Many who haven’t seen Madonna: Truth or Dare can still claim to know it in a cultural sense — probably thanks to Saturday Night Live, if anything else. The film’s recently been restored on the occasion of its 25th anniversary, and will begin a new run at Metrograph today. This also marks an occasion to speak with the film’s director, Alek Keshishian, who’s had a closer access to Madonna than just about any filmmaker, working or otherwise, and who proved remarkably open about the story behind his documentary classic.
But how else could one be? Truth or Dare still surprises in how much it revealed, even if we’re only talking about the star’s distaste for Kevin Costner and even (or especially) if its all-access quality means a bit less in light of today’s social-media-obsessive stars — one of many areas we managed to cover in our time. And, yes, some questions about David Fincher, with whom he’s currently working, came up; perhaps the lack of total confirmation will make Keshishian’s hints all the more enticing.
The Film Stage: I’m very interested in the restoration process, and Truth or Dare, with its grainy black-and-white photography, seems like a case that has to be handled rather carefully. Can you walk us through it a bit?
Alek Keshishian: I was told there was a restored print. That’s how not-in-the-loop I am. I do know one thing, which is that there’s a real question mark as to where all the prints of the movie are. I know UCLA has archived at least one really good print, and they were trying — as were Madonna’s people — to locate other prints, or even a negative. I don’t really know the details of that; you would have to ask, maybe, UCLA.
Have you at least seen the restoration, to get a sense of what’s coming?
I saw the UCLA print — if it’s the same print, which I can’t be sure of. Last year, Outfest did a special screening, and it was a pretty good print. I mean, you know, it was scratchy in areas — the black-and-white especially — but it was working in its full-screen glory. It looked pretty good, considering it’s [Laughs] 25 years old.
You’ve said that people will approach you about other films you’ve made; you’re not necessarily chained to this one movie. But people still want to talk about Truth or Dare and, of course, see it. This might be a bad question to ask in an interview, and yet: do you ever get tired of talking about the movie? Do you worry you’ve nothing left to say after a quarter-century.
You know, that’s a great question, and I’ll be honest with you: initially, yes. I was tired of talking about it, and especially when the most pertinent questions seem to be, “What’s she really like?” [Laughs] And I’d be like, “Well, you just watched the movie.” But, you know, it’s nice now, when I heard about it — so, no, it doesn’t get old, because it’s not all the time. But there was a period where people in their late-20s would go, “Oh, my God — you made one of my all-time-favorite movies.” I’d be like, “What, Truth or Dare?” And they’d be like, “No. With Honors.” And you’re like, “Huh?! Oh, they were at that critical age of fifteen or sixteen when that movie came out.” So that was a pretty surprising moment. But Truth or Dare, I think, was groundbreaking on some level, to be allowed to see those aspects of a celebrity — especially long before the Instagram period where, now, pop stars… it was unique.
There is something about the movie where, if it was released today, it could actually run the risk of feeling banal, at least if Madonna was a social-media-obsessive artist who broadcast every piece of her life. The filmmaking is very fine, but the level of access wouldn’t feel as unique. So what do you think is the enduring fascination with this film?
I think, instinctively… I mean, that’s an interesting point you’re making: that, right now, it could be banal. I will say one thing: I’ve been asked, many times, to shoot for other celebrities, but none of them would interest. Believe it or not, I don’t think I’d get that access with Madonna today. They’ve all made documentaries. There’s an aspect to Truth or Dare, and I can’t think of a documentary on a music super star that’s been quite like that. I think Katy Perry’s tried to do that a bit. You know, I can’t speak for other people. I certainly didn’t make a movie that would, you know… I was making this movie where I thought we would be lucky to see something.
Metrograph’s site calls your film “crucial film for generations of the LGBTQ community,” which is no small thing. Have you seen a label that you’re particularly proud of?
