Exclusive: The Makers of American Swing

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Filmmakers have always loved to capture New York City on film as background for comedies and drama or in documentaries that memorialize the importance of the city’s history. One aspect of the city that hasn’t really been captured and has almost been forgotten is the seedy nightlife that permeated the city in the late ’70s and early ’80s. The disco scene was thriving at the time, as was punk, but few New York City clubs were as infamous as Larry Levenson’s Plato’s Retreat, a heterosexual swinger’s club where consenting adults could pay 25 bucks to drink, dance, have sex with their dates/partners or with other men/women they meet, or just watch the action while enjoying the notoriously bad buffet.

It was New York City at the height of its decadence, but thirty years later, it’s a place that’s barely remembered albeit for a brief appearance in Spike Lee’s Summer of Sam. Now, along comes the documentary American Swing by Mathew Kaufman and Jon Hart that takes an in-depth look at what drove Levenson to open the club in 1977 with dozens of interviews with New York celebrities and luminaries remembering the club, as well as those who regularly frequented the club’s legendary “mattress room.”

ComingSoon.net had a chance to talk with Kaufman and Hart about how they went about putting together this intriguing documentary. (You can also read more of our thoughts on the movie in this week’s Weekend Warrior.)

ComingSoon.net: Jon, you had been in communication regularly with Larry before he passed away in 1999, so how much time did you spend talking to him?
Jon Hart: Four years, but it took some time for our relationship to evolve, but Larry was a close friend of mine. He was sharing his life story with me. He opened the door to this untold story, and I’d written about him over the years in a few publications.

CS: How did the movie come about from that?
Hart: I needed a miracle worker and I found Mathew. Mathew made the project happen. I had a wealth of material, and I knew that it was a great story. A mutual friend introduced us, and we put it together.

CS: What was the appeal of this material to you, Matthew?
Mathew Kaufman: I had heard about Plato’s Retreat, I certainly had read about it. In fact, I had read one of Jon’s articles but didn’t know Jon at the time. My aunt lived on the Upper West Side, I’d come to visit her all the time at 10 years old, so I was in and out of the city as a young kid and certainly knew about Plato’s or had heard of it. I always, as any young man, was interested in weird things. When I met Jon, I was like “Oh, wow, this would make a great documentary.” Wasn’t convinced it would make a feature, but I knew it was something. No one would give me any money to do it, so I had to suck it up spend a bunch of my own money, pretty much bankrolling the project, getting it started, getting a sales tape made. Unless you’re Ken Burns or Alex Gibney or some other known entity, no one is going to give you money to do a documentary.

CS: That’s odd, since as we saw the other night, there’s a curiosity factor involved with the club.
Kaufman: Exactly! It’s a marketable piece of nostalgia that people remember the name “Plato’s Retreat.” It’s titillating and it’s sexual, but we hope that people who come see the film stay for the story, because it’s an untold story of Larry, who is a great protagonist, who really is our dramatic arc through the film. He’s a fascinating character.

CS: How did you go about starting this movie. Did you want to find all of the footage you can find first or get a lot of the interviews out of the way? Did you have some sort of gameplan?
Kaufman: No, we just started like gangbusters: schedule interviews, get going, get researchers, look for archival footage. Get as much as possible and just go. Making documentary films is like a puzzle, it’s making the puzzle work within budget, and get everything you can, throw it up against the wall and see what comes out of it. It’s music, which was kickass movie music, it was archival footage, and then the access to the interviewers. The family member’s access was the cream that made this whole movie really come together, because they really added a lot to the film and showed Larry as a traditional person who got paid through a non-kosher lifestyle. Keith Reamer was our editor and he did a fabulous job and really kept us on task. Two directors is always difficult, it’s in a small room for almost a year. You want to kill each other after a while.

