"How does it feel to be America's blow-job queen?"

In their HBO movie "Monica in Black and White," documentarians Randy Barbato and Fenton Bailey riff on Lewinsky, celebrity and the tough questions.

Published March 1, 2002 8:00PM (EST)

For all we know about Monica Lewinsky from Page Six, the Starr Report and her teary chat with Barbara Walters, she still remains a cipher. Was she vamp or victim? Stalker or sweetheart? Innocent or instigator?

What is she really like? That's what everyone who knew Randy Barbato and Fenton Bailey wanted to know when the documentary team began making "Monica in Black and White." By interspersing archival press footage with a Q&A session conducted by Monica Lewinsky at New York's Cooper Union College, the two managed to get us closer to that answer than anything we've seen before.

The absorbing and well-crafted documentary chronicles Lewinsky's ascendance from lowly White House intern to entrepreneurial gadabout. The film has a conspiratorial, "All the President's Men" feel, but probably the most shocking aspect of the documentary is the utter obliviousness and insouciance with which Lewinsky characterizes her dalliance with the ex-president. "I think I just thought it would be a fun fling," she says at one point. "I judged him in the sense of thinking, 'Well ... oh OK ... whatever. You know, I'm young ... it's the president ... he's cute. It's kinda cool. Irresponsible ... but cool.'"

While "Monica in Black and White" may not change any opinions about Lewinsky, it does succeed in showing a side of her that we haven't seen before -- that of charming, engaging raconteur. Bathed in a flattering spotlight, her brunet locks freshly coifed, Lewinsky sits cross-legged at the foot of the stage. It's a conscious effort to establish some pseudo-intimate rapport with her interrogators, of course, and the stagy setup reeks of sheer narcissism. But the thing is that she delivers such an undeniable charisma and screen presence that she actually comes out smelling like a rose.

The bulk of the audience treats her with an almost solemn reverence. When, for example, one boorish spectator derisively inquires, "How does it feel to be America's premier blow-job queen?" the appalled crowd responds with a collective chorus of groans and gasps.

I recently spoke over the phone with filmmakers Randy Barbato and Fenton Bailey, the men behind such provocative and acclaimed documentaries as "101 Rent Boys," "The Eyes of Tammy Faye" and "Party Monster." "Monica in Black and White" kicks off HBO's second season of "America Undercover Sundays" and airs March 3 at 10 p.m. Eastern time.

When HBO first approached you with this project, what was your first reaction? Were you confident you could take this subject matter and turn it into a worthwhile documentary?

Randy Barbato: We were definitely intrigued and interested. Most of the projects that pique our interest have to do with media stories and stuff we think we know everything about. That's what really intrigued us about doing a film about Monica Lewinsky. It was something where we had certainly formed several opinions and then said, "Well, maybe we don't know the whole story."

Fenton Bailey: Experience has really shown us that when there is a hugely exposed story in the media, the chances are that only a little of that story is really being reported -- even if the coverage is ad nauseam. In fact, huge amounts of the story remain simply untold in spite of the 24/7 news coverage. It's amazing how mainstream media can make such a little go such a long way.

When the Clinton scandal first broke, what was your initial assessment of Monica Lewinsky?

Barbato: I think when the story first broke, my assessment was very much taking the cue from what I was reading and seeing.

Bailey: I gradually got this kind of negative view of her.

Barbato: The interesting thing about Monica Lewinsky, which we learned during the process of making this film, is that there's a public persona that was authored by all these people with different agendas: by Democrats, by Republicans, by the media. They all had an agenda. One was to protect the president, the other one was to destroy the president, and the media were pursuing a sexy, salacious story. And at the center of all these people shaping her persona was Monica, who was forced to be silent. She spent several years having other people with dubious intentions tell us who she was.

Artistically speaking, what did you feel you could bring to this project that would differentiate it from all the other coverage of Monica Lewinsky's life?

Bailey: Well, I suppose we thought that if she could just tell her story from her own point of view in this essentially neutral environment that it would be a great device to get her to tell her story in a rather unbiased way. It would essentially be just her perspective. 'Cause the thing is, when a professional reporter like Barbara Walters sits down, the questions have been very carefully thought out and the whole experience is very mediated. The thinking here was to try to get Monica to tell her story in an unmediated way. Obviously, that's to some extent a contrivance, because a documentary by definition is a mediated work.

On a technical level, how did you decide how you would film Monica's appearance?

Barbato: Well, we definitely wanted to be in a space that felt intimate. It's funny, because when we decided to film it at Cooper Union, we went there a few times and thought, OK, where are we going to put her on the stage? What kind of set are we going to design? We had every intention of sort of building a space on the stage and then it became clear to us: We just want this to feel like a conversation. We don't even need a set. Let's just plop her on the edge of the stage and have her as close to the audience as possible. That became a very organic decision; it's almost like the format of the film dictated that. And then in terms of filming it, we wanted many shots with Monica in relation to the audience. We really wanted that kind of intimacy and closeness.

