If you’ve lived in the US or UK in the last twenty years, you’ve undoubtedly watched a World of Wonder show—most likely more than one, as their shows, besides being highly addictive and incredibly entertaining, are typically a window into a previously undocumented world, one formerly dismissed as marginal and unsuitable for TV.
So it seems fitting that the 2014 IDA Pioneer Award is going to the powerhouse duo of Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato, founders of the highly prolific World of Wonder production company. In the past two decades they have produced over 220 original series on 41 different networks. This amounts to over 1,600 episodes, countless hours of nonfiction television, in addition to numerous one-off specials and theatrical documentaries.
Bailey and Barbato met at graduate school at NYU in the 1980s, and formed a rock band called The Fabulous Pop Tarts. World of Wonder was established to manage the pop group as well as their friend RuPaul. At the time, cable TV was nascent and public access shows—then a legal requirement—were of the bizarre and peculiar variety. Bailey and Barbato soon became aficionados. When the group toured in the UK, they realized that British viewers, with their limited four TV channels, were missing out. Manhattan Cable was born. Its host, Laurie Pike, described it as “a non-stop cavalcade of characters and catchphrases.” This could easily apply to World of Wonder’s extensive body of work throughout the years. From a clip show in the UK—the precursor to viral videos on YouTube—they built a nonfiction empire.
Documentary interviewed Barbato and Bailey at their offices on Hollywood Boulevard.
Documentary: You met at NYU Film School; were you originally interested in narrative filmmaking rather than documentary?
Randy Barbato: Yes, narrative was the thing we wanted to do. We went to NYU and were attracted to doing narrative, but were busy documenting what was going on, because we were living in the East Village in the ’80s. So we were kind of studying one thing and doing something else, although for us it’s kind of all the same thing—it’s all storytelling.
While we were at NYU we probably spent as much time at the Pyramid in happy hour as we did in classes.
Fenton Bailey: There was this sort of drag and arts scene the likes of which we had never seen before. And it was just happening around you.
In your book The World According to Wonder, you write that it was Nelson Sullivan, who was documenting the world around him, with a camera constantly on his shoulder, who inspired you to become TV producers.
FB: He kind of did because he was so dedicated and he was just doing it. He spent years doing this project and he would hold the camera at arm’s length, and they weren’t little GoPros then; they were heavy cameras.
And so it was the rather sedate choice of documentaries in the UK, combined with the eccentric public access shows in New York, that gave you the idea of Manhattan Cable.
RB: The weird thing about that is that when we were in Manhattan we would watch public access the whole time. Public access is what YouTube is right now. We were obsessed with that from day one, and were inspired by people who were making their own thing. We wanted to make our own thing. It really was what inspired everything that we do: Nelson, public access and drag queens.
You have celebrated the underbelly of gay culture with Drag Race and Drag U.
FB: There was never something extraordinary about it; it was just innocent in that we thought, there’s so much talent here. Drag is something that is perfect [for the medium]; drag belongs on TV.
We just did an exhibition of Matthu Andersen’s self-portraits, and he has said that drag in a way is an extension of social media, in the sense that people brand themselves, and you can be whoever you want to be, and you create a look and an outfit and a persona for yourself—whether or not you are putting on an outrageous wig or editing the frame of the picture you are in, it’s all about presenting yourself as an extension of who you are, rather than just who you are. So everybody is really self-producing themselves.
With Party Monster, you foreshadowed the whole phenomenon of branding and monetizing fame. The Club Kids were years before reality TV and the Kardashian phenomenon. They used the camera as validation, transforming nonentities into celebrities.
FB: The particular genius of Michael Alig and the Club Kids was that they were foreshadowing this social media era, where everyone is their own celebrity and their own brand, and it’s all about selfies. They were so ahead of it. In many ways I think that’s what the New York downtown club scene was like. We were watching these Nelson [Sullivan] tapes yesterday, and it was like Facebook, the real-life version. Everyone would put on their outfit and go to the club, and talk to each other and banter with each other and do status updates back and forth! And take pictures!
The people you have documented—Tammy Faye Bakker, Monica Lewinski, Heidi Fleiss, RuPaul, Chaz Bono, Michael Alig, Sarah Ferguson, to name a few—seem to have been ridiculed or scorned at one point in their lives. What else do they have in common?
FB: The commonality is that, whether they were born that way, or circumstances forced them to be that way, they are all people who lived their life out loud. This is, I suppose, using the metaphor of the closet in a broad general sense: rather than hiding in themselves away—these people aren’t gay necessarily—they live their life out loud without apology, without editing themselves, without trying to constrain themselves into what society expects or what society considers normal or acceptable.
