Matthew Kaufman is one of the directors of the new documentary American Swing, available on DVD April 14, which tells the story of New York City’s infamous swingers’ club Plato’s Retreat.
Open from 1977 to 1985, the club was frequented by celebrities like Buck Henry and Mario Van Peebles and featured a buffet, disco, sauna, and a mattress room filled with people having anonymous sex.
The film takes a naked look at the storied establishment and includes interviews with former patrons and lots of behind-the-scenes footage. Matthew recently discussed the film in a phone interview.
What gave you the idea to make this move?
As a documentary filmmaker, you’re always looking for some great, amazing story that hasn’t been shown before. I had always read about Plato’s Retreat, and I knew about it as a teenage boy. So when I came across my partner, Jon Hart, he was a journalist that had written many articles about Plato’s Retreat because he had met [former owner] Larry Levenson while he was doing a story on taxi drivers and Larry was driving a cab.
I met Jon and looked at some of his material and said, “This would make a great feature documentary.” But no one wanted to pay for it, so I had to put up a bunch of my own money to make a trailer. And everyone saw it and said, “Show us more!” Ultimately it took a maverick like Mark Cuban to see the story and see that it would make a great documentary.
Who was your favorite interview?
By far it was Anne and Charlie Grippo [two former employees and swingers at Plato’s Retreat]. They were true-to-life characters. It was a five-hour marathon interview. They didn’t not want to be found, but they didn’t want to be found either. The first time I called they hung up on me. It took cajoling and cajoling to get them to sit down and do the interview.
What did it take to get people like Mario van Peebles and Buck Henry to talk to you?
Buck had been in one of Jon’s previous articles, so it just took a little cajoling. With Mario, again, it was a lot of phone calls and a lot of cajoling.
Getting people to talk about Plato’s Retreat was more of a nightmare than you can possibly imagine. Over the course of Plato’s existence quite possibly a million people went there. But it was almost impossible to get people, even those that weren’t famous people, to talk about it.
We placed ads in newspapers where the snowbirds are down in Florida and in California. I did not want to make a movie that had black bars or obscured faces in it. That’s bullshit. I wanted to tell the true story. And we were lucky enough to get a great group of people that make the movie special and make it believable.
If Plato’s Retreat were open now, would you go there?
I would absolutely go there. I’m not a swinger. Jon Hart is not a swinger. But I would absolutely go as a voyeur. I think anybody would go.
It didn’t have the same taboo then that it does now. It was a freaking destination! New York in the 1970s was crazy! You had CBGB’s, you had Studio 54 . . . they came to party.
And part of that party was going to the carnival that was Plato’s. You didn’t have to have sex. You could just watch. Sex was available, but it wasn’t requisite.
How much footage or photography could you find of what went on inside?
It was a huge challenge. To make it real, we needed to find this footage. Otherwise it would have been a bunch of talking heads. So we got great researchers and we went online and I feel as if we’ve gotten every image you could possibly find of what went on inside.
I can’t believe they allowed cameras inside.
They did, especially on special occasions. And there were documentaries done on it, and Al Goldstein, who was once a friend of Levenson’s, used to shoot episodes of his show Midnight Blue there.
As I was watching the movie I was amazed at how hot some of the women still look 30 years later, especially the photographer Donna Ferrato!
Yes! Everyone’s got their own predilections, but I always liked older women and you’re right, some of the women are still attractive, especially Abigail. They looked good then, they look good now. And they’re such nice people. Swingers are such nice people.
What was the most surprising thing you learned making the movie?
I was surprised at how open the people were. Who sits down and shares their memories so candidly? It also surprised me how wistful they were. They talked about it like it was the best time in their lives.
What Hollywood actress would you most like to see in the mattress room at Plato’s?
I would love to fuck Natalie Portman. She’s adorable and I wouldn’t have sex with her, I’d make love to her.
Do you remember the first nude scene you ever saw as a kid?
Conan the Barbarian. I snuck in when I was 13 or 14. I think it was Valeria (Sandahl Bergman), the super hot blonde chick.
What’s your favorite all-time nude scene?
Listen, porno is porno, but I do recall seeing Caligula as a youngster and thinking that it was just amazing. Being a 15-year-old kid and never having sex, and then finally losing your virginity . . . it never lives up.
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