How familiar were you with the ballroom scene depicted in Leave it
on the floor before making the film? And had you seen the 90's documentary Paris is Burning, which was alsoset in this ballroom scene and if so, was it an influence for your film?
My obsession to make Leave It on the Floor began more than twenty years ago
when I first saw Paris Is Burning, That film took a remarkable look at the New
York ball community of the late 1980’s. In the intervening 20 years, the culture has gone through major change and transformation and yet startlingly, no one since has seriously written on its recent history, or created any kind of resonant or reflective film document (either documentary or narrative drama). Indeed, most people who know the original film believe that the culture has long since disappeared, and that it had been a New York-only event anyway. Not true. Today, communities in more than fifteen major urban settings are flourishing throughout the country.
Six years ago, when I discovered that the scene was still alive and thriving locally
in Los Angeles, I began in earnest to research it. It took almost a year to gain trust and access and penetrate the wariness of its members and complete our research prior to the two year process of working with Glenn Gaylord to develop the script and lyrics. Still, the more I dug, the more I grew fascinated by its personalities, its complex sociology and its groundbreaking theatricality. I became excited by the idea of creating an investigation of the culture as a feature film with original songs, choreography and performance. Of course, I might have chosen to create a documentary. But I quickly realized that this film’s power would be in its imaginative form as a fictional narrative with an original contemporary soundtrack.
The character and the world of the film derived from the reality of a number of
personal stories we encountered when Glenn and I did our research. We created the character of a 22-year-old gay African-American, Bradley Lyle, living uncomfortably in El Monte California with his narcissistic, abusive single mother. When she discovers her son is gay, she brands him a loser and throws him out. Homeless and suicidal, Brad, through a chance encounter in downtown LA, stumbles into a ball. Like Alice, in Wonderland down the rabbit hole, Brad is amazed and startled by the compelling event he discovers. As our guide into the world, Brad connects us to a rag-tag group of similar “orphans”, other runaways and throwaways, who dramatically live their loyalties and rivalries, and compete for prizes at these monthly events.
It was all-important to create the world with as much truth and celebration as we could. With names like House of Garcon, House of Chanel, House of Allure, these kids compete for trophies and sometimes money at monthly galas, each one sponsored by a different house. Kids, once invited to join a house, renounce their surname and take on their house name. In the film, Brad meets the motley members of Eminence house. They use the family terms “parent,” “mother,” “son”, “daughter” and “sister” to describe the powerful relationships they have built together. Eminence House is run by “Mama” Queef Latina - a 30-something powerhouse, who once had legendary status as a category winner. Queef, like her real-life counterparts, rules the house with love and authority, scolding, counseling and watching out for the welfare of her children.
In our film, Eminence House is actually bricks and mortar. The clan occupies a rundown rental house in a marginal neighborhood, where the “outcasts, freaks, and the temporarily displaced” of the group share dormitory bedrooms housing as many as five. The house exists as a safe environment where the members socialize, help each other with family or job issues, counsel each other on crushes, health and sex, plan the balls and prepare their costumes or choreography for the monthly events.
Thanks to the brilliant musical numbers and likeable characters, I can
see this having a wider appeal, not just within the LGBT community.
Was is a conscious decision from the start?
That is what I have worked for every day of my journey with the film. I wanted to do a celebration of this community and let the kids see themselves as the centerstage but I wasn’t interested in just preaching to the choir. I used my talents as a filmmaker along with those of my collaborators to produce something seductive to a broader audience. I have always hoped that the film’s form as a musical with top rate talent might bring an wider audience to this world where they could celebrate this world and reflect on its issues.
For LEAVE IT ON THE FLOOR, I staged pieces of three balls. With different themes and sometimes more than 50 categories, these events are rowdy, energetic, sexually charged entertainments that rarely get started before 2 am. There are runway categories for “sex sirens” and “butch queens” to walk in drag. In addition, there are a number of “realness” categories, including “executive realness” and “schoolboy realness.” For these categories, entrants must come dressed to “pass”… as a Wall Street businessman in a three-piece suit, or as a student with requisite baggy jeans, backpacks and schoolbooks. There is a poignancy to all these categories with ball kids looking to see if they might, with the right wardrobe and attitude, be able to fit invisibly into a straight world.
The songs and dance routines, put together by Kim Burse, Glenn
Gaylord and Frank Gatson Jr, are excellent, with "Justin's gonna
call" being a personal highlight. Was it difficult to convince all these
talented people to work on your film?
The screenplay and lyrics took us 3 years to develop. I knew Glenn Gaylord a little, read some of his material and felt he was the right writer for the project. I had done several months of research, attending balls, getting the kids to trust me. I then pulled Glenn in. Took us a year just to build their trust. But he was writing screenplay and lyrics. He is a gifted lyricist. We conceived each song to be integrated into the story, to be the characters’ inner voices, to sing their longings and to advance the story as well. We also wanted to reflect the diversity and richness of contemporary music stylistically and particularly from contemporary African American music from dance tracks, to rap ,to Gospel to Broadway-type ballads. Kim Burse is a genius. I had heard some of her stuff two years earlier and just had this gut instinct that she was the right composer. She actually hasn’t done a lot of composing before. She was on tour with Beyonce (she has been her music director for 12 years and is the musical bedrock upon which Beyonce stands.) I took to stalking her through her agent in Los Angeles, turning up in his office repeatedly in hot pursuit. “Is she back yet? Is she back yet?”