How did your friends and colleagues react when they found out you were doing a documentary on the world's most famous intern?

Bailey: They all had this sort of reaction: "Well, what's she really like?" And that's kind of the key to this whole thing. Everybody wants to know what Monica's really like. People at large see that here is essentially a normal person. So, I think they're more interested in knowing what Monica is really like than what Madonna is really like, for example. Also, the public goes on instinct. Why then would they want to ask what is she really like, unless they suspected that what she's really like is not what they've seen reported. And it's true -- there's a vast difference between the Monica in print and on TV and the Monica in reality.

Over the course of filming, did your view of Monica change at all? Was there anything about her that particularly surprised you?

Barbato: First of all, this is a very difficult film to make, because on the one hand you feel the responsibility of dealing with this very weighty, historical story that you want to contextualize. You want to maintain a kind of integrity as a filmmaker. Secondly, you have this person who's been betrayed by virtually every important person in her life outside of her family. I think when we started the film, we had a similar view to a lot of people out there about Monica. It was ambivalent and also, well, leaning towards negative. During the course of filming, we learned that this is a bright, strong-willed, funny, compassionate woman. And above all, strong.

Bailey: I think sometimes when you read something in the papers you just don't get the full force of it. To me, it was just how she survived this whole process. I'm much older than she is, but when I was 24, to have withstood the scrutiny of the whole world media not just looking at me, but judging me and condemning me and having every aspect of my privacy completely annihilated, to me, it was like, my goodness. How did she survive?

From Tammy Faye to Michael Alig and now Monica, you've made a career out of profiling people many would deem unsympathetic. In order to make an effective documentary, is it important to sympathize with your subjects or do you prefer to stay objective?

Barbato: I think that not only as a documentary filmmaker, but just as an ordinary citizen, it's important to try and reserve judgment. You know, people have a little bit of good and a little bit of bad. I think that as a culture, we love to turn people into villains. It's not that simple. So, we are very intrigued and curious about people who have been vilified, particularly by the media.

Bailey: I think it's interesting the way certain characters find themselves in positive feedback loops and certain people find themselves in negative feedback loops. It seems as if someone like [former Mayor Rudolph] Giuliani has emerged as a world hero, but there are lots of aspects of Giuliani that aren't particularly savory that you can't speak about right now. He's sort of surfing this enormous tide of goodwill for simply being in a particular place at a particular time.

It's extraordinary how who we really are doesn't really get reported in the media, and I think that's what motivates us. In truth, the notion of documentary objectivity is a bit of a falsehood because the moment you make an edit, someone is bringing an opinion to something. You do become subjectively involved.

In terms of content, did you have free reign to shoot whatever you want or were there certain aspects of Monica's life that remained off-limits?

Barbato: Well, Monica Lewinsky had no editorial control whatsoever, so we had the freedom to kind of explore and shape this film in a way we felt would make the best film. I don't think there were any restrictions or limitations.

So, she didn't have final cut or anything like that?

Barbato: She had no editorial control whatsoever. She saw two cuts and that was it.

What was her response when she first saw it?

Bailey: It wasn't a happy one. [Laughs] I suppose we had discounted the effect of the pain and trauma this whole experience represented for her. So, for example, hearing her conversations with Linda Tripp -- that level of betrayal is quite stunning. Also, some of the things she says, to imagine the whole world hearing them must be unbearable. When she saw those things and heard those things it was very, very upsetting to her. I don't think she regards the film as a pleasant experience for her by any means.

Even so, the crowd was pretty respectful and supportive of her. I was a little surprised.

Bailey: We were quite surprised, too. We had expected the audience to be much more hostile. It's the way she carries herself, it's the way she comes across. I think as she walked out into that room, the people in that audience were definitely ready to have a go at her. But, as she explained herself and engaged with the audience, they pulled back from their judgments, which were based on not really knowing her.

It's no secret that Monica was displeased with the way her televised interview with Barbara Walters was edited together. For someone who's had so many bad experiences with the press, how did you get her to trust you and open up?

Bailey: I don't think, in a way, she really did trust us ...

Barbato: To edit the film.

Bailey: I think it was difficult for her to reconcile herself to having no control or participation in that process. You know, here's someone who's been betrayed by Ken Starr, by the White House, by Linda Tripp. We took our editing responsibilities very seriously. On the one hand, we didn't want to betray someone again. On the other hand, we felt we needed to be fair and as objective as we could be.

