Tiffany Bartok has taken an interesting path to the work of documentary filmmaking. While she originally pursued a career as an actress (and work consistently), she found herself more interested capturing the faces on camera, rather than being one of them. She soon moved into the world of make-up artistry, and from there made the big jump to producing and directing. Her first feature film, Altered by Elvis told the stories whose lives were changed by the artistic contributions of Elvis. In her sophomore film, Larger Than Life: The Kevyn Aucoin Story she’s once again tell the story of an artist gone too soon, but this time focuses on the personal and professional life of make-up artist legend Kevyn Aucoin, using rare footage and stills and intimate interviews with those who knew him best.
Lesley Coffin: How familiar were you with him. Had you had any personal interactions with him before he passed away?
Tiffany Bartok: Starting in the industry, Kevyn was the first person you learned about because of his book. That was kind of the person everyone aspired to be like, and you’d just pour over all his covers and videos, wondering how he did what he did. He was just this huge force, so when he passed away it was extremely sad for the whole industry and caused this kind of shockwave. I did have the opportunity to meet him once, on the set of Sex and the City. My best friend was working on the show and arranged for me to work as an extra because he was going to be on the show and wanted to give me the opportunity to meet him as a fan. But that was the only time we met and I didn’t know anything about Kevyn accept his professional accomplishments and that he was from the south originally. I knew that he kind of came from nothing and created this amazing life for himself.
Lesley Coffin: His work and success is certainly of not, but what did you know about his character that made you think he would be a compelling character?
Tiffany Bartok: That was a huge question mark we even had when we were looking for production companies to finance the movie. They of course always wanted to know what it was about him that would make him a great subject and we were still investigating that. It sort of became about more than make-up when we got to the discussions about his inner family and his childhood. When we started to speak with his siblings and friends, hearing stories about being adopted and sense that he was always running away from things to try to figure out who he was. Once we started to really investigate that part of him, we knew we had a character that could hold an audience’s attention.
Lesley Coffin: Publicly there were certainly people that knew him and could talk about his work, but was it challenging to get in touch with the right people, the more private individuals who knew him best?
Tiffany Bartok: When making a film like this, I can’t stress the importance of getting to the next level of people who knew him as a human. It was hard until we started to work very closely with Troy Surratt, who really stressed that we needed to be totally committed to taking this project on, saw it as a big responsibility and would talk about all aspects of his life, that’s when the doors really swung open and people started to talk to us. And things opened up to us more after we spoke with Eric Sakas.
Lesley Coffin: Now that you know so much about his personal life, do have a deeper or greater appreciation for his artistic work? Can you see where professional met the personal in his art?
Tiffany Bartok: I think the key to Kevyn as an artist was the fact that he saw each and every person as someone completely unique, and he couldn’t use the same techniques on everyone. It’s odd because it’s hard to say he has a style maybe because he never did the same make-up, each person he worked with had their own experience with him. Now I can recognize his make-up pretty easily because I’ve studied it so carefully and having been in the make-up industry. But he wasn’t an artist interested in using these women to create his trademarks. He was interested in seeing each artist he worked with as an individual and wanted to adjust his work to their needs and style. He saw the unique as something beautiful in each of those people. When I saw his art as a child that was so illuminating. There was so much growth between each picture. And you saw that he would draw Barbara in a different way from how he drew Brooks Shield. He customized everything, and I saw the influence his work as a painter had on his work as a make-up artist.
Lesley Coffin: How did you find the paintings and home movies that are in the film? It seems like you just had a treasure-trove.
Tiffany Bartok: Kevyn was a believer in documenting everything and documenting things he did, so he had a lot of people film what he was doing for him. The priority I had was to have Kevyn would be on camera as much as possible so we felt a real need to avoid the footage he’d taken. His boyfriends and friends had a lot of material. But my husband called every network to ask for all the footage they had of Kevyn . We were looking at b-roll of fashion pieces and red carpet footage. And he went through hundreds of hours finding quick clips of him, because often the footage wasn’t about him but he was with the subject or his name was spelled wrong so he had to do all different types of searches.
Lesley Coffin: Were there aspects of his personal life you were apprehensive about including or matters people interviewed didn’t want to include?
Tiffany Bartok: It wasn’t hard for people to talk about those things because it’s been some time since he’s passed away and there’s been something of a party line about Kevyn among his friends. There’s already been a biography about him where everything was pretty rosy, so it was time to go a little deeper. Everyone called each other as they were being interviewed and were telling each other it was okay to talk about these things and assuring each other that I wasn’t making a sensational piece. I think they appreciated the fact that I wanted to tell the whole story and anyone connected to Kevyn knew that it was okay to talk it. The only person who didn’t want to be interviewed was Wynonna Ryder.
Lesley Coffin: Cher was probably the biggest name interviewed and she isn’t someone who is interviewed often but there are subjects she’s willing to put herself out there for. Was she a hard person to get in touch with?
Tiffany Bartok: She was extremely difficult person to get in touch with. She is very close to Jeremy, Kevyn ’s husband, and she was rightfully concerned about the story being told. Kevyn had an accident on her set and Cher had no tolerance policy when it came to drug use. And that is an approach to dealing with addicts which isn’t popular and the narrative that was out there was that she and Jeremy abandoned him. And of course that wasn’t the case as I and others see it. After Jeremy did the interview, he reached out to her on my behalf. It was a magical moment to get a call from Cher in the middle of the night.
Lesley Coffin: You mentioned working with your husband and the two of you trade off directing and producing each other’s movies. What’s that working relationship been like?
Tiffany Bartok: I think we’ll always work that way, even though it’s super challenging and not pretty. We have a family that gets what we’re doing and we have the kind of shorthand where I know what he’s good at and he knows what I’m good at. But office hours are not a thing and we’re constantly working and stressed out. But I can’t imagine doing this and having a husband in a different field that didn’t understand what I did all day.
(C) Lesley Coffin (7/24/18) FF2 Media
Photos credits: © Vinyl Foote Productions