Nick Broomfield: Life in the Fleiss Lane
Interviewing documentary filmmaker Nick Broomfield is like trying to outwit a fox. He knows the questions because he's asked them before; he knows what to say, how to say it, and most importantly, when not to change the subject. And he's got charm. Somehow, there's something genuine and nonthreatening about the director: he's not afraid to say -- or shoot -- what he thinks. And that's when you realize he's got you. He's lured you in like all the rest -- you've become a statistic on the Nick Broomfield sucker chart. At least there's safety in numbers. With more than 20 films under his belt, the esteemed British director has dealt with everything from monasteries (Fort Augustus, 1981) and prisons (Tattooed Tears, 1982) to mental hospitals (Whittingham, 1981) and women in the military (Soldier Girls, winner of the BAFTA award, 1983). He's sent up the British aristocracy (Proud to Be British, 1978), and made musicals (Driving Me Crazy, 1988, and Too White for Me, 1991). Most recently, Broomfield's made the award-winning Aileen Wuornos: The Selling of a Serial Killer, a film about the convicted murderer who became a victim in her own right, and Tracking Down Maggie: The Unofficial Biography of Margaret Thatcher. In Broomfield's latest effort, Heidi Fleiss: Hollywood Madam, the truth is an entirely elusive element. The film combines news excerpts and trial footage with interviews of Fleiss' family, friends, enemies, and the police. Broomfield searches for the real Fleiss, but what he finds out is that there's a thousand more lies to uncover. Or maybe they are truths overlooked. Broomfield's talent, however, lies not in finding out the truth of a situation but in revealing human nature at its best and worst. It's this quality, more than any other, that makes his films eminently watchable. Though his themes are often dark, his films are frequently funny. The 38-year-old Broomfield has an easy manner as he walks around his Santa Monica production office, which is a true filmmaker's haven: there are water stains on the carpet, blank white walls, huge windows overlooking a parking lot, and a cutting room filled with bins of footage. Breeziness aside, Broomfield seems to be a rarity in Hollywood: a serious filmmaker. Who else in this town would make a film about madam Heidi Fleiss in which she is the protagonist? The media's portrayed her as brassy, sassy, and cold. Tinseltown's spurned her, the cops have busted her, and judges in the superior and federal court have sentenced her. And Fleiss may or may not be a provocateur, but the British director decided to show another side of her in his new film. "I didn't know that I was going to like Heidi at all when I decided to make the film, but she's very mischievous, she's very funny, she's good company," says Broomfield at a nearby coffee shop. Insightful and amusing, Heidi Fleiss: Hollywood Madam explores the world of prostitution, drugs, police corruption, and high- stakes games. When all is said and done, though, Broomfield's documentary is really a sick-and-twisted love story about Fleiss and former director Ivan Nagy, who is currently producing a CD-ROM entitled Heidi's Girls. Everyone's experienced tumultuous relationships, but Heidi and Ivan's is trouble squared. They're both in denial, they're both consumed and obsessed by the other. It's the kind of affair that burns bright, engulfs everything in its path, and disintegrates only when there's nothing left to touch. Broomfield characterizes their relationship in the film by cross- cutting scenes of them contradicting each other. Ivan's saying he still sees Heidi; Heidi's declaring that she hasn't spoken with him in a year. But when Ivan calls Heidi at her store on a speaker phone, it's obvious from their conversation that not even a day has passed since they've spoken. "The more they abused each other, the more they caused each other pain, the more they wanted each other sexually," Broomfield explains. "They'd tell me all this [bad] stuff about each other. And then they would just fuck each other all night, you know. I suddenly realized at a certain point in time what [they were doing], and the rest of my crew thought I had finally lost my mind." It's obvious after talking with Broomfield that he too has been burned. He's rather evasive when it comes to his personal life: his answers are far shorter, the pauses longer, and the subject always returns to Heidi and Ivan. "I've never been interested in drugs and that kind of stuff, but certainly I think that I might have [done unhealthy things] with my sexual relationships on the abuse level. Maybe it's helped me to understand all that was happening [in Heidi and Ivan's relationship]." While most relationships only affect the people closest to them, Fleiss and Nagy's dysfunctional affair had far-reaching consequences, as Broomfield proves