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First Person

The 15-Minute Age

Filmmaker John Herzfeld makes a statement: Is there a price to be paid for kneeling at the foot of celebrity?

March 09, 2001|JOHN HERZFELD | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Over the last 10 years, I've been increasingly fascinated by three of our culture's most potent and volatile obsessions--celebrity, wealth and violence. These days it seems people will do anything to become well known. Wondering how far they'll go to achieve that goal led me to write and direct "15 Minutes." (The New Line film opens today.)

The title of my film refers to Andy Warhol's prophetic statement that "In the future everyone will be famous for 15 minutes." He saw the future and it is here. Take a look at your neighborhood newsstand and almost all you'll see is a wall of celebrities: athletes, musicians, billionaire businessmen, supermodels, movie stars and the latest "reality" show cast. People who just became famous today and who you won't remember tomorrow. People who were discovered on TV shows and even the local news, which is filled with shootings, domestic violence, and grisly accidents and disasters.

The networks provide an endless parade of game shows and unscripted performance shows where people seem to be willing to do almost anything to become instant headliners so they can cash in on their fame. I don't claim to be an innocent observer however ambivalent I may be. I'm also a committed participant. We all are.

My fascination with celebrity began during the development and production of "The Ryan White Story," a TV docudrama I made about Ryan, a young boy dying of AIDS in Indiana. Ryan became a national hero for his honesty and courage and completely changed our country's awareness and attitude toward victims of AIDS. He was an example of somebody who completely deserved his celebrity, notwithstanding the irony that he had to be dying in front of our eyes to get the media to publicize his harrowing story.

Later I made "The Preppie Murder," a telefilm about the Robert Chambers-Jennifer Levin sex murder in New York's Central Park. The explosion of interest in this case was a perfect example of the contradiction that exists as we find ourselves repulsed by these disturbing stories and images on one hand, yet obsessed by and addicted to them on the other. And center stage, right under the white hot spotlight, was the media because covering that story became a story in itself.

The mother of all tabloid shows, "A Current Affair," did a re-creation of the grisly murder using actors and after that dramatizations became de rigueur for all tabloids. But as I watched I wondered: Were they simply reporting the story--giving people what they wanted to see--or were they fanning the flames?

In the eye of that firestorm was Mike Sheehan, the New York Police Department homicide cop who broke the case and, as a result, became an overnight star, the toast of the town. He made the covers of New York magazine and People. Fans stopped him in the street and asked for his autograph. We'd go to dinner and they'd tear up the check.

But in Mike's words, "I got too much ink and downtown, they got jealous." His life became so miserable that he eventually quit the force. It's as if the media machine blew him up into a big celebrity balloon, then popped him.

Robert De Niro plays a character not unlike Mike in "15 Minutes"--they're both homicide cops--and Mike was the first person I introduced Bob to when he began researching his role. (Mike is now a crime-scene reporter for Fox News.) In the film, De Niro and arson investigator Edward Burns are on the trail of two Eastern European killers who videotape their crimes and try to manipulate the American justice system. They get the idea for their plan by watching American talk shows and tabloid TV.

The treatment of these issues in "15 Minutes" is not intended to be an indictment of the news-entertainment media but it is rather a warning of the uncharted road ahead of us. In addition to trying to make a gripping thriller, I wanted "15 Minutes" to be a satirical and provocative examination of issues of real importance to us and to society as a whole.

*

Yes, fame has its price but we still worship the fantasy that it's the great panacea. Doors open, cash flows and new friends ooze out of the woodwork. But you don't have to look too closely to see the dark side--media scrutiny, invasion of privacy, stalkers, everyone trying for a piece of the celebrity pie. Even though these powerful forces often alienate celebrities from the world, forcing them to live reclusive, sheltered or carefully guarded lives, still, like addicts, we'll do anything to get fame.

In a crumbling pact with the media, we're endlessly interested in a star's rise but are often even more interested by their supernova destruction. Both Ryan White and Mike Sheehan were people whose fame felt genuinely deserved. More and more celebrity seems to have less to do with talent, significant accomplishment and character. The media, never without our complicity, now regularly elevates game-show castoffs, oddballs and violent criminals to celebrity status.

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