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Talking to Documentarian Chris Moukarbel

Pissing Off Oliver Stone, Shadowing Lady Gaga and Exalting Internet Folk Heroes—Talking to Filmmaker Chris Moukarbel

A couple of slightly psychedelic billboards mirror each other on one of the busier stretches of L.A.’s famous Sunset Boulevard. Together they spell G-A-G-A, forming a giant two-part advertisement for director Chris Moukarbel’s new film, Five Foot Two, which documents Gaga’s experiences writing her album Joanne as well as preparing for her Super Bowl performance last February. In all, Moukarbel trailed Gaga for eight months, shooting her as informally as possible in order to best capture the reality of her everyday life and recording hundreds of hours of footage in the process. The film premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival and on Netflix last month and earned high praise, especially for its representation of Gaga candidly dealing with chronic pain while seeing to the everyday tasks of an international pop star and actress.

In this way, Five Foot Two echoes what Moukarbel accomplished in the first movie I saw of his, Me @ The Zoo, which profiled internet vlogger Chris Crocker (of “Leave Britney Alone” fame) by chronicling his journey as an early, controversial YouTube star and spending time with him at his small-town Tennessee home. I was obsessed with Me @ The Zoo when I first saw it in 2013 because of the way it captured the user-generated internet culture that shaped me, indicating an understanding of digital media that’s still rarely represented well in mainstream pop culture.

I met Moukarbel shortly after watching Me @ The Zoo and have paid attention to his career ever since — even working as a contributing researcher on his HBO docu-series Sex on //, a reboot of the cable network’s notorious series Real Sex that explored love and sex in the information age. I recently caught up with him to talk Lady Gaga, internet fame and how his student film at Yale annoyed Americana director Oliver Stone.

What’s your approach to getting a new documentary subject to trust you?
I just watch and listen. I’ve realized that when I’m documenting living people, I just need to go with the flow.

As someone so known for her personas and performance art, were you ever concerned about the sort of authenticity Lady Gaga would bring to this kind of project?
She’s always authentically herself — much more than people sometimes realize. The fact that she’s always played with themes of performing identity makes her more authentic to me. It’s more true when it’s examined rather than the bullshit “real” personas of so many traditionally male rock stars. The Rolling Stones and The Beatles all had highly constructed and contrived public identities, and yet, no one would ever question their authenticity.

Her music videos have always been very cinematic. Do you have a favorite?
I’ve always been a real fan of her videos. She always had so many layers of meaning and hidden symbolism in them, which is the best thing ever for fans. Not in an illuminati conspiracy theory sort of way either. Just really taking the time to create a complete world that could be unpacked by super fans who wanted to put in the work. That’s what I want from my rock stars.

Do you see your body of work having any through lines? What sort of themes or subjects are you continuously drawn to?
I’ve always been drawn to cult of personality. People who transcend their circumstances through force of their of personality. I’m interested in subjects who seem already fixed in the public eye. I like finding the story behind the story.

It was just the 10th anniversary of Chris Crocker’s famous “Leave Britney Alone” video. Me @ The Zoo profiles Crocker after his rise to internet fame. How did your relationship with him begin?
At the time, I was making a film about the history of reality TV performance — how and when people started to shift from acting as characters to performing as themselves and the ways that people were monetizing that performance. I wanted to interview Crocker to be the end of that film. After we met and I got to know his real story, however, I scrapped the original film I’d been working on for a year and recreated it around Crocker and the rise of internet celebrity.

Is there anything about Five Foot Two that reminds you of Me @ The Zoo?There’s definitely overlap between them, though I’d say they’re formally very different. Chris Crocker and Gaga resemble each other in their meteoric ascent. Obviously on a different scale, but I think when you’re in the middle of a media firestorm, the scale is relative to your experience. They were both definitely burnished in fame.

Why did you name the Chris Crocker project Me @ The Zoo?
Me @ The Zoo was the name of the first video ever posted on YouTube by its young founders. It’s a video of a YouTube founder, Jawed Karim, standing in front of a cage and making a dick joke about the size of an elephant’s trunk. It just seemed so perfect in getting at Crocker’s story and how he was somewhat trapped online.

What’s the story behind your rendition of World Trade Center? When and how did you make it? What was controversial about it? Why did Paramount sue?
As part of my grad school thesis in art, I got ahold of a bootleg script for Oliver Stone’s World Trade Center movie that he was making. I decided to preempt the release of it by shooting and releasing my own adaption of their script. I hired student actors and built sets in my studio, shooting only the scenes of the two main characters who were trapped under rubble in a collapsed elevator shaft.

I released my short film on YouTube — it was a brand new platform at this time — and it went viral. My hope was to make contact with Paramount in some way. Maybe they would sue me! Anyway, they did sue me in a widely publicized case. I woke up one morning a month after moving to New York City to my phone and email blowing up. The story quickly spread to every major news outlet around the world. These were the early days of social media, and there really wasn’t as much online news to talk about.

Oliver Stone was personally upset as he felt like it was an attack on his film making. Really it was just a commentary on the power of Hollywood to historicize and politicize a national tragedy. In those days, they were in the position to affect public perception and policy through the power of storytelling. Suddenly, I felt like the internet was ceding some of that power, and I was excited by that moment.

Is that film still available for viewing anywhere?
The case eventually settled with me no longer being able to screen or distribute the film, but at that point, the piece was already pretty much done.