The controversial true story behind Sam Mendes’s peeping Tom motel movie 

Sam Mendes accepts the award for Best British Film at the Jameson Empire Awards in March 2016
Sam Mendes accepts the award for Best British Film at the Jameson Empire Awards in March 2016

The disturbing true story of a man named Gerald Foos, who bought a hotel in order to secretly watch his guests having sex – his account, which covers a period of several decades, is the subject of a recent New Yorker article by Gay Talese – is to be made into a film by Spectre director Sam Mendes. Steven Spielberg will produce.

The original piece sparked a fierce backlash, due to the fact that Foos – a self-confessed sexual predator – will benefit financially from the project.

The hotelier’s assertion that he witnessed a murder and did nothing about it has also caused widespread concern.

Talese himself, meanwhile, has been accused of breaching journalistic ethics, and of participating in a sex crime himself – at one point in his article, he claims that he made use of one of Foos’s spyholes and witnessed a couple having sex.

Gay Talese in 2013  Credit: Evan Agostini

What is the original article about?

The New Yorker piece, titled The Voyeur’s Motel, was published earlier this month and is an excerpt from Talese’s forthcoming book on the same subject.

Written in the first person, it tells how the journalist was first contacted by Foos in 1980.

In a letter, the Aurora, Colorado-based hotelier claimed that, since purchasing his establishment in the Sixties and installing custom-built spying holes disguised as ventilation grills in the ceilings of some of his rooms, he had spent 15  years covertly observing his guests and writing down his “findings”.

“I have seen most human emotions in all their humor and tragedy carried to completion. Sexually, I have witnessed, observed and studied the best first hand, unrehearsed, non-laboratory sex between couples, and most other conceivable sex deviations during these past 15 years,” he wrote.

Talese went on to meet with Foos and see the observation grills for himself – and at one point describes how he himself watched a couple have sex.

“I saw what Foos was doing, and I did the same: I got down on my knees and crawled toward the lighted louvres,” Talese writes. “Then I stretched my neck in order to see as much as I could through the vent, nearly butting heads with Foos as I did so. Finally, I saw a naked couple spread out on the bed below, engaged in oral sex. Foos and I watched for several moments, and then Foos lifted his head and gave me a thumbs-up sign.”

“Despite an insistent voice in my head telling me to look away, I continued to observe, bending my head farther down for a closer view, “he adds.

Elsewhere, the article details a claim that  Foos once witnessed a murder – and did nothing about it.

In a “diary” of his voyeurism – written in the third person – he describes how he witnessed a male guest strangle his girlfriend, after discovering that stash of illegal drugs had disappeared.

The drugs in question had in fact been previously disposed of by Foos.

“The voyeur . . . without doubt . . . could see the chest of the female subject moving, which indicated to the voyeur that she was still alive and therefore OK,” he wrote of the strangling. “So, the voyeur was convinced in his own mind that the female subject had survived the strangulation assault and would be all right, and he swiftly departed the observation platform for the evening.”

The next morning, he told Talese, a woman was found dead in the room. The police were informed, but Foos did not tell them that he had actually witnessed (and arguably been a cause of) the murder.

Why the controversy?

In his article, Talese says that he was struck by the fact that Foos saw himself as something of a scientist or sociologist in the Alfred Kinsey tradition, rather than as an out and out sexual predator.

But a Jezebel article by Jaonna Rothkop,  titled Voyeurism is Not Research, has criticised Foos’s self-assumed “scientist” status, and suggests that by publishing excerpts from Foos’s records both Talese and the New Yorker may have legitimised his criminal activities.

“While Talese clearly presents Foos’ project as the work of a disturbed mind, it is also clear that he believes that it has some kind of value – to the point that he has reproduced much of his work here, and will do in much greater detail in an upcoming book about the motel owner’s life,” she wrote.

Rothkop also contacted a number of experts – researchers into human sexual behaviour – to ask whether Foos’s “work” has any real sociological or scientific value. All of them asserted that it did not.

An article in The Conversation, meanwhile, alleges that Talese has breached journalistic ethics, both by participating in voyeurism himself, and by helping to conceal Foos’s crimes.

“In my opinion, Talese was complicit in Gerald Foos' violation of his guests’ privacy, and not only because in the initial reporting of the story, he climbed into the motel attic with its owner and watched a young couple having sex,” writes Kim Walsh-Childers, a journalism professor at the University of Florida.

“By failing to report Foos’ actions – either in an immediate story or to authorities – Talese enabled Foos' unethical and, indeed, illegal action to continue unabated for at least 15 years longer.”

Others have rasied concerns over the fact that Talese initially said nothing about the alleged murder.

But the New Yorker’s editor David Remnick has defended the journalist from this specific criticism.

In an email to the Washington Post’s Paul Farhi he wrote: “While the scene is certainly disturbing (Talese writes that he was ‘shocked, and surprised’ to read the account in the journal), the New Yorker does not believe that Talese or it violated any legal or ethical boundaries in presenting Foos’s account of it to the reader.”

How will Foos benefit financially?

Foos received a fee for the use of his manuscript, sections of which are quoted in both the New Yorker piece and the forthcoming book.

Will there be any criminal charges?

According to The Denver Post: “Lynn Kimbrough, spokeswoman for the Denver District Attorney's Office, said the statute of limitations has passed for any crimes that might be connected to [Foos’s] voyeurism.”