Friday, May 9, 2008

Interviews with Darryl Roberts, Gerren Taylor and Chris Keefe

Chicago filmmaker Darryl Roberts' documentary America the Beautiful opens Friday at Landmark Century Centre Cinema. UR Chicago talked with Roberts, Gerren Taylor, the teenage model whose career Roberts follows, and Chris Keefe, who has a lot to say about women.
--Mark Dujsik

Darryl Roberts

What was your inspiration to tackle the subject of body image in the United States?
A friend of mine and I were in a McDonald's, and we were talking about women and beauty -- typical guy conversation. When I get home, I was on the Internet, and I was just doing some more research. When I was doing that research, I found on the Internet these two guys -- one was in California, one was in Pennsylvania -- and both of them had murdered these women. The guy in Pennsylvania, he said he did it because the woman was really gorgeous, and he wanted to date her, and she wouldn't date him, and he said, if he couldn't have her, nobody would. I was sitting there, and I was like, wow, that was really stupid to throw your life away over a beautiful woman. It started making me think, have I done anything stupid over a beautiful woman? As soon as I asked myself that question, I remember this time I was about to go out on a first date with this woman. Every time I would look at her, I would get discombobulated, because she was so beautiful. I knew her favorite colors were red and black and her favorite car was a Jaguar. So for our first date, I bought a used red and a black Jaguar, just so I could walk up to the cars and say, "Take your pick." When I thought about that, I remember thinking that was really stupid, but then I started asking myself, Why'd I do that? I was honest with myself. I knew that if she wasn't as beautiful as she was, I wouldn't have done that. I heightened my stupidity. I thought this would be a great documentary to find out why we're so obsessed with beauty, and that's what set me on the journey.

The film turns out being not why are we so obsessed with beauty but what is that obsession doing to us. You have a lot of different angles to cover, so when you were editing it together, how did you keep a through line?
It started out, Why are we so obsessed with beauty. So we went through this whole scientific thing about why we're so obsessed with beauty, but what happened, I brought on Kurt Engfehr, who was co-producer of Fahrenheit 9/11 and Bowling for Columbine. While we were going along this path of the why, he said what's really more interesting is how this affects pop culture. We did this shift. He said that, and we did this whole what-is-it kind of thing. We stopped thinking why, and we started thinking of the fallout. Everyone knows what happens, but what is it doing to us. We figured that's what people hadn't covered yet. They tell you it's happening, but what's the fallout?

What was the most worrisome thing you discovered while going through this?
There's a girl in the film. She's a 12-year-old model [Gerren Taylor], and along the way -- this is my opinion, I'm sure she looks at it differently -- she's been sexualized. She's on the runway, her body is hanging out, and the fashion industry sexualizing her. Now, this is me in hindsight looking back on it, when you watch the film you think, Wow, she went from nobody to a supermodel really fast. This is what I really think happened, doing some critical analysis of it. She started getting that press. In New York, you have to be 14 [to model there]; it's a state law. There's no way New York would have had her come doing a fashion week, but she got on The Oprah Winfrey Show. She's on Entertainment Tonight. She brought so much heat and press that the whole industry just dropped their -- I don't want to say "morals," but for lack of a better word -- dropped their morals and just threw her on the runway at 13 at that point. When the press was gone, they didn't have any more use for her. They just threw her away. One other thing that was worrisome was the industry itself. When I interviewed those magazine editors, I was pouring my heart out to them about what these images are doing to young girls, and they just didn't care. Those two things bothered me. What else really bothered me is that the industry is not going to change. This won't stop happening.

Is there anything you wish you could have included, either while you were making the film or now in retrospect?
Everywhere I go, women keep saying I left out the most important ingredient in this whole thing: the dieting industry. That really affects women big time. The dieting industry preys upon women to buy all that stuff -- pills, Jenny Craig. Not that I wish I had covered it, but I hear from so many women that I'm cognizant of the fact that maybe it should have been in there.

