Interview: HALSTON Director Frédéric Tcheng and Producer Roland Ballester Rediscover the American Fashion Icon

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Interview: HALSTON Director Frédéric Tcheng and Producer Roland Ballester Rediscover the American Fashion Icon
Halston highlights of the glittering life, stratospheric success, and tragic dismantling of an American icon.  Roy Halston Frowick, a boy from the Midwest, came to New York City to put American fashion on the international map in a way never before seen. 
 
Director Frédéric Tcheng and Producer Roland Ballester spoke with LMD about focusing on the designer’s pioneering corporate ventures, and his indelible stamp on fashion as we know it.
 
 
The Lady Miz Diva:  What inspired this documentary? 
 
Roland Ballester:  The inspiration was Halston’s niece, Lesley.  She wanted to do a film about her uncle that honoured him, and gave a more complete story.  This was something that she really wanted to do; she was passionate about it.  I had been friends with Lesley for many years, and we had talked about it and I thought, that makes a lot of sense, let’s take someone that people tend to think of one way and turn that around, and tell them a different story.  So that’s how it started.
 
Frédéric Tcheng:  And then Roland came to see me, because he had seen Dior and I at the Tribeca film Festival…
 
RB:  That movie changed everything, because once I had convinced Lesley, please let me do this, and she said, “Sure,” you need somebody to actually do it, to execute it. {Laughs}  That’s not me.  I mean, I had some thoughts, but it’s a very different skill set.  So, I looked at several films, and talked to a couple of people, and then a friend of mine recommended that I see Dior, and I said, “That’s the one.”  What Fred did with that film is not obvious, and that’s what I wanted with HALSTON, don’t do the obvious.
 
LMD:  Director Tcheng, your previous films, DIOR AND I, and DIANA VREELAND: THE EYE MUST TRAVEL, show a very lyrical sense of framing.  HALSTON seems centered around an idea of things that are lost:  It starts with this very chilling information that many video tapes of Halston’s work and appearances were erased and sold for blanks by the corporation he joined hands with.  That they sold so many of his iconic pieces for as little as $25, in liquidation. 
 
Did that aspect of how much of his legacy was thrown away help you decide the framework? 
 
FT:  You know, that’s how it started for me in my head.  I mean, that’s when the film started taking shape was when I started reading his testimonies about what happened in 1984, and what the corporation did to him.  I think that’s where I was caught, because as a creative person, you feel sort of the death of the soul by some of these actions that they took, like the fire sale, and especially in erasing the tapes.  I’m a filmmaker, so visual material, like tapes, are very important to me.  
 
I think the business angle, and the business story really became the backbone of the film, because that’s the part that interested me the most, and probably because as a creative person, I’ve had those interactions in the business world, and I’ve seen how the business world can be really ruthless and cutthroat, and not really care about any of the arguments that you’re making about trying to make beautiful work.  For them, it’s all about the bottom line.
 
So, when I read Halston’s story, it just resonated with me really strongly.  It had also a sort of Citizen Kane arc to it, because he built so much, and he defied all the rules, and he proved everybody wrong, and reached the top, and then trouble started.  I was attracted to this bigger-than-life type of story.  I really appreciate that you said there was a lyrical sense, because I always try to find a way of telling the story that is not flat, and not necessarily linear, but that carries all the complexities of the characters in the musicality of the story.  
 
With Halston, he was such a mysterious character that I felt that investigating his legacy was an interesting way of approaching the story; not necessarily going from A to B to C, all the way to Z, but taking twists and turns and reveals of where he grew up, and maybe putting the beginning at the end.
 
I think I had a sense that that’s how I discovered the story of Halston, and I wanted the audience to discover it, also, in a more playful way.  I wanted to make it fun for the audience.
 
LMD:  Speaking of fun and lyrical; there is that wonderful montage of Halston’s legendary showcase in Versailles that reminded me of a 1930s musical.  It was wonderful to see that footage, along with the intimate video of Halston around his friends, Andy Warhol being serenaded by Pat Ast in Halston’s studio, which I’d never seen before.  Considering we begin with finding out about the loss of Halston’s visual archive, where did that footage came from?
 
RB:  They came from all over the place, everywhere.  We got a lot of material from Lesley Frowick, her archives, which were passed down to her by Halston.  I want to make something clear, the tapes were erased, but Halston as a man -- there were copies of those tapes.  What happened was that the corporation erased their corporate legacy.  So, the idea of, well, Halston has the tapes, but that’s beside the point; corporation a race their legacy.  I mean, no business erases their legacy, that’s unheard of.  There is Halston the individual, and Halston the company, and those were the basis for the research of the visual material, but there wasn’t enough.  
 
