Shia LaBeouf and Alma Har’el on Merging Reality and Performance in ‘LoveTrue’

The director and executive producer of the emotionally exploratory Tribeca premiere discuss their surprising collaboration.

Alma Har'el Shia LaBeouf
Stephen Lovekin/Shutterstock

Among the most singular films to premiere at this Tribeca Film Festival, Alma Har’el’s documentary “LoveTrue” reps an unusual view on the well-worn topic of love, in all its human imperfections. Tracing the bittersweet trajectories of three people under varying types of emotional strain — an Alaskan stripper fearing a lonely future, a Hawaiian slacker re-examining his relationship to his son, and the teenage daughter of a troubled but musically gifted New York family — the film blends intimate non-fiction footage with stylized dramatization in a manner that expands on the unorthodox technique of Har’el’s breakout 2011 doc, “Bombay Beach.” It also marks a striking off-camera diversion for actor Shia LaBeouf, here taking his first feature-length credit as executive producer. We chatted to Har’el and LaBeouf about this unexpected creative collaboration.

The three subjects you follow embody very different types of love. Do you think there’s a single definition for what love is? Have you re-thought that definition in the process of making the film?

ALMA HAR’EL: “I once spoke to a friend, who was a drug dealer and a heroin addict, about love, and he said: ‘I only call it love if it’s making both of us happy.’ That hit me as a very healthy way of looking at it, coming from someone who, on the surface, was less healthy than me. Deep inside, my relationship to love was much more confused than his, but I think it’s important to accept the different shades of love: the different ways in which love plays a part in our lives, and the fact it’s always changing. I made this film because I was separating from my husband, who’s now my best friend — and that transition was painful. It took years. Some of the biggest lessons we need to learn about loving life and ourselves come from love that didn’t meet our expectations. This film was more about finding a way to look at love as a state of being, a state of grace that isn’t necessarily romantic at all. A state of love that comes to you if you survive the fantasy of ‘True Love.’ ”

SHIA LABEOUF: “In my opinion, Alma’s film is not trying to change your view on ‘love’: That would be a terrible film. It is the document of a person making a voyage, who found other people who had also made a voyage. There’s nothing else, and it’s f—ing amazing.”

How did your collaboration comes to pass? What drew you to each other creatively?

SL: “I’m a die-hard Alma Har’el fan. I saw ‘Bombay Beach’ and wrote her a fan letter. That’s how we met. She has a way, a style all her own that compensates for the flaw in the genre — that all non-fiction film is manipulated, set up and constructed to a degree. Alma does not try to hide or deny: she shares, she accounts for the change that comes over people being filmed when the representative takes over and self-blurs. Hers is not a fly-on-the-wall documentation; it’s an elephant-in-the-room documentation. She allows people to take ownership in their presentation, to be in on their objectification. She is exploring the tension of presenter and presented, playing with the limits of fiction and non-fiction, seeking the seams in the gaps and shoring them up. I got involved to foster her experiment and up my street cred.”

AH: “If it wasn’t for Shia, I wouldn’t be able to make this film. I tried to raise the money for almost a year and got some very supportive grants from Cinereach and Tribeca, but no one would finance it. There’s a lot of companies that want to brand themselves as risk-takers but that’s all it is: branding. To really take a risk on something artistic that you’re not sure how to sell takes fearlessness — the ability to let go of the outcome and give in to the unknown. That’s not a popular business model: People want to stay in the market. But Shia’s not playing. He pulled a Robin-Hood-from-Hollywood miracle on me and sent me a check in the mail for the whole budget of the film. Through the four years of making it, he made sure nothing got in the way of me making free choices. He’s also been extremely supportive of the people in the film; as an actor and as an artist, he has a genuine interest in what it means to perform on screen and in real life.”

How did you find and decide on those human subjects? As a documentary maker, do you still go through a kind of casting process?

AH: “I chose the locations, and then got lost in each one of them till I found the people. You can call it casting but it’s not like I audition people. At some point, I broke my back in Alaska and was in a brace for seven months, filming in a wheelchair. When I could walk again, I started taking short walks in Central Park. That’s when I saw the Boyd family singing there. Filmmaking taught me to trust my intuition. It’s actually been harder for me to do it in my personal life. There’s such a fine line between finding someone that’s interesting to you and gets you excited, and someone that can be your family — your forever person. I love forever people because then, even if the romantic love is gone, you stay friends for the rest of your lives. Same with filmmaking. I chose people I can love beyond the making of the film.”

That love translates to screen: Your camera captures very authentic-feeling intimacy between those people. Do you have to make yourself invisible as a filmmaker to obtain that?

AH: “There’s nothing invisible about me. I make myself present, and I create real intimacy by connecting with them — not by pretending I’m not there and stealing intimacy. We are all conditioned to think that because there’s an opportunity for gain of some sort, whether it’s artistic or financial, that there could be no real engagement, just the pretense of one. But it’s absolutely possible: The key is to choose people you truly connect with and who are not shut down. It’s the same with love.

“At the end of the day, these are real stories of people who are not actors. There was no script. There is one scripted sentence in the whole film: ‘You never know anyone when you fall in love, not even yourself. It’s like we’re all actors… but if you wait long enough the mask comes off.’”

But the film does play with the boundary between performance and documentary. Are we closer to breaking down that boundary?

SL: “I don’t think it must be one way or the other. It’s not black and white. We are all performing narrative documentary. It’s all performance: Living is a performance to our own egos. One of the feats of Alma’s film is that it speaks to a very necessary humanistic truth without ever having to define itself as one or the other.”

AH: “Many people’s definition of truth and reality is binary, so it’s only natural we have the same limited forms in filmmaking. Seeing our dreams and our subjective experiences as things that exist outside of ‘reality’ is not the path to capturing truth. I think people who come to documentaries from journalism have a problem sometimes with my filmmaking, but that’s not for me to solve. I never went to film school. I learned filmmaking in my sleep. I watched my dreams and how I go in and out of my imagination during my waking hours; I see performance in the same fluid way.

“I do feel, however, that it’s becoming trendy (to blur the two), so there are people who try to find dogma in that, too — who say everything in documentary is fake, so you might as well script everything. It’s the same binary thinking. Limited artists always find ways to limit themselves.”