ABOVE: KEVIN MAZUR WITH SOMETIME SUBJECT MADONNA
As a professional photographer for Rolling Stone, Kevin Mazur has spent the majority of his career behind the camera, immortalizing moments for the likes of Nirvana, Bob Dylan, Miles Davis, and Ozzy Osbourne. Throughout his nearly 30 years in the business, Mazur has always been intrigued by the moments happening on stage. In the last decade, though, after noticing a dramatic shift from those around him at concerts and red carpet events, an intrigued Mazur decided to turn the lens on his own industry to direct his first film, $ellebrity.
Mazur will be the first to tell you that he's the "good guy" in an industry that blurs high-end photography with the likes of the paparazzi. While a professional like Mazur is invited on yachts and into celebrities' homes for shoots, the other side is the fast-paced, often dangerous life of a paparazzo: scaling fences, climbing trees, and engaging in high-speed car chases for the perfect candid shot. (With sometimes tragic results.) From the second a photograph is snapped to when a person is whispering about the tabloid's narrative in a supermarket; Mazur explores the idea of fame, celebrity's intersection with consumerism, and the value of a single photograph.
With an admirably unbiased perspective, Mazur dissects the wide spectrum of fame from all perspectives, with candid interviews from film legends, paparazzi, and Hollywood royalty including Jennifer Aniston, Jennifer Lopez, and Rosanna Arquette. We sat down with Kevin Mazur to discuss his fascination with commercialized celebrity worship and the revealing process in making $ellebrity.
NIKI CRUZ: The documentary as a whole wasn't biased. Were you always aware of what you wanted your narrative to be, or did you find that out as you started to unveil your industry?
KEVIN MAZUR: I wanted to create a roundtable discussion about our culture's obsession with celebrity. We wanted to give the audience a behind the scenes of celebrity gossip and tabloids, and fame. We wanted to take it right into the history of fame to the present day of TMZ. From the moment a photograph is taken to this billion-dollar industry that produces the image that you see in these glossy magazines. I wanted people to get an idea of where it came from and the difference between photographers.
CRUZ: Other documentaries seem to focus on just the paparazzi end of the spectrum. Because you were open to create an unbiased conversation, how was it finding celebrities to participate in that discussion?
MAZUR: I had my friend David Wild do the interviews, so we got really candid interviews of all these celebrities, and they dropped their guards. A lot of celebrities didn't want to be involved if we were just going to bash the paparazzi. We wanted to tell our point of view, and I wanted the paparazzi to tell their point of view. This way we could create this roundtable discussion so people will learn and talk about it and to get an idea. Even some people in my family—nobody knew what a PR did, or a photo editor, or where these photos came from. That's what made me think about the documentary. I turned the cameras on the business that I'm in.
CRUZ: It was fascinating seeing the history and learning about how different the celebrity world was, and even a publicist's role back in the day.
MAZUR: That's the thing. As we were making the film, when we found out about Charlie Chaplin and how famous he became overnight, within a month. We had our researchers find footage of him being mobbed, and we said, "Oh, my God." Also Mary Pickford and how her and her mom came up with the percentage deal in stardom. Everybody thinks of Tom Cruise doing that, or Brad Pitt, but it's been around. We were very fortunate enough that we found one of the paparazzi photographers that Fellini would talk to when he was researching his film for La Dolce Vita. When Gilberto Petrucci and I were talking, he brought up Princess Diana and the car crash. He said, "It wasn't human. It was disgusting how they ran up to the car and took pictures. We were following Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor, and the car went off the road. We got off of our motorcycles and we helped them." The first instinct was more human.
CRUZ: When do you think that behavior was considered acceptable? Because our culture has always been celebrity-driven.
MAZUR: I think when people wanted to see more celebrities, in the '80s, '90s, [it was] more so because of the demand [for] photos. With the Internet, too, people want it and they can see it instantly, that instant gratification. People can go on a reality show and be famous. When they did a survey on kids in school of what they want to be, they said, "I just want to be rich and famous." I have children and they watch these reality shows, so that's where we went. We went to the boardwalk and talked to some kids down there to get that candid look on it.
CRUZ: When reality shows first started surfacing in the '90s, you had The Real World, but it wasn't like it is today. It was shot documentary-style, it wasn't about sex, drugs, and rock-'n'-roll, which seems to be part of the fame packaging. Why do you think that kind of fame now is such an agent of our culture?
MAZUR: People love the attention, and they want the money. They want to be famous. Then it kind of flips on you sometimes, some of these people, you get famous and it blows up in your face, and they don't want it. The reality stars seem to really go after it. A lot of stars are about their craft. You take a guy like Sean Penn, and he's all about the craft. He didn't care about being famous. He just wanted people to go to the movies to watch his craft. The thing is too, somebody like Sean Penn, you really don't know Sean Penn, and you see his different characters.
CRUZ: It was interesting how you covered the whole dichotomy of humanizing a celebrity so they're relatable only to later dehumanize them, and tear them down for a tabloid narrative.
MAZUR: Yeah, it's very degrading how they portray women in these tabloid magazines. We got a really nice candid look at that with Jennifer Aniston. Rosanna Arquette basically said she was a victim of it. They took a terrible picture of her in Hawaii, in a bathing suit and it was all over the place. She's thinking, "Oh, my God, do I really look that bad?" But with the photography if you're bending down at that angle, you look worse than what you are.
CRUZ: Lindsay Lohan was the perfect discussion piece for that, too.
MAZUR: With Lindsay, I think a lot of people are going after her for no reason. They see her, they harass her, she's a poor kid. I feel bad for her that she has to go through this. She's young! We were all out at that age, having fun. She can't even have fun because people attack her, and say malicious things to her and try to aggravate her.
CRUZ: You hear stories of how our culture uses the tabloids in general as escapism. If you look back 11 years ago around the time of 9/11, that's exactly around the same time that couples like Bennifer emerged. As a machine, we're using people's lives as a form of entertainment.
MAZUR: Yeah, it's so true. A tragedy like 9/11 happens, and people want to escape that. Some people dive into the tabloids. Now on the web it's constant, and blogs, it's there all the time. It's not just paparazzi, it's regular citizens using their cell phones, and sending their pictures to bloggers. They're being shot around on social networking.
CRUZ: Where do you think the line is between exploitation and coverage for you in your profession?
MAZUR: That's a good question. I look at it in a whole different way. I like my job, and I'm proud of the photos I put out there. My name is on those photos, and I built a reputation on putting out good photos. These other guys that take pictures on the street, who are exploiting people just to make a buck, that's not the way I wanted to make a living. When I was a young kid and starting in the business, Robert De Niro was doing The King of Comedy, and I was a ticket scalper. De Niro came out of his trailer, and I started taking pictures. He walked right up to me, pushed me up against a trailer, and said, "Don't ever, ever take a fucking picture without asking." And just walked away. I was just like, "Oh my God. I can't believe one of my idols just cursed me out." And it always stuck in my head. Years down the line I ended up becoming a staff photographer at Rolling Stone, and I was backstage with De Niro at a show and I said to him, "Because of you, you gave me the best advice in the business."
CRUZ: Do you think we can correct this as a society?
MAZUR: I doubt it, because now with the Internet and cell phones, it's like the wild, wild west. You can stop magazines from doing this, but you'll still have the bloggers and the Internet. A blogger can say something while working out of their garage. The celebrity goes after that person, and then they make the blogger relevant, and because of that they get more hits. I love documentaries, and if when I walk out of a documentary, I learned something, then I know it was a good documentary, and that's what I wanted with this one.
$ELLEBRITY OPENS IN LA ON JANUARY 11.