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In a cocoon of their making

Friends sift through the clues left by Jeremy Blake and Theresa Duncan, the glittering 'It' couple who committed suicide.

August 03, 2007|Chris Lee | Times Staff Writer

Duncan and Blake fell in love when he began creating art for her discs. An animated mockumentary they collaborated on with artist Karen Kilimnik, "The History of Glamour," was accepted into the prestigious 2000 Whitney Biennial. And in Hollywood, some agents and producers referred to Duncan, attempting to mount her first feature film, "Alice Underground," as "the female Michel Gondry" for her intricate visual style.

"It's disappointing the film didn't happen," said producer Anthony Bregman, who tried to get Duncan's movie made, "because it would have revealed the real depth of her talent."

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday August 04, 2007 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 0 inches; 25 words Type of Material: Correction
Suicides: An article in Friday's Calendar about the deaths of Jeremy Blake and Theresa Duncan misspelled the last name of author George Pelecanos as Pelicanos.

Blake was a pioneering art star whose lush digital paintings blurred boundaries between animation, film and computer art. His work is in the permanent collections of museums including Los Angeles' Museum of Contemporary Art and the Museum of Modern Art in New York and was in three Whitney Biennials.

The artist created a hallucinogenic dream sequence for writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson's 2002 romantic comedy "Punch-Drunk Love" and collaborated with Nashville poet-rocker Dave Berman of the band Silver Jews on a 2005 film, "Sodium Fox." Binstock recalls the artist as a "visionary" whose art connected digital media to painterly tradition. "You could experience a video as you would a painting. It's poetic, abstract, very rich work," he said.

But several former friends and colleagues also describe a darker side of Blake and Duncan.

Bradford Schlei, head of production for Muse Productions, optioned the rights to George Pelicanos' "Nick's Trip" that was to have been Blake's feature film directing debut. The project stalled just before a deal with Paramount Vantage was being negotiated, however, when Blake accused Schlei's then girlfriend and the project's screenwriter of being Scientologists. (Schlei says neither he nor the other two are affiliated with the church.)

"It was complete and utter craziness," Schlei said. "Theresa sent around e-mails, delusional things. They'd say, 'You're a Scientologist, your girlfriend's a Scientologist, we don't want to be involved with you.'

"The thing that ended our relationship was when Jeremy said [my girlfriend] was trying to ruin Theresa's reputation. None of this ever had to do with Jeremy. It was always about Theresa and her film career." Several other sources confirmed Schlei's account, recalling that Duncan's e-mails grew wilder toward the end of her life.

"There was a paranoia thing going on there," he continued. "If you sat with them for a while, drinking the massive Manhattans they were always drinking, and smoking Shermans, it always got came back to Anna Gaskell."

On her blog in May, Duncan wrote a rambling 17-paragraph entry that accuses Blake's ex-girlfriend, the art photographer Anna Gaskell, and her family of conducting a "smear campaign" against the couple while also supporting an ultraconservative political effort. In the legal document, Blake suspects Gaskell and her family of colluding with Scientologists, bikers and ex-CIA operatives as part of a "covert harassment campaign" against the couple.

Gaskell said she had not seen Blake in 12 years and never met Duncan. "Jeremy was an incredibly loyal friend. It's a sad situation," Gaskell said. "My family isn't part of any right-wing conspiracy. My brother's a Democrat."

Downhill years

Despite being aligned with a who's who of creative pacesetters and enjoying prestige in their respective fields, Duncan and Blake tried and failed to get separate movie projects into production in 2005 and 2006, then left Los Angeles.

The chronology presents a revealing glimpse of their last five years together: attending rock star birthday parties and taking power meetings with movie executives, hobnobbing with boldfaced names, including Philip Seymour Hoffman, Giovanni Ribisi and Emily Watson, while living in a state of semi-constant dread -- even if, as friends say, the couple's apprehension about being victimized was not reason enough for them to commit suicide.

Singer-songwriter Beck, a practicing Scientologist for whom Blake designed an album cover in 2002, is singled out in the legal document as the person responsible for bringing the couple into conflict with the church. Made aware of how he is characterized, Beck recalled a productive but brief working relationship that was amicable. "I hadn't heard from him in years, so the news of his suicide was heartbreaking," Beck said in an e-mail. "The controversy surrounding it was completely out of left field for me."

Duncan's efforts to make "Alice Underground," a screenplay she wrote about two girls who accidentally kidnap a rock star, that she hoped to direct as her debut feature, lay at the heart of the perceived Scientology conspiracy.

In 2001, Duncan began developing the project with Fox Searchlight, but it never got off the ground. In 2005, "Alice" was brought by producers Anne Carey and Anthony Bregman to Paramount, where they hoped the project would be greenlighted by its Nickelodeon Films division.

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