Although Studio 54 was only around for 33 months—from April 1977 to January 1980—the club encapsulated the height of the ’70s disco era and was the cultural zeitgeist of drug culture and free love. While the discotheque became known for the fashion luminaries and icons who flocked there every night (Andy Warhol, Grace Jones, Bianca Jagger, and Diane von Furstenberg were among the regulars), more than that, it served as a safe haven for the LGBTQ community, who were free to be themselves under the dim nightclub lights.
The story of Studio 54 is really about the two men who founded it: Ian Schrager and Steve Rubell, the sons of working class Brooklynites who struck up a fast friendship at Syracuse University. Despite their obvious differences (Rubell was gay and extroverted while Schrager was quiet and straight), the pair opened up the disco on the seedy block of West 54th Street in Manhattan. Just three years after founding the nightlife destination, Rubell and Schrager were carted off to federal prison for a tax evasion conviction. Upon their release, the two reinvented themselves, opening up a hotel on Madison Avenue, before Rubell died in 1989.
Matt Tyrnauer’s new documentary Studio 54, opening today, explores this unlikely friendship, their fall from grace, and the true story of the legendary discotheque. CR caught up with Tyranauer, who talks about getting Schrager to open up about his experiences, for the first time on film.
What drew you to this project?
“Studio 54 is one of those stories that people think they know, but don’t really know. It obviously enjoys worldwide fame, it’s a legendary place and the narrative is discussed, even 50 years later. However, the story really hasn’t been fully examined or told principally because the two people who created it never told the story. Steve Rubell died from complications of HIV in 1989 and Ian Schrager has been the Greta Garbo of nightclubs and he just never told the story, never talked—until now. Having the opportunity to get Ian’s perspective and then weave that into a definitive film. This is the right moment to do it, while Schrager was willing to go there.”
How did you get Ian to open up about Studio?
“I’ve known Schrager for quite some time, and I think he trusted me to be the person who interviewed him. He’s very private and can be somewhat secretive. He is not a fan of being exposed—I think he’s a control freak—so that he was willing to go there with me in any way was significant. It was then my job to draw him out the best I could.”
Studio 54 was all about celebrities, but the film really focused on Ian and Steve. What inspired you to explore their friendship?
“I’m fascinated with unconventional relationships, and Ian himself refers to his relationship with Steve as a marriage. He says at one point in the film ‘We were like a married couple, I’m not sure which one was the husband and which one was the wife.’ Ian is straight, Steve was gay, they were best friends from college, and they went on to form this extraordinary partnership and created something bigger than both of them. Then, they went on after their tremendous fall from grace to reinvent another industry, which was the boutique hotel industry. Having Schrager speak and getting this perspective on the partnership was a worthy thing to cover in the film, so much more than what a celebrity thought of [Studio]. Debriefing celebrities about their time at Studio just didn’t really appeal to me. For me, it’s a partnership film, and it’s a film about an era and two guys caught up in that era.”
What don’t most people know about the nightclub?
“The sex, drugs, and disco perception of the Studio is not totally inaccurate, but there was more to it. I think that it symbolized and found its footing as a very potent venue for people to express themselves and to experience the type of freedom that’s almost unknowable today. It was the last volcanic expression of the sexual revolution which began in the early ’60s with the advent of the birth control pill and comes to an end with the beginning of the HIV/AIDS crisis in the early ’80s. Studio is from April 1977 to January 1980. [The next year] was when the CDC starts to get early reports of an unknown, deadly disease which is later identified as the HIV/AIDS crisis. That ended the sexual revolution as we knew it. Everything was transformed by the HIV/AIDS crisis and the reaction to it and, in some cases, the lack of reaction to it on the part of the Reagan administration.”
Was it difficult for Ian to recount some of those experiences?
“It was not easy for him, in that he is a very private person and doesn’t like to be challenged. Like most people who are very successful, he has a narrative about his life that he likes to stick to. I was bringing him off-road, as it were, and I think he felt very exposed and very vulnerable because there are a lot of ugly truths attached to what happened around Studio. In the film, he is forced to confront those. I think he does it very well, but I don’t think it was without trauma for him.”
What do you want people to get out of this film?
“I want people to understand what Studio stood for and have a greater context for why it’s something we still remember to this day, even though it was a rather brief period about something seemingly inconsequential as a nightclub. It symbolizes a cultural shift. We see it as a kind of Paradise Lost, but there is an incredibly poignant aspect to that, which has to do with the disintegration of a beautiful world that was in many ways much more free and accepting than the ones that followed it. In other ways, of course, gay and lesbian, LGBT culture has triumphed in the decades since then, but the brutal reality of the era of HIV/AIDS and what it did to us is symbolized in the Studio era. It’s a dark story, but one worth knowing.”
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