The Strange, Twisted Story Behind Voyeur

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Photo: Cris Moris/Netflix

And now, the story of two men working on the story of a man working on the story of a man who liked to watch people have sex.

Even when pitched in the simplest possible terms, there’s a lot going on in Netflix’s new documentary, Voyeur. Warring perspectives are everywhere, as two comparably unreliable narrators clash through layers upon layers of subjectivity. The trailer slims down the concept to its innermost layer and offers that as the whole: Master journalist Gay Talese made contact with a strange fellow named Gerald Foos, who had spent upwards of two decades spying on and pleasuring himself to the visitors of his motel in Aurora, Colorado. The actual film expands its scope to encompass Talese himself as he conducts the research for a book about Foos, both men figures of boundless fascination for co-directors Josh Koury and Myles Kane. As Talese burrowed into Foos’s unsavory psyche, Kane and Koury kept their eyes on the big picture.

“We were fascinated by Gay not only as the eccentric character he is, but as an embodiment of this concept of the ‘living legend,’” Kane told Vulture in an interview earlier this week. “And we were excited by the idea of doing a sort of alternative to the biopic, where you can watch someone in real time and learn about them that way.”

But the really good stuff is hiding behind the outermost meta-stratum. No less enthralling than Talese’s soft-shoe routine on the line of journalistic rigor is Kane and Koury’s tangled effort to faithfully, truthfully capture it all. Without even realizing it, they had taken up a task nested in paradoxes: How do you responsibly chronicle an irresponsible chronicling?

“We had no idea of the complications,” Koury said. “A year or two into production, once we met Gerald and started to understand both of these men, we thought that the story would be about journalism, and the complex relationship between artist and subject … Then, as we moved forward, things pretty much went haywire.”

Kane first met Talese in 2012, during his tenure as a video producer for The New Yorker, with whom the writer had just signed a deal to deliver some new work. It was while developing a video profile of Talese that Kane initially caught wind of a percolating project with a killer hook: For years, Talese had been in regular contact with the owner of the 21-room Manor House Motel, where a custom-made platform in the peaked roof allowed a body to peek through ventilation grates into the quarters below. Emboldened by Talese’s publication of the taboo-busting sex study Thy Neighbor’s Wife and recognizing its author as a fellow watcher, Foos sent a letter in 1980 describing his setup and the extensive logs of the various humpings he had furtively witnessed. In it, he insists, “I did this purely out of my unlimited curiosity about people and not as just a deranged voyeur.” Despite this being patently false — people don’t usually bring themselves to orgasm five times in a single night over Platonic interests — Talese took it upon himself to show the world the man behind the Peeping Tom. Kane smelled the sweet scent of intrigue immediately.

“We knew this story going public would be a catalyst in these characters’ lives,” Kane recalled. “We didn’t know how — it could’ve been protesters, Gerald in handcuffs, Gay getting hailed as a great journalist returning to form. But where it went allowed our film to be more true to what we initially wanted, which was something character-based, not necessarily an investigative doc.”

Kane contacted Koury, a longtime collaborator and a video professor at Pratt, with the tantalizing opportunity to gain an uncommon degree of access to Talese. He invited the documentarians into his palatial Manhattan brownstone, and eventually to Foos’s more humble abode out West. There, Kane and Koury observed a bizarre, delicate dynamic between the relatively provincial Foos and dandy man-about-town Talese. On the writer’s specific request, Foos would dress in a shirt and tie instead of his usual loungewear. Foos dyed his hair black for what Kane calls “presentational purposes,” and its sudden return to white in the film creates the impression of a dramatic time-jump, when in reality only six months or so had passed. In conversation, Foos addressed Talese partly as conspirator, partly as personal friend. Both men shared an obsession with monitoring behavior in its most natural, unaware state, and yet put on a show for one another as well as for the cameras. Depicting the inauthenticity could be engrossing all on its own, but it’d only hold up if Koury and Kane could back it up with something real.

“Gay’s very practiced,” Koury explained. “He has a professorial style of speaking, like he’s in front of a class. It’s good stuff, but Jesus, it wasn’t the movie we wanted to make. We wondered, ‘When is Gay the most raw and the most real?’ and it was clear to us that the answer was ‘When he’s in Denver.’ Because there, he’s no longer the subject, he’s the writer. When he’s shooing at us to get out of his face, that’s when we get the best stuff.”

