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Sundance: ‘Studio 54’ Director Matt Tyrnauer on the Cultural Power of the Infamous Club

Decades after it closed its doors, Studio 54 is still synonymous with sex, drugs, and disco.

The nightclub burned the candle at both ends, its heyday lasted a mere 33 months and was cut short by the imprisonment of founders Ian Schrager and Steve Rubell in a multi-million tax scam. Yet it remains in the memory as a kind of mausoleum to a platform shoe and polyester shirt-style hedonism that is impossible to recreate in the post-AIDS era.

Director Matt Tyrnauer brings viewers back to that bygone time in his gripping and poignant new documentary “Studio 54.” The film premieres this Sunday at the Sundance Film Festival where it is looking for theatrical distribution.

It’s not as if the Studio 54 phenomenon is under-covered. Scores of books and magazine articles have been written documenting the coke-fueled partying that took place there, and Hollywood has already offered up an execrable Mike Myers movie called “54.” Moreover, the internet overflows with pictures of Truman Capote, Andy Warhol, Liza Minnelli, and Bianca Jagger kicking back at the mid-town club. Yet Tyrnauer offers fresh insight into what drove and ultimately undid Schrager and Rubell, and he has also managed to unearth a treasure trove of never-before-seen footage. Most importantly, he’s able to contextualize Studio 54’s place in history, illustrating how it served as the epicenter of a kind of free-love artistic expression that was snuffed out by plague and the rise of Reaganism.

On the eve of “Studio 54″s’ Sundance debut, Tyrnauer spoke with Variety about the making of the film and the club’s cultural impact. He also debuted a poster for the film (see below).

Studio 54 was a popular night club, but there have been lots of hot clubs over the years. Why are people still talking about this one decades after it closed its doors?

Studio 54 was not really a night club. It was more of a social experiment. It had as much to do with living theater as disco. What Ian Schrager and Steve Rubell created was a unique sensory experience that captured its moment perfectly. It was as if they were tailor made for the society of the time.

In what way did the club capture the zeitgeist?

New York was a rough place to live in the ’70s. It had become a city of crime and sleaze and peep shows and physical decay, but at the same time in this dystopia, there was a really vibrant society that was evolving and a new creative class being formed. Studio was their clubhouse.

The heyday of Studio 54 was before the AIDS epidemic. Watching your film, even though everyone is seen dancing and having a good time, it’s impossible not to think about the impact that disease would have on many of the people shown on screen.

There’s something about that time that now seems very distant. It comprised the period from the invention of the pill through the sexual revolution of the 1960s. Then there’s this time in the 1970s when it’s pre-HIV/AIDS crisis and there’s this particular kind of freedom that was obliterated by the emergence of AIDS. It’s ironic and tragic that the 33 months of Studio align almost perfectly with this last gasp of a freer, more permissive society. The club opens in April of 1977 and its owners go to prison in early 1980. The end of that timespan coincides with a tremendous political and societal shift that was personified by the election of Ronald Reagan and the the first cases of HIV/AIDS.

When you look at the people who populate these photos, you can’t help but feel as if you’re being gut punched the whole time. You realize many of the people didn’t survive the decade of the 1980s. It looms over everything. When I did interviews, people would burst into tears spontaneously when they were talking about Studio. There was something about what was lost that moved them. AIDS came and destroyed the world they inhabited and so many of the people they knew and loved disappeared.

How did you get all the footage of the interior of Studio 54? 

That was a huge find. It turned out that some film students from the Tisch School for the Arts had secretly shot inside the club with a 16mm camera as part of a student film project. They’d intended to make a documentary about disco, but it never got completed. The film was just sitting in someone’s house in upstate New York.

Would Studio 54 be as culturally significant today?

No. The invention of the iPhone is the big difference. We all walk around with cameras on our phones and we use social media and put photos on Instagram, so nothing is as special. Everyone sort of has access to everything. A lot of its fame has to do with how you got in. There was this velvet rope culture, and no one except for a few paparazzi and Andy Warhol was allowed to have a camera inside. That created a certain mystery to things.

What do you make of Schrager and Rubell. How were they able to pull this off?

They were extraordinarily talented people who were in the right place at the right time and had the capacity to follow through on their ambitions. It was a time when New York was on the brink of bankruptcy and was experiencing a metamorphosis of its social order as the old guard was fading. In this period of anarchy, there was a door that was the flung open and anyone ambitious enough could step through it.

But I also see this movie as an unlikely love story between two ambitious and bright lower middle class guys from the outer boroughs who found each other. One was gay [Rubell] and the other was straight [Schrager] and they formed a partnership that was really a marriage. At one point, Schrager even says he wasn’t sure which one was the husband and which one was the wife. But it led them to greatness because each one completed the other. Schrager was an introvert and mister behind-the-scenes, while Rubell was an extrovert who became a social arbiter.

At one point in the film, one of the Feds who put Schrager and Rubell in jail describes their tax evasion as “The Richard Nixon of skims.” Why did they do it?

The argument in terms of why the skimming took place was that everybody skimmed. In the restaurant business, in the nightclub business, you skimmed. There were hardly any credit cards. Everything was a cash business. It’s kind of like Claude Raines in “Casablanca” when he’s “shocked” to find gambling in a casino. But, like everything with Studio, it was heightened. Even the skim was epic because everything about Studio was epic.

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