Sheldon Larry has had a long, distinguished career that started at the BBC and has since taken to LA, directing everything from episodes of Doogie Howser to a long succession of TV movies. He’s recently made Leave It On The Floor, a ball-to-the-walls musical set in the Ball Community, the underground, largely African American, gay & transgendered groups who use their creativity to compete on the runway.
A true labour of love, Sheldon is bringing his movie to the BFI London Lesbian & Gay Film Festival this weekend, ahead of a DVD release in September, through Peccadillo Picture. Big Gay Picture Show was lucky enough to be able to ask Sheldon a few questions about his wonderfully vibrant film. Take a look at what he had to say below.
Firstly, congratulations on the film! While musicals are often considered to be quite ‘gay’ things and popular with gay people, there are surprisingly few overtly gay musicals, especially on film. Why do you think that is?
Thanks so much for the compliments. I think that musicals are just so much more ambitious and costly endeavours than a straightforward narrative film. There are so many more complicated moving parts…finding actors who can sing and dance and act, getting the songs written, recording the music, and the voices, choreographing and teaching the dances to the actors, engaging so many dancers who also had to learn steps and perform. And then it is more elaborate during production, shooting musical numbers to playback; editing is much more complicated as well and the post production sound and sound-editing is time-consuming and requires great talent and time as well. I have been directing film for over 35 years.
This film used every one of the skills I have learned over that time to get the project to sing and sing well. Plus an amazing amount of luck and generosity of spirit by so many who worked on it…I counted over 400 individuals who brought their generosity and talent to play. Its tough for gay filmmakers who struggle to get their film made. And while the passion and talent and sensibility and script are often there, many gay filmmakers haven’t had the blessing of years of refining their craft of filmmaking to be able to handle bigger projects. Often their budgets and their fluency with film does them in. I wanted to make a film for these kids in the ball community who are heroes to me and I worked every day to see them treated well. Also
Making a low budget movie musical is quite an ambitious thing, did you ever worry that it wouldn’t work?
Of course. I was terrified every day. I thought WTF have I taken on? The gods punish people for such hubris! And I produced and exec produced, and raised the money and put a fair bit of my own into it. But this film has been an obsession for mine for 20 years. I saw PARIS IS BURNING 20-years-ago when I was directing in the theatre off Broadway in New York City. And when I saw it I immediately imagined it as a musical. The documentary is still an extraordinary piece of filmmaking. And sadly, while some things have changed, many of the issues in PARIS are still sadly relevant in the gay African American community. But I wanted to make a musical in the tradition of those great Hollywood musicals. That was my passion and my fantasy. And the miracle of making this film was how so many people jumped in willingly and totally.
Was it difficult to get the film funded?
Of course it was. 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 resourceful motherfucker. 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.
Leave It On The Floor features nearly all new music. How did you go about coming up with the songs and how did Kim Burse get involved?
The screenplay and lyrics took us three years to develop. I knew Glenn Gaylord (the screenwriter) 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, I think. 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 Beyoncé (she has been her music director for 12 years and is the musical bedrock upon which Beyoncé 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, 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 Beyoncé 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. Beyoncé even gave us the song “Sweet Dream” for the film.
Do you feel the specific issues surrounding non-white gay people tend to be overlooked, as Leave It On The Floor suggests the African-American gay experience is something unique?
I think that white American and Canadian and European gay males have travelled a great distance towards acceptance in the last 25 years. Of course the US is way behind in terms of mass acceptance compared to Canada and Britain. I never felt much discrimination here in London when I was coming out years ago. America is still grappling with the issue somewhat as we slowly move towards marriage equality. But the stigma and challenges in the African American experience seem to be even rougher. Many of the kids in the ball scene are runaways and throwaways. Many are thrown out or leave home because of lack of acceptance and even violence.
I found a statistic that says that on any one night in Los Angeles, there are twice as many African American gay teens living on the street than white ones. I don’t want to generalise but I feel that it’s tougher to be gay or transgendered in the African American community. There is the strong presence of the Church. The whole “downlow” concept of deception and lack of self-acceptance is part of that scene and we touch on it in the film; the rap song THIS IS MY LAMENT addresses that issue. And the song BLACK LOVE is not about the African American experience so much as it is really about the impossibility of finding loving relationships that are supportive and committed when one has internalised a measure of self-loathing; that makes one pick the wrong partner (like Queef) or be co-dependent ( like Princess’ pursuit of Brad.)
Where did you find the cast, as there’s a lot of very talented people in the movie?