You know what I’m proud of? Well, not “proud of,” but “grateful for,” is when people come up to me and tell me it helped them receive acceptance for being gay. I think, for a lot of them, it was their first taste of acceptance. And that, I’m grateful for. It’s always gratifying to hear that something you’ve worked on has touched somebody that deeply and that fundamentally. I think all artists dream of making an impact in somebody’s life. Sometimes the movie comes out and it might only touch one person in the universe that powerfully, but that’s our goal, as artists: we’re doing it on stage, on film, as writers — whatever. We’re trying to reach people to show the humanity, somehow, between all of us. In that respect, it’s been very gratifying to hear that it helped. I consider it an honor, in other words.
Oh, sure. And it’s funny, because I’ve been telling people who, like me, weren’t even alive when this movie came out —
How old are you?
They’re probably like, “Who the fuck is Madonna?” [Laughs]
Yet many friends said, “Oh, I love that movie,” and some said they think it’s one of the better music documentaries.
It was, at the time, definitely a cultural phenomenon — certainly for a documentary. It was a port in the storm, in a sense, where her fame was at pinnacle, and then there was this movie that had been made, which was unprecedented in its access. It was just before Rattle and Hum, and it had not been successful at all — the problem being that U2 had censored all the interesting stuff. At its moment, it became, like, part of the zeitgeist, almost. I certainly didn’t expect that. And then you don’t know whether it will endure. People will sometimes say, “Oh, do you think anyone remembers it?” So much of what we do is disposable, unfortunately. So that aspect of it enduring for 25 years and being so talked about…
I wonder if, over time, you’ve become more picky with the film: wondering what could or should be cut, what you wish was kept in, etc.
Oh, probably. Literally, in 25 years, I watched the movie for the first time last year at Outfits in L.A., and, overall, I was more surprised that an audience — made up of people certainly much younger than me — were still laughing at the same places. But I’m sure if I were to watch it with a careful eye, I would make certain cuts or whatever, but that’s the thing with film: it’s a moment in time that’s caught forever.
Is it true that David Fincher was almost going to direct Truth or Dare?
Well, what happened was, Madonna was working with David on “Express Yourself” and “Vogue,” so they talked about the possibility of him shooting a documentary. But then they had a falling-out-of-sorts, so I met Madonna because, believe it or not, she saw something I did, and that’s how she first got wind of me. Unbeknownst to me, she asked her agents to see anything I did. I was 21, fresh off the boat in Hollywood, and, many years later, when I was at her house, I found on a bookshelf each of the music videos I’d done. Individually. Not a show reel. Individual ones, because she’d been keeping an eye.
So, initially, I think she contacted me for something very different. A lot of my videos had dance, and I think she liked the way they were shot and edited. She said, “So, I’m doing this HBO special. I’m wondering if you might be interested in directing it.” I said, “Wow, sure.” She said, “I’d maybe like some black-and-white stuff to put between the numbers. One place I’m going is Japan — in four days. I’m wondering if you’re free to go to Japan and shoot a little of that black-and-white stuff.”
So it began like that. It was never meant to be a film documentary. It was only after I shot what I shot in Japan. Specifically, I shot hours and hours of interviews with the dancers in bed, because I could be sure that they’d show up in the morning. So I had, maybe, ten hours of film. The producer I had with me in Japan had done Rattle and Hum with U2, and he said to me, at the end of day three, “You’ve gotten more interesting stuff in three days than we got in all of Rattle and Hum.” That’s how it came about: it was kind of an evolution that happened organically.
It’d be remiss of me not to ask, even briefly, about the status of some projects you might be working on with Fincher. If you can’t talk about them, or if there isn’t even anything to say, I completely understand.
Well, with David, one of the things you learn is not to say anything until it’s actually happening. But we’ve been working on a TV idea, and that’s all I can say, and also a very experimental film idea. And, you know, he remains a very close friend and someone who I just respect tremendously, so we’re working on this stuff. As you know, with David, everything has to align perfectly — and, until it does, he doesn’t want anyone to talk about it. So I’m going to respect that.
Madonna: Truth or Dare is now playing at Metrograph.