Did you get caught up in the whole Clinton-Lewinsky soap opera, or were you in the camp that believed it was all much ado about nothing?

Bailey: Randy, do you remember we watched Clinton saying he did not have sexual relations with that woman live on television? We were caught up in it and had no idea he was telling such a big, porky lie. The interesting thing is that it was a legal technicality. "According to the definition of sexual relations," he could say that he didn't. It was an amazing, lawyerly piece of hairsplitting. At the time, we thought he didn't. We thought that she was probably the stalker she was being portrayed as in the media.

After having done this documentary, do you feel like you know Monica Lewinsky any better?

Bailey: To be honest, does anyone ever really know anyone? You don't know anyone ever in a finite way. There's no final moment of revelation where the process of getting to know someone is complete and exhausted. She's a real person, like all of us. She's complicated, has layers, has contradictions. What she deserves is to be looked at as a real person.

Dispel one widely held myth about Monica Lewinsky.

Barbato: That she was a stalker, that she went to Washington, D.C., with an agenda, that she sought and enjoys the limelight.

Bailey: For me, there are two key details. One is we would know none of the sexual details if Monica weren't forced to reveal them in legal proceedings. I think there's a misconception that she's volunteered all this sexual detail, and she's become a victim of that specificity. We attach all this sexual detail to Monica and hold her in some way responsible for it.

Barbato: I think one other huge misconception is that this is a one-sided relationship. I think a man that would call a young woman 50 times, as listed in the Starr Report -- and those were conversations of substance and length -- that to me constitutes a relationship.

Because this film was done with the full cooperation of Monica, some people are probably going to question how you could depict her fairly and accurately. Did you ever fear that critics and audiences might think you were just shilling for her?

Barbato: Absolutely. This is a huge fear that we had and we still have. But I can tell you this: I don't think Monica is very happy with the film. [Laughs] I don't think this is the film Monica Lewinsky would have made. We didn't set out to make this film with an agenda. We rarely do. We certainly are attracted to certain kinds of people and certain kinds of stories and would love to help ourselves (and people) understand them. That's the best we can do really.

We knew when we agreed to do this film that no matter what the film ended up being like there were going to be a huge number of people who were just going to slam us. This is a subject that people have such polarized feelings about. We took a seven-minute teaser of this film to the Television Critics Association in Pasadena and there were a couple hundred TV critics there. They showed the clip and then we walked out with Monica to answer questions. Well, the audience was so hostile. There was so much rage in the room, like people are angry that Monica Lewinsky, to a certain extent, still exists.

I think it's an anger that people have at themselves for having been interested in this story. They hate the fact that the nation got so consumed by this story and they hold Monica responsible for it. For us, it was a very revealing moment.

From the moment Monica's name hit the media, she's been a gossip column regular. Do you understand the public's fascination with the comings-and-goings of this woman?

Bailey: A little bit ... yes. Unlike other celebrities, like, say, Madonna, she is a normal person. And people see in Monica their own normal selves. I actually think what Monica has done isn't so very different from what so many other people have done, and they understand and relate to that. Therein lies the curiosity.

On a personal level, how do you feel about the way Monica has used this scandal to her financial advantage? I'm talking specifically about her lucrative deal with Jenny Craig and her handbag line.

Bailey: Personally, I don't judge her myself at all. I mean, she is an ordinary everyday person who suddenly has to have an entire team of lawyers who all need to be paid. She has to find some way to pay those bills.

Your first feature film will be an adaptation of your own documentary "Party Monster," about the life of convicted club kid Michael Alig. Why did you choose this as your inaugural mainstream Hollywood project?

Barbato: Long before Michael Alig was involved in the brutal murder that he is now in prison for, we were very interested in him. He was creating this really vibrant, exciting scene in Manhattan and we think his intentions were good and interesting. Fenton and I actually started collecting footage and pitching a documentary about him long before it turned dark. And it did turn very, very dark. Obviously, it's an inherently dramatic story, but it becomes much more complicated than a simple murder story.

Bailey: It's more about a meditation on celebrity. It seems that celebrity is the great issue of our time. I think, in many ways, celebrity is a terribly corrosive thing. Perhaps in a few hundred years we'll look back on celebrity as the disease of the 20th century. It brings so much death and destruction with it. It's a Shakesperean story -- kinda like the Monica story, I suppose.

In the end, do you feel you achieved what you set out to accomplish with "Monica in Black and White?"

Barbato: In the end, we did achieve what we set out to accomplish because we set out to make a good film. That was our intention at the beginning and think that's what we did in the end. That was the overriding motivation and agenda.

When I say the name President Clinton, what's the first word that comes to mind?

Barbato: Hot! [Laughs]

By Ian Rothkerch

Ian Rothkerch is a New York writer.

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