Centering on the once famous fashion photographer Tony Moussoulides, Argyro Nicolaou and Margaux Fitoussi’s unique blend of narrative and documentary I, Tony is an exploration into what defines our character. It’s an insightfully transparent dive into Tony’s history and the ways in which he mythologises himself. Nicolaou and Fitoussi combine interview footage of Tony with reenactments of key (and potentially somewhat embellished!) stories from Tony’s life, which together provide a fascinating and creative look at the importance and construction of stories, and how we use them to define our existence. DN is really excited to premiere I, Tony on our pages today alongside a conversation with the co-directors about their journey in bringing it to life – from Tony’s initial Hollywood-style biopic proposal to the conscious approach they took in post-production to carefully construct an honest portrayal of a man from a bygone era.
Where did I, Tony begin and how did you come into contact with the formidable man himself?
The initial idea for a film about Tony Moussoulides came from Tony himself. Tony first contacted Argyro in April 2018, after reading an interview she’d given in a Cypriot newspaper. He claimed there were many people interested in making a Hollywood-style movie based on his life, and asked Argyro if she wanted to direct it. An 85-year-old fashion photographer with Hollywood ambitions? Argyro was intrigued. She took a call with him, despite the fact that a Google search came up with close to nothing on Tony’s work.
A few weeks after that call, we met for our usual catch up (we’ve been friends since grad school) in New York City’s Central Park. What began as a casual coffee date became an hours-long brainstorming session where the two of us started imagining what form a film about Tony could take. We realized we had stumbled upon a fantastic character, and agreed to try pursuing the project further. We spoke with Tony on the phone multiple times and began searching for his images in various public archives. Argyro also visited with him in his home when she was back in Cyprus for the summer.
What did you learn about Tony during those initial conversations?
We learnt lots about Tony’s childhood in Cyprus during the 40s and 50s, his work as a young man bringing dance and musical acts from Lebanon and Egypt to the newly independent island, and his career as a successful photographer in London, Hamburg, and New York, where he shot editorials for some of the best-known fashion magazines in the world, including Marie Claire, Elle and Glamour, and did commercials for brands like Yves Saint Laurent. We also relished listening to Tony’s outlandish stories from this time, including his experience of assisting John Huston on a film set in London, a bizarre scatological anecdote featuring Peter Sellers (allegedly, the famous comedian relied on Tony for quick-witted lines, which Tony could only produce on the toilet…), and an eventful photoshoot with Andy Warhol in New York, where Tony proposed to photograph the legendary artist as “a Byzantine emperor”.
During our pre-production research process, Tony loved to recount these stories over and over again, in the exact same way, with the same facial expressions, the same sound effects, and even the same punchlines. It was his way of convincing us that his life story was worthy of a Hollywood-style biopic. It became clear to us that Tony was not just a talented photographer who achieved professional success in the global metropolis of London; a remarkable feat for someone coming from an island colony of half a million people. He was also a great storyteller.
How did I, Tony evolve from Tony’s initial Hollywood-style film idea into this project, a more self-memorialising and reflective character study of him as this storyteller?
We were moved by Tony’s determination to make sure his career receives the recognition he believes it deserves, and we had a hunch that Tony’s obsession with making this film, and with cinema in general, was part of a larger self-memorializing project to ensure that his life story did not fall into obscurity after his death. We weren’t interested in making the feature film Tony dreamed of, but our conversations with him got us thinking: Who gets to be part of a global art and pop culture narrative/history, and who gets left behind? What would happen if Tony’s well-rehearsed memories were given a cinematic platform for expression? How could we accommodate Tony’s impulse for fiction in the space of a documentary?
After our initial exploratory conversations, when the two of us decided we were going to pursue the project further, we immediately informed Tony. It was important to us for the pre-production and production processes be defined by complete transparency. A documentary film does not ‘belong’ to the filmmaker alone; documentary filmmaking is a collaborative process that requires trust and communication between the filmmakers and their subject. We were very clear with Tony from the beginning that we were not interested in making a Hollywood-style fiction film based on his life. We pitched the idea of a documentary that would rely on re-enactments and on some of the scenes he had already scripted in his mind, and he loved it. Tony is an artist; he is creative and bold, and despite his age, he is up for a challenge. Where other people may have retracted at the playful nature of the documentary that we envisioned, Tony was game.