He continued: “What ended up happening was, we made it clear to Gay that we all needed to be in Denver for the book release. Gay had to stay in New York for some Twitter thing, who knows, but it was very important to us to be with Gerald. He told us, ‘Fine, you go with Gerald, and Myles, you stay with me.’ So we split up the team, and then because Gerald didn’t have Gay with him in control, he let his guard down. We really saw a duality in him there.”

On The New Yorker’s page for “The Voyeur’s Motel,” the subtitle teases, “Gerald Foos bought a motel in order to watch his guests having sex. He saw a lot more than that.” The twist that the line alludes to was a murder that Foos watched happen and did nothing to stop — but when he wrote that line, Talese had no idea that the biggest shock was yet to come. The real bombshell dropped when the Washington Post ran an article announcing that their fact-checkers had discovered some rather glaring inaccuracies in Foos’s statements and Talese’s reportage. In the wake of this outing, they both reacted in fury; Talese instantly disavowed the book, then backpedaled and re-avowed it with the reasoning that the factual errors were beside the point.

Foos, meanwhile, was furious with Gay for mentioning his private baseball-card collection exceeding a value of $1 million. It may have seemed like a weirdly arbitrary thing for him to get hung up on when his richly varied history of sexual deviancy had just been splayed out for public perusal. But all the same, his reaction raises the more to-the-point question of duty and responsibility among journalists and documentarians.

Gay Talese doesn’t come out of Voyeur looking so good. For a guy who essentially created the profile piece as we know it today, he makes a lot of rookie errors. Talese mentions in the film that pursuing a one-source piece isn’t all that professional, but he reasons that the chance is simply too good to pass up. He wants the story to be what he wants it to be, and molds it to fit his concept instead of the other way around. He gets entirely too close to Foos, crossing the line of detachment and into friendship. “It’s not a valentine,” Talese warns Foos in the film, regarding the article. He’s right, but it’s not a sober assessment of a sex predator, either. (Talese recently proved himself to be pretty bad with those.)

Or is that merely what we’ve been made to think? Koury and Kane exert the same totality of influence over Voyeur that Talese did with “The Voyeur’s Motel,” and it’s only fair that the documentarians’ audience would share the doubts that they extended to their subject. But the pair of filmmakers kept their wits about them, getting out in front of their own slant whenever possible. An editor from The New Yorker provides the film’s only audible voice of reason when she describes Foos as a “sociopath,” and signals that the directors’ moral compass still points due north. “We wanted to let the audience know that we didn’t drink the Kool-Aid on this guy,” Koury said. “We’re not selling him as some glorious, daring researcher.”

Still, Koury and Kane couldn’t completely avoid expressing some intention of vision, and in doing so, shaping how this relatively linear narrative would be told. Documentarians say that every edit is a lie, and Koury and Kane do all of their own editing. “It wasn’t totally fly-on-the-wall; you’ve always got a presence,” Koury recalled. “But that’s why, in the film, we tried to incorporate ourselves a little bit … It was important for us to — not to implicate ourselves, but to acknowledge that we’re all in this gross ethical soup together.”

They succeed in doing so during the film’s most electrifying scene, when Foos and Talese reunite after the dust of the controversial release has cleared. Things are tense, but the old buddies can’t stay mad at one another. (In the spirit of editorializing: Their relationship is deeply weird.) It’s only when an offscreen voice asks Foos a seemingly innocuous question about having any regrets that Talese gets heated. He sees through the ploy, and angrily calls out the directors for trying to trick Foos into contradicting one of his earlier statements. Dripping with contempt, he refers to them as “cameramen.” Talese huffily asks them to end the recording, and after one supremely disorienting shot of the crew members, they oblige him.

“In that scene, he’s trying to put Gerald straight. He’s trying to warn Gerald — to retake control of the situation,” Koury said. “He was potentially scaring Gerald, too. He told him, ‘Don’t talk to the press; the press is not your friend.’ I think in part that’s because he realized how fragile the story was, that any level of scrutiny could knock it over, which it did.”

