Director of Pivotal Madonna Doc Reveals its Undying Appeal
This summer, the documentary Madonna: Truth or Dare, turned 25. Shot over four months of Madonna’s international “Blond Ambition” tour, it remains a riveting look at one of our most audacious cultural icons, and it’s wildly entertaining; so much so that Truth or Dare was, at the time of its release in 1991, the highest-grossing documentary of all time. Today, it’s historic: there’s the tour itself, which is famous for being controversial (there was a masturbation routine which almost got Madonna arrested in Canada); the depiction of queer dancers; the cone bras; Madonna’s bitchy quips; and the rich, beautiful film footage.
But—and I’m hardly unique in thinking this—Truth or Dare may be best remembered for how much it shaped modern celebrity culture. It’s funny that this big anniversary is happening in 2016, which has weirdly been the year of O.J. Simpson. Between The People v. O.J. Simpson and O.J.: Made in America, we as a culture have been closely re-examining the case and its cultural circumstances. A common conclusion is that coverage of the trial led to reality TV and the 24-hour news cycle, even providing us with reality TV royalty like the Kardashians and reliable guest stars like the morally corrupt Faye Resnick. But so did Truth or Dare.
In one of the documentary’s most famous moments, you can literally see a cultural shift: Madonna’s boyfriend at the time, Warren Beatty, who became famous at a time when mystery was a sign of class and sophistication, mocks her, saying, “She doesn’t want to live off camera, much less talk… What point is there of existing off camera?” Madonna rolls her eyes. Yet now, here we are, living in a world where—to be reductive about it—there really is no existing off camera.
Truth or Dare exists in a middle period; yes, Madonna wants to live on camera, but she also actually lives on camera. As director Alek Keshishian told me, he could never get this kind of footage today. No star with any measure of control over their image would let the public see them like this, uncensored and rude. I actually gasped at the part when Madonna makes fun of Kevin Costner by sticking her finger down her throat. It’s hard to even imagine somebody like Rihanna, our current model of DGAF-ness, so blatantly mocking another star on camera. Keshishian, like many reality TV producers today, also set up scenes to a certain extent, creating situations like Madonna’s reunion with a childhood friend, and then filming the outcome; the only difference is, where producers today often completely engineer dialogue and reactions, Keshishian just let the cameras roll.
In the years since Truth or Dare, Keshishian, who was only 26 when filming the documentary, has directed music videos for the likes of Selena Gomez and major commercials, as well as the Brittany Murphy-starring rom-com Love and Other Disasters (which, in my opinion at least, is pretty criminally underrated). We chatted on the phone about reality TV, and some of Truth or Dare’s most controversial scenes. You can catch him tonight at Metrograph, where Truth or Dare will be screening with a Q&A moderated by Chelsea Handler; the theater will be running the documentary through September 1st.
What was your relationship like with Madonna and the dancers?
I grew very close to Madonna, and I think that is the fundamental foundation of the documentary. A documentarian generally has to get connected with his subjects, and depending on the level of trust, that kind of allows different levels of filming and access. So I was really lucky that Madonna and I definitely bonded, and she gave me the kind of access to create what I thought was a correct representation of who she really was.
It’s a warts-and-all portrayal. How did she feel about it?
I sometimes talk to people about how Truth or Dare wouldn’t be possible today, because pop stars and celebrities curate their lives down to every detail. They’re the ones who post on Instagram or Facebook or their websites, and they supposedly show behind-the-scenes stuff, but it’s totally curated, totally created for effect. We were working in a time when Instagram and Facebook not only didn’t exist, but celebrities did not provide this kind of access to their own personal lives.
As you see with Warren Beatty, [he] represents the tradition up till that point.
The famous line.
When he says, “Why would you do anything when the camera isn’t on?,” what he’s really saying is, “Why the hell are you breaking the tradition of what makes a star?” Which is mystery. In that way, Madonna was an incredibly brave trailblazer.
