Andrew Rossi has been fascinated by Andy Warhol since childhood, which may explain why the director (“Page One: Inside The Times” “The First Monday in May” “Ivory Tower”) spent the last decade working on “The Andy Warhol Diaries,” a six-part docuseries that draws upon the artist’s posthumously published diaries of the same name. Dictated over the phone to Pat Hackett from 1976 to 1987, the diaries were published in 1989, two years after Warhol’s death. In the documentary, Rossi weaves together Warhol narration, created by artificial intelligence, with archival footage and sit-down interviews with the likes of John Water and Rob Lowe. The Ryan Murphy-produced Netflix docuseries, debuting on March 9, traces Warhol’s journey through eras as an artist, film director, publisher, TV producer, band manager, scene maker and celebrity.
Rossi spoke with Variety about the project, and his desire to puncture the myth of Warhol as “a neutered alien under a white wig.”
You began working on this project after finishing your feature documentary “Page One: Inside the Times” back in 2011. What about Warhol and the book intrigued you?
I’m bisexual, and when I was figuring out my identity in high school, Andy Warhol was somebody who I wasn’t sure whether was out or not, or what his relationships were, but I knew that there was something that I was responding to. Understanding his identity and breaking through the idea of Warhol as an asexual robot was my passion for telling this story.
You optioned the rights to the book in 2011 and then in 2019 you brought the project to Netflix under Ryan Murphy’s banner. What made you think Murphy, who is not known for documentaries, would make a good fit?
Ryan has done so much for queer representation in media broadly. So, I thought he was a good partner for this seminal story that is critical to the queer community, but also to our broader culture — Warhol in the air that we breathe.
Instead of focusing on the celebrity-sphere Warhol existed in, the series focuses more on his relationships. Why?
Reading through the text back in 2011 when I embarked on an effort to option the book, I was riveted by Andy’s stories about his domestic partner Jed Johnson, his later boyfriend Jon Gould and his intense collaboration with Jean-Michel Basquiat. I set out to adapt the diaries as a love story that would counter the myth of Andy as an asexual robot or a neutered alien under a white wig.
What do you think viewers will be most surprised to learn about Warhol?
I think the idea of Andy as a living, breathing gay man, who was invested in romantic relationships and in pursuing his partners — either Jed Johnson or Jon Gould — is a revelation for many people who don’t even think of him necessarily as queer or don’t think of him as being anything more than the robotic icon that he performed in public. Also knowing he made artwork in the seventies and the eighties that has depth and in fact, in some cases can be viewed as a commentary on the HIV/Aids crisis is very new.
Do you think this series will appeal to not just Warhol fans but also those who aren’t fans of his?
I hope that it appeals to those who are not fans of his, or to those who have seen his artwork in the Uniqlo store or on a T-shirt and wonder: What is that person about? The series is definitely not meant for just the super fans or the art historical community, although I do hope that it has a rigor in terms of the scholarship that I wove into it.
You have done a lot of verité work throughout your career but with this project you wrote out scripts for each episode. Why?
Writing (the scripts) gave me the opportunity to have a new storytelling approach that really condenses a visual track and a narrative track that are operating on different levels. In each episode you are in the story of Andy’s adventures through New York with colleagues and his boyfriends, but you’re also looking at his artwork and seeing how his personal life relates to the artwork and that helps to decode it. The artwork is very iconic and impactful, but the deeper layers of what he was feeling when he made it and how you might interpret it are not so clear. So, writing it out allowed me to plot out the story, but also give an audio visual approach that is dynamic.
You also incorporated non-verbal recreation sequences into the series. You haven’t used recreations in your past documentaries. Why now?
The recreations helped to, hopefully, immerse the viewer deeper into Warhol’s world and inner sanctum. My goal was to structure the transitions between some of the diary entries and other scenes with Andy and his diarist Pat talking on the phone. I always had in my head the Rock Hudson and Doris Day movie “Pillow Talk,” which I felt reinforced Andy’s commentary on Hollywood movies throughout the diaries. But ultimately, I wanted the recreations to meld with the archival, so that we wouldn’t break the spell of connecting so intimately to Andy.
You make it clear at the beginning of the series that you used AI to create Warhol’s voice in the film. Did you put that card in the series due to the backlash Morgan Neville faced after not clearly stating that he used AI to create Anthony Bourdain’s voice in his 2021 docu, “Roadrunner: A Film About Anthony Bourdain?”
I always wanted to include a significant reflection of Andy’s desire to be a robot and to be a machine because it is so central to his image as this flat character who has a void behind his public persona. So, my goal in reproducing Andy’s voice was not to escape the mechanical limitations of AI. Instead, I wanted to lean into the idea that this voice is the product of the machine that he aspired to become. But using AI took on even new resonance when everything happened with Morgan’s film. The reaction made it clear to me that it would be important to put a card flagging the use of AI that makes it clear to the viewer we used the technology.
While you got the blessing of the Warhol estate, did you have final cut?
I absolutely had final cut. There were no restrictions on what I could say about Andy or the depiction of him. I had explained that my goal was to humanize Andy, and they’ve seen it now, and they believe the series does do that.
Is there anything else you wanted to add about Warhol?
Andy connected with many people for different reasons, and I think that’s why he is so famous. It’s not just because of his artwork, it’s because many people who feel like outsiders can relate to his effort to seize control of the conversation. Growing up in the 1980s, the world I inhabited at the time was very homophobic, and I looked at Andy as a hero, a kind of safe space that seemed to give everyone around him permission to be themselves. I think John Waters sums it up perfectly when he says: “Take what society uses against you and exaggerate and turn it into a style.” That still resonates. As a bisexual man, I never stopped thinking that Andy had courage to be such a transgressive creator and public figure. Understanding his identity and breaking through the idea of Warhol as an asexual robot was my passion for telling his story.