“There’s a manipulation in film that’s taken for granted and known as creative license,” Kane said. “That was celebrated as a style when Gay and the New Journalists integrated the techniques of narrative, structured writing. Gay calls us ‘cameramen.’ In that moment, he’s trying to gain control of the scene, make us out to be wild cards or something. But I think, subconsciously, there’s some truth to his labeling us as something else.”

“I don’t consider what we did journalism,” Koury added. “Some documentarians consider themselves storytellers, and others reporters. That’s what we appreciated about Gay’s work; it’s a different style, it’s not straitlaced journalism. When you make a doc, it’s the same thing, just patching things together. There’s no music in real life, but there is in the film, you know?”

To claim some theoretical purity of vantage would have been disingenuous; all the directors could do was stay aware of their own biases and mitigate them. They arranged Talese’s words in such a way that paints him as a man out of step with his time and perhaps his line of work. But they also supported their tacit claims with clear visual evidence, and any manipulation is in the pursuit of a deeper truth. “We research; we do all the work and due diligence we had to,” Kane said, “but our underlying principle was that if it feels wrong or dishonest, then it probably is.” They ask Foos about his regrets knowing full well that he’ll answer differently now that Talese is present, waiting for him to indict himself. They are indeed trying to play him, but only into exposing something real.

There’s one more late-in-the-game surprise in this odd tale: Talese is not even mad. Koury and Kane fully expected to burn all bridges with their subject once the less-than-flattering portrayal was made public, and the early screenings were tense. “When we sat Gay down to watch it,” Kane remembers, “we rented a cinema in the city for him and [his wife] Nan and some people from [publishing house] Grove Atlantic, and whooo, that was a cold screening. Not a single laugh. Not that we were expecting rowdiness or anything, but it was chil-ly. When it was finished, dead silence, no movement, then some polite clapping.”

Though Talese was reserved during his first viewing, his overall stance on Koury and Kane’s efforts ran along the lines of “game recognize game.” “I’m surprised Gay likes the film. I thought he was gonna hate the thing,” said Koury. Kane added, “He respects the process. He was always pretty clear, ‘you guys are gonna make what you make; I’m either gonna love it or hate it.’ It’s like how he lectures Gerald, saying he’s his own writer. His ultimate take on it was ‘tough but fair.’ That’s what we hoped for.”

Talese doesn’t seem all that bothered by the tougher half of “tough but fair.” He was there glad-handing at the film’s New York Film Festival premiere, right in his natural element among the metropolitan glitterati. Koury recalls a student coming to him the day after a small preview screening and relaying that Talese was there as well. As politely as humanly possible, I ask the directors if they think that Talese fully “got it,” to which they chuckle and shrug. They don’t really need to say so; it’s a matter of public record that Talese enjoys few things more than the chance to step out in front of some flashbulbs.

Talese hasn’t felt the sting of consequence much from either Voyeur or the blow to his legitimacy that came with “The Voyeur’s Motel.” The film shows him looking forlornly at his latest tome’s poor placement on a bookstore shelf, but that’s small potatoes in comparison to what Foos has faced. His ostracizing in his insular Coloradan community was swift and severe. By the point that that happens in the film, we’ve spent enough time with Talese and Foos, watched them do enough sincere or embarrassing or human things that we can’t help but feel some twinge of something.

“Gerald isn’t completely a monster, not 100 percent, at least,” Kane affirmed. “But he’s also not a helpless victim getting strung along by the journalist. Gay’s not a hero, either; he’s flawed.”

Maybe a jumble of crisscrossed POVs — the documentarians, their subject, his subject — was the only path to whatever truth hides inside this bizarre account. By embracing unavoidable dishonesties, whether that meant the impressionistic element of the film medium or the highly mediated manner of someone aware that they’re being watched, Kane and Koury got as close as they could to reality. Their documentary forms a sharp image of the thornier side to investigative journalism, but that’s the sum of its work.

“It’s not about getting the answers, because there are no clear-cut answers,” Koury said. He paused, and rolled his eyes, “You know, like life.”

The Strange, Twisted Story Behind Netflix’s Voyeur