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Interview: Danny Moynihan - The Boogie Woogie man

Living at the heart of 1980s art scene, Danny Moynihan didn't have to look far for material for his first screen venture.

• Jean (Gillian Anderson), Bob (Stellan Skarsgard Maclestone) and Art Spindle (Danny Huston) in Boogie Woogie

DANNY Moynihan's first film, Boogie Woogie, rips the covers off the international art market. A sly, sexually charged satire with a stellar cast, it depicts a world where money trumps taste, centuries of art history have been binned in favour of shock tactics and arresting images and where artists, dealers and collectors are all trying to screw each other, literally and figuratively. Sometimes even abstractly.

It's a story that writer and producer Moynihan, a boyish 50-year-old, is well-placed to tell. Raised in arty 1960s Chelsea by painter parents Rodrigo Moynihan and Anne Dunn, he trained at the Slade and became an art dealer in 80s London and then New York, "the days of Studio 54 and people taking loads of cocaine, people like Basquiat (who turned graffiti into art and overdosed aged 28] really caning it".

Moynihan became friendly with super-artbrokers Larry Gagosian and Jay Jopling. In the early 90s he shared a pair of apartments and a studio in Jasper Johns' former loft with his "very good friend" Damien Hirst and Hirst's girlfriend, now wife, Maia Norman, who had previously been with Hirst's dealer, Jopling. "There was a bit of argy between Damien and Jay then," says Moynihan, "but it was weirdly like an 18th-century accord: 'OK, you can take my girlfriend, but I'll retain you as an artist.'"

Moynihan seems to know everyone, and in the past had a sideline letting rooms in his elegant Chelsea townhouse/studio to the likes of Hirst, John Malkovich, Nick Cave and Sophie Dahl. The mid-90s were "a bit of a blur", but he knows he spent some of the period in the company of YBAs (Young British Artists) such as Gary Hume and Tracey Emin, and watching Hirst fall out of the Groucho Club.

"I didn't know, and still don't know, whether the YBA movement would be a flash in the pan or if it would stick," he says. "Although I was convinced about Damien from the start, because what he did, conceptually, had never been done before." He was an early buyer of one of Hirst's pickled fish, now sold as "it had a tendency to leak".

Moynihan also became semi-detached from YBA excess after meeting his wife, Katrine Boorman (daughter of film director John), in 1995. They now have two children: Kit, ten, and Tallulah, six.

"The extremes of the YBAs were to do with alcohol and cocaine," he says, "but I was chasing lines of cocaine down dealers' tables when the YBAs were in their nappies. I think people were much more promiscuous and drugged-up in the 70s and 80s." When he wrote Boogie Woogie as a novel in 2000 (the title refers to a Mondrian painting), he based it on his hedonistic New York years rather than London.

"I hoped it would be a film from the start, and even wrote it in an Altman-esque way, like Short Cuts," he says, "but it took ten years." Dennis Hopper optioned the novel "but I think he may have a slight lack of concentration and fell out of the picture".

Moynihan's friend, documentary-maker Duncan Ward, stepped in. Rachel Weisz agreed to play the central, nubile gallerist Beth, but the film hit a financial crisis just after she won her Oscar and she dropped out. Producers fought over the sole, rented limo, and Ward was asked to put his house up as security. Shooting was moved from New York to London for cost reasons. But the cash constraints worked in his favour.

"In the ten years since the book, the centre of the art market shifted from New York to London. The business was always international and Eurotrashy," he says.

So Heather Graham now plays Beth and Danny Huston is a London-based dealer with a Gagosian accent and Jopling specs. The cast also includes Jaime Winstone, Christopher Lee, Joanna Lumley, Stellan Skarsgrd and Gillian Anderson. Charlotte Rampling filmed a cameo (she's a family friend). Moynihan discovered then- unknown Amanda Seyfried living around the corner in Chelsea and got Ward to cast her as an art-world nymphet.

Some view Winstone's character – a predatory lesbian who documents everything from her sex life to a friend's suicide in her art – as a veiled portrait of Tracey Emin. Moynihan says all the characters are composites, and no-one has so far taken offence "because although I was satirising this world, I wasn't parodying it".

Hirst worked as artistic adviser on the film, and contributed one of his spin paintings. The other artworks on screen are replicas but Jake and Dinos Chapman lent a cast of a penis-nosed head. Weren't they upset to see Stellan Skarsgrd use it as a menacing sex toy on Heather Graham ? He sniggers: "They haven't seen it yet."

These days, he is ambivalent about his world, and his film – which ended up a bit uneven. "There is so much art around," he sighs. "In a way it was more exciting when it was an elitist activity. Damien's extraordinary diamond skull said it all, that art has become about desire and decoration."

Moynihan only paints and collects to please himself these days. Weirdly, his main occupation now seems to be running a highly successful scaffolding company. Is he not planning to do more work in film?

"I'd write another film, but wouldn't produce one," he says, rolling his eyes. "Film's so complicated. What a business! At least you don't have to use lawyers in scaffolding."

• Boogie Woogie is released on Friday.

 
 
 

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