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Shia LaBeouf on Fame: Celebrities are ‘Enslaved’

Last year, Shia LaBeouf famously announced on Twitter that he was retiring from public life, but he’ll be attending a Q&A on Thursday night at the Tribeca Film Festival. LaBeouf is the executive producer of “LoveTrue,” an experimental drama from director Alma Har’el (“Bombay Beach”) that merges fiction and documentary, with vignettes set in Alaska, Hawaii and New York. She spent 2½ years developing these narratives with her cast of non-actors, often using their own life experiences onscreen.

Har’el says she couldn’t have made the film with LaBeouf, whom she directed in a Sigur Ros musicvideo. When she told him about her idea for “LoveTrue,” he responded by slipping under her door a check that financed the entire movie. “I would send him clips,” Har’el says. “He was incredibly supportive.” Forty minutes of footage from “LoveTrue” will be shown at Tribeca as a work-in-progress screening.

LaBeouf agreed to respond via email to Variety‘s questions about the film, why he left the spotlight and his thoughts on fame.

To start, can you tell me how you got involved as an executive producer on “LoveTrue”? Did Alma pitch the story to you?

Alma explained the premise. I gave her the money.

How did you first meet Alma and why do you believe in her vision as a filmmaker?

I saw “Bombay Beach,” and I was floored. Standard fly-on-the-wall documentarians hide the process from an audience that is in the know, and from performers or subjects that can’t help but be aware of the camera, which, in turn, alters truth. That strategy is not more real or more truly true — it’s short-sighted and doesn’t account for the psychological shift it imposes. Putting a camera in someone’s face is akin to asking them not to think about chocolate cake. It’s impossible for people not to alter their self presentation.

Alma’s process, on the other hand, takes the s— of documentation into account. She’s not a fly-on-the-wall documentarian, she’s an elephant-in-the-room documentarian, which allows people/subjects/objects to take ownership in their self-presentation. They get to be in on their objectification. They are allowed to be both Tom Thumb & P.T. Barnum at the same time — presenter and presented. They get to own themselves. You could garner this from “Bombay Beach.”

So I wrote her a fan letter. She agreed to meet me. We realized 15 minutes in that we share sensibilities. She told me she was working on a video for Sigur Ros and explained the premise. It hit me. Two weeks later we were filming.

The experience of working with her was unlike anything I have known. She is less a documentarian than she is a therapist, working with her subjects, using psychodrama as a platform for healing and insight. Her method is less clinical and solitary, of course — it is not the psychotherapy action method. It’s a version she has developed, which keeps it subjective and intimate, while also opening it up to a group level. Its end result is community based. As a performer, she makes you feel safe. She learns of your life, shares hers with you, and then encourages spontaneous creativity. Alma holds your hand as you address your personal problems in a creative way. She guides you as you externalize your real-life situations or fantasies, dreams, inner mental processes creatively. Her work is pushing past limits — the limits to the genre of documentary, limits of film narrative, limits of fiction and non-fiction.

What duties have you carried out as the film’s executive producer? Were you on set during the shoot?

I was not on set. I gave her money, and she did it on her own.

Did you help with casting? How did you find the non-actors in the film?

Alma did all the casting. She would send me clips and keep me updated. I would smile/cry/laugh and cheerlead from the wings.

In 2014, you tweeted that you’re retiring from public life. Can you explain what you meant by that? Are you still retired?

I turned to performance art, as I couldn’t find another container/platform/discipline for individual expression, self-presentation. I couldn’t contact the audience. Performance art tightens the space of relations and allows me to work in real time, as opposed to only synthetic time. It liberated me from the old constraints of genre and taxonomic systems (drama, thriller, comedy, mystery). It liberates me and allows me to work in broad complexities.

Would you be interested in a career as a director?

I’m a performer.

You’ve been in the spotlight a lot, and you’ve talked about how it’s been hard to maintain your integrity as an artist. Why does the spotlight make it difficult to create art? Do you feel like you’re in a better place now as an artist?

The craft of acting for film is terribly exclusive and comes with the baggage of celebrity, which robs you of your individuality and separates you.

The performance work is democratized and far more inclusive. As a celebrity/star I am not an individual — I am a spectacular representation of a living human being, the opposite of an individual. The enemy of the individual, in myself as well as in others. The celebrity/star is the object of identification, with the shallow seeming life that has to compensate for the fragmented productive specializations which are actually lived. The requirements to being a star/celebrity are namely, you must become an enslaved body. Just flesh — a commodity, and renounce all autonomous qualities in order to identify with the general law of obedience to the course of things. The star is a byproduct of the machine age, a relic of modernist ideals. It’s outmoded.

I started acting as a child. It has been a long time since I’ve known another way. I think our work, for me, is my adult self putting another room on the house to gain perspective on the house.

See a clip of “LoveTrue” featuring actor Will Hunt below.

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