Kieran Turner has been involved in showbiz since he was a wee lad. A former child actor, he found himself to be much more comfortable behind the camera than in front of it. He wrote, produced and directed his first feature film, 2001’s 24 Nights, and also started his own web television series, Wallflowers.
In 2012 he made Jobriath A.D., a documentary about Jobriath, the first openly gay rock star. But of course, you already know this, because you read our profile of the musician from August 2017, so we’re just repeating ourselves out of courtesy.
Turner’s currently working on two separate projects, but rather than spoil them we recommend you read his descriptions of these projects in the interview below. Then listen to the playlist he made for us, which is beneath the interview.
TZR: When did you first start developing an interest in making movies, and who were your earliest influences?
KT: I actually began as a child actor. I did a bunch of commercials and episodic television, a soap, etc. I was never famous but I worked a good deal for a concentrated period of time. I thought I would chase that career into adulthood but I came to find out pretty early on that I was a terrible actor, or at least that what I relied on as a child, whatever schtick it was, wasn’t going to serve me as an adult. But I was at NYU in Playwrights Horizons and we had to do everything, act, direct, stage manage, write, etc. and I came to find I liked creating much, much more.
As for earliest influences, this might sound odd, but I would credit Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert. I used to watch their different iterations of movie review programs as a child, starting with Sneak Previews on PBS. And they would always champion these tiny little indies and docs and it made me aware of these movies at a very young age and growing up in a small Florida town where you really had to seek these films out. And I wanted to and did. So I discovered filmmakers like Jim Jarmusch, Alan Rudolph, John Cassavetes, Patricia Rozema… which led to a love of telling intimate, character-driven stories. And my parents were strictly meat & potatoes kind of filmgoers, which was a whole other influence — drive in, baby! — so I had to play the only child card to get them to take me to these. Or drop me off in front of the theater with a fiver and a quarter to call when I needed a ride.
TZR: What was the impetus behind making Jobriath A.D.? Were you just a big fan of his music or were there other reasons?
KT: It was a lark, really. I wasn’t a fan. I had only heard of him tangentially due to my love of music, of everything ’70s and of gay history. But he was before my time, the music had been long out of print, and I’d seen photos and he looked ridiculous. So I never took him seriously.
I came across the compilation of his albums that Morrissey put out about a decade ago and ordered it off Amazon as a joke, thinking it would be horrible, I’d laugh, and I’d sell it off. Instead, I discovered an incredibly talented musician and songwriter who I could not believe had been this forgotten and I started to research him. And once I did that, I knew I had to tell his story.
So many things about Jobriath and who he was and what he did appealed to me, but I think the biggest reason I took this up, made this movie, was because as artists, so many of us have talent, and we have something to say and a gift to share with the world. But we most of the time need the permission of others in order to do that. Through financing, through press, through reviews, through a whole obstacle course of gatekeepers who basically all have to point to an unknown and say, “Yes, you are worthy.” And that’s bullshit. And that’s what happened with Jobriath. He was lucky enough to get the breaks he needed to make that music and have it be released, but he was deemed unworthy by a few different groups of people who judged him on his sexuality and his outrageousness and what was seen as the unmarketability of his music, and they were so nasty and so awful that it ruined him.
He was ahead of his time, and I truly am grateful I was able to help him reach a wider audience and be rediscovered. I actually can’t quite believe how much more aware of him people have become of him over the past few years, and I can’t take all the credit — I can’t really take any of the credit, I merely told the story, he lived the life — but I’m happy that I could contribute to the fact that he will never be forgotten now.
TZR: Are there any advantages to being a filmmaker today that didn’t exist during a time like the 1970s, even though that era is known as one that was very friendly to directors?
KT: Ooh, good — and tough — question. And I have a feeling I’ll be blasted for this, but I think this is a horrible time to be a filmmaker. People think there’s so much freedom with the advent of the internet and HD video, and hey, that guy shot a movie on an iPhone — and rented several thousands of dollars of equipment to make it look like it wasn’t shot on an iPhone — and I can put my film up online and everyone can see it. Guess what? No one’s watching it. They’re watching douchebros, cats and unboxing videos on YouTube. More people than ever are making movies that nobody gives a shit about or even sees. And I recognize that this particular era made it possible for me to make Jobriath A.D., but this era also made it that much more difficult to be seen.