CS: Jon, besides talking to Larry, did he introduce you to some of the other people along the way that had frequented the club?
Hart: Yeah, again, he opened the door and I had to put the puzzle together. I had his version, but hundreds and hundreds of thousands of untold numbers went to Plato’s. It was an enigma, so I had his perspective and he was an extremely rich character–it’s beyond words–his life during Plato’s and after Plato’s. I tracked down his son who he was estranged from, and I started talking to the prince Michael and then Howard Smith, and slowly but surely… it was difficult. I think when I was doing a piece for the New York Times, it gave me a bit more credibility. Karen, his sister, was very reluctantÂ… not reluctant, she didn’t want to participate. I asked her early on to speak and she refused, and I respected that but stayed in touch. Years later, with Matthew, I talked to Michael and some of the family members about doing this documentary, and Karen said, “Why aren’t you asking me?” She healed. I think you can say that other people had similar experiences where wounds had healed, and they were able to talk about. Specifically, with Karen, it took some time and she wanted to talk about it, but I didn’t nudge her.

CS: You must have done some interviews to write those articles and I wondered how you went about getting those people back to talk again on camera after already interviewing them.
Kaufman: All the interviews we shot were for the film. It was hard tracking people down but once you did and once you got them in front of the camera, I think with a little finesse, you can get people talking about it. Once the people agreed to talk to us, we didn’t really hear any bad stories about Plato’s. It was all with a smile on their face, fondly remembering a place that they romped around in thirty years ago, almost wistfully. We didn’t hear any bad experiences.

CS: Sure, but some of the people probably have families by now, and they might worry about their 18-year-old kid going to see this movie and going “Hey, that’s my mother in there!”
Kaufman: Some people didn’t want to talk to us precisely because of that. “I don’t want my grandson to know.” “I don’t want my son or daughter to know.” I had one guy who said, “I don’t want my wife to know that I went there.”
Hart: There was one girl, a friend of mine, she didn’t want to come to the screening, because she was afraid her mother might be in some of the footage, and her mother was calling during the movie, “Am I in the footage?” I thought that was very funny.

CS: It’s strange, because you have all these pictures and footage from the club itself, and I don’t know what kind of permissions you needed to get or even if you could tell who half the people are, but how did you get that and be able to use it without worrying about that stuff.
Kaufman: There were certain challenges that were presented to us when making this film. From a filmmaker’s point of view, our protagonist was passed away. We had to tell our story with archival images, and otherwise, it would just have been a series of talking heads talking about a place and a time when you want to show it. We really set out to make an honest film. Search the country. Had researchers searching databases, finding footage wherever we could get it that was shot at Plato’s. It’s very rare, and I think we uncovered as much as there is. If there’s more, than it’s in someone’s personal archive and they don’t even know they had it.

CS: I was wondering about that. I can’t imagine they would just let people walk around in there with cameras.
Kaufman: On special occasions, they had parties and people were allowed to film, and also documentaries. We got some of our footage from a documentary that was shot in 1980, and they were allowed in and they shot. Also, Al Goldstein’s “Midnight Blue”–Al and him were friends. They shot a lot of footage there. That’s a funny story in itself. We had to cull through all of Al Goldstein’s archive, which is probably a room this big with boxes stacked to the ceiling of original 3⁄4″ tapes that were dirty and had to be wiped off and the 3/4″ deck had to be cleaned after every tape because it was ruining the heads. Then getting the rights for all that stuff was just expensive and time-consuming and it was a job in itself.

CS: You mentioned the problem of having the protagonist having passed away, and Jon, I know that you did these taped interviews with Larry, so I wondered why you decided not to use any of them in the movie as some form of narrative?
Hart: First of all, the quality wasn’t the best.
Kaufman: That’s the main reason really.
Hart: Well, not exactly because are we going to tell it… is Larry going to be the whole narrator driving the whole thing. If all of a sudden, you hear Larry in real time… like Larry from his cab saying, “This is where I was?” or are you just along for the ride and then boom, you hear Larry, and it’s jarring.
Kaufman: We only used him once.
Hart: That’s what I’m saying.
Kaufman: We would have used him more if the stuff was transcribed, too. Jon had hours and hours and hours.
Hart: There were a few other moments that were considered but it had more of an effect if he appears in real time. You’re also talking about something that would be a completely different movie. We tell it through Larry, through interviews, as he’s living it, so the quality wasn’t the best, but when you introduce him, you hear him, that’s the moment.

