NEW YORK — A pair of filmmakers thought they’d be capturing celebrated writer Gay Talese taking a literary victory lap in their new documentary. Instead, they got something more like a journalistic car crash.
In the intriguing and thoughtful “Voyeur,” Myles Kane and Josh Koury explore the 30-year relationship between Gerald Foos, a former Colorado motel owner who spied on his guests, and Talese, known for his novelistic profiles and bespoke suits.
The Netflix film, which debuts Friday, follows Talese as he reports and writes about his creepy friend for the 2016 book, “The Voyeur’s Motel,” only to see the story fall apart after publication when Foos’ account unravels.
“It’s sort of this love affair that’s doomed, in a sense, because each character unintentionally in some ways takes the other one down,” Kane said. “There’s a poetic justice where things go.”
Talese and Foos first connected in 1980 when the motel owner sent the journalist a letter hoping he would share his story of secretly watching guests for years through ceiling vents — in the interest of science, of course.
Intrigued, Talese, who spends extended periods with his subjects, visited the motel and even took a turn spying.
“I’m a natural person to write about a voyeur because I’m a voyeur myself,” Talese explains in the film.
But Talese, now 85, waited decades to write anything, choosing a few years ago to reconnect with Foos, who kept detailed notes about what he saw.
We watch as the two discuss the book, hear their phone calls and prepare for a media sensation once the story comes out.
Kane and Koury, who previously collaborated on the documentaries “Journey to Planet X” and “An Immortal Man,” say the overriding force for both the aging Talese and Foos is their desire to shape how they are remembered.
“Here are these two guys who met half a lifetime ago and here they are — 35-plus years later — and what’s driving both of them, for different reasons, is they’re both desperately wanting to define their legacies, the way they see themselves and the way they want to be remembered or seen by the public,” says Kane.
There are warning signs immediately, particularly since the book relies too heavily on Foos.
“He’s my single source and you’re unwise to have a single source,” Talese confesses about halfway through the film. “How do I know if this guy’s totally exaggerating?”
In one of the film’s more impressive flourishes, the filmmakers mix footage of the book being printed on big machines with shots of a fancy new blue suit being stitched for Talese. That works like foreshadowing.
“Both things are constructed out of nothing. They seem sturdy by the end but they’re really basically put together by a lot of delicate threading,” Kane said. “Some of those threads were going to start unspooling in a couple of minutes in the film.”
Things start to falter when factual problems emerge in Foos’ account and Talese quickly disavows the book (he later disavows the disavowal).
We see a celebrated journalist anguished that his reputation is lost. He fears he’ll be known as a liar.
The filmmakers got unprecedented access — like intimate scenes of Foos and his wife dressing up to meet the always-natty Talese — and they managed to get footage of the inside of the Manor House Motel, which has since been torn down.
They didn’t sleep over.
“It’s not the kind of place you want to stay overnight,” Koury said.
The loss of the motel — the filmmakers later ingeniously augmented their footage with a miniature model — actually wasn’t as devastating to Kane and Koury as you might think.
“The fact that it was demolished worked narratively, in a strange way,” Koury said. “It’s almost as if the actual hotel disappears and it makes everything even murkier about what was real and what wasn’t.”
It certainly is a fascinating look at a fascinating man, even if Kane and Koury didn’t anticipate their film catching it all in real time.
“If it turns in a direction that you couldn’t have expected, that’s usually a good sign that real life is unfolding,” Kane said. “It’s almost always better than what you could of conceived of.”