A poignant charting of one man’s course through the art world of the 1990s and early 2000s, “Guest of Cindy Sherman” is also a meditation on the relationship its subject and director Paul H-O began with that world’s queen, the artist referred to in the title. The psychic kin of personal documentaries like Ross McElwee’s “Sherman’s March,” “Guest” (co-directed byTom Donahue) begins with a fairly simple premise — the host of cable access show “Gallery Beat” strikes up a bond with the elusive Cindy Sherman and is swallowed by her soignée circle — that splinters off into subsets when the relationship, perhaps compromised by the film itself, begins to break down. Using “Gallery Beat”‘s extensive archives, interviews with a wide range of art scene players and H-O’s indefatigable analytical re-con efforts where his relationship is concerned, the film captures a booming and perhaps decadent period in New York’s art world. While H-O admits that his doc played a part in ending his relationship with Sherman and may have even tainted the relationship that followed (“She wasn’t crazy about my making a film about my ex-girlfriend,” he says), it’s also responsible for one of the most fruitful and edifying collaborations of his life, with Donahue. Within it, ironically, he finally got the chance to explore what it means to be fully himself. I spoke with him recently about breaking up and moving on and whether it was all worth it.
The theatrical release of the film seems like the end of a pretty long road for you; it’s been a number of years now that you’ve spent essentially pondering the terms of your relationship with Cindy Sherman. Most people want to get as far away from an ex as possible after a break-up — did you have any idea what you were getting into when you started this project?
Oh hell. If I could divine that kind of thing I’d be down in the South Pacific right now, doing my thing.
But was there a point in the process, say, when the relationship started to break down, where you had to either stop or decide to continue on? And were you aware of the risks you were taking by continuing the project? You basically decided to move through your grieving or healing process knowing that you couldn’t really get away from the person you were grieving, that can’t have been an easy decision.
When I take on a project — and this project is of a much larger magnitude than I had previously obligated myself to — it’s like a runaway train. It’s going down a track and it’s very hard to stop, let’s put it that way. Once the production became real, we got investments, we had obligations. We have a lot of people who put their time, brains and effort into this project. When you have a lot of support for what you do, it tends to reinforce what you’re doing. I’m not the kind of person who quits, and I knew I had something that was really good. The project works and it worked through thick and thin, and even though Cindy and I broke up around halfway through the process of making the film, I mean, [ruefully] it gave us an end we never imagined we would have. I laugh about it, because what else could I do — there was misery, of course, as well — but part of me was like, ‘Well, I certainly solved that problem.’ The ending answers a lot of questions about the relationship, even though people always have more questions than we have answers for. I think the best thing for a person to have when a film ends is more question marks, rather than complete closure.
But because you did shoot for so long and over such a tumultuous period, how and when did it become clear to you that the film — and not just the relationship — was over? When did you know to stop shooting?
The break-up gave us the end as a concept, but it’s true, that was not the end of the story. We knew that there was a real end point to the relationship — of course, there was a small part of me that was hoping that, who knows, maybe there’d be a turnaround point at some later time, and she would realize that I was better than the rest of them [chuckles]. But so far, David Byrne is still keeping things alive. Those bitches can get dressed up and go out, [dramatically] I don’t care! I’m moving on, that’s what I’m doing.
I met Tom back in 2003 and I showed him some of the material that I had, around the time that I had my “guest of Cindy Sherman” moment [as H-O discovered was his title on a place setting when he was still seeing her]. Tom and I had a film love at first sight kind of thing. He liked the material that I showed him very much and he didn’t know that much about art, but as a documentary filmmaker, he was adept at researching and becoming an expert on his subject. And I had a whole lot of material on that subject, which was the art world of the 1990s and leading into the 2000s. I have so much trust in Tom’s ability to carve a story out of [everything] I supplied. It’s definitely the closest collaboration that I’ve ever been involved with — we don’t have to talk much anymore about what we want to do. Things are pretty well understood.
You must have had a lot of support to keep you going.
We always knew that we had something that people felt pretty passionately about. [“Harlan County U.S.A.” documentarian] Barbara Kopple encouraged me to do this movie from the time I said, “You know, I’m thinking about doing a movie,” in the elevator — we live in the same building. I did this monologue [about being enveloped in Sherman’s shadow] and she came and she said, “You’ve got to do this movie.” And when someone like Barbara Kopple says that, you do it.