When she eventually returned to LA, she met me at a Starbucks and I pitched her the project. The songs were all placed in the script. And when I finished she said, “OK, I’ll do it. And I already have a song in my head. Before we concluded she hummed me the tune for “I’m Willing” the song Queef Latina sings on her way to visit her man in prison. As she was sketching the songs, she worked with a pianist who was said to me at the end, “The only thing there isn’t in this film is opera!” While Glenn did write some melodies and one of the songs in the film is actually his (“Don’t Jump Baby”) it was so important for me to have an authentic African-American presence in the music. That was important to me in every part of the movie. Kim’s talent is bottomless. And one day, I got a phone call from Frank Gatson, Beyonce’s choreographer as well as creator of videos for Rihanna, and J.Lo and even Michael Jackson. Kim had mentioned the project to Frank and he called me himself to offer his services.
“You know there is no money here, right Frank?” I said. He got it. He and Beyonce had been to balls and Frank even admitted a creative debt to them. “I’d like to give something back” And he did. He brought all the dancers and the creative team together. Beyonce even gave us the song “Sweet Dream” for the film.
Is it still difficult nowadays to find some financial backing for a film
set in the gay community?
Very difficult. You can’t take a musical like this to a Hollywood studio and say ,” I want to make a musical about a bunch of discarded black gay, transgendered underdogs who compete on a runway in categories like Executive Realness and VOGUEING FEMME.”But I am a stubborn and resurceful “ filmmaker. I teach film at the School of Cinematic Arts at the University of Southern California when I am not shooting. And the university supported the project by making resources and locations available to me. And I used more than 50 of my graduate students as crew.
All the producers working with me are students; the entire Assistant Director team, Sound team, Production Design and Costumes, grip and electrics were ex students.
They all have contracts so if we ever see any money after we recoup, they all will see some. So I was also holding in-the-trenches seminars every day as well. But working with them rekindled my own passion and excitement I felt originally when I came to work at the BBC and I started my own career over thirty years ago. I used every bit of talent and imagination I have to find a way to get the project done. No studio or large production company would ever have invested in a ballroom musical!
So, to get it made, I needed to evolve a production paradigm for creating quality work with limited resources. I have worked as adjunct faculty at USC’s School of Cinematic Arts for the last three years and that experience has opened my heart and my eyes to the talent and passion of our next generation of performers and filmmakers. Others and myself made LEAVE IT ON THE FLOOR in a fleet-footed, penny-pinching partnership. The cast (all newcomers) and crew of mostly present and past USC students hand in hand with a number of energetic professionals were all fed, paid and/or offered some deferred payment. But together, with my student producers we have always been extremely hard-nosed and dollar-conscious as we weighed the myriad of production decisions from both a creative and financial perspective. The experience became a teaching opportunity for me to engage USC students to participate and learn in both the “show” as well as the “business” trenches along side of me. What we have accomplished is nothing short of miraculous. Where there is a passion to make a film, there is now, with today’s technologies and bullheaded commitment, truly a way.
You have assembled a very talented cast with, for most, little
experience in films, how did you find them?
Teaching at USC , I have watched every week as my students bring in extraordinarily talented actors who are not members of the actors union, SAG, who don’t have agents, or know casting directors or have much of a resume but are still unbelievably talented. There is an amazing bedrock of talent as yet unrecognized by the industry. So we just posted casting calls on the casting network and invited any who wanted to come in to come in. I was therefore able to invite every one of the kids in the ball scene who wanted to audition, to audition. And I made sure I found a place for them in the film. So the cast is an assembly of largely new talent. Miss Barbie Q is a drag performer in Los Angels with a fringe following; Andre Myers (Carter) did tran at University of the Art; Phillip Evelyn is a real ball kid who answered an open call I put out in New York among the ball community there.
Any Ephraim Sykes (Brad) was a dancer with the Alvin Ailey Company who had trained there for eleven years and has just started doing Broadway shows. One of the courses I teach at USC is a course in how directors need to know how to direct actors. So it was my job to weave together the disparate strands and skill of the different performers into a cohesive whole.
While watching Leave it on the floor, I could not help thinking how
great it would work on stage as well, has the thought of a stage
adaptation ever crossed your mind?
I would love to do the film as a stage musical. I conceived of the project while I was working off-Broadway in the theater in New York where I spent 10 years prior to working in Los Angeles. And I have a very interesting theatrical concept of how to put the project onstage. We haven’t found anyone yet who would like to produce or help us put it financially. So if you know anyone…..We are still waiting for Justin to call.
Leave It On The Floor is released by Peccapics in the UK and is out on DVD on the 10th of September 2012