Through the Looking Glass: Not Everything Is as It Seems in the Wacky World of Wonder-land
"Since we started, a lot of our ideas seemed strange at first," observes Fenton Bailey, co-founder, with Randy Barbato, of the Hollywood and London-based production company, World of Wonder (WOW). "But then the way the agenda has shifted is that things on the edge have tended to become more factual, and I don't think anyone would have projected the way television has changed in the last ten years. It's been good for us because our sort of wacky, outer edge vision has suddenly seemed not so wacky or outer limits."
The curious realities of life that World of Wonder has brought to the screen—Uncut: The True Story of Hair (A&E); The Anatomy of an Aircrash (A&E/Channel 4 UK); and numerous programs for HBO, including Party Monster (the documentary and recently produced theatrical feature) The Eyes of Tammy Faye and Monica in Black & White—seduce the viewer to examine a subject or story that might, at a glance, be unappealing, if not abhorrent, revealing the humanity beneath the freak. "And we're all freaks" muses Barbato.
Prolific, stylized, a bit edgy if not off the wall, enthrallingly creative, World of Wonder lures one into its peculiar brand of Wonderland, where nothing is exactly as it appears. Bailey and Barbato can almost be dubbed the Coen Brothers of the documentary. At first you might think you don't want to know the characters in a World of Wonder documentary, but their essence is invasive. There's a feeling of intimacy and an empathy with the subject that is particularly compelling in both the documentary and feature versions of Party Monster, for example. "It's interesting because I think people by and large have much more tolerance for the sort of unusual perspective and actually have an appetite for fresh perspectives," Barbato notes. "It's the people at the networks and people who finance projects who seem to always be a little bit behind."
That wasn't the case with Sheila Nevins, HBO's executive vice president for original programming, whom Bailey and Barbato credit as the first American broadcaster to notice their work. Nevins returns the favor, dubbing them "visual geniuses." "I love what they do, what I learn about," she says. "They have a style for HBO that is distinctly different, and they're also really smart."
Bailey and Barbato have produced a rich variety of work that has appeared on A&E, Bravo, HBO and VH1, as well as BBC2, Channel 4 and Channel 5 in the UK. The award-winning filmmakers are motivated by, and take delight in, revealing stories of "people both marginalized and misunderstood by the media," whether it's 101 Rent Boys (real life stories of male hustlers on Santa Monica Boulevard in Los Angeles) or Dark Roots: The Unauthorized Anna Nicole (about model, Playboy Playmate and gold-digger Anna Nicole Smith). The World of Wonder office in Hollywood employs about 75 researchers, writers, producers and tech staff, while the London office, headed by creative director Adam Perry, has 30 on staff..
World of Wonder might be considered a pioneer of trans-Atlantic cooperation. After graduating from Oxford University, Englishman Bailey attended New York University Film School, where he met Barbato, and their collaboration began. One program seemed to evolve out of another, spawned in part by the series Manhattan Cable, which consisted of clips from public access shows. That show's success led to the pair creating something similar in Britain. As Bailey recalls, "The thing we always liked about public access shows was that on the one hand they were very earnest and politically motivated, and on the other hand there were people who were just getting $50 together and making a TV show. That seemed to us very exciting to make that same show in the UK, where there is no public access because television is controlled by the government and the last thing on earth is the possibility that ordinary people should be allowed to make their own TV show. So we created a version that was called Takeover TV, where people would make their own little clips. And that's how we started the UK office."
Another translation from UK to USA is the upcoming Housebusters, based on Hot Property (both on Channel 5 UK), the groundbreaking property series in which "we get to snoop around people's homes," Bailey notes. "We're all universally fascinated by other people's interiors, and that's what I think is the key to this whole kind of property boom thing that's taken off like wildfire. We're just nosy, not voyeuristic, but certainly curious to see behind everybody else's curtains. And what a healthy thing it is. It's serving this function of bringing people together, a kind of public service to see how the other half lives, and we all want to know how the other half lives."
With a huge slate of projects here and abroad, Bailey and Barbato remain integrally involved with every production, whether they're behind the camera or executive-producing. That means a lot of late night and early morning viewing of film, with telephone and email facilitating communication between Hollywood and London. In both production offices there is a vital atmosphere that encourages creativity and nurtures new talent. According to Perry, "World of Wonder has certain values, and we strive for diversity in not relying on a particular genre, as the variety of broadcasters fluctuates in mood and appeal. The UK culture is becoming much more Americanized, and the global business culture promotes making programs."
Not shy about approaching topics related to sexuality, their next—perhaps greatest—undertaking is Inside Deep Throat (due out in the fall of 2004), with Brian Grazer of Imagine Entertainment and HBO backing the project. The film looks at the cultural zeitgeist surrounding Deep Throat, the 1973 porn film that was a surprise hit at the box office. "This is the biggest beast we've ever taken on because it's so ambitious, it's so layered and it's really a film about the sexual revolution in America," explains Barbato. "About how sexually dysfunctional we are. A film about Deep Throat, but there are so many things about this film, so many stories, so many people involved. It's the most ‘old school' documentary we've ever done, and we're researching it as we make it."
Nevins perhaps says it best about Bailey and Barbato's work: "Art is hard. People who make you laugh until it hurts, scream until you have a sore throat, have ‘it.' I miss it when I'm not working with them—the laughing, fighting, passion, the sort of wrestling down with them and the visual quality of what they do. I've learned from them how to work on other documentaries. They have a special joie, they're a hoot and brilliant and you don't often get that together. On my list of favorites, they're way up in the top eight."
For more about the World of Wonder see their exceptionally fascinating website, www.worldofwonder.net.
Stephanie Mardesich is a public relations consultant specializing in arts and entertainment and nonprofit organizations; she is also co-founder and festival director of the LA Harbor International Film Festival and a regular contributor to International Documentary.
World of Wonder-Select Filmography
- Manhattan Cable (1991; Channel 4 UK)
- LA Stories: From the Eye of the Storm (1993; BBC 2)
- Takeover TV (1995; Channel 4 UK)
- Hot Property (1997-present-Channel 5 UK)
- Party Monster: The Michael Alig Story (1998-Channel 4 UK/Cinemax)
- Housebusters (1998-present; Channel 5 UK)
- The Eyes of Tammy Faye (1999; Cinemax/Channel 4 UK)
- 101 Rent Boys (1999; Cinemax/Channel 4 UK)
- Juror #5: 58 Days of Duty on the OJ Civil Trail (1999; HBO)
- Out of the Closet, Off the Screen: The Life of William Haines (2000; AMC)
- Monica in Black & White (2002; HBO)
- Punishment: Cruel and Unusual (2002; Court TV)
- Uncut: The True Story of Hair (2002; A&E)
- Anatomy of an Aircrash (2003; A&E/Channel 4 UK)
- Dark Roots: The Unauthorized Anna Nicole (2003; Showtime; Channel 4 UK)
- The Hidden Fuhrer: Debating the Enigma of Hitler's Sexuality (2004; Channel 5 UK, HBO)
- Inside Deep Throat (2004; Imagine Entertainment/HBO)