I feel it’s boiled down to this- If you give people thousands of choices, it’s actually not going to make them want to try everything. It’s going to make them browse a list of everything, then curl into a ball of indecision and watch Wedding Crashers for the 15th time. Because choosing is hard and it’ll always be there at the tip of the finger, so why make a decision now?
You can wax nostalgic all you like about the ’70s, and I can at length, but I definitely feel filmmakers had more chances to fail back then. And by that I mean it wasn’t life or death if your first effort or even second effort didn’t hit. If you had talent, if you had promise and something to say, it was nurtured.
Not that it wasn’t cutthroat. The film business has always been cutthroat, but back then there were just as many mensches as there were assholes. And maybe that’s because there was more perceived value in people, in talent. But you also had people who had lived, had real life experience and who had done a myriad of other things before coming to film and telling these stories, and you could sense that life experience, that knowledge, in their work.
Today, filmmakers are by and large farmed like veal. They get all their life experience from other movies and then just regurgitate those experiences and are encouraged to do so. That’s why there are very few really great films any more, and why mediocrity is so highly praised. But you really don’t want me to veer off down that road.
I also feel like I need to mention that as we’re conducting this interview, I’m visiting my family and my stepfather has the movie Anaconda on in the living room, so I’m listening to Jon Voight of Midnight Cowboy, Coming Home and Runaway Train putting on a really thick Cheech Marin accent and hunting an animatronic snake, so maybe that tells you everything I’m trying to say much more eloquently.
TZR: What are you working on now?
KT: I have two new projects I am in current states of work on. The first is a documentary miniseries that takes a look at how the AIDS crisis came in and completely decimated and altered the landscape of theater. It’s quite terrifying and upsetting when you take a step back and look at just how many creative theater professionals were taken from us by AIDS, but also how the disease killed culture and art and a large swath of those who appreciated it and called for it. Artists and audiences, all gone. And not only them but think of how the future generations of artists have been altered. They lost their inspiration, their mentors.
I took this on because I wanted to help preserve the work of these artists lost to AIDS. Theater being such an ephemeral medium, when it’s done, it’s largely gone forever. A performance, a dance move, a beautiful pool of light to help accentuate a dramatic monologue, whatever inspires you, it’s in the moment and then gone. And I want to create, not a memorial of these people and their work, but a tool to inspire. It’s just like with Jobriath. I didn’t set out to eulogize him, and I hope I didn’t. I wanted to make him come alive again. And that’s what I want to do with this generation of talented artists who we lost to a stupid fucking disease. I hope people will watch this and it will make them want to go out and create and ask questions and learn history and learn how not to repeat it. That’s not too much to ask, right?
The other film I’m doing is a total 180. I recently optioned a fantastic novel called Black Dogs by a wonderful writer named Jason Buhrmester. It’s about the 1973 Led Zeppelin box office heist. The crime really happened but was never solved, and what Jason did was weave a totally fictional story around the heist and how it might have happened. I fell in love with the book when I first read it and I stalked it for a few years before it came available again so I jumped on it. Jason and I collaborated on the script and I’ll be directing and we’re in the midst of casting right now for either a late fall or early spring shoot depending on availability. It’s a great heist story and we’ve really worked it to have all those great heist elements, but it’s very much got a ’70s feel, especially with the characters and their relationships to each other. And who doesn’t want to jump back into Led Zeppelin world? I’m thinking about going full tilt Daniel Day Lewis on set and pretending we’re all actually in 1973.
TZR: Are there any movie genres you’d like to work in that might surprise people?
KT: Two of my favorite directors are Alan Parker and Howard Hawks, not only because they’re both terrific directors, but I absolutely love how they jumped from genre to genre. Hawks did everything from the original Scarface to Bringing Up Baby to Red River and The Thing. And Alan Parker hit drama, musicals, horror, war. The man directed Shoot the Moon and Pink Floyd: The Wall in one year. So I would be up to try anything that challenged me and intrigued me. Anything but a Marvel or DC Universe film. However, I don’t think i’m in any danger of being offered one in this lifetime.