EXCLUSIVE: The movie adaptation of the Gay Talese book The Voyeur’s Motel that Sam Mendes planned to direct and produce with Steven Spielberg at DreamWorks has just been killed. This is the latest and most jarring turn in a twisted and messy road the project has followed after Talese published a book excerpt in The New Yorker about his experience with a Colorado voyeur who built a motel specially designed to allow him to watch his guests having sex. DreamWorks won a fevered auction over film and TV suitors, with a bid near $1 million. Mendes and DreamWorks have abruptly dropped out of a project that was on a fast track after Krysty Wilson-Cairns delivered a strong first draft.
Why did the project die? Basically because there were two unexpected voyeurs neither Mendes nor DreamWorks knew about going in: filmmakers Myles Kane and Josh Koury, who trailed both Talese and hotel owner Gerald Foos for a documentary feature. Mendes, who only learned about the documentary when he read about it on Deadline, finally watched a cut of the film with his scribe Wilson-Cairns.
“She and I sat and watched the documentary and looked at each other at the end and said, ‘we can’t make our film,” Mendes told Deadline. “What has come out of it is a very good relationship with an extremely talented and promising young writer and that has been a silver lining for me and DreamWorks. She did a great job, which makes it more frustrating from my point of view because we feel, to a degree, that we wasted our time. That does not feel great, but it’s what happened. It’s a very, very unusual situation I don’t think any of us anticipated.”
Mendes said he does not believe at the end of the day that any money will change hands on the property, meaning that the movie deal will be voided. “Nobody told us about [the documentary],” Mendes said. “Nobody told DreamWorks, nobody told me. It was going on all that time; they had been making the documentary for at least a year before the publication of the book, which is one of the reasons it’s such a strong piece of work. But nobody ever told us, simple as that, which clearly is frustrating. It’s difficult to talk about it without giving away what is so wonderful about the documentary, but it has so many things that are wonderful and can only be achieved by a documentary. The interviews ask the question; who is the voyeur? Is it Gerald Foos, who bought the motel with the leering rooms, or is it Gay Talese, who, in a way, is equally walking a moral knife edge by writing about it? Who is the person peddling the fantasy? Is it someone who’s doing it and telling only one person, or is it someone who makes that into a published work that is read by and discussed by many thousands?”
This was already the most peculiar journey of a hot fact-based book since Warner Bros won an auction for the James Frey addiction memoir A Million Little Pieces. The movie imploded when Frey admitted he embellished incidents, when the author took a walk of shame on the daytime talk show hosted by Oprah Winfrey, who had previously raved about a book whose events he told her were true. Even though Frey had wanted to novelize his experiences — his publisher felt a memoir would sell more strongly — he fell on his sword in a most public and embarrassing way, and the movie version of his exceptional book was never made.
After the DreamWorks deal for Voyeur’s Motel, published reports questioned whether Foos was a reliable narrator of his voyeur history, based on a check of property records. And Talese responded by temporarily disavowing the book and Foos, a stance he quickly changed when he said he and Grove Press stood behind the work. None of that dampened the movie prospects for Mendes and Spielberg, who mined moral ambiguity to Best Picture and Best Director Oscars in Mendes’ feature directorial debut, American Beauty. After all, Talese authored the seminal infidelity tale Thy Neighbor’s Wife, and actually witnessed Foos’ voyeuristic activities at the motel, even describing how he peeked into one room. Always a fastidious dresser, Talese realized his tie was dangling through the vent that allowed him to peek at an unsuspecting couple in the throes of passion. Foos had more dramatic tales to tell, like the time he observed a man selling drugs. After flushing the drug dealer’s stash, he said he then watched the dealer blame his girlfriend for stealing his drugs. He watched him strangle the girl.
“It has been complicated from the very start, to say the least,” Mendes said. “The article triggered an enormous amount of interest and we were in the vanguard. DreamWorks, headed by Steven, bought material for me and Neal Street. It was full steam ahead, and we read the book, and there were all the issues where Gay seemed to publicly disavow the book, but I always felt, well, this is part of the story. But then, I read in your esteemed…what would you call it, an organ?”
It turns out, at least in this instance, that Deadline proved a vital organ for Mendes.