in his film. "Heidi and Ivan are so self-destructive that they managed to pull the city of Los Angeles in with them: the LAPD, the studios -- there was nothing they would not do to each other. It took on the whole of Los Angeles in the end," emphasizes Broomfield. Vivacious and amusing over the phone, Fleiss offers a different view. "When Nick interviewed me, my self-esteem was so low. I'd just been found guilty; I was not expecting that verdict. I happened to be very candid with him. But the obsessiveness and the relationship was inaccurate [in the film], and more of a reflection of his personal life and his relationship with that actress Amanda Donahoe than how my relationship was with the pimp Ivan." In response to Broomfield's claim that his relationship with The Thorn Birds: the Lost Years actress ended over a year and a half ago, Fleiss adamantly says, "No. Nick is still obsessed with this woman. Nick and I are good friends." She adds, laughing, "He told me he saw her at a party the other night and he was shaking so hard he couldn't even light his cigarette. He told me this yesterday. Maybe he's a little in denial -- how I used to be." Presented with this information, Broomfield laughs, "She's mischievous and clever. She's just trying to dodge what the film's about, which is her and Ivan. She's just trying to shift it on to something else. Everyone uses stuff they know about in their life in their work. But [my] relationship ended long ago." Like the above exchange, Heidi Fleiss: Hollywood Madam plays like a giant game of Telephone: the stories get wilder and wilder as they're passed from person to person, but in this adult version, everyone purposefully distorts the truth. "I think it's like Rashomon's story," says Broomfield. "Everyone lies and somewhere between the two lies the truth. But I think only in this film, they say things that they haven't said before. [Madam Alex and Ivan] certainly don't get quite so mad in other interviews." Perhaps they haven't been so provoked before. Broomfield could probably talk the devil out of his pitchfork and he's a persistent bugger when it comes to finding out what he wants to know. In one scene, the late madam Alex (who ran the call-girl biz before Heidi) is frustrated, saying heatedly over the phone, "You just squeeze and squeeze. I've already told you everything." Broomfield calmly continues to press her ("But I was just wondering...") until she hangs up on him. In another, Ivan Nagy calls him an idiot. The director explains, "You want to reach the real person and find out what's going on there. Sometimes a formal interview isn't the best way to do that. Often when people are provoked and they're angry or emotional, they're going to reveal a lot more about themselves than when they're seemingly under control." But there's no provoking Broomfield -- at least not on the surface. In a recent conversation, Nagy claimed that Broomfield had shown him his credentials and samples of his work before he made the film. Nagy remarks, "Unfortunately, what he neglected to say was that, up to this point, he collaborated on all those projects with his [ex- ]girlfriend [Joan Churchill], who's really the filmmaker and the talent of the pair." Offered Nagy's observation, Broomfield laughs. "Joan and I haven't worked together since we did a film on Lily Tomlin in 1988. Since then, I've probably made ten films. I just changed my style after we stopped working together. Joan's a brilliant cinematographer: she's got an amazing sixth sense about people, so she liked shooting in a particular style. It was almost like we had to stop working together. [But] she's still the first person I want to show all my films to." (Churchill gets a post-supervisor credit on Heidi Fleiss: Hollywood Madam.) Though Nagy feels that he's not portrayed accurately, that's not what bothers him. "I think [Broomfield] repeated everything that was falsely reported all through the period. I was willing to cooperate with him for nothing because I was misled into believing that he had a real sense of intelligent curiosity. But he's a checkbook journalist, a tabloid reporter. At least the tabloids pay you before they denigrate you." On hearing Nagy's words, Broomfield says, "That's fucked. He got really mad because he discovered he got less money than other people had been paid, because this town values itself entirely on how much you get paid, and nobody seems to have any self-worth at all apart from that. It was like I was saying he was worth less than another person. He got absolutely crazy." For the record, Fleiss disagrees with Nagy's assessment of Broomfield, contending that the latter is not a tabloid filmmaker. Money is virtually a character in Hollywood Madam. Almost every interview, every bit of information and footage, carried a price. Courtesy of the BBC, Broomfield shelled out some $30,000 to $40,000, a