You have written that “the most overexposed people are the least revealed.” And so you made Monica in Black & White, which was released in 2002—when she was still considered a pariah, way before she was rehabilitated and wrote for Vanity Fair, or talked about being “patient zero” in Internet bullying. Yet it was not received warmly.
RB: Most critics ignored or dismissed it. It was a combination of factors: September 11 definitely cast a major shadow on it. It was easy to trivialize. I don’t think people were even interested in it, in the moment that it came out.
You’ve said she’s lived a life unforgiven, in a country known for giving people second chances.
FB: Tammy Faye lived her life out loud—she was born that way—but Monica was forced to; she did not choose to. By her own power, her own resilience, she has owned it and moved through it. I don’t think anyone has given her a second chance. I think she’s created it for herself.
With Tammy Faye, it was 12 years after the scandal when we did the documentary. Maybe that should be a rule: only after 12 years out in the wilderness…
Speaking of that, The Eyes of Tammy Faye was the documentary that really catapulted you. It was at Sundance and received lots of praise. And yet you are very modest about the making of it, writing, “All we did was push record and remember to take the lens cap off”
RB: There isn’t that much more to it. And we paid attention. We listened. Here was someone who was totally captivating, had an amazing story, but most people were just propagating their own point of view and reading some headlines and telling their own story. But we actually let her tell her own story, listened to what she was saying, followed the leads and clues. And in the process of that, there were aspects of that story and scandal that a lot of light had not been shed on. And the only reason we shed light on that was because we let her tell her story. Listening is the only other real important element.
You brought the concept of being gay into Middle-American homes with The Real Ellen Story and shows such as The Fabulous Beekman Boys. You have also written that “Gay is a metaphor for the human condition; there’s no such thing as normal.”
FB: It is that idea of being who you are, and what Tammy Faye said: “We all come from the same dirt, and God doesn’t make any junk.” I’ve got to put that on my gravestone or needle-point it on a pillow, because it’s so true.
World of Wonder is unique in that you have produced a variety of different formats—feature docs, one-offs, series, reality shows—for a number of different platforms—theatrical, TV, Internet. How do you decide how you would like to explore a particular subject?
FB: We think the story tells you how to tell it. So the story will tell you if this should be a series, or a one-off. A filmmaker, Renée [Moncada], came to us to make a film about Big Freedia. And we saw the material and we said, “Oh my gosh, this is a TV series!” And long story short—because it did take a few years—it now is. And it’s the number one rated show on Fuse in their network’s history.
RB: It’s a reality show, but it’s much more a docuseries.
Has your adaptability to all platforms and formats been the key to your longevity?
RB: I think Sheila Nevins [at HBO] is responsible for our longevity, because she was truly the first person we ever did a doc for, here in the US, as she had found something that we did in the UK. We’ve worked with her for a very long time. She was a role model in terms of adapting.
FB: Our longevity is related to her support, for sure. She would make very high-class documentaries, and then we also did a series with her called Shock Video, which was about sex on TV around the world.
Reality TV is frequently disparaged in the documentary community.
RB: There are a lot of documentarians who are very snooty about reality television. And I feel like, just like documentaries, there are a lot of stinky reality shows. There are a lot of poorly made documentaries as well. I think we’re very screen agnostic, and we jump from genre to genre. At the end of the day for us, it’s all about the story and the characters. There are going to be documentary filmmakers who will never appreciate what we do, and that’s fine. It’s not like we’re snobs about reality TV ourselves, but we do have standards in terms of what and how we produce reality television.
FB: The similarities are greater than the differences. It is storytelling. And whether you’re a documentary filmmaker or working on a reality series, you still have to tell a story. And to tell a story effectively, you have to find a way to keep an audience interested—whether it’s for the big screen, theatrically, or for the small TV screen. And if you can’t engage an audience, and if you’re not interested in engaging an audience, what are you doing telling a story?
RB: I think people who watch documentaries and reality, what they’re looking for is the story and for moments of authenticity. And I think the best docs and the best reality shows deliver on moments of authenticity. I think people can smell fake stuff. And sometimes the fake stuff works, but it’s on a meta level.
FB: I think the words are often so misleading, like “reality.” Because any kind of story is a construct, whether it’s a documentary or a reality show. The moment you’re telling a story, you’re making something. And at some point you’ve got to edit; you’ve got to cut away.
