This year’s Mardi Gras Film Festival is a wonderful sampling of the many ways queer film has evolved and diversified across genre. As festival director Lisa Rose said to The Curb, instead of predominantly coming out and coming of age films, “there are thrillers and horror and mysteries and things that are a little bit like quirky comedies and all sorts of things that are getting made now.”
One of those is The Sixth Reel, a screwball caper comedy set in non-pandemic present-day New York that centres on Jimmy, a collector of classic film memorabilia, who stumbles upon a highly sought after lost silent film. Replete with Classic Hollywood references and in-jokes, the movie is a light-hearted look at the eccentric world of collectors, but also touches upon the anxiety of queer ageing, and honours the very real sense of community to be found in fandom.
The star and co-writer and co-director of the film is Charles Busch whose theatrical career has made him a beloved figure on and off Broadway, especially in his many drag performances that evoke screen legends, and whose play turned movie Psycho Beach Party (2000) has built up a fervent cult of fans, at least two of whom write for The Curb. You may also have caught him as Nat Ginsberg on two seasons of Oz.
Nisha-Anne caught up with Charles to talk about the importance of sexualising older queer people onscreen, the wish fulfilment of writing, and the bizarre things that happen when shooting on location in New York.
I have to tell you I loved The Sixth Reel. I absolutely adored it.
Oh I’m so glad.
Right from the beginning with that opening shot, I was like, “Oh my god, I’m recognising things. There’s Mame! The Dietrich paintings!”
The best and the weirdest thing of all was when it was panning over the books on the shelves. And of course, I’m trying not to pause it and read every single title. But then the Billy Wilder biography [on the shelf] was the Billy Wilder biography I had literally a couple of days before decided was the book I was going to read next.
Oh my god.
I know! I was like, I need to read a Billy Wilder biography, I need to know more about him. And I did my research and decided to go with Ed Sikov. And so, you know, the camera panned over and I’m like, “That’s the book!”
Well, you know, the set, the whole apartment was built on a soundstage. Carl [Andress] and I, my co-director – we basically raided both of our apartments for all the books, and particularly mine. A lot of people thought we shot in my apartment which is not that flattering because, you know, I live in a much nicer place. (laughs) But a lot of my stuff was there. There’s actually an extra roll of wallpaper left from my apartment that they put up in one part of the set.
Yeah, because when I saw the Mame figurine and I knew that you played Mame, I was like, “Yeah, that’s got to belong to Charles.” It can’t be anyone else.
It’s funny – during that opening pan of the bookshelves, my ex-partner of many years has written a number of books, including a biography of Patrick Dennis, the author of Auntie Mame. And so there’s a tribute to my ex-partner’s books all lined up. (laughs)
Love it. You know, with Classic Hollywood, everybody has their own little special areas and decades of interest. And sometimes you talk to Classic Hollywood fans and all their references you don’t get at all. I found that in the fandom. But when I was watching this, I was so delighted, because I think I got about ninety per cent of the references. So I’m going, “Oh, Betty Grable! Oh yes!”
We actually reference a lot of a very obscure Val Lewton movie called The Seventh Victim.
Ohh. I haven’t gotten into Val Lewton yet.
Most people wouldn’t know. I mean, it’s the most obscure movie of his. Part of the idea was that we wanted to have this group of classic film, insane aficionados, that they’re almost like devil worshippers. And so we kind of are referencing Rosemary’s Baby a bit, but also in this rather obscure 1940s – I don’t know if you’d call it a horror movie, really. It’s more of a suspense film. The Seventh Victim which is set in Greenwich Village, you know. It’s about a group of rather elegant Satan worshippers including a woman in the movie who has one arm and she’s very elegant. It’s never part of the plot [of The Sixth Reel]. She’s just, you know, this sort of decadent kind of thing. And so we put that in our movie just as a reference.
But you know, my whole career basically has been in film homage. But I really do feel that there should be no major laugh or plot point that’s predicated on any previous knowledge of movies. I think that’s really not quite right for people not to really get something. So if I throw in a specific thing, it’s just kind of a fun thing if you catch it. But if you don’t, it’s not like, “Oh gee, everyone’s laughing but me,” you know?
I don’t really like that. And when I first started out, when I was quite young, I think that was sort of true. I think if you weren’t in on that reference, it would be like, what the hell’s going on? But I think as I matured as a writer, I don’t do that. This movie isn’t really based on any kind of genre, it’s a contemporary film. But my earlier shows – I think, if you didn’t know and had never seen a 1940s anti-Nazi movie, you certainly wouldn’t have enjoyed my play as much.
