOW Report blog and hosts Daily Freak Show. Recently, on the red carpet at Sundance, he interviewed Rosie O’Donnell. They were talking about Party Monster and James said, “That’s me, I am the original.” Rosie blinked and blanched. “You’re the killer?” She said, aghast. You can see how James got himself out of that one on YouTube.