Film directed by Daniel Claridge and Andrew Coffman explores case of New Yorker obsessed with solving 'largest unreported art heist' in U.S. history
What happened to a priceless art collection purloined from the exiled Queen of Iran?
That would seem to be a question of considerable interest to Her Imperial Majesty Farah Pahlavi, art experts, possibly Iran's current rulers and the FBI. As it turns out, the man most consumed by the case is Steve Talt, a guy in upstate New York intent on solving the "largest unreported art heist in the history of the United States."
Talt's enduring quest to get to the bottom of what happened to the missing masterpieces is revealed in the new documentary The Queen's Man, directed by Daniel Claridge and Andrew Coffman. The film makes its world premiere Thursday at DOC NYC.
As we began to shoot, we quickly tumbled down the rabbit hole with Steve, whose unyielding enthusiasm and imagination was contagious.
The Queen's Man might sound as if it fits squarely in the true crime category, and in a sense it does, but there are aspects to the story that steer it in the direction of a character study: a person who refuses to let something go, even when there are plenty of indications he should.
To understand the context of the documentary, it's important to know a few things. First, Talt served for a time as a bodyguard to the aforementioned Queen Farah. Second, members of the New York mafia are suspected of having pilfered the artworks from a Manhattan warehouse in 1980, but the "crime" was never reported. Third, Queen Farah has never authorized Talt's investigation and may have good reason to downplay whether any theft took place at all.
"As Steve is forced to reconcile himself to the fact that the paintings may be impossible to retrieve and that the Queen does not care about his investigation, it becomes increasingly clear that something far less material than a stolen masterpiece is really driving him," according to press materials for the film. "In the end, The Queen’s Man is about the way one man’s obsession creates purpose, peril, and adventure."
The filmmakers have exclusively shared a clip of their documentary with Nonfictionfilm.com. Watch it here:
The filmmakers provided more details on their documentary in response to questions I emailed them. Read our exchange here:
The Queen's Man is a film about someone who goes down a rabbit hole. Were you ever concerned as filmmakers that in agreeing to do the documentary you might wind up on a similarly endless quest as your subject? How do you draw lines on such a project so that you can complete a film even if the main character's "obsession" may never reach an end point?
Daniel Claridge and Andrew Coffman: Yes, for independent documentary filmmakers with limited resources, the potential indefiniteness of telling a story about a man endlessly pursuing an unauthorized investigation was daunting – but also the kernel of what made the story so interesting! We had both known Steve for many years prior to making this film (Daniel grew up down the street from him in Upstate NY), and what initially drew us to the project was that we knew how unusually persistent Steve could be in the face of ever increasing obstacles. Although we were certainly excited about the possibility that Steve could recover some valuable art, we knew from the very start that we had to make a film that could succeed regardless of whether or not there was a headline-making recovery at the end.
Inevitably, as we began to shoot, we quickly tumbled down the rabbit hole with Steve, whose unyielding enthusiasm and imagination was contagious. We felt like we had to document every potential lead Steve came across, taking seriously the possibility that something might come of it. But as the investigation hit roadblocks, we began to think in terms of Steve’s character and what would make for a meaningful cinematic journey. There’s an inflection point in the film, when it becomes clear that what we’re ultimately interested in is not the details of the stolen art investigation, but rather what is driving Steve’s undying loyalty to the Queen. Once the film begins to investigate the investigator in this way, we hope it takes on a new meaning that feels emotionally satisfying, even though the actual investigation still continues.
Are there any other documentaries you could compare your film to? One thinks perhaps of Lost in La Mancha, about Terry Gilliam's attempt to make a movie version of Don Quixote (although ultimately he was able to finally get his big screen adaptation made).
Claridge & Coffman: The Don Quixote reference is definitely apt here. Steve has been compared to Don Quixote by several of the featured FBI agents, and we often thought about Steve’s pursuit in terms of the character’s broader archetype: that of a man who launches out on a heroic quest in order to create meaning and mythology through sheer will power. The specific comparison to Lost in La Mancha is also appropriate because of the way it depicts a filmmaker’s process intersecting with his subject matter. There is a little bit of that going on in our film as well.
When it comes to thinking about how to capture eccentric characters, we’ve certainly drawn inspiration from other iconic documentary portraits, such as Grey Gardens and the work of Errol Morris, as well as the more recent films of Jesse Moss. But we’ve also enjoyed playing with more familiar fiction genres (the mafia thriller, art heist caper, etc). To that end, the Coen Brothers’ films are an unending reference point, because of their sense of humor and the way they’re able to blend high and low elements. Burn After Reading is top of mind, if only for the fact that it also depicts unlikely investigators getting swept up in an international intrigue!
What does it mean to you to hold your world premiere at DOC NYC?
Claridge & Coffman: It’s a real honor to have our world premiere at DOC NYC, especially because the film is such a New York story. Almost all the shooting took place in Manhattan (where the heist occurred), on the mafia’s old stomping grounds in Brooklyn and Long Island, or Upstate where Steve lives. And since production took place in NY, many of the friends and colleagues that supported the film are able to attend the premiere and celebrate with us, which makes the occasion even more special.
We both grew up in New York (Andrew in the city and Daniel upstate), so it’s a real dream come true to be able to screen at the IFC Center, where so much of our cinematic taste has been shaped. We’d like to thank Thom Powers, Basil Tsiokos, and all the programmers at DOC NYC for believing in our film and giving us this opportunity.
Matthew Carey is a documentary filmmaker and journalist. His work has appeared on Deadline.com, CNN, CNN.com, TheWrap.com, NBCNews.com and in Documentary magazine.