Interview with Joe Forte – Writer/Director of The Man Who Saved Ben-Hur
Joe Forte is the successful filmmaker, painter, and screenwriter of movies like Firewall starring Harrison Ford. His new documentary, The Man Who Saved Ben-Hur, is the intriguing true story of John Alarimo Jr., Forte’s second cousin, whose story remained unknown until now. Alarimo worked behind the scenes of numerous Hollywood productions and befriended the stars in the glamour days of Hollywood. Decades later, Joe Forte documented his amazing story which is now available to watch on Digital and DVD.
RELATED Film Review: The Man Who Saved Ben-Hur – A Touching Documentary (With Exclusive Photo Gallery)
Forte took the time to talk to The Silver Petticoat Review about The Man Who Saved Ben-Hur, his filmmaking background, the enigma of Johnny Alarimo, and what he’s working on next.
Amber: Congratulations on the release of your documentary, The Man Who Saved Ben-Hur! For those who are unfamiliar with the film, how would you describe what it’s about?
Joe Forte: It’s kind of like a detective story. Johnny was a family member who was an enigma to me. He had this incredible life behind the scenes in Old Hollywood and had these fascinating relationships with some of the biggest film icons of the 20th century, including Elizabeth Taylor, Rock Hudson, Bette Davis, Gloria Vanderbilt, Charlton Heston, Richard Burton, Gore Vidal…
Over the years, Johnny would tell me these amazing stories, but somehow he remained elusive as a man. The impulse behind making the film was to find out who the person behind all the stories really was.
Can you talk a little bit about yourself and where your filmmaking interests may have come from?
Like Johnny, I love telling stories. I studied film at NYU and was lucky enough to become a successful writer in Hollywood. I wrote the film Firewall which stars Harrison Ford and am now directing as well. I think what attracts me to filmmaking is the opportunity to connect with an audience. When something you’ve made touches or excites another person, there’s no better feeling in the world.
Do you feel your painting and screenwriting background influenced your filmmaking? If so, how did it affect your approach to filming The Man Who Saved Ben-Hur?
I began exploring painting about ten years ago. It began as a hobby, but has become a big part of my life. For me, it’s another way to explore storytelling. Several years back I became drawn to collage and started mixing that with the painting. Collage is a lot like Film Editing: connecting two disparate elements, whether it’s a piece of paper or a clip of film, and discovering a connection or association that wasn’t there before. That experience of discovery is something I really love.
What were some of the challenges you faced getting this very personal documentary made?
The whole thing was a challenge! But a total joy as well. I started off wanting to document Johnny’s life, but as things went on, actually ended up becoming responsible for his life. Helping him manage his last years was overwhelming at times, but also a privilege.
While watching the film, I was surprised by how emotionally moved I was by it. John Alarimo Jr. was surrounded by glamour and movie stars but it was who he was as a person that most intrigued me. Is that how you felt making the film?
Yes! Johnny was absolutely fascinating. He was smart, charming, funny, demanding, irascible, and his stories were incredible. Anytime I felt I’d gotten a handle on him, he’d totally surprise me. He was very private and the first time he’d ever let me in his home was when we started making the film – even though we only lived about a mile apart for years. I was afraid that in digging around I might ask a question that got too personal and he’d kick me out! I was actually surprised and delighted by how vulnerable and open he became as we made the film. The process turned into this very powerful collaboration.
I personally loved how the film was about how everyone has a story – at least that was how I interpreted it. Is that something that draws you to storytelling? Uncovering what lies beneath the surface of every individual?
For me, Johnny’s stories were a kind of mask. He would always tell them in the same exact way, no matter how many times I’d heard them. It was as if they were written and directed. I started to feel they became a stand in for intimacy. He was at once charming and elusive and he became this puzzle I just needed to solve. The journey of the film is the journey of me trying to decode him.
While watching the film, I felt drawn into this man’s charisma and his amazing life. Yet, like how you described in the documentary, it always felt like he was hiding some part of himself. As a viewer, I felt like I did learn quite a bit about him but I still felt like there was still more to uncover (which is, I’m sure, true about every person; we all hide parts of ourselves we feel too vulnerable to share). How would you describe him as a person? How do you think he would want to be remembered?
Johnny was a very powerful person. He was charismatic, as you say. I also think he created a world in which he was isolated and lonely. He had a temper. And was also someone who did not easily give his trust. That’s what made him so compelling to me. I think he’d want to be remembered as a storyteller. A man who lived his life in film. A guy who had all these dazzling experiences. I think, looking back, he couldn’t quite believe the life he had led either.
Johnny Alarimo was obviously a man with many stories. Were there any stories that didn’t make it into the film you would be interested in sharing? A story that stands out to you?
So many. There’s a great story about him helping Gloria Vanderbilt strap fertility drugs to her stomach at Charlie Chaplin’s house in Switzerland! Gloria talks about it in her son Anderson Cooper’s documentary, Nothing Left Unsaid. I couldn’t fit Johnny’s version of the story into the film, but it’s in the extras on the DVD.
Watching the film, it made me want to grab a camera and film all my older relatives to find out what their stories are. How important do you think it is for people to document their family’s histories?
I think it’s an industry waiting to happen. Warhol said, “In the future, everyone will be famous.” I’d like to add to that by saying “In the future, everyone will have their own documentary.” Even if you don’t make a film, recording the stories of parents, grandparents, uncles, etc., is an incredible way to get to know them. You not only understand where they came from, but where you come from. I’d say don’t be intimidated by the prospect of making a whole film. Just start by doing interviews and see where you end up. You can always make a film later.
What is the best way for people to see and support the film?
The film is available on Amazon, iTunes, Vimeo, Google Play and DVD. If you love, or even like the film, the greatest way you can support the film is by telling someone else! Tweet, post on Facebook, stuff a stocking with the DVD. Johnny would love that.
You’re a director, a screenwriter, a painter…Do you have any other projects in the works you can share or tell me about?
I just finished directing a limited series called Break Room which I created with my wife Meg Lefauve (Inside Out/The Good Dinosaur, Captain Marvel). It’s actually a comedy like Taxi or The Office. It takes place entirely inside the break room of a third rate amusement park and centers on five of the park’s characters and their struggles with life, love and their own irrelevance — 10 minute breaks at a time. We’re in post and considering whether to release it as a Web Series or sell it to a network. We’re excited.
How can people best follow and support your work?
Thank you for taking the time to talk to me! Before we go, is there anything else you would like to add?
Just that making this film was such a privilege. It really made me see my life in a whole new way and I hope your readers have the same experience.
Make sure to watch the official trailer for Joe Forte’s documentary film, The Man Who Saved Ben-Hur!