I mean, some of it is great, but then we started to say, let’s keep digging.  We would reach out to certain key individuals who would give us something, and then we would find something a library in Nashville, and we reached out to NBC, and all the networks, and some of the smaller people.  We kept pressing, and kept looking, and looking, and that’s how the amazing China footage was found.  We were told that didn’t exist. 
 
We were a little persistent, and then we found it somewhere, and it was untouched.  The thing about the photographs; we went to all the photographers of his shows, not just his published work, but the unpublished work, because the raw materials were often much more fascinating than the published work.  So, we were very tenacious and looked everywhere.
 
FT:  That footage of Warhol with Pat Ast as she sings to him, all of that was found at the 11th hour, and it was such a wonderful find because they were sitting in Halston’s first salon.  Things like that are just priceless.  
 
To come back to Versailles, we found all these colour photographs that hadn’t been shown of Versailles backstage, of Charles Tracy, Halston getting upset, all the models waiting and being anxious; to see it all in Technicolor was very beautiful.
 
LMD:  As Halston’s niece, Lesley Frowick, had such a big hand in the film, I wondered whether there were parameters that were set up by Lesley, or places you were not allowed to go in your search of this story?  
 
One thing I did notice was although the climate of homosexuality in the time that Halston was a young man is addressed at the very beginning, there’s not terribly large amount of Halston’s life as a gay man.  We meet his lover, the artist Victor Hugo, but that’s pretty much it.  I wondered if there was any sort of directive or feeling that you wanted to focus the conversation away from that aspect of his life?
 
FT:  No.  Actually, homosexuality was a really important part of the film for me:  It’s something that I really wanted to show, but not necessarily the sexually salacious parts.  It was more about the emotional trajectory of being rejected in the 60s and everything. 
 
And just to answer very clearly your original question, there was no explicit agenda: The agreement with Lesley was very clear from the beginning; that this was going to be a warts-and-all portrait. 
 
Or, to put it more nicely, a complex portrait -- that’s how we presented it to her, because we were going to talk about Victor.  She didn’t want to mention Victor at all.  She was aware it was going to be part of the process, but she has her own set of issues because she lived through that time, and it’s her uncle.
 
There is the director’s cut that is coming out later this year that is a little longer and has a lot more Victor, so if you’re interested in that part {Laughs}. I was fascinated with him because he was a very troubled character, and we show even more of him in the longer version, where we see his destructive impulses.
 
LMD: There is an amazing shot where Halston is addressing a meeting in front a huge window in his Olympic Towers office, and in the background are the Twin Towers.  I thought, ‘Nothing in this frame exists, anymore.’  Halston’s office no longer exists, Halston no longer exists, and the Twin Towers no longer exist.  
 
Halston’s is a quintessential New York story; a young man from the Midwest, comes to New York, completely re-creates himself, builds an empire, and lifts up the city by the power of his art.  Was that aspect of his story some of the inspiration behind this film?
 
FT:  For sure.  I actually came after the Twin Towers fell: I moved in 2002 -- right after -- so I saw New York from a very different point of view.  There is a mystical quality to the 70s, and what happened here.  To go to the heart of your question, I came to New York for the same reason that Halston came to New York; to reinvent ourselves, and to create something that maybe we weren’t allowed to do where we came from.  
 
I came from France, and I actually started in civil engineering and switched tracks, and in France, it’s just impossible.  Here in the US, I could go to film school, and no one was looking at what I had done before, they only were looking at what I could offer; and it’s that idea of America that seduced me, that made me want to live here.  
 
A lot of that transpires in the film through Halston’s story, because, for me, it really embodies the best of what America has to offer.  It also talks about America in a not so flattering term, because the 80s were very much about Reaganomics, and the corporate world taking over financial markets, and ruling over creative industries, and unfortunately, not much has changed since the 80s in terms of finance ruling the world.
 
So, I was interested in talking about America from a French perspective.  I’ve been here for long enough that I still have a lot of desire and hopes and fear for this country.
 
LMD:  Well, your film spotlights Halston as a kind of ambassador for America through his fashion.
 
RB:  He was very patriotic and very proud.
 
FT:  He was the first to invent American fashion.  People forget, but everyone was looking to the French; everyone was trying to do copies of the French style, and he was like ’No, no, no, we have something unique to offer,’ and it’s all about the easiness and the sportswear attitude where you want to be comfortable -- you live a very active life and women work.  He was like, ‘No more of these corsets, no more of this structure, let’s liberate the body.’  Again, it’s uniquely American.
 
LMD:  The film really opened my eyes as to how much of an industry pioneer Halston was.  The way he marketed himself, like the movie stars he admired.  His joining hands with business conglomerates that never had anything to do with fashion before.  Becoming the first top fashion designer to make a low-cost line available through JCPenney was disastrous for him at that time, but now is not only common for designers and celebrities, but coveted.  Was his involvement with the corporate world ultimately his downfall?
 
