One of the most stirringly batshit films we've seen this year, Heidi Fleiss: The Would-Be Madam of Crystal debuts on HBO tonight after a successful premiere run at last month's Los Angeles Film Festival. We've tipped you previously to some of the harrowing dynamics herein: Ex-madam Heidi Fleiss nabs a land deal in Pahrump, Nev., where she'll attempt to make her comeback with an all-male brothel for women. Civic outrage, meth relapses and an inheritance of tropical birds conspire to scuttle her dream. Hilarity decidedly does not ensue.
For documentary/reality-TV warhorses Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato, though, Fleiss was among their most slippery, troubling, compelling and entertaining subjects to date — at until she fled the project (HBO docs boss Sheila Nevins eventually caught up with her for a sober sit-down threading the Nevada footage). Defamer recently checked in with the duo at World of Wonder HQ in Hollywood, where the recovery seems to be coming along well under the circumstances (and after the jump).
D: Discussing this film after an LAFF screening in June, it seemed as though you two had been through hell with it. What in particular were the struggles you faced as filmmakers?
RB: We were filming at a time when Heidi was struggling with addiction, and we're not really into making "addiction" films. It's not really our oeuvre.
FB: No film is easy to make, but this one was especially difficult to make. As a documentary filmmaker, you're kind of a sponge. You soak up whatever the person is going through, and Heidi was going through lots of nasty stuff. It wasn't a very pleasant experience.
RB: You'd sort of get contact highs and contact lows.
D: You also noted at the fest how your original idea was "up with prostitution" — that you could cover Heidi's Stud Farm as a personal and social success. How did you adapt as that idea spiraled out of control with your subject?
FB: When we set out to make the film, we were all excited planning this final sequence, which would be the opening of this brothel for women — with a great musical number and ribbon-cutting and champagne and all the rest of it. But, you know, the story you plan to tell isn't necessarily the story you end up telling. And it turned out that the brothel was the macguffin. And that's OK. It wasn't so much that it "spiraled out of control."
RB: None of our films end up being what we intended them to be. It's just that this one was really different — that combined with the process being as painful as it was. But we usually like what we shoot. That's why we do it.
D: You've acknowledged that Heidi shouldn't have had a camera in front of her after a certain point in this story. So why did she?
RB: When you watch the film she wasn't that far gone. We never had the camera rolling at times when we shouldn't have. The times we shouldn't have, we didn't, or we weren't there. Us saying that we were making the film at a time when there shouldn't have been cameras there has more to do with that period of her life.
FB: At first we were like, "Is this the best thing to be doing?" But then what we locked onto - or found accidentally, however you want to put it — was this other story. And I think what the film is is this third story: Heidi Fleiss, a self-professed business woman who has commodified love and who has no time for love herself, discovers love. She falls in love with these birds. She wasn't expecting it to happen to her, and we weren't expecting it to happen to her. And I think putting that on camera is a fit story to record.
RB: And it does illustrate a very complicated and smart and interesting and funny woman.
D: And in the end she walked out anyway, right?
FB: In the end, before we were done, she stopped cooperating with us, yes. We could have put the whole film together with what we had. It was just that it was rather bleak and sort of unrelieved. The great thing about the interview where she's eight days sober is that it provides this other perspective and brings into the mix this whole other aspect of Heidi that the addict obscures. It was good to have this other aspect; you could see her looking glamorous. I don't think addiction is ever the full story of someone.
D: So are you guys going to have fun with your next project?
FB: Fun fun fun! Our next is Pam: Girl on the Loose. That debuts on E! next month.
RB: Fun fun fun!
FB: Tori and Dean, Million Dollar Listing —
RB: It's all fun all the time from here on in.
[Photo credits: Top, HBO; directors Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato, Getty Images]