Being a man talking about women's issues, were you conscious of the fact that it might not come across as sincere, or has anyone come up to you and said, What are you doing talking about these things?
While I was doing it, I never gave it a second thought, but after the fact, when women see it, they say that's what makes the film interesting to them. They said if it was a woman, it would come across as this bitter, angry thing, and they wouldn't even be interested in seeing it. Second of all, if a woman was doing it, for sure men wouldn't go see it, because, you know, men are kind of insensitive in the first place, and they'd be like, Oh, it's women whining again, I'm not going to see that. So they said the fact that a guy was doing it makes it really accessible to both sexes. While I was doing it, I never really thought about it.

When I first saw the film at the Chicago Film Festival, you mentioned that you thought it would get an R rating and were worried about how you weren't going to be able to get to younger audiences. Now it has an R rating.
It got the R for the exact reason I thought it would get it. One of the things [two assistants and I] did six weeks ago, we found every high school near the three theaters we were supposed to open. We had a list of like 52 high schools, and we started calling them. We had these high schools that were going to have America the Beautiful days this week while Gerren's here. Gerren would go into the high schools and speak to the kids. Once we got the R, that entire component was gone. It's a little restrictive, but after it plays, I'm going to do an educational version and take out the 52 seconds that got me the R and put it in schools.

You are very much an open book in this movie. You talk about a girlfriend you had, and you thought you could do better. You go on and get a lot of "No he doesn't belong here" responses to your profile. Are you ever afraid of putting yourself out there?
That scene right after, looking in that mirror, it's humiliating. It's brutal. It's really embarrassing. I didn't want to do it. There was never any intention of me being in the film. I think it's the way Kurt is comfortable -- Fahrenheit 9/11, Bowling for Columbine. That's what he does with Michael Moore. He kept saying we need the personal why. I tried for a year to cut this film without me in it in one frame, and it wouldn't cut. Then once we started putting in the personal stuff, it started coming together. I saw it editorially as a necessary component, so then I just submitted, surrendered and just did it.

Gerren Taylor

How did you become involved in the movie?
When I was 12, Darryl came to one of my fashion shows, and [one of the designers] told him, you have to see this 12-year-old girl. She has an amazing walk. It just started off as an interview, and he wanted to follow my career in depth because I started so young. And it ended up, my story fit in to what he was trying to capture for his documentary. The roller coaster I had, the ups and downs, it fit everything he was trying to do.

The film leaves you on a cliffhanger. You're just starting to get comfortable with yourself. You went through all those moments of insecurity. What are you up to now?
I'm better. I'm 100 percent on my self-esteem. Now I'm focused on other girls who have gone through the same things I went through. I went to South Africa to do a seminar for about 100, 200 girls, and we got into a circle and had a little talk with them. I just wanted to hear them out, like, how they feel about themselves in South Africa, and I just realized it's the same thing. It's the same American teens are going through. I realized it's not just America's obsession; it's the world's obsession. I tell them my story to know that the modeling world isn't all beautiful, glamorous. These girls have the problems just like you guys.

How do you feel about the modeling industry now?
I still work, and I still get jobs. I feel like you have to be in it in order to talk about it. It wasn't the whole industry being catty. it was a portion of the industry. I'll keep those people in the back of my mind for when I become famous-famous, so I won't do their jobs or I'll do their jobs for one mil or something.

At the Chicago Film Festival when you and Darryl talked afterwards, someone in the audience really went off on your mom and her involvement in your career. Do you feel like your mother was portrayed accurately?
She's my mom. She's going to be stern about certain things. I don't feel people got the right perception of her. My mom's my mom. And slash manager. To tell you truth, in the beginning she didn't want me to model. I kept pushing. She kind of stopped her life and focused on me. When people say certain things like, "Are you mad that your mom pushed you," I just have to explain to them, it's not really like that. I want to do what I want to do, and she's my mom and she's supposed to support me and that's what she was doing. The decisions we made were mutual. We wanted to move for a whole lot of reasons that, half of them, weren't in the movie. She wasn't portrayed how she really is, but a movie needs controversy.

