The work of Robert Mapplethorpe is often celebrated (and, in some quarters, condemned) for its immediacy; working with Polaroids as well as black-and-white film, the Queens-born photographer sought to document the after-hours sexual revolution happening in Manhattan in the 1970s. What he captured with his camera was alternately shocking and liberating, emotions that spoke directly to the times he lived in. Mapplethorpe’s colorful life and career — which ended all too soon in 1989 when he died of AIDS — was tailor-made for the big screen, but a cinematic treatment proved a less-immediate proposition. Just ask actress turned producer Eliza Dushku and her brother/producing partner, Nate; in 2002, they caught wind of a script that was circulating about the late artist. Four years later, that script was optioned by director Ondi Timoner and in 2009 she and the Duskhus joined forces to secure the rights to tell Mapplethorpe’s story from the Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation. All told, it proved to be a 16-year pursuit of one artistic dream.
At least the siblings’ story had a happy ending. Last week, Mapplethorpe premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival, where it was named runner-up for the Audience Award for best narrative. And Tribeca has personal resonance for Eliza, as it was co-founded by Robert De Niro, with whom she co-starred in 1993’s This Boy’s Life and 2002’s City by the Sea. “I remember talking to him about the festival [in 2002] and about his father, who was also an artist,” Eliza tells Yahoo Entertainment. “We’re so proud of how far we’ve come and that we’re here.” And it’s a journey that had a fair amount of false starts over the years. “It crumbled a number of times,” the Bring It On star admits. “I remember hearing Salma Hayek talking about how it took 12 or 14 years to make Frida [a 2002 biopic about the Mexican artist, Frida Kahlo] and I thought, ‘That’s crazy!’ Now, here we are all these years later, and I’m like, ‘I get it.’” (Watch our interview above.)
As the producers tell it, it took recruiting a doctor to ultimately make Mapplethorpe a reality. Specifically the Eleventh Doctor, Matt Smith, who shot to fame within the same Comic-Con circles that Buffy the Vampire Slayer veteran Dushku moves in via his popular three-year stint on Doctor Who. Since departing that series in 2013, Smith has made a point of pursuing roles that are light-years removed from his time- and space-traveling alter ego — roles like a renowned photographer who was often referred to as “the shy pornographer” due to his photographic and personal interests. Smith was so intent on playing Mapplethorpe that, without any prompting, he recorded two audition tapes for the Dushkus. “He made one tape that he didn’t feel really brought it, so he made a second one and we saw that and were blown away immediately,” Eliza recalls. Adds Nate: “Once Matt Smith attached, people started gravitating towards the project. He’s perfect for the role, but he’s also making moves in his career.”
Smith continued to prove his dedication to the project by turning up for the first day of shooting nearly emaciated in order to portray Mapplethorpe in his final days. Over the whirlwind 19-day production schedule, he also bared his heart — and his body — for the camera, striving to capture both his subject’s peculiar genius, as well as his often harsh treatment of the people in his life. “It’s never easy being pretty much naked in front of an entire cast and crew,” Nate says of Smith’s nude scenes. “We had a closed set most of the days, so it made everyone be a little more at ease. And most of the nudity in this film is in Mapplethorpe’s photos; there’s a lot of skin in the movie, but it’s the photos that really take center stage.”
Behind the scenes, meanwhile, the Dushku siblings sought to assemble a diverse cast and crew that reflected New York’s own melting pot population. “After 28 years in the business, this was definitely the most female camera crew I’ve ever experienced,” Eliza points out. “And they were badasses, every single one of them.” And the duo hopes to continue making gender diversity a priority as they pursue other producing projects. “The point is that you don’t go the other way and say, ‘We’re only hiring a female camera crew,’” she says. “When you’re trying to make a shift or right an imbalance, you do sometimes have to err on the side of making a point. I think we found that balance here.”
It took 16 years for the Dushkus to take Mapplethorpe from an idea on the page to a feature film premiering at Tribeca. And they’ll have to wait a little bit longer for the movie to go into general release; at press time, the film doesn’t have a theatrical distributor. But you can contribute to the cause by donating to the film’s Indiegogo campaign, which is still raising postproduction funds and offering production mementos in return. “You can get Matt Smith’s leather pants,” Eliza teases. Those would be a fine addition to any TARDIS closet.
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