Peter Gatien has been no stranger to media coverage over the years, but he has become notoriously shy since his infamous ouster from the United States earlier this decade. He opens up about his complex battle with New York City politicians for the first time in the new documentary 'Limelight,' which hits select theaters this week.
Gatien rose to fame in the '80s and '90s when his clubs, including New York's Limelight, Tunnel and Party USA became the preferred stomping grounds of everyone from iconic fashion designers to rising stars like Jay-Z and Pearl Jam. The now-iconic '90s "club kids" gravitated towards spots like 'Limelight,' which became even more famous after the Hollywood release 'Party Monster,' in which Gatien was played by Dylan McDermott.
Gatien and his prominent clubs were eventually caught in the crossfire of Mayor Rudolph Giuliani's aggressive war on drugs, which is the primary focus of 'Limelight.' (The documentary was produced by Gatien's daughter Jen, who wanted her father's story told.) She recruited director Billy Corben and his company Rakontur ('Cocaine Cowboys') to orchestrate the complicated production.
"We said, 'If we do this, we're not working PR for your father,'" Corben recalls. "This is not 'Memoirs of a Gatien.' We will approach this with objectivity. Jen said, 'Yeah, that's what I wanted.'" The doc includes interviews with some of Gatien's more notorious former employees (including shady promoter Lord Michael) and the most famous club kid of them all, Michael Alig (who's now in jail for murder).
Moviefone sat down with Gatien during the Hot Docs festival in Toronto earlier this year. He opened up about everything from the painful memories watching 'Limelight' brought back to what he thinks is wrong with nightclubs today.
What made you agree to participate in this documentary?
Number one, my daughter is one of the producers, so obviously there's an element of trust there that was critical. Over the years, I've received some interest and some offers. Mentally, I just wasn't ready for it. I feel that this documentary is a work in progress. There are areas where it tells the story well, and other areas that it's too soft in.
What was it like for you watching some of the footage of people like Michael Alig and Lord Michael?
It's painful. That's where I find there's too much of a small sampling [of employees featured in the documentary]. Lord Michael worked there for a year and a half. He played a minor role in one of the nights in one of the clubs. I can't say enough bad things about that guy. It's pretty sad that the United States government based their case on people like that. In that interview he perjured himself. If Limelight, Tunnel, Palladium, Club USA were so accommodating to drug dealers, which is a theory of the government's case, why is it there were only four witnesses that they were able to get to tell their version of the truth, witnesses who incidentally made cooperation deals exonerating them or giving them a free pass on the many crimes that they committed? Clearly because their case was a high-profile case with the mentality of get him at all costs. They couldn't get credible witnesses because they didn't exist.
In this film and other films you're portrayed as the behind-the-scenes business oriented guy. What do you do for fun?
I read a lot. I love to read a lot of fiction. Basically I enjoy time with my wife and we have a 17 year old son who lives here in Toronto. I've lived a fairly simplistic life for the last few years.
Do you think there's a void now in terms of that kind of club culture?
My whole focus and marching orders to all the staff was we're here for one reason: that is to create culture. Whether it's art, music, fashion, presenting young designers, new DJs, new bands. At Limelight we broke Pearl Jam and Guns N Roses. I can't tell you how many great musicians came out of there. Same thing with fashion. I remember Jean Paul Gaultier and Thierry Mulger would come by and get inspired by the kids putting together snazzy outfits. Where now the energy seems to be put into how can I get a customer that comes in here and buys a $250 bottle and pulls up in a BMW. We put so much energy into drawing a real cross-section of society – y'know, gay, straight, black, white, indie, punk, rockers. In the end your club can be gilded in gold, but it's really the crowd that you draw that defines whether you're a success or not.
You mentioned you're working on developing a TV show, what will it be about?
I would like to intertwine the political world and the nightclub world. The nightclub world is often perceived as being totally occupied by sub-human sleazy people, and the political world with all these honorable people where quite frankly, I think there are more honorable people in the nightclub world than in the political world. The war on drugs. It's a fictional series based on composite characters and stories that I or the writers have met. But it is fictional for sure. I've got a commitment from a world-renowned performer who will be the DJ that comes from the ghetto and performs at clubs and overcomes the obstacles in his life. I'm quite confident that we'll be able to attract some really interesting talent to play the different roles. Given my history in the music industry, I know we'll be able to get a lot of cameos from a lot of the most accomplished performers who are out there now.
'Limelight' opens in select cities on Sept. 23.