A new feature film based loosely on Bizarre, the splendidly raunchy Bushwick performance space and bar, doesn’t exaggerate for the sake of shock value. If anything, it’s a little watered down from reality, according to its owner.
“[The filmmaker] couldn’t put the craziest stuff in the film because I think he didn’t want to maybe shock too much,” owner Jean-Stephane Sauvaire explained. “But I like that many of the regular performers are in the film– it really gives a picture of the different sensibilities and different performers, and at the same time you feel they are all the same spirit.”
Bizarre the movie premiered last week at the 65th Berlin International Film Festival to a sold out screening. “People were asking a lot about the bar, like what’s going on there,” Sauvaire said.
Bizarre opened its doors in 2013 and quickly became the shabby-ornate backdrop for a truly spectacular Bushwick performance scene that brings together drag, circus, and burlesque acts onto one stage. But when Sauvaire first moved to Bushwick back in 2008, he had no ambitions to open a bar.
When he arrived the area was in “it-neighborhood” infancy. The Times hadn’t caught wind of Roberta’s, meaning hoards of German tourists weren’t filing out of the Morgan stop just yet; Bushwick Open Studios was still beta testing under the confounding name of SITE Fest; and one of the neighborhood’s first fancy condo complexes built for young finance and tech professionals, the Knick, was still just an ominous rendering.
Like a lot of people who move to the city, Sauvaire came here with a creative dream and an eye toward New York City’s storied, grungy past– some remnants of which still existed in Bushwick at the time. He had plans to shoot a contemporary, experimental film adaptation of the Jean Cocteau novel, Les Enfants Terribles, here but he needed a location. Specifically, he needed a house.
“One day I was walking around all over Manhattan and Brooklyn looking for a location when I saw this place from the outside,” he recalled. Sauvaire came across a turn-of-the-century, three-story abandoned brick building on Jefferson Street, not far from the geographic center of New York City. “I knew there was something really interesting about this house,” he said.
By chance, a man noticed Sauvaire snapping photos of the place and asked him what he was doing. It turned out the passerby knew the owners, and two weeks later Sauvaire was touring the building. “It was kind of a mess. It was raining inside, the water was coming down from the ceiling because it had been abandoned for I think eight or nine years,” he said. “But I thought it was the perfect location: the fireplaces, the moulding, this old antique house, it was all very interesting.”
The owners gave Sauvaire permission to move into the house and start setting up for the film. “But then I fell in love with it and I was like, fuck, I should really just buy the house,” he said. Sauvaire sold his apartment in Paris and began fixing the place up in preparation for the film. Suddenly, an investor pulled their pledge from Sauvaire’s film. “I was like, well I can’t make the film, but at least I have the house,” he said.
But Sauvaire still had some extra space and decided to open a bar on the first floor. He wanted to revive the avant-garde, Vaudevillian spirit of performance in New York City in the ’60s. “Back then, there were a lot of artists exchanging and being on stage and sharing their experiences,” he said. “The purpose of Bizarre was to create an extension of my living room, a place where I could meet people and see friends, and organize performances for people who want to be on stage.”
Sauvaire was determined to make the bar just as much a creative endeavor as anything else he’s worked on and explained that, when you think about it, opening a bar is a lot like making a film. “You have to set up the place, then you have to do casting– the staff and the performers,” he explained. “The idea was to make a more creative space, not just a bar but a place for people to meet and to express themselves on stage with freedom and creativity.”
Eventually Bizarre extended its reach, becoming something of a cultural institution– Sauvaire set up a gallery in the basement and even opened a small press, Bizarre Publishing, which released Meryl Meisler’s photography book, A Tale of Two Cities: Disco Era Bushwick.
Though he continued to make films, Sauvaire’s Les Enfants Terribles project never came to fruition. After things were in full-swing at Bizarre the owner’s friend, French filmmaker Etienne Faure, came for a visit and fell in love with the scene centered around Bizarre. “He saw the shows and the unique kind of freedom and provocativeness you don’t have anywhere except this, and it was really intense,” Sauvaire recalled. “He said we should do something on this, a documentary, a film or whatever, but we need to film this, to capture this time period.”
Sauvaire agreed and told Faure he would be ok with him filming in the bar, but had doubts that Faure would actually return to Bushwick to follow through. “I didn’t think he would come back, but three months later he came back with a camera person and some actors, and he said, ‘I have a script and I’m ready to shoot’.” Over the next month and a half, Sauvaire helped co-produce Faure’s film.
“It’s a mix between a coming-of-age story and a sexual awakening,” Sauvaire recounted of the story. Bizarre follows a 17 -year old French guy who comes to New York and ends up wandering around, bored and homeless. He catches a break when he meets two very attractive young women who happen to own a bar in Bushwick. They offer to provide him with room and board if he works at the bar. “They say you can stay here and work at the bar, if you help us, we’ll help you. He becomes the mascot of the place, working at the bar and at the same time working at the shows,” Sauvaire explained. “He becomes immersed in this provocative and free and crazy world.”
We asked Sauvaire if it was difficult for him to watch another director shoot a film in his bar. “It’s weird, because it’s your own world you’ve created, but at the same time I wouldn’t have done it myself. So I’m really happy he did it. Maybe we’ll do another [film] that’s a little different,” he said. “I really love when there are different artists working here– it could be a photo shoot, a music video, a film. I’m really happy there is this kind of artistic energy here. It’s an open place for everybody who wants to do some creative stuff.”
As Bizarre only premiered last week there are no plans yet for a screening in Brooklyn, but because the story takes place in an existing space, the film has the potential to bring a great deal of attention to Bizarre and even attract tourists. “I want to keep the integrity of the bar,” Sauvaire made clear. “I want Bizarre to stay how it was at the start, free and creative. The film can help with that– by reminding us of how it was last year, we can keep that going but be even more crazy and avant-garde and provocative.”