Film & TV

The Gospel According to André Proves True

Director Kate Novack shares what it was like to document the life of one of fashion's greatest and eccentric figures.
Reading time 10 minutes

The fashion world is not too different from a theatrical play. There are lights, costumes, makeup, and roles for almost everything you can think of, but mainly, fashion boasts a colorful and eccentric cast of characters. 

There is Anna Wintour, the primadonna/high priestess editrix of American Vogue, whose signature bob hairstyle and oversized Chanel sunglasses are instantly recognizable and simultaneously feared. Then there is Grace Coddington, whose fiery red hair and silk pajama sets have become a symbol of who she is marking a separation between the simplicity of her self-presentation against the extravagant and fantastic editorials she produces — the list goes on and on. 

But among this cast of fashion people, there is one in particular whose looks and personality have both made him an undeniable force in both the industry and beyond: André Leon Talley. 

No one has made quite the impact on the world the way he has. His fashion commentary is both entertaining and educational. His irresistible gusto for life and beauty are always front-and-center. As a gay black man, he has caused us to rethink and rebuke stringent cultural norms that have for so long been considered normal. And now, he is the subject of a new documentary—The Gospel According to André—that explores the many intricacies that make up the man. 

"My producer Andrew Rossi directed a film called First Monday in May, about the Costume Institute at the Met," director Kate Novack tells me. "André was in that film and he participated in some Q&As in theaters when it opened in New York. At one of them, a young, African American man in the audience stood up and said, 'I moved to New York to study fashion. My parents don't think what I do is real but I know it is because I saw you do it.'"

She continues: "I think for many people André represents the possibility of becoming who we want to be, of not hiding from the world, but of embracing it." 

 

 

It is because of this, and many more reasons, that made Leon Talley the perfect candidate for a documentary. In it, Novack brilliantly tells his life story, peppering in current events of the traumatic kind (like the 2016 election) and creating a conversation about larger societal and cultural issues. 

Below, L’Officiel USA speaks with Kate Novack about the documentary and what it was like to document the life of one of fashion greatest and most eccentric figures. 

How did you get started in filmmaking? 

My route into filmmaking was through journalism. I went to journalism school and started as a print reporter at Time. I covered arts, media and, for a while, fashion and design there. But if you go even further back, growing up my friends and I used to create fake commercials on a flimsy video camera and, in college, I studied film. My senior year, I directed a silent film called Den of Women, which was sort of a horror movie for men and was probably not that appreciated at my very testosterone-driven college. 

 

Why decide to make a documentary about someone who was alive? 

Someone asked me after a screening if I'd ever considered making a scripted movie about André. But who could play André Leon Talley better than André? He totally captures the screen — with his capes and caftans, his 6-and-a-half-foot tall frame and that booming voice. At the same time, there are so many layers to André. For as much as he is a performer, he is also a deeply contemplative man who is moved by nature and solitude and has had to sublimate a lot of pain over the years.  

 

Why do you think André was charismatic? His magnetism? 

André is outrageously funny. He dresses unlike anyone else around him. He's a master storyteller. He can drop references from literature, film, history and, of course, fashion. He also has a childlike quality that's perhaps unexpected that makes him approachable and warm (most of the time!). 

In addition to photographs, archives, and interviews, what else went into the research process? 

The heart of the story is about becoming and so at the beginning, I really focused on understanding what inputs had made André who he is.

One of the first things I did after we started production was contacting Brown University to request a copy of André's thesis. He got a master's in French literature there and wrote about North African figures in the painting of Delacroix and the writings of Baudelaire. I later learned that André was so impressed that I'd actually found his thesis — but it told me so much about him!

After our first meeting, André sent me and Andrew [Rossi] a very long and passionate email about his favorite movies, poems, songs and moments. So we re-visited many of those films (by Visconti, for example), poems (e.g., “Mother to Son” by Langston Hughes), books (John Fairchild's Fashionable Savages), and music (most notably, “Precious Memories,” the slow Gospel song that plays toward the end of the film and is André's favorite song from church).

Later, my wonderful editors Andrew Coffman and Thomas Rivera Montes built scenes weaving together many of those seemingly disparate influences.

 

How/why did you all come to divide the film into chapters? 

The movie is called The Gospel because it is meant to be André's telling of his own story. The four chapters are meant to reference the four Gospels. I think they also help give the film a structure that then allowed us to incorporate more chaos and movement within the film. 

What influenced the decision to include the 2016 Election? 

Someone recently posted that the movie emerges as the first great film about the cultural and social impact of the 2016 election. That was really the idea: I thought there was historical value in documenting the experience of André's transition from the first African American president to a Trump presidency. Also, I view André's story as an American success story, with all of the pain and struggle that journey involved.

In a very emotional interview in the film, André speaks about how he wished his grandmother had been alive to witness the election of President Obama. He wanted her to see how much the country had progressed with regards to racial equality. At the same time, he was watching a car crash unfold in slow motion on the national political stage. The personal and political storylines became almost foils to one another. If Hilary Clinton had been elected, I'm not sure the election would have been such a big part of the film. 

 

What, if anything, surprised you the most? 

André has a childlike quality that I did not expect. In the movie, he says, "You have to see the world through the kaleidoscope eyes of a child." Most days, he does, I think.

What do you think will surprise audiences the most? 

André's over-the-top public persona is so finely etched that I think audiences will be surprised to discover that he is also deeply contemplative and needs quiet and solitude. He enjoys watching a bunny frolicking in the grass as much as he loves a beautifully aged Louis Vuitton trunk.

 

For someone who hasn’t seen the movie, how would describe what you all made? 

The Gospel According to André traces André Leon Talley's journey from the segregated Jim Crow South to the front row of high fashion, or what he likes to call, "The chiffon trenches." It's also a film about the struggle to become who we want to be and the power of unconditional love.

 

Did you notice a change in André throughout the filming process? 

At a certain point along the way, I think the process of making the film and of looking back on his life may have become cathartic for André. We had a vibrant email correspondence throughout production and, after shoots, he would email me with memories that we would return to when we saw each other. To me, the movie is partly a portrait of getting older and the act of remembering, although hopefully, André has many more years to come. 

How did this documentary challenge you compared to your previous projects? 

I've worked for several years as a producer, and this was my directorial debut. So it was an inherently new and more challenging (and exciting) experience. Some of the films I've worked on as a producer in the past — for example, Page One: Inside The New York Times, which I produced along with the director Andrew Rossi — went inside institutions to uncover characters like David Carr, the paper's late media columnist who was the 'star' of that film. Gospel was first and foremost about building trust and intimacy with one person, who has a unique and fascinating mind and temperament used to craft his own image. 

 

Was it difficult to get André to open up?

André often compares the process of making the film to having open heart surgery! But I was clear from the very beginning that I wanted to tell a story we hadn’t seen before. For me, one of the most emotional scenes in the film is at the Condé Nast archive.

We'd spent the day looking through Vogue magazines — from the issues that André had admired as a 12-year-old boy in Durham, North Carolina to the first Michelle Obama cover, which he wrote. I thought it would be an informative and probably funny day — and it was. But I never expected that it would also be a moment when André would open up about the racism he has faced in the industry and the lasting pain it has caused him. It's something he'd never really talked about before publicly.

I hadn't envisioned André in the archive, wearing white gloves (required to handle the archival materials), wiping away tears. But human beings are complex and unpredictable. Empathy and patience go a long way. 

 

What was the most rewarding part of making this film?

When audiences come up to me after screenings and thank me for making the film, and specifically for showing the struggles André has navigated, it's incredibly moving.

The Gospel According to André hits theaters May 25

related posts

Recommended posts for you