September 18, 2008

INTERVIEW - In a New Film by Sean Donnelly, Tiffany's Stalkers Imagine What "Could've Been"

In I Think We're Alone Now, two strangers share a common interest: they have both devoted huge portions of their life to stalking the '80s pop icon Tiffany. The trailer introduces Jeff Turner and Kelly McCormick as two lonely individuals whose tireless obsession has become an uncanny source of comfort in their lives. (If the trailer unsettles you, then hold onto your hats, because there's a lot more where that came from!)

The film screens this weekend at Fantastic Fest in Austin, TX, but you can view it in its entirety via the festival's website. In the meantime, I spoke with filmmaker Sean Donnelly today about obsession, a documentarian's responsibilities, and Turner and McCorkmick's reactions to his work. Oh, and about Tiffany herself, of course...


TB: I'd love to know a little about how all this started, though I'm sure you've answered that question a million times by now...

SD: Not a million, more like 30 times. But I've never told the whole story until now...

I was in Santa Cruz, California at my parent's house over Christmas break during my sophomore year at NYU's Film and Television program. I was walking down the street with an old friend, Jordy Cohen, and we just randomly met Jeff Turner on the street. He was a very charismatic and friendly guy, and we thought he'd be great for a short film we were working on at the time. Jeff was enthusiastic about being a part of it, and as we got to know him we were more and more fascinated by him. (As a side note, the film school style short we made was terrible and will hopefully never be seen again.)

We didn't learn about his history with Tiffany until our 4th or 5th time going to his house. When he showed us his radionics machine which he uses to communicate with Tiffany on a spiritual level from a distance, we knew that we had an interesting story on our hands. I shot new footage every time I came back to Santa Cruz over the next 5 or 6 years. I showed some of the roughly edited footage to a friend of mine at NYU, Phil Buccellato, and he was hooked. He ended up helping me shoot and edit the rest of the film.

[Name withheld] on a Tiffany fan site told us that she had encountered another person, Kelly McCormick, who was as obsessed with Tiffany as Jeff. She put me in touch with her, and Kelly was very excited to be a part of the film. Phil was the first one to meet Kelly, and took a 14 hour bus ride with her from Denver to Las Vegas on her way to see a Tiffany concert. We didn't really know how the two stories would fit together, or if we even needed Kelly's story at all. Eventually we realized that the two compliment each other very well. Jeff is a little bit lighter and makes more jokes, while Kelly's story is much more intense and emotional.

TB: Can you clarify for me the extent to which Tiffany herself has been involved with this film, or about any contact you've had with her while making it?

SD: When I first approached Tiffany in 2002 she was very friendly and more than happy to let me interview her. When I asked her questions about Jeff, however, she was no longer interested in talking to me. I interviewed her twice, but none of that footage made the final cut of the film. Ultimately the film isn't about Tiffany, so the footage didn't really make sense in the movie. Once the film was completed, I sent a copy to her agent. He told me he thought it was very well done and interesting, but that he didn't want to show it to Tiffany because it might scare her.

TB: Your subjects seem so disarmingly candid; how much time did you spend with them?

SD: The film was shot over 6 years so we got to know them very well. When we were in Denver with Kelly we stayed up late watching movies from her collection like Tron and The Girl Next Door. We spent a lot of time talking to her over meals, seeing action movies in the theater and hanging around Denver hot-spots with her. I even slept on her couch the first time I went out there. And I still keep in touch with Kelly and get emails from her weekly.

As far as Jeff goes, we spent even more time with him since he lives a few minutes from my parents house. At first I thought Jeff was a pretty quirky guy, but I definitely grew to like him a lot more over time. I hope watching the film has that same effect on people.

TB: Have Jeff and Kelly screened the film, and if so, can you tell me their reactions?

SD: I sent Kelly a DVD of the film and she watched it with her new girlfriend, Myra. This is from the email she wrote me after she saw it: "...If you like for me to be in any more of your films, please don't hesitate to let me know! ... Awesome work, Sean! I am very pleased!!!"

Jeff saw the movie for the first time at the Cinequest film festival in San Jose. He said "The film was much better than I expected". His Q+A from that screening is on youtube here.

TB: Documentarians who bring seriously offbeat or mentally unwell individuals into public view always wind up facing accusations of being exploitative -- the Maysles with Grey Gardens, for example. Did you feel a great deal of pressure in filming and editing this movie because of that?

SD: Definitely. That was our major concern when editing the film, and why it took us so long to finish it. There was a lot of footage that we cut because of those types of issues. I think in the end we made a very accurate and fair film about these people, and they would agree. Still though, we have gotten a few comments from people who say they think we exploited them. A friend of mine made a documentary about drug addicts at Sundance a few years ago, and she said she got many of the same types of comments, so maybe it is unavoidable.

TB: Our discomfort with these individuals and this subject matter is hard to pin down. I can't tell if it's because their obsessive nature is so familiar to all of us on some level, or because their perspectives seem so far-fetched and alien. Can you comment on this?

SD: I don't think the film has any agenda. The point of it is to introduce the world to these people, and let them walk away with their own conclusions. The people who say the film is hilarious say it because they would find the subjects hilarious in real life. The people who say the film is really dark would be terrified of the subjects in real life. Most people walk right by these people (and people like them) everyday, and ignore them. Hardly anyone ever takes the time to get to know and understand them. This movie forces the audience to hang out with these people for 70 minutes and listen to everything they have to say, and that causes great discomfort for some people.

TB: Do you believe that a culture of consumerism and advertising is partly responsible for fueling obsessive tendencies in certain susceptible people, and maybe even cultivates them in people who are less susceptible?

SD: I do. Both Jeff and Kelly are pop culture junkies. Jeff can tell you the year just about any movie came out between 1940 to now. He watches hours of movies and TV everyday, and stops by the store every week to read the tabloids. Kelly watches tons of movies, mostly big budget action movies. (She once told me, "No offense Sean, but I'm not a big fan of independent films.") Having access to this much personal information about people you don't know can make you feel a lot closer to them, especially when you don't have many strong relationships in your life.

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