And how did you bring those questions to fruition?
The first choice we made during pre-production was making Tony’s desire for a Hollywood biopic the framework of our documentary portrait of him. It felt like the best, and most exciting way, to capture both his career and his personality. Tony had, after all, adapted much of his life into a film script, scenes from which he repeatedly shared with us, and which we decided to recreate within a studio setting. We took a gamble that Tony, who relishes attention and is quite performative and theatrical, would thrive in the reenactment context.
We wanted this documentary to be positioned in that liminal space between fact and fiction; between Tony’s biography and his imagination.
Placing Tony alongside Dimitris Chimonas, an extremely talented Cypriot theatre and performance artist was a decision we arrived at close to the end of pre-production. We felt that having a young performer step into the shoes of the most important men in Tony’s life reinforced the poignant blurring of representation and reality, memory and experience, youth and old age, that is at the heart of our documentary.
What’s more, we spent a lot of time discussing which scenes from Tony’s life to include in the film, and how to ‘dress’ each scene in order to sustain the minimalistic quality of the white-cube studio space while signalling the historical time period of each scene. As part of our research process, we watched films like Lars von Trier’s Dogville that artfully uses a sparse set to great effect; as well as documentaries that rely on reenactments, such as The Act of Killing by Joshua Oppenheimer and Teatro de Guerra by Lola Arias. There’s something really powerful about watching people act out stories from their own lives.
How did you find the challenge of riding that line between fact and fiction?
We wanted this documentary to be positioned in that liminal space between fact and fiction; between Tony’s biography and his imagination. We never for a minute doubted Tony had the career he did: his editorials for Glamour, Elle, Marie-Claire, and even Penthouse can be found in his personal archive. But, during the pre-production process, when we worked alongside our brilliant Producer Jake Alden Falconer, the elephant in the room was always how much of what Tony was telling us about his friendships and interactions with these mega-celebrities was actually true. We decided that it was ultimately irrelevant to us whether or not these stories had unfolded exactly in the way Tony recounts them. In fact, this ambiguity appealed to us, because it represents a very human need to weave one’s own narrative; to create a personal mythology that gives each of our lives meaning.
When it came to production, where did you shoot and how much time did you have with Tony to construct these scenarios and execute them?
I, Tony was shot in Nicosia, Cyprus, Tony and Argyro’s birthplace and Tony’s current place of residence, in December 2018. We only had three days to shoot. The first two were spent shooting long interviews with Tony, in which he charmed, and, at times, infuriated us. “Everything I tell you now,” he insisted, “is part of the script”. If he was not pulling us aside onto his plant-filled patio and complimenting us, he was dictating what images we should take in his cluttered third floor apartment in the heart of Nicosia. We then moved to the studio, generously provided to us by our co-producer in Cyprus, Marios Stylianou, for a full day of filming the reenactment scenes, which were shot in a 4:3 aspect ratio to emphasize the transition into the highly stylized world of Tony’s well-rehearsed memories.
Our Art Director Andriana Lagoudes and our Set Decorator Thalis Nicolaou did a great job sourcing costumes, furniture and props that helped us flesh out the setting of Tony’s memories. Because of timing and production constraints, however, we weren’t able to rehearse the reenactments before the day of the actual shoot, nor had we been able to introduce our performer, Dimitris Chimonas, to Tony. This element of surprise turned out to be crucial for the magic that came out of the studio shoot.
What was it like on that first morning when Tony and Dimitris met?
The tension was thick in the studio that morning. We spent hours the night before planning and testing the lighting for each scene. Our close relationship with Tony, and what we’d learnt about his character, made us confident that he could pull the reenactments off, despite his fragile physical state. Now all we had to do was wait to see what would happen: how would Tony interact with Dimitris? How would he respond to the set design? Would he tell the stories in front of the camera (and an eight-person crew) with the same pizzaz and confidence he’d recounted them to us in the comfort of his home?
