Filmmaker Dan Klores' history is a bustle of contradictions. But his life's accidents and choices have made him one of the most skillful and provocative documentarians around. A fan of high shoe-leather journalism, he's empathic and deft at filling in the context of so-called tabloid stories.
Klores' Ring of Fire: The Emile Griffith Story, dug into the psychological effects of Griffith's killing Benny "the Kid" Paret in a title boxing match, just as his new film, Crazy Love delves beneath the surface of the bond between Burt Pugach and the woman he scarred for life, Linda Riss.
As Klores explains over the phone from New York, journalism, scandal, publicity and second and third acts - all the stuff that makes his films compelling - have been part of Klores' background, too.
A native of Brooklyn, N.Y., he studied journalism at the University of South Carolina, but Klores admits that, through his teens and young adulthood, all he cared about was "playing ball, getting high and girls."
In the 1970s and early 1980s, Klores says, he was becoming "a pretty good writer," freelancing for New York-based publications about sports and "cops and robbers" stuff - a lot of "white-collar crime before it was called that, like pyramid scams." But he soon realized that a $250 payday could be all he had to show for a week's work, an unused piece could result in a minuscule "kill fee," and a $4,000 check from New York magazine was a rare gold mine.
Clean of drugs for seven years, he decided he had to make steady money. He took a job doing public relations in a political campaign, and, at 29, earned his first regular paycheck. He started working 15 to 16 hours a day and building a business of his own, Dan Klores Communications. His firm specialized in public relations for clients in crisis: an airline that has a crash, a candidate with messy personal issues, a celebrity in any kind of "major jam," a hospital or a bank accused of bad practice or fraud.
He's happily married to his second wife, Abbe, and they have three kids. But he suffered a crisis eight or nine years ago.
Making delayed payment for drug abuse in his teens and 20s, he developed Hepatitis C.
"I had to do the treatment that involved taking Interferon, and it wasted me, physically and emotionally, for a year," Klores says. "It was the weirdest thing: The doctor tells me over the phone that if I don't take the treatment, I'll die in four years."
Klores figures that this medical calamity may have been what prompted him to ask, "What am I doing?" He'd never felt he'd tapped his innate creativity. And because he'd pulled together a group of 150 people with a special bond at his PR firm, he was able to say, "I'm going to be doing this now" - and make movies. "The firm still has my name and generates income for me, but I will be out of it very, very shortly."
The Boys of 2nd Street Park (2003), Klores' first documentary, chronicled the tumult of the '60s through the lives of the friends Klores grew up with. When it became an official selection at seven major festivals, including Sundance, and won a Jury Award at the RiverRun Film Festival, Klores was on his way. (Ring of Fire and Crazy Love were also selected for Sundance.)
"I could tell a story, work hard and interview people, get things out of them," Klores says. But as a filmmaker, he thinks he's still improving. One thing he knows he needs is an emotional connection to the material.
Although sports informed his next two films, he saw Viva Baseball (2005) as a tale of Latino players bringing the American melting pot into the American pastime. Klores' Ring of Fire (2005) was the story of the media and one sweet, sensitive man and explosive fighter, Emile Griffith, handling the politics of being gay or being thought gay in the closeted early 1960s.
Both Ring of Fire and Crazy Love are rooted in news articles that stuck in Klores' mind from his childhood in the 1950s and early 1960s.
"At that time," he says, "not only was I impressionable, I was sort of innocent and fairly content. It was just a little bit later that I started becoming this really angry kid and acted it out in self-destructive ways."
And volatility recollected in tranquillity has become one of Klores' documentary specialties.
"I don't consider these tabloid stories," Klores says. "When I grew up we didn't call the Post, or the Mirror or the Daily News tabloids - they were just 'the papers.'
"Most of my movies do take place in working-class or lower-middle-class areas of New York," he adds. "But I think the emotional pull that dragged me to Ring of Fire and Crazy Love has something to do with the idea of losing love and ending up alone - you can be married and end up alone, like Burt and Linda in Crazy Love. And in Ring of Fire, we see Emile living with a fellow whom he calls his adopted son, [a throwback to a time] when an older gay man would romance and fall in love with a younger gay man and adopt him, so they could live together much more comfortably in the eyes of the outside world."
Klores knows attaching the word "love" to Burt Pugach's obsession with Linda Riss in Crazy Love is a risk.
But he says the despair Pugach felt at the prospect of losing her - the anguish that led him to feel that if he can't have her, no one can - is "exactly 100 percent what attracted me." Have you ever had your heart broken? I remember when I was 19 or 20, and my heart was broken for the first time, and for two years I never thought there'd be a day when she would leave my mind. Would she ever get out of my head, would I ever stop thinking about her when I walked on the street or got into the subway? Of course, the craziest thing I did would be to call her up and hang up if she picked up the phone."
Klores' next documentary, Black Magic, will air in two parts for four hours on ESPN in March.
He says it's another Klores sports movie that's more than a sports movie: "It's about the injustices that defined the civil rights movement, as told through the lives of basketball players and coaches who attended historically black colleges."
Bowie State figures prominently in the film, and so does a Baltimorean named Woody Sauldsberry, 1958's NBA rookie of the year.
Klores says Sauldsberry was "a tremendous player in his day.. But he was also very outspoken, and for a black guy in the late '50s that posed immense problems."
It sounds like a perfect subject for Klores, a filmmaker who eschews sentimentality but uses a clear mind and a robust heart to reopen controversies and illuminate them with bold new light.