large percentage of the budget, just to get people talking. But actually paying people is not what's shocking. It's whom he had to pay. Broomfield says, "The only thing that was really surprising was that the police too expect to be paid." Not coincidentally, Broomfield's film raises questions about the LAPD. Interviews with ex-detectives -- including a paid former police chief Daryl Gates (Fleiss' favorite part) -- suggest corruption on the force. The former head of the organized-crime division, Gates' brother Steve, for example, is accused of using the services of a prostitute. A report was submitted but apparently no charges were brought against him. The film, Fleiss says, "really shows the inequities in the law. How unfair it is that I'm the only one going to prison. C'mon, seven years, three months, for this?" To what extent is the LAPD involved with local madams? As Broomfield points out, "Madam Alex had been in business 30 years. She'd been arrested a couple of times, but she never got any more than probation. She was a coded informant. She met with the police once a week, gave them a complete list of all her clients that she'd seen in the last week, passed on a great deal of information, and played the police game." Heidi, unfortunately, did not keep the "secret." She bragged about her girls, boasted about their $1,500 a night rate, and became the victim of an LAPD sting operation. Broomfield's film offers several theories on why Fleiss was arrested and convicted when other madams aren't. Fleiss herself believes that Nagy and Art Natoli caused her downfall, but the film reveals that she was a lousy police informant. Broomfield gives yet another reason: "When Heidi got into these fights with Ivan, she would give the police false information about Ivan, that he was a heroin dealer or whatever. I think Ivan's a lot of things, but I don't see him as a heroin dealer. So Ivan got arrested and the police would not have any evidence or would not be able to stick anything on him and they would look stupid. Obviously, they would get even more angry with Heidi." But the cops aren't the only ones angry at Fleiss. What about Hollywood? How can you make a film about Heidi Fleiss and leave out the industry that created her? "I think that's the obvious tabloid angle," Broomfield remarks. "I also felt very strongly that I didn't feel anything was being done wrong. It was between consenting adults. It was much more interesting to ask the question, Why did they arrest Heidi? [Prostitution] is legal 200 miles down the road [in Nevada], and it's always existed in Los Angeles, and [Heidi's] clients were using another madam the day after she was arrested, which was entirely known by the LAPD, anyway. What was it about Heidi? What was her world like? What made Heidi Heidi? And who is Heidi? I was much more interested in those questions than I was in finding out a couple more miserable film stars who have to go and see her." Broomfield may not be interested in the stars, but he does explore the sex. Interviews with various "Heidi girls" reveal the kinds of relationships Heidi's prostitutes had with their clients. They range from "He just made me wear a blonde wig and talk dirty" to Victoria Seller's reminiscence involving a coathanger, a hand towel, and a client's butt. Fleiss says, though, that some of Broomfield's information is inaccurate. "I don't even know the first three girls in the film who say that they know me and work for me. I've never seen them in my life." Asked if he believes his film is "true," Broomfield replies, "Films are very subjective. I'm not saying that this is an objective film or somebody else wouldn't have made an entirely different film. But that's my interaction with the people. The audience kind of get a sense of who I am in the film and they can see my interaction with the characters and decide whether I'm full of shit or what's going on." Definitely not a traditional documentary filmmaker, Broomfield becomes a character in Hollywood Madam, as important to its progress as Heidi or Ivan. At first, seeing the interviewer on camera seems ridiculous and a bit pretentious. But again Broomfield draws us in like the suckers we are. His assurance is slightly sarcastic: "I don't have some overwhelming need to see myself on film." More seriously he adds, "I think [my films] are like diaries. They're just a way of telling a story." Though Broomfield seems complex, Heidi's got him pegged. "I think he's pretty simple," she says. "I think he's kind of an English 'dingy.' Like that dingy kind of clumsy guy, but he really isn't. He's kind of suave and slick and he knows what's going on. He's the type that would purposely trip making an entrance [to give the impression otherwise]. I like him too." Later, when Broomfield is accused of telling people exactly what he wants them to know, he smiles. 'Doesn't everyone?"