But with The Sixth Reel, it’s a contemporary caper comedy. And I think if there was a genre that it was kind of evoking, it would be some of the early 1960s British comedy so what Ealing Studio would put out. So, you know, where a group of misfits, eccentrics band together and pull off a caper. But our movie is set today and the characters themselves are obsessed with old movies.
So tell me about the specific genesis of this movie. How did that happen?
Well, I’ve worked with Carl Andress for twenty-five years now. We’ve done so many plays together. The last movie we were involved in was about twelve years ago, a little movie called A Very Serious Person which I wrote.
Which I want to see!
Well, you know, it’s been kind of a lost film. We just this week found out that it’s been found.
It’s going to be re-released along with my movie Die Mommie Die which is a rather obscure thing, it’s hard to find. It’s never been available for streaming. And I thought that that was going to be lost, because there was a lot of confusion over who owns the rights to it. And that’s all been solved. And that also is going to be distributed this year again.
That’s great because I was going to ask you about that. But sorry, we digress.
I wrote a play that was pretty successful a few years ago called The Divine Sister, and it was an homage to every Hollywood movie about nuns that were ever made. And it ran about a year onstage, and I thought it’d be a wonderful movie. And so I wrote a screenplay and I tried for a while to see if I can get it made. And I don’t know, just in my illusions, I convinced myself that, oh it could be made really, really cheaply. And I would go to these different producers and they would [say] “You’re nuts!”
It was a period film set in the mid Sixties about a convent school – you needed a hundred children – and musical numbers. And I said, “Oh, it could be made for almost nothing.” I just get desperate. Carl and I met with a wonderful young producer named Ash Christian who did a lot of indie films, and we pitched The Divine Sister to him. And he said, “There’s no way this can be done for like less than $10 million! It’s ridiculous!”
So I said to Carl we just need to make a movie that we really can just shoot in our apartments that could be done for like no money. It has to be contemporary. And then Carl said that Julie Halston – who is an actress that I’ve worked with since 1984. We jokingly refer to her as the muse. I guess in a way she is since I’ve written about fifteen different roles for her over the years. She’s really my stage buddy.
We had never done a movie where we were able to show that relationship. So [Carl said] this could be centred on you and Julie, and we’ll shoot it in your neighbourhood and maybe in your apartment, and I was all for it. And we sent it to this producer Ash and he said “Let’s do it.”
But then Covid struck and made it impossible to shoot in small cramped areas. It was a blessing too because there’s no way we could have made that movie in a real apartment. We were one of the very first TV or film projects in the New York area to film during Covid before there was the vaccine and all. So for safety measures, we shot it about an hour and a half outside of New York in this very beautiful studio called Umbra Studios. It was really cool because none of us had had the experience of making a movie entirely on a soundstage. All the films that I’ve made like most indie films are shot on locations and then to get like a tax credit, you have to do two days in a studio. And that’s all any of us had ever done. And so you know, I felt like I was back at Warner Brothers in the Thirties, every day having these two complete apartments built with kitchens and bathrooms.
And then we did five days in New York City at a few locations and on the street. It was really, really thrilling to have that opportunity. But then we had a terrible tragedy: just a few weeks before we started shooting, our young producer [Ash Christian] suddenly died at the age of thirty-five, and I guess it was heart-related. But everything was in place, all the financing and so the two people Ash had hired as Covid specialists, Jamie Buckner and Alex Peace-Power, they became the producers. So we didn’t lose anything, no delay. We just switched ahead and made the film in fifteen days.
Really crazy shoot. I think it helped that most of the time we were on this soundstage.
And there’s a great energy to the film as well. The energy obviously comes from that production time.
I think also the cast were so thrilled to be working. A number of them were in Broadway shows [that got cancelled] and they were all available. And I think they were just so surprised to suddenly get an offer to be in a movie, you know, in the middle of this awful period.
How did you put that cast together? Because André de Shields and Patrick Page – who I’ve never seen before and is absolutely delicious.
Oh my god.
They’re both in the Broadway show Hadestown.
Right. So how did you put that particular cast together?