“I read about the documentary, a complete surprise to us, from Deadline,” he said. “What we know now…I’ve now seen the documentary, and it is as much a part of the story as Gerald Foos, Gay Talese, and the motel. The book we bought, is absolutely not the definitive version of the story it was claimed to be. In order to tell the true story, with any authenticity, it would need to involve the documentary team. The documentary is really part of the story, in the sense there are things that happen that were spurred on, even suggested by the documentarians. So the story became infinitely more interesting and more complicated, but impossible to tell in a narrative movie. Most importantly, the documentary itself is absolutely terrific, a really, really good movie that has incredible footage in it. I thought it was just wonderful, but I thought literally, well, that just finishes the movie. And so, DreamWorks and I decided to drop it because it didn’t seem possible to make a film that was the definitive version of the story, anymore, or even what we would call a meta Charlie Kaufman-esque version of the story. That’s kind of what the documentary is.
“I felt like we’d been blindsided and after we had to be reactive to so much in this process, that it was time to be a little proactive,” he said. “So we saw the documentary, which is great, and anyone reading or hearing about it I would advise to go see it when it is released…but we had to say look, it’s not a tenable project anymore. Which is a shame. It was a very unusual journey, but one of the nice things to come out of it is that documentary is really wonderful. In the end, we all felt it was a story worth telling. And they told it.”
While Mendes has probably set the documentary makers up by raving about a film that will play the festival circuit and get distribution, wasn’t it a bit sickening to watch the beats of his movie unfold in another film? I asked Mendes if he felt betrayed.
“No,” he said. “I felt surprised that nobody had mentioned it to us, to say the least. I didn’t feel betrayed. I felt there had been a failure to communicate, to use the words of a great movie. I didn’t feel it was deliberate. I think it was a mistake. Reading between the lines, I suspect what happened is that Gay thought they were making a documentary that was a little bit more widespread in its thematic content. I think he thought they were following him, and discussing his work as a writer, which in a large sense is true. But while they were making the documentary, the story became the controversy surrounding the publication of the book. As any good documentarians would, they adjusted their focus as the story unfolded. Having started with a general brief of doing a documentary about the work of Gay Talese, what they ended up with was something that had a more specific focus.”
Your movie, Sam?
“In a sense, yes,” he said. “And the story we wanted to tell, but told very well. The only point of doing a dramatization on something that has had a fine documentary made of it, is if you feel you can give an audience access to things they don’t have in the documentary. I didn’t feel that is the case here, and that it is the other way around. The documentary was giving us access to things that no dramatized account could ever achieve. We’ve got lots of other things in development. Having had a break after the last Bond movie Spectre, it felt like it was time to move on.”
Noting that Mendes said he was stopping at two 007 films, and that there are rumors Daniel Craig will likely return for more after initially begging out, I ask if this was about the time he receives the inevitable call from James Bond, pulling him back in for his third 007 film?
“I think you’re going to have to ask…I don’t think anyone’s getting a call from Daniel Craig until he opens in Othello, which is his entire focus,” Mendes said. “In the meantime, I’m doing a play as well, I’m directing Jez Butterworth’s new play at the Royal Court in London, The Ferryman, which is a wonderful play. We’ve got Beautiful Ruins, which is being developed at Fox 2000, and James And The Giant Peach, which Nick Hornby is writing for Disney. Neal Street has just announced three more seasons of Call The Midwife, we’re just wrapping filming of 10 enormous episodes of a huge TV series for Amazon and Sky Atlantic, called Brittania, with Kelly Reilly, Zoe Wanamaker, David Morrissey and several others and a new series that comes out of an idea I had that Abi Morgan is writing. There is lots going on that I’m excited by and that’s one of the reasons I felt, well, there’s no point pursuing this. It’s had its day.
“It’s fair to say we’ve decided that we felt like we hadn’t been…not necessarily intentionally…but we haven’t had access to the entire truth, and that therefore we were in a position to say we weren’t really given everything we felt we were being given. So we’re going to gracefully back out. I think they understand that.”
I asked him the obvious question, about the absurdity of Talese sacrificing a million-dollar payday, squandering a chance to see maybe the final book in a long prestigious career adapted by Mendes and Spielberg, in exchange for a documentary? I then admit that I am editorializing.
“That’s your job, Mike, not mine, and you do it well.”