Famous People

Timothy Greenfield-Sanders on The Out List and Monica Lewinsky's Hidden Talent

by Max Kessler

Before you dive into Pride partying, take an hour to check out The Out List tonight on HBO, premiering at 9:30 p.m. and featuring some your favorite LGBTQ figures like Neil Patrick Harris, Jake Shears and Ellen Degeneres discussing marriage equality and the state of gay rights today. (A topic that's all over the media today after yesterday's Supreme Court Ruling striking down DOMA and dismissed an appeal on California's proposition 8.) The documentary was directed by Timothy Greenfield-Sanders, who's been making waves since 2008 with similarly exploratory films The Black List and The Latino List (and who has taken portraits of everyone from presidents to top models to New York's ballroom voguers for PAPER). Watch the trailer above and read our interview with Greenfield-Sanders below to find out about Monica Lewinsky's hidden talent, the plight of aging men and how politicians are just bad-looking actors.

The Out List is one of several of your films in which you play uninterrupted celebrity interviews back-to-back. What draws you to that style?
Timothy Greenfield-Sanders: It started as a way to take my signature portrait style, where you focus on one person with a single light and a plain background. I thought, "If you could look at my portrait for a few minutes and enjoy it, you could certainly watch somebody talking directly to you." Today, we're so used to this "direct to camera" look but in 2008, when I did The Black List, it was basically just Errol Morris and me that had done this. Now every commercial does it because it's so effective -- it's effective because as a viewer you feel like the subject is talking directly to you.

How do you pick the subjects for the films?
With The Black List we were trying to balance men and women and different professions. We didn't want to have too many athletes and entertainers because it would be kind of cliche. So we've learned from that. As we did The Latino List we had to balance ethnicity -- Mexican, Cuban, Puerto Rican, Dominican. With The Out List, it's sort of all of those considerations along with gays, lesbians, bisexuals, transgendered people -- it's a very delicate balance. Starting out we knew we wanted Ellen Degeneres, Wanda Sykes and Neil Patrick Harris, Suze Orman -- kind of tent-pole people. But then we need to find the Lupe Valdezs and the Twiggy Garcons.

Did our fashion spread highlighting New York voguers shoot inspire you to put Twiggy Pucci Garcon in there?
Yeah -- Twiggy came out of a PAPER shoot! I met him when I shot that series of voguers and I was very impressed with him.

Your films always feature a mix of people who entertain and people who have jobs that are less in-the-spotlight. It easier to work entertainers?
No, the most difficult group to work with is the entertainers. People who are famous are the hardest because they're so media-trained and they know how to answer a question without really saying anything. To get people like that to open up is very difficult sometimes.

Are politicians or actors more difficult to coax into revealing something for the camera?
Politicians are basically unattractive actors. [Laughs.] They're the same. If you're really good-looking, you go into Hollywood and if you're not, you go into politics. The mayor or town counselor or the state representative is a celebrity to most people, so I think they're very similar. 

You've shot a lot of models as well -- are they just like actors and politicians?
Models are just so easy. When you're that good-looking it's hard to take a bad picture. And in a way it's also challenging to take anything special because models know how to pose, they know what to do. I have two children who've been posing for me since childhood. When I shoot their friends -- my children are so [much more] comfortable in front of the camera because they grew up that way. Most people are very awkward. When you put real people in front of the camera it's very awkward because they don't know most of the tricks.

I remember shooting Monica Lewinsky for her book cover and while we were shooting I remember thinking, "God, is she good." She was famous overnight, but I remember thinking, "How did she get so good at posing?" And we started talking about it and she said, "Oh, you know, my father was an amateur photographer and I posed for him all the time."

Do you ever have any starstruck moments?
I stopped being starstruck when I was 25 when I photographed Orson Welles. But I'm always trying to focus on the person and not let my personal feelings get in the way of it anyway.

Do you have plans for Pride?
I don't really go to the parade -- I support it by making films like this. I'm very nervous about the Prop 8 decision after today's decision on rights. [Ed note: This interview was done the day before the Supreme Court ruling.] The five fascists on the Supreme Court are really reprehensible -- the last couple days with affirmative action, and voting rights and stuff. Throw the NSA stuff in and you really see the right wing in the power structure of the country.

It's funny to be promoting this film with the Prop 8 decision coming. In the beginning, this film was going to be called "Generation 8." The film was going to be about post-Prop 8 decision world of gay rights, and as we got into the film we started to see that there were so many other issues that people wanted to talk about, not just marriage equality.

One of the things I liked most about this film was that it points out that gay fringe culture was a big par of starting pride culture. 
Lady Bunny is in The Out List and she says it really well: "We started your gay rights." She means the drag queens and the leather daddies and those in the outer outer edge, those are the ones that really got things going. And in the film, Jake Shears also says that he likes "being a homo," that he likes being outside and if you don't, fuck you. I think he alludes to some of that radicalness or that ability to look at things from another viewpoint instead of trying to make everyone the same. So much of the gay community wants to be part of the mainstream but I like being on the outside.

Do you think Pride is getting too corporate?
I hate seeing the commodification of these events. They became a logo-ed support of gay rights by corporations to show how diverse they are. That's bullshit.

If you had a Pride float for yourself what would it look like?
It would be all black, in the hottest of the summer. Black is the only color that I wear. Lady Bunny out front and all of her friends would be riding in it.

Your documentary About Face is about supermodels and the trouble they encounter with aging in the fashion industry. Do you think men are under similar scrutiny for their aging?
You know, I'm actually starting a film on male models and I don't know the answer yet. It's certainly easier for a man to age than a woman. Woman are more scrutinized, women are much more under the microscope. I hope it's changing now -- I'm against plastic surgery and all of those kinds of things. I think it's important to age naturally. I mean, if you're deformed, okay, maybe you need a little help to get through life. But if you're not, you need to accept who you are instead of turning your face into something that's like a cartoon. But I'll let you know more when the film gets moving.

Subscribe to Get More