Well, a number of parts are written for people. Julie, obviously we wrote the rule for her. And Doug [Plaut] who plays Rodney – he’s a great friend of ours and so that part was written for him. And then Patrick Page I’m just a big admirer of, and I always wanted to work with him. So he was always the person I was hoping would play Mr Beltrane, and he was free, thank god. But I mean, there were no auditions or anything. Tim Daly – I had only met him once very briefly. We were just delighted that he said yes. I think that – how do I say this without sounding terribly boasting or self-aggrandising – but I don’t think that there are that many scripts that these people read where there are actually funny lines in it? (laughs)
Ohhh, okay. (laughs)
Most comedies are really big budget kind of things where at the end, the whole town blows up. You know, that seems to be kind of de rigueur in comedies now. So from what they tell me, they were all pleasantly surprised to see this rather old-fashioned comedy with funny lines and situations.
And Margaret Cho! How did you get Margaret Cho?
Oh, she was first choice. I had never really met her before. We have friends in common. But when Carl and I were first thinking about the movie and that character, we thought, “Wouldn’t it be perfect for Margaret Cho?” There’s kind of a backstory to the character that was never even ever put in the script.
Oh tell me, tell me.
The backstory in our heads was that her character had been just another East Village downtown collector-dealer, but she’s like smarter than the rest of us. And she became a very big success and has high-end clients that she sells to, and so she doesn’t really want to have anything to do with her old associates who are still scrounging around. And we all kind of hate her and resent her.
There were a couple lines that we cut how she she’s (laughs) such a notorious, unlikable person that somebody tried to run her over with a car and that’s why she walks with the cane. Because there are like rumours about several people in that world of classic film collectors who have been run over by cars, and the rumour is always that it was like a rival collector – you know, somebody burned by them. So we put that in this movie, but we ended up cutting the little bits of dialogue that explain why she has a cane.
I noticed the cane at the end in that gorgeous sequence when they’re all coming in and she holds the cane out and I was like, look at that gorgeous jewelled cane. That’s so cool.
Yeah, [the backstory] was cut. I have a pretty good inner clock, you know, I guess from all these years working in theatre. Generally when I write a play, first time we read it out loud, it’s never more than two hours. I like things that are fast-paced. In fact, I would say a problem I have as a writer is I tend to cut too much, I get a little edit-happy because I genuinely enjoy it. And sometimes it’s just the stupidest thing like on the computer page [if] I have one line that crosses over to the next page, I edit the whole line so it looks prettier. (laughs)
Yes! I do that too! (laughs) You become so aware of the white space, don’t you, and you’re like, “No stop it, think about the words.”
But I’ve made some big errors in the past where I’ve cut too much. I got too scissors-happy and later a critic said “This character seemed undeveloped,” and that’s because I cut all that stuff out.
Carl sometimes is good at saying “Watch it. You’re going too far.”
You’ve had this long association writing and producing and directing with Carl, and obviously you guys came up with the movie together. What’s the division of labour between you onset? Because you’re in front of the camera as well.
So Carl lives in Connecticut and I’m in New York City and we were on lockdown. This was about two years ago now that we started writing the script and we did the whole thing on Skype. We worked out together the entire plot and scene breakdown. Then I went and wrote all the dialogue. Carl is always a really good dramaturg and that’s how we work together all the time, doing these plays. So, you know, he gives very good notes and he asks great questions. Almost more than a note, he’ll ask the right question, and it makes me [go] “Hmm, that makes sense. Hmm. Maybe buh-buh-buh, maybe I should add her back into that scene at the end or something.” But then on the set, Carl really was the director of the movie because once I’m on the set, I just had to focus on acting.
However, one of the reasons I wanted co-directing credit was that I have a lot of ideas and I wanted to be able to very freely involved in pre-production and post-production. Which I would have been anyway. That’s really the basis of our relationship always. When we do a play and he’s always the sole director, he’s confident enough to allow me to talk to the actors or whatever. Some directors won’t let the writer get anywhere near anybody. So that wouldn’t have been a problem anyway. But that was basically it, and I felt I had a lot to contribute to the production design, casting. I had some very good ideas when we were storyboarding with the cinematographer, and then in the editing. We’re planning another movie and in that one, I’ll just be credited as a screenwriter, and he’ll be the sole director. Except for me, you know, throwing in my ideas, he really does all the heavy lifting of being the director.
Fair enough. So with Julie, you’ve had such a long history, from co-founding Theatre-In-Limbo together and writing together and you wrote stage roles for her and screen roles for her, I didn’t realise that this was the first time you two would be making a film together.