In the beginning, I told her I wanted final cut, because I didn’t want people to think it was some kind of propaganda film. She gave me that, although it wasn’t necessary, because we didn’t disagree on anything. I don’t think I’ve ever had the experience of working with someone where we were so in sync. I was spoiled. [Laughs]
“The truth is that you’re never seeing, like in ‘Truth or Dare,’ the artist challenged, the artist really facing consequences.”
It’s so fascinating to watch in 2016, especially knowing what you just told me. It’s so much bolder than anything a celebrity would agree to today.
Everyone today is so curated. They have [control of] the distribution of what are supposedly their intimate moments, and they’re completely fake. They take the pictures, they shoot the video, they edit it exactly the way they want, and then they present it to their fans as if this is some kind of incredible access. But the truth is that you’re never seeing, like in Truth or Dare, the artist challenged, the artist really facing consequences, or having a rapport where someone is really hurt. It’s like reality TV; it’s pretend documentary.
Madonna did tell Kurt Loder that the movie is “totally honest, but even a lie is telling.” What do you make of that?
That harkens to what our teaser poster was, which was something like, “The ultimate dare is to tell the truth.” There’s always that existential question of, “Would this have unfolded the way it did without cameras?” And we can never know that for certain. You can kind of mitigate that, and I think we did. We shot for four months, to a point where most people on the tour, including Madonna, were kind of numbed, and weren’t paying the kind of attention to the cameras that they may have for the first couple of weeks. But nonetheless, it’s a fair question.
I have read that one scene was staged to a certain extent, the one with Madonna’s childhood friend Moira McFarland.
You’ve gotta be careful when you say the word staged, because nowadays reality TV is literally staged. But this is what it was, and I did this throughout: I would create situations that I felt would make an interesting kind of conclusion to a point [Madonna] had made earlier. Moira had been brought up in Japan. I told my producers, we have to find her, let’s fly her to a concert so I can talk to her. And then I went to Madonna, and said, “I’m getting a volunteer for an interview,” and she was like, “Oh my god.” And I go, “All she wants is a moment with you, to kind of reconnect… Is that cool? Will you give her, and us, that moment?” And Madonna thought about it and went, “Ok.” So that’s the level of staging.
I had nothing to do with what was said, with how it transpired. And by the way, that’s a fundamental difference between what I did and reality TV. With reality TV, you’re staging every choice. With Truth or Dare, it just means creating situations and seeing what happens, with no direction.
Were any other scenes set up in that way? Like, for example, the game of truth or dare that Madonna and the dancers play?
Exactly, that’s another one. The dancers were playing truth or dare late at night, long after my cameramen were asleep. I told Madonna about it, and said it might be fun to shoot a dinner where you play it. Again, not directed, but created the opportunity, so to speak. Obviously, you can’t shoot every single moment, but we were very, very clear, because in the beginning Madonna said, “You can shoot anything, but you can’t ask me to do anything twice.” She stuck by that, and so did I.
With the depiction of Madonna’s dancers, there’s so much in this film that seems almost revolutionary in terms of queer representation. How do you think that was received?
I had no idea what it would do, I just knew that we filmed it kind of neutrally, and in the edit I tried to honor it in the best way I could. I wasn’t at all concerned in the way it would be perceived or accepted. That I left to others to worry about.
I’ve read in interviews that they said they put on a performance in front of the camera. Do you think they behaved differently when they were being filmed?
Well, you know what, they did and they didn’t, because I’ll tell you something: I was with those dancers when the cameras weren’t on. To me, they were exactly the same.
The fact that they may not have revealed that they were HIV positive is not really the point. I can say, personally, that I’m satisfied that the dancers were captured with the essence of who they were, honestly.
Images via Madonna: Truth or Dare.
Madonna: Truth or Dare will be playing at Metrograph until Thursday, September 1st.
Stay tuned to Milk for more Madonna mayhem.