Walking on Broken Glass: The Art of Making Controversial Documentaries

By Barry Avrich

Making documentaries about controversial subjects is like walking on broken glass. Painful, bloody and exhilarating.

I have spent the last 25 years making films that chronicle the often perverse but always thrilling careers of the megalomaniac titans that play larger-than-life roles in show business.   

I'm not sure what it is that attracts me to making films about moguls. It could be their Faustian exercise of power  or their frequent  Shakespearean falls from grace. In the process, I have been followed, berated and threatened with bodily harm, litigation and career suicide. I have put my head in the lion's mouth more often than one of P.T Barnum's troupe and somehow lived another day. Many friends and even my own mother have begged me to tread on safer ground. But just because I'm Canadian, I am not going to make films about the gestation period of the beaver or an exposé on the monopolistic practices of our maple syrup stronghold.

On the threshold of the Toronto International Film Festival  world premier of my new film Show Stopper, a no-holds-barred look at the disgraced and imprisoned Hollywood mogul and Broadway impresario Garth Drabinsky, I thought it would be perhaps therapeutic, if not cathartic, to look back at my adventures in mogul muckraking.

I began my bio doc career with a warm-up softball throw, Guilty Pleasure, which chronicled the life and times of controversial but celebrated novelist and Vanity Fair columnist Dominick Dunne. Now, the idea of making a film about Dunne was no easy task. His larger-than-life stories about the rise and fall of celebrities, politicians and billionaire widows had made him many enemies. From the Kennedy family to O.J Simpson, the rich and powerful feared Dunne as much as they detested him. If you were on trial and spotted Dunne in the courtroom, chances were pretty good you were going to get your 15 minutes in Vanity Fair.

At first, Dunne loved the idea of making this film. He gave me full access to his archives and stories and granted me delicious gossip-laden interviews at his private homes. We had a ball together, and shared crime-scene stuff the public never saw.

Alas, the love affair was not going to last. The commissioning broadcaster showed him a rough cut without my consent, and Dunne went nuclear. In his mind, the film was going to be an exercise in ego-stroking and without question would leave out the flaws and the critics. He called me a traitor and even refused to appear together on a booked Larry King show to promote the film. He was furious that I would include critics such as Mark Fuhrman, the infamous cop from the O.J. Simpson trial, as well as Simpson's lawyer, Johnny Cochran. Most of all, Dunne detested the presence of the highly critical defense lawyer Eddie Greenspan, who accused   Dunne of being a shill for the prosecution. He wanted extensive edits to the film. I would not back down, and he oddly reversed his opinion after attending a screening where the audience loved the film.

I had a similar and equally frustrating experience making Satisfaction, about the once most powerful concert promoter in the world, Michael Cohl. Cohl had produced the most successful Rolling Stones tours in history and equally successful U2 and Pink Floyd tours, as well as the controversial Broadway production of Spiderman. Although he agreed to an interview for the film and gave me access to Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, he played a game of cat-and-mouse with me. He cancelled interview after interview but ultimately gave me a sensational, four-hour oral history of rock 'n' roll.


Michael Cohl, subject of Barry Avrich's Satisfaction. Courtesy of Barry Avrich


The trouble with Cohl began when I foolishly agreed to screen a final cut of the film for him. It was a move motivated by respect for his cousin and my mentor (who also happened to be the founder of the Toronto International Film Festival). His first reaction to the film was jubilation; a day later, I saw the dark side of power. Cohl objected to a segment that detailed a newspaper exposé that accused him of an  unscrupulous tax issue on one of his concert tours. The story was on the public record and was in fact abandoned when the police did not press the issue after a closer look. The tempest in a teapot bothered Cohl and he wanted the segment deleted prior to the film being released. I explained that it was impossible as the film had not only been locked but it was delivered and would be airing in 48 hours. He was apoplectic, and I was destroyed by his behavior. However, I was not backing down. Like the Dunne film, once the film was released, he received a slew of calls from people praising the film, and he calmed down.

That would not be the case with my films on MCA Universal founder Lew Wasserman and Miramax indie god Harvey Weinstein. If the other films were the minors, the next two projects were the Super Bowl.

Although deceased, I learned in the making of The Last Mogul, that Lew Wasserman still exercised a whole load of power. His family was appalled that I would dare besmirch his memory and they also feared I would cover his clandestine power and alleged questionable ties to several  mobbed-up players. During the making of the film, I was followed and I even stored the filmed interviews in hotel rooms under different names. Every step of the way the family would try and dance me outside by getting me thrown off the lot at Universal Studios, block valuable interviews and even have producers Ivan Reitman and Tom Pollock throw me out of their office hours before a scheduled interview. Even a famous industry executive predicted that the film would never get distribution. But it was too late. I managed to stay ahead of the game and get iconic interviews with players like Jack Valenti, David Brown and former US President Jimmy Carter. It nearly killed me, but the film made its world premier at the Palm Springs International Film Festival where it received great reviews and got picked up for distribution.


Lew Wasserman, subject of Barry Avrich's The Last Mogul


The Harvey Weinstein film, Unauthorized,  left me black and blue. Although Harvey had not yet made his supposed comeback, he launched an outright tsunami on me. When personal meetings and fruitless and toothless offers to abandon the film in exchange for a contract failed, he sent people to watch the film, which had been already released in Canada. He was unhappy and used his still throbbing power to get IFC Films to pick up the film during the Toronto Film Festival  and then shelve it. IFC ignored The New York Times' queries about the release and even told Roger Ebert to not review the film. God bless the independent thinkers. If you really wanted to see it, you need to send a sherpa into Web wilds to find it. The irony of ironies is that during Cannes last year, I ran into Harvey on the terrace at the famed Hotel du Cap, surrounded by the likes of Mick Jagger, Jane Fonda and Leo DiCaprio. I said hello as I passed his table and he awkwardly said that he heard I made a good film about himself. I responded, "My cut is way better."  

Fast forward to September 11, 2012. My new film on Cineplex founder, film producer and Tony Award winning Broadway producer Garth Drabinsky is ready to unspool. Good old Garth has already started the sabre-rattling from prison, and I've heard he is beyond unhappy about a film he has yet to see.


Garth Drabinsky, subject of Barry Avrich's Show Stopper.


If history dictates anything, he will love the film, as the lesson  I have learned is that the moguls want to be immortalized or embalmed, even if their flaws can't be covered by the transparent smear of glitz and glamour.

As I begin shooting my next film on Penthouse founder Bob Guccione, I will follow my proven formula of controversy, truth and balance. No biodoc should be one-sided. Let your audience debate the merits, myths and flaws of these extraordinary characters.  


Barry Avrich is a veteran filmmaker of 28 films including many documentaries, and recent filmed theatrical productions of Twelfth Night, Caesar and Cleopatra and The Tempest with Oscar-winning actor Christopher Plummer.