Well, she has a supporting role in A Very Serious Person but it really was not us doing – you know, that was a serious, really heavy movie, and we’ve never really had our comic relationship onscreen. So that’s what we were trying to do.
Was it fun?
Yeah. Honestly I always had a fantasy for thirty years now basically, a fantasy of shooting a caper comedy in my neighbourhood with Julie and I running around in crazy disguises. I just always wanted to do that. And we did it! (laughs)
It was just in the back of my head – wouldn’t that be great? And I love this whole scene where we’re both in drag and running around. She looks exactly like her late father. It’s so funny.
I was going to ask you about – because yes, I love the fact that okay, yes, you’re in drag and you’re always so beautiful in drag, oh my god, Charles. I mean, you’re beautiful anyway. But it was so cool to see her in drag as well. And I know that Tim Daly’s character says Clark Gable – was that actually the reference? Because I was getting a lot of Katharine Hepburn in Sylvia Scarlett vibes. But you know, with a bigger moustache.
I guess it’s [Clark Gable] because she’s wearing a moustache.
Whereas Katharine Hepburn’s moustache is that little pencil handlebar.
Yeah. You know, it’s funny for so many years I’ve performed female characters in my plays and everything for thirty years or more. And I just never had women playing male roles. I tried it once in a play called Shanghai Moon that we did fifteen years ago. I tried it and I didn’t think it really quite worked. And then in the last ten years, I’ve started to have an association with a wonderful actress named Jennifer Van Dyck who has a real Katharine Hepburn kind of feel, a Garbo feel to her, very sort of athletic body and she has an androgynous beauty to her. And so she’s inspired me and I’ve written now for her – in every play we do, she plays at least one male role.
Oh, that’s great.
And it’s been really interesting to do that. But that’s my thing – I love writing specifically for people and figuring out certain qualities they have that can be put on stage. And I guess too it’s like the gift that I can give people that I love, you know, is write a role for them that gives them some unique opportunity or a fantasy of who they like to be. But they’re not writers, so they can’t ever really live it out. Shortly after Julie and I met and we were doing Theatre-In-Limbo, one of the things that bonded us was we both were obsessed when we were teenagers with anything to do with London in the Sixties and the Beatles and Julie Christie and mod London. So I wrote this little short piece for us. It was Sleeping Beauty set in mod London and so I wrote for her the role of the Julie Christie Twiggy fashion model. I just really love doing that.
Even with this in a way, the part she plays in The Sixth Reel has a lot to do with who she really is. You know, she had a terrible tragedy a few years ago when her husband died. She had this wonderful marriage for many, many years to Ralph Howard who was a famous news radio journalist. And he passed away a few years ago. We kind of jokingly called it her Marlon Brando Last Tango in Paris moment when we’re in the restaurant early in the movie and she starts talking about her husband who had just died. It really is all just verbatim stuff that she had said about Ralph that I wrote in for her to do.I refer sometimes to an actor’s mannerisms, their trademark or whatever – I call it their trip. I don’t know where that comes from – their trip. So Julie’s trip in a way is when she talks with her Long Island accent, you know, and typically when she gets worked up, you know, “I am under a lot of stress.” That’s her trip. So I always have to kind of work it in. And sometimes she forgets her trip, you know, and I – actually one of my roles as director was I would whisper to her between takes, “Your trip.” (laughs) “Don’t forget your trip.” (laughs) She’ll smooth out her accent and that’s the sweet spot, talking with her New York accent.
I really love that line early in the conversations with Jimmy when she says, “Look, I’m a native New Yorker, you can’t pull anything over me.” And I was like (laughs) “That’s great.” And then also to see Jimmy’s reaction, going “Oh okay.”
The challenge for me as an actor was just playing a male role. You know, I don’t do that very often.
Oh well, I’m glad you did. Because Jimmy’s a beautiful character, just like inside and outside. I really responded to your performance, like on so many levels. But yeah, I was reading something that that was unusual for you.
Yeah, it’s unusual for me. One of the things was that in trying to write a movie that wasn’t going to cost us, you know, millions of dollars, we thought well, it shouldn’t be that that stylised like in Die Mommie Die where the lighting has to make me look, you know, like Greer Garson. However it turned out in [The Sixth Reel] when I do get dressed up in drag, I think I was lit pretty damn well.