Do you get uncomfortable watching any parts of the movie you're in?
When I first saw the movie, I got kind of uncomfortable. It was like, that's really me; I went through all that in this amount of time. I get kind of uncomfortable, especially when my friends come to screenings in my hometown. I have a beach time. It's like 30 of us, and we all go to the beach every weekend. They were inside the screening, and the part about me with the bra came on. I was just like, All right, guys, we have to go. I just took all 30 of my friends, and we just left and walked down Hollywood Boulevard. I wouldn't even let them see the rest of the movie, because I was really embarrassed. When it's teens I don't know, I want them to see it, because I want them to understand the message.

Chris Keefe

How did you become involved with the movie?
I answered a Craigslist ad for an editor to edit the movie. I started putting pieces together of the film, and one day, Darryl suggested that we get myself and some of my guy friends together because he heard me talk, working with him. He was like, Yeah, I think you're the point of view for guys. How did he put it? I think he was like, "You're a real ass. You're a real asshole. You'd be perfect for this." We went to the house. We shot the interviews. There were four guys on the couch [when we] originally shot this, and only two of us got on. We apparently said the wackiest, wildest or dumbest crap you could say. Chauvinistic. Stuff guys say when guys are around guys. That usually doesn't make it into general publication or print or video, because we don't want to let our secrets out.

Was there beer involved?
I was drinking Coronas and chewing tobacco. So by the time they got it done, I must have been about 12 in. I didn't think this thing would ever make it to the big screen. So four and half years later when I got an e-mail from Darryl, I about fell off my damn chair when he said, "Hey, Chris we've been looking for you. Check out the website." I clicked on it, and I almost fell off my seat. I was like, Holy crap, because I'm the picture right below Paris Hilton on the front of the website.

I have this image of a little, old lady coming up to you after a screening and saying, "You are a naughty, naughty man." Has anything like that happened?
Women seem more intrigued and attracted to guys that are bad boys or assholes. Nice guys don't win, or never win, whatever the proverb is. It's totally true. Since being in this movie, Darryl has reported to me that when I'm not there people are like, "Who's that guy," and women are like, "Yeah, I've got to meet him." The first one we did here in Chicago, there was this woman from some women's group, and she was like, "Chris, I'd like to ask you a question." I was like, Oh shit. Here it comes. I said, I was recently in a bad relationship, so I was a little more bitter. After the movie broke and we all had cocktails, there were women coming up, and they were taking pictures with me. It was really bizarre. Still true to form, being an asshole and a bad boy, and the women respond.

Even in this context?
I didn't think it would translate, but I guess it's because I'm on stage, so to speak. I don't think it matters even if I'm in a social group. Women are like, "I can change him. I can tame him." No, you ain't taming anything. There's only one thing you're going to be taming. That's terrible. My girlfriend will kill me.

So you do have a girlfriend?
My girlfriend went to the Hollywood screening. I went with my girlfriend and my mom. My mom flew out. In my head, I'm like, The other women didn't freak out, but this is my mom. I was coming up with every instance to try and not have them go. Mom's like, "I'm didn't come to Hollywood with something like this going on to miss it." And Donna's like, "I'm not staying at home." We watched the movie. Almost like your report card showed up, and you know it's bad news and there's nothing you can do about it. Done with the movie, they were like, "That was awesome." You're not mad? "I hear that shit every day." They know it's what guys say, but if you truly believe some the stuff, "Fat people suck," that makes you a full-on asshole. It's one thing to like Playmates, but to categorize anyone who's not that as not worthy of any consideration would make you an asshole. I don't think I am, and I don't come off as that -- I hope -- in the movie. That's why I haven't been beaten to death out in the shadows after the movie.