My students at USC every week bring in the most amazingly talented actors that don’t have agents, aren’t Screen Actors Guild members, don’t know casting directors. There is extraordinary talent out there. All you need to do is put the word out and be patient. I shared my concern with Kim who would just smile. She knew there is such amazing talent out there and that we would be well-served. So the actors came from everywhere. Ephraim (Brad) is an Alvin Ailey dancer who has started doing Broadway and isn’t here [at the LLGFF] because he is in ‘Newsies’, now just opening on Broadway. Miss Barbie Q is a drag performer who is a hostess and performer at various drag venues. Andre Myers (Carter) went to University of the Arts and Phillip Evelyn (Princess) comes out of the ball scene in Atlanta and New York, where he is a member of the House of Comme des Garcons.
He had never acted before and last sang, he told us, when he was in Church when he was 15! He came out to his family when he was 15 and his father hasn’t spoken with him since then. And he has a very strained relationship with his mother. He was working in retail when he came in to audition having heard about it from his house father, who I contacted looking for talent. Any ball kid who wanted to be in the film is in the film. I made a home for them and created roles to feature them. I have done a lot of work with actors evolving performance. It’s one of the courses I teach at USC. That is part of my job, to cast well and then to integrate the talent and make them feel like they were all in the same film.
I understand Paris Is Burning was a big influence on Leave It On The Floor. What was it about that documentary that inspired you?
Paris is Burning blew my head off. I was directing off-Broadway in New York City then and couldn’t believe that there was this extraordinary world just 70 blocks away from where I was living. And I started to going to the balls, which begin as 3 am. I was just so moved by all the children and their houseparents and dumbstruck by the talent these kids had in music, choreography, dance, make-up, hair, costume. I was seeing LADY GAGA’s outfits 15 years before she took them mainstream. So the world amazed me, and the talent amazed me, and these kids’ longing for normalcy and acceptance, and non-judgement amazed me. They are so courageous to walk down a street and needed to be celebrate. Lets’ remember in the US, gay liberation began with the revolt of the drag queens. They were just so tired of the bullshit and being hassled. And they were living their lives fully publicly rather than in the closet as other gays could do. I am so thrilled that Jennie Livingston, the original director of Paris I Burning, has become a huge fan of our film. She even hosted the Q&A when we played in New York City.
Did you know much more about the ‘Ball’ communities and how they’d evolved since Paris Is Burning, before you started putting together the movie?
Actually, I had the idea 20 years ago and then moved out to Los Angeles and got busy. This community is so underground and off the grid that I didn’t know it even still existed. AIDS had killed a lot of the community through the nineties. I was doing another black project and mentioned it and was told there was a scene in Los Angeles. These kids like their anonymity. It makes the environment safer for them to be who they are. I respected that and took it seriously as I began to attend and seek their trust. These kids are on the edges of street culture. So many great ideas come from them. And they are constantly reinventing and reimagining. They know everything about the popular culture but then they take it and shape it and bend it. Madonna’s song VOGUE came about as a result of the time she spent in the New York ball community back in the 90’s. But now the kids call that style of Voguing “old way”. They are into “new way” and constantly reshaping it.
Where did the film’s story come from?
The story was the film I wanted to make about a family. I am a single gay dad who has raised now 19-year-old twin daughters. So family has many incarnations and I wanted to make a film about a young man who loses his family in the first frames of the movie and journeys to find a new, loving, supportive one in the last. The character, distressed and somewhat suicidal by his interaction with his dysfunctional single mother, gets thrown out when she discovers he is gay. His journey full of mistakes and misunderstandings begins when he, like Alice in Wonderland, goes down the rabbit-hole and finds this amazing weird strange anarchic world. He brings the audience with him. Outsiders at first, he and the audience make the same journey together. What starts as alien and odd becomes human and noble.
I believe much of your early career in TV & film took place in the UK. Are you excited to be back in Britain and able to bring Leave It On The Floor to a UK audience at the BFI London Lesbian & Gay Films Festival?
I am just bursting to be here. I made my first steps into my career working with the BBC. I didn’t know one end of a camera from another when I started a three-month research assistant attachment. But I learned through the patience and talent of senior cameramen, and editors and senior producers and directors. Alan Yentob was a PA with me. So was Nigel Williams. And for me the BFI and the National Film Theatre became a shrine. I can’t tell you how many times I tore across Waterloo Bridge to build my knowledge and love and humble appreciation and excitement of film. I lived at the NFT and must have 60 or 70 of those weirdly sized black books that the BFI published. My first job was working on a show called The Movies that was presented by David Hemmings (Blowup). So to be back here and see my film play in NFT 1 is a colossal wet dream. I couldn’t be more turned on than I am tonight.
Thank you, Sheldon.
LEAVE IT ON THE FLOOR screens this weekend as part of the BFI London Lesbian and Gay Film Festival and will be on DVD in September, through Peccadillo Pictures.