With his latest documentary Studio 54, filmmaker Matt Tyrnauer delivers a definitive account of the notorious Manhattan club, which opened its doors on April 26, 1977, and closed just 33 months later, mired in scandal and legal complications. But in that brief time, Studio 54 made a seismic impact on late 20th-century society, dragging the queer subculture of disco into the mainstream, and fanning the flames of a nascent obsession with celebrity by establishing itself as an archetypal roaming ground for hedonistic A-Listers and ensuing paparazzi.
Using previously unseen 16mm footage, Tyrnauer conveys a vivid sense of Studio 54’s outlandish heyday. But his main focus is the story of its tenacious founders Steve Rubell and Ian Schrager, whose reign as rulers of the New York underground was swiftly curtailed in 1979, when they were charged with tax evasion, obstruction of justice, and conspiracy for skimming unreported income. While the pair bounced back after serving short prison sentences to become successful hoteliers, Rubell died of complications from AIDS in 1989, aged just 45. In-depth interviews with Schrager, now 71, form the basis for a film which is equal parts exuberant and poignant. We caught up with Tyrnauer shortly after Studio 54’s Israeli premiere at the Docaviv Film Festival to find out what compelled him to tackle a tale that’s been pored over by pop culture commentators for the best part of four decades, and finding never-before-seen footage of inside the club.
On bringing a new perspective to the Studio 54 story:
“I think Studio 54 is one of the great untold stories, believe it or not. There’s never been a documentary made about it, and it’s one of those stories that everyone thinks they know, when they actually don’t! As a filmmaker, that’s a good position to be in. Ian Schrager had never told his version of the story. He was reluctant to revisit it because, although it was this once-in-a-lifetime phenomenon, it didn’t end well for him or Steve Rubell. But 40 years later, Ian was finally willing to talk, so that was my chief motivation for making the film. I was interested in documenting the real and secret history of the club, and he is obviously the primary source.”
On pushing Ian Schrager out of his comfort zone:
“I encouraged him to tell me everything, and to get a little uncomfortable — initially he wanted to avoid some of the messier details about what really happened. I don’t think he had taken full account of the club’s influence. Obviously he knows that Studio 54 is mythic, but he didn’t have the perspective you might imagine — I’m not sure that he had really considered the broader picture until he started working with me on the film. I think it was quite cathartic for him to come to terms with that legacy.”
On transporting the viewer to Studio 54:
“By far our most exciting discovery was several hours of never-before-seen 16mm footage from inside the club, which was shot by a few NYU students. That was a filmmaker’s dream — to be able to show the inside of Studio in a way that nobody’s seen before on film. Our image of Studio is shaped largely by these black and white paparazzi pictures. But this was all flash photography of a dark room, so you really don’t get the full scope of what the club was. This new footage allowed us to convey a sense of what it was like to actually step inside.”
On killing his darlings:
“I like to keep my movies close to 90 minutes, so there’s always a lot that is painful to lose. There were some wonderful stories about the diaspora of clubbers and creative people who inhabited New York in the 70s and made it a dynamic and vibrant place where the arts flourished. I could’ve also delved deeper into the gay subculture of disco, but it was beyond the scope of the story we were telling.”
On the club’s legacy:
“For better or worse, Studio shaped the culture in many ways. Whether or not you think that a nightclub in New York City in the late ’70s played a role in defining your existence, the fact is that it did. So much of fashion repeatedly comes from Studio 54, so much of the idea of commerce and nightlife in major cities, events like Burning Man, house music, raves — all of these things owe their character, to some extent, to this one club. It really redefined the public space after dark for the world. But there are more sinister legacies too. The celebrity culture that has continued to take over our lives in profound and unexpected ways had its origins in Studio 54. That New York tabloid culture of the ’70s, where the New York Post started to become prominent and people like Roy Cohn and his protégé Donald Trump were on the rise — that’s also part of the Studio 54 story.”
On Rubell and Schrager as emblematic figures:
“I was interested in New York at that particular moment in time, and I think that Rubell and Schrager were at the tip of the spear in a couple of ways. They defined the culture in the city for 33 months, having gone from nobodies to the leaders of society virtually overnight. They were the harbingers of New York’s comeback. The city was at its lowest ebb, it was on the verge of bankruptcy — there was that famous Daily News headline in 1975 after President Ford denied New York a federal bailout: ‘Ford to City: Drop Dead’.
“I think Studio was the first big moment the city had on its way to coming back. But it was also the first major example of New York’s big clean-up. Ian and Steve were playing by the old rules — they were cutting corners, not getting permits, getting away with everything because New York was a city where hustlers got away with everything. And then suddenly the Feds came down on them, paving the way for the ’80s, when things became more legitimate, and the city grew much richer. Suddenly, in order to be a prominent citizen of New York, you had to play by more conventional rules. So Ian and Steve were representative of their time, both wittingly and unwittingly.”
Studio 54 is in UK cinemas from today.