We both held our breath as Tony sat at the table, ready to play himself as a child, scribbling a camel on a piece of paper, as Dimitris walked into the frame playing Tony’s first art teacher, a famous Cypriot painter called Telemachos Kanthos. And, then, it happened. Tony not only began to act out what he describes as the moment when his creative talent was first recognized; but he also began directing Dimitris, telling him how to react and what kinds of gestures to make to really bring Kanthos to life. The crew let out a collective sigh of relief. Tony and Dimitris’ interaction was quite touching, actually.
After that first take, we told Nicholas Stylianou, our Director of Photography, and our first AC Polymnia Tsinti, to keep the camera rolling, and Christos Kyriakoulis to keep recording sound, as it became obvious that some of the most interesting moments were happening between takes, and not during the reenactments per se. We also asked Renos Gavris, our gaffer extraordinaire who is also a talented filmmaker, to move around the set and take some handheld, behind the scenes footage, a lot of which ended up in the final cut.
Was it a challenge to piece together those between takes moments alongside the interviews when it came to editing everything together?
Back in New York City, we worked on post-production with Minos Papas and his company Cyprian Films, New York. We knew the film would transition between interviews and a ‘memory space’, the semi-fictive, staged setting where four scenes from Tony’s life are re-enacted. Our challenge was how to knit these two ‘modes’ together. Tony’s constant interruptions and directions to the performer, the crew, and to us, the filmmakers, broke the illusionary quality associated with narrative cinema, something we hadn’t fully anticipated during pre-production. This unexpected quality of the footage – the uncontrollable moments, that are, after all inherent to the magic of documentary filmmaking – appealed to us immensely. We decided to make these ‘in-between’ or behind-the-scenes moments a central component of the film, because of how they revealed the complexity of Tony’s character: obstinate but charismatic; tenacious yet tender.
We worked hard during the editing process to hit the right tone between giving Tony as an artist the platform his work deserved while remaining conscious of the mythology he’d spun about himself.
Editing, colour grading, sound design, subtitling, and music composition were done over the course of the summers of 2019 and 2020. Our Editor Stamos Dimitropoulos has a brilliant sense of timing and a knack for tongue-in-cheek montages. In addition to Tony’s personal archive of photographs and film, Stamos encouraged us to incorporate footage of Cyprus found in British colonial documentaries from the 1930s, 40s and 50s that Argyro had come across while working on another research project. This footage helped us create a feeling of Tony’s nostalgia for the past. It was important to us to visualize the kind of world that Tony grew up in, in order to also make sense of the kind of images (mostly of women…) he later went on to produce.
Reflecting on that, was there anything you had to wrestle with in regards to his character, or the era of photography that he came from when you decided to make this film?
Throughout the filmmaking process, we had grappled with the political undertones of making a film about a male photographer who was part of an industry, and a historical era, that created specific beauty standards, which inevitably objectified women. We did not want to make a film that left that tension unaddressed. For this reason, we worked hard during the editing process to hit the right tone between giving Tony as an artist the platform his work deserved while remaining conscious of the mythology he’d spun about himself. This is an issue that almost all non-fiction filmmakers have to face, to varying degrees, when working with their subjects, in the sense that one has to think long and hard about who owns the story that a documentary film sets out to tell.
For I, Tony, we worked to sustain a level of irony, not in the derogatory sense, but rather in the sense of a critical distance that would also reveal the often problematic aspects of Tony’s interactions with us. These interactions eventually made their way into the film, as a way of showing the complexity of Tony’s character, and his reaction to participating in a creative project in which women were no longer the object of the camera lens but the creative force behind it.
What projects are you both working on at present?
Argyro Nicolaou: I am currently working on my first feature script, titled Excavators: When a house fire destroys her refugee family’s only photo album from their ancestral home, Klio starts a fervent search for her grandmother, missing since the summer of the war that displaced the family fifty years ago, but finds her loved ones standing in the way of the truth.
Margaux Fitoussi: My multi-media artwork Songs of Bahara (in collaboration with Myriam Amri) explores sailors’ tales of the Mediterranean from the north-west coast of Tunisia; it will open at Berlin’s SAVVY Contemporary this fall. I’m also in post-production for Good Fortune: A quest to build the last Jew of Moknine a tomb leads three friends on an unlikely road trip through the Tunisian landscapes their families once called home.