FT:  My personal take on it is that the rise and the fall are intimately interwoven together.  I think you can’t dissociate one from the other.  It’s even hard for me to say that signing on with the corporations is what brought him down.  I think you have to put things back in context; in 1973, he’s like a struggling designer. 
 
He’s got some success, but his company is struggling to make ends meet, and then he signs on with Norton Simon.  Certainly, he has a huge financial backing, and he can invite Liza Minnelli to Versailles, and he can bring all these models, and then he can be on TV all the time, promoting himself doing all these licenses.  
 
You know, there’s something a little Faustian about it, it’s like the Faustian pact -- it’s not like the corporation is the devil, but the corporation helped him become the Halston that we love so much.  So, people must not forget that.  
 
I think what was interesting for me in the film was to sort of poke holes through the cautionary tale theory, and show that there were many more factors.  As I said, it was a little like a Citizen Kane story for me, and the Rosebud for me was never one thing.  So many different things that contributed to what he was, and why he eventually fell from his mountaintop.  So, there’s no one definite answer, and I think that’s the beauty of the story is that it’s layered.
 
LMD:  I asked the great model Alva Chinn about Halston’s colourblindness when it came to his models, and also people working behind the scenes with him.  In short, her reply was that it wasn’t a big deal, but at that time it was very unusual to see women of color on runways, and on magazine covers. 
 
RB:  My interpretation of what she was saying was that it wasn’t a big deal to Halston.  He wasn’t trying to make a statement, because he wasn’t saying consciously, ’Oh, I’m going to be the Great White Hope, here.’  You know, that whole seduction.  It was about, ‘You’re good.  You’re good, so, you’re in.’  It’s that simple to him.  I think that’s what she was getting at.
 
FT:  And part of the answer she was giving is there were a lot of people of color backstage, and that makes the difference.  If the creators are people of color, then they’ll represent what they are on the runway.  I think that’s what happened.
 
RB:  And just to follow up on that point, Alva had said in the past, Halston was friendly with other designers; but it was more friendly competition.  However, he was friends with {designer} Stephen Burrows.  He was part of his world, so it was very natural.
 
LMD:  It appears very natural in the film.  You don’t see him making a special case of, ‘Here’s my Black model, and here’s my Asian assistant designer,’ it’s just very much life as normal
 
FT:  In the director’s cut -- I keep on mentioning the director’s cut {Laughs} -- there’s another character.  His first boyfriend, the first boyfriend that he dated for a long time, who is this black man named Ed Austin, who worked for him.  Ed tells a very touching story of how Halston was just everything to him, his man and his mentor, but Halston never acknowledged their relationship in public, so it was kept hidden.  
 
It’s very interesting, I think in the director’s cut, I edited that right after that moment where we see him being so inclusive with models of color to show that there was again this kind of duality, the sort of ambivalence to everything he was doing.  It’s like the rise is the fall.  And also his inclusiveness had limits in his private life, yet obviously, he was very inclusive in his private life in his relationship with a black man, but he was not acknowledging him publicly.
 
LMD:  I often sense that even if they’ve been hatching for a long time, documentaries are often presented because of what they mean at a certain moment.  Why do you think Halston’s story is coming out at this particular time?
 
FT:  Well, I know for me, personally, because the business storyline for me was so important to talk about, at this point in time where I feel like a lot of people are questioning whether this is Reaganomics {Laughs} that we’ve been in for like 30 years now, and what it is doing for the creative fields, or just the industry at large.
 
I think his story just resonates with so many issues that are important, or urgent today; homosexuality, inclusiveness, even the fact that he had problems being sometimes abusive to his staff is something that we’ve seen play out in the media in various ways, everywhere. 
 
As we were editing, it was very much in our minds to think about how Halston’s behaviour would’ve played out today, for example, very differently with social media and everything.  So, it’s a very current story, and I feel like the most important part is to revive his legacy, which has been completely forgotten, and to just kind of unearth this incredible body of work.
 
RB:  Well, just to add to that, there is a sense when you watch the film, I think there’s a yearning for freedom, because this was before the social media thing:  Then people would go to parties, and would mix things up, and it was fascinating.  He would have these lunches every day at the salon, and there would be all these people, and they would just have fun and it would be a mix, and you just don’t see it anymore.  And that’s what I personally yearn for, just the freedom to do things.
 
Halston releases in cinemas on May 24, 2019.
 
This interview is cross-posted on my own site, The Diva Review. Please enjoy additional content, including exclusive photos there.
 
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documentaryfashionFrédéric TchengHalstonRoland BallesterRoy Halston Frowick