CS: I want to ask about getting some of the other people involved, like Mayor Koch for instances.
Kaufman: Jon and I were arguing about who would do it, because no one wanted to do it but Jon gave me his Email and I Emailed him and kept nudging him and then I called and then he finally said “Yes.” First, he said, “No” but we just kept trying. We’re just persistent nudges.
Hart: He did my interview for the Times and then he came around and said “no.”
Kaufman: It’s funny interviewing an icon.
Hart: It would be nice if he reviewed it. He writes a movie column.

CS: Has he seen the movie yet?
Kaufman: No, he has not seen the movie.

CS: So are you going to arrange something for him to see it?
Kaufman: No.
Hart: We were happy to get him.

CS: Besides capturing this part of history, you were able to get a lot of people on camera to open up and talk about why they were there, what it meant to them, and many seemed happy to talk about it.
Kaufman: That’s what makes it special.

CS: Even though the movie mentions AIDS, we don’t really hear many of them talk about losing partners they might have had to the disease.
Kaufman: No, it was a heterosexual club. The nightlife bred to all types, but it was a heterosexual club, and Jon and I talked at the beginning that we weren’t going to obscure people’s faces or hide their identities, so it was important for us to get real people and real stories. We didn’t really delve into the AIDS thing. It was about the club.

CS: There was no one who expressed regrets looking back at those days, knowing about the transmission of diseases that’s so pervasive now?
Kaufman: No, we didn’t get many stories like that. As I said, they’re almost wistful and sometimes asking whether there were places like that that still exist that they can go to.
Hart: Some of the people were active as being voyeurs, but they weren’t actually involved. Just because you were interviewed for this movie did not necessarily mean you were an Olympic athlete in the mat room. You might have just been there for the liberating atmosphere.
Kaufman: Or for a pastrami sandwich.
Hart: It was a hopping place, as Annie Sprinkles says.
Kaufman: People would go to Studio 54 and party all night and go to Plato’s to have fun and continue the party. It was like a worldwide destination. People came from Tokyo, Japan, everywhere to the city and one of the places you hit was Plato’s Retreat. This film was just a time capsule of a place that doesn’t exist anymore and we hope that people come and see the movie and see that it was special, and that’s not just this titillating people.

CS: Besides documenting the heyday of the club and Larry’s life, I was curious what you’d hope people would get out of the movie. Do you hope people would look back at those times when people were more open with their sexuality?
Kaufman: I’m not trying to make a social statement. I just like to make objective documentaries about sub-culture and interesting folks.
Hart: Hopefully, it’s supposed to be an entertaining piece. We want you to enjoy this historical time capsule, but we want you to laugh and be entertained. It was a fun place and the people are fun.

CS: Well, that’s a good segue to bring up the Grippas, who really kind of steal the movie a bit.
Kaufman: The Grippas need their own TV show. Jon and I will act as executive producers.
Hart: When they got the Grippas interviewed, that was definitely a turning point for this project.
Kaufman: They were hiding in plain sight in Queens.

CS: How much time did you spend filming them?
Kaufman: Oh, my God! That was a five and a half hour interview with two cameras to make sure that we got it, because we knew that they were special, and they were holding the goods. She handed over the books. There was a lot of stuff there we had to cover, and it was just the longest interview I’ve ever been involved with. Five and a half hours of interviewing someone, it was like a Presidential interview.

CS: I think you’ll need to run the entire 5 1⁄2 hour interview with them as one of the DVD extras.
Kaufman: The extras on this DVD are really fun, and there’s a whole section devoted to Charlie and Annie. They’re our stars.

American Swing in New York on Friday, March 27, at the Quad Cinema, and then in L.A. on April 3 at the Laemmle Sunset 5.