RB: When a camera comes on me, I’m not going to behave the way I’m behaving when there isn’t a camera.
After a successful 23-year career, do you still get “No’s”?
RB: We get “No’s” all the time. In our entire career, we’ve only pitched one thing that was greenlit in the room. And the next day, that executive called and changed their mind. So we’ve never had a “Yes” immediately.
How do you keep going when you get the “No”? Is it because you know from experience that someone will say “Yes”?
[Barbato points to a painting by Tray Speegle in the World of Wonder conference room with the word “YES” emblazoned on it.]
RB: That is to remind people at World of Wonder, because the “No’s” still happen—even after all this time, probably as much as before, if not more. Sometimes we get bummed about it, but we are so used to it. We don’t let go of good ideas, many of our ideas, even when we finally get to make them, are not really appreciated when we make them, but people then back-reference them five or ten years later.
RB: Every now and then, when we’re brainstorming ideas, Fenton and I will go back to [previous ones]...We have a drawer full of ideas from ten years ago. Most of the stuff we’ve gotten greenlit or have gotten funding for has been stuff that has been developed over five, six, seven years. People need to catch up with it, I think.
FB: You just have to keep going. It isn’t like you immediately get “Yes.”
RB: For example, there’s this guy in New York who takes affluent people and makes them homeless, and it’s basically an urban survival camp that you pay to get rid of all your things, and go live in the streets of New York. And you spend a week learning how to be homeless. He teaches you how to beg.
FB: He teaches you how to find cardboard to sleep on, how to find a dry place…
RB: We shot tape on it maybe ten years ago, and everybody was appalled and said it was tasteless. But the tape is really kind of moving, because you see these incredibly successful people—who run advertising agencies, are magazine editors—and yet have all these issues, actually change after 24 hours on the streets. And that was way before Naked and Afraid was on TV.
RB: And I don’t share that story with any kind of bitterness or resentment. It’s just that we understand that that’s the process, and it doesn’t stop us from thinking of the kind of ideas that we think of, because we have no choice. It’s what we’re interested in doing, and what motivates us and where our passion is.
You’ve had to self-finance lots of projects before they were acquired.
RB: With Becoming Chaz, that was something that we thought we sold, and the week before the first week of filming, they backed out. So Fenton and I self-funded it, and started shooting. We shot for about six months, and then cut a 20-minute tape and brought it out, and sold it while we were making it. It was a “Yes” that turned to a “No,” and then eventually we got another “Yes.”
RB: We’re self-funding three docs right now, and increasingly we’re doing more of that—funding to a certain point because everyone wants to see a sample of it.
FB: Even when we did the Brittney film, we had to do that. You’d think doing a documentary on Brittney Spears putting on this massive Vegas show [that would be unnecessary], but we had to film quite a bit of that too.
So what advice would you give to someone who is starting in the business? Take a camera and start filming?
FB: I think people need to get a taste of who and what you have access to, and how you might be able to tell a story. Even if it’s a five-minute piece, I really think it makes all the difference. The buyers are so spoiled now.
RB: It’s very hard so sell something on paper.
The other advice, particularly to young filmmakers, is that people need to figure out how to do stuff cheaply. The old paradigm has shifted. We’re not in the day of million-dollar budgets—that never existed for us. You can make a documentary for not a lot of money, and people need to use technology and resources and do things themselves, rather than wait for some big check…because they never come. [laughs]
What are you working on now?
RB: We’re doing the follow-up to Party Monster the documentary, because Michael [Alig] is now out of prison, so we’re following him. It’s really a film about his relationship with James St. James. He’s been prison for 17 years. He has served his full sentence for manslaughter, and he’s now 49 years old.
After you did 101 Rent Boys you wrote, “In doing a film about hustlers we ended up learning about ourselves.” What have you learned from your various subjects?
FB: You’ve got to hustle. You’ve got to sell yourself…Everything we know we’ve learned from our subjects, really. One of the things we’ve learned is resilience, and I still feel that’s a work in progress, because I could not endure the kind of hostility and outright mockery that Monica Lewinsky has. Or if I did survive it, I would just be bitter, and angry and nasty. I think whether it’s Monica or Tammy Faye, they are both incredible examples of grace under pressure.
Ultimately, Simon Doonan put it best, calling World of Wonder “a rank, twisted Bauhaus of perverse creativity, dedicated to celebrating everything which is squalid and marginal…I wish them continued success in their quest to spotlight the beauty that resides in the gutter.”