Yeah, you are! I was going to say I love that soft glow on you like a Classic Hollywood film. Because I kept tracking how the glow was on you but not on the other characters. And I’m like, “That’s a Classic Hollywood in-joke. I get that reference!” (laughs)
(laughs) That’s so funny that you have such an eye, because I know it does seem like that since I am the star of the film after all.
Every time we’d shoot and we cover everybody, and as soon as it’s my close-up, often we’d have to pause and move all the lighting. (laughs)
(laughs) Put the Vaseline filter on. I was like “Yes!” It’s wonderful. No, I love that. Sorry, we got away from the question. Yes. So was it vulnerable for you to be like that onscreen?
It’s tricky because also I’m so used to evoking famous actresses in my characters, and this had to be just Jimmy. He’s kind of me but, you know, slightly different. I think I’m actually much a nicer person than Jimmy is – who is so disreputable. And he has an arc of going from complete self-absorption to becoming a bit more generous-hearted.
You know what, I’m actually going to argue that with you. Because that’s one of the things I responded to with Jimmy – especially as a queer person getting older, you know, the desperation and the panic and the anxiety of growing older and then suddenly realising as queer people especially, you know, are we going to be homeless? Is somebody going to take care of us? Who’s going to take care of us? I felt that so much with Jimmy and I really responded to that part of the arc as well.
Because he’s scrambling around here. He’s in his sixties. And I thought it was really good and important to make a movie about gay people who were older and what they’re like. Because really, I’m certain all of our cast – except for Doug – is over sixty. At least. It’s funny. Doug is one of those young people who just knows everything about theatre history, and that’s his thing. And so he basically diagrammed the links with the cast because so many of our cast have worked together before over the past forty years. So he was bringing up things that didn’t occur to me because that’s the way his mind thinks. Heather MacRae and André de Shields were both in Hair. And then Cady Huffmann and Dee Hoty were both in Will Rogers Follies. There was this whole diagram with all the different connections. It was fascinating.
Gosh, I love that.
I loved it, too. It wouldn’t have occurred to me but that’s the way his mind works.
It’s a documentary about an event that was held a couple of years – actually they wanted to do it every year – a couple of years ago in Melbourne. And part of it is about queer people who were out at times and then went back into the closet when they had to go into retirement homes. Yeah, that’s a thing!
I know. I was so distressed when I was watching that. And then I googled it because I’m thinking yeah, what about me? What’s going to happen to me, mate? Apparently now there is more of a push to have actually queer-friendly retirement homes.
Yes, I’ve heard about that. You know, I have a friend, a very beautiful trans woman who’s – I guess she’s in her fifties. I don’t really know how old she is. But anyway, she recently had her bottom surgery. And I said, “Why did you wait to this late date?” And she says, “I don’t want to go to a retirement home and then have them suddenly discover that I’m an old woman with a dick.”
I said, “Well, you’re looking at one.” (laughs)
But yes, she didn’t want to be like in a retirement home and suddenly somebody lifts up her skirt and is like (shrieks)
Oh god. I know. So did you feel like you put that vision of queer people ageing onscreen well?
I think that so often in queer cinema today, it’s mostly young filmmakers who are naturally going to produce and write movies about their own generation.
Of course. I’m not critical. I don’t think there is that much out there about older gay people and what happens to them, and particularly if they don’t have a lot of money, you know? And if they don’t have a long-term partner – some things to think about. Yeah.
And I like the fact that we see [older] queer people actually being sexual onscreen as well.
I was so worried that I’d get into bed with Tim Daly and the audience would go, “Eww.”
Not at all. Not at all. It was beautifully shot. And also the emotion of it. The way Jimmy just lies there and looks at him. I really love the intimacy of that.
That was important to me to have older gay people sexualised rather than being sort of the sexless elder statesman, you know, old queen. Because I don’t pursue an acting career outside of my own work but lately for some reason, I keep getting these enquiries about my interest in auditioning for some TV series or whatever. I guess there’s so much product out there now.
You know, and the parts are always – what do they call it, dapper. Instead of old queen, dapper older gay gentleman. (laughs) There was one actually, a part on The Marvelous Mrs Maisel. And I thought, well, you know. But I didn’t think I was right for it either. And I finally said to the casting person, “I’ll put myself on tape but I don’t think I’m really what you’re looking for. I’m kind of like a preserved in amber boy.” (laughs) They ended up casting John Waters who looks much better for the role.
But the great indignity after I put myself on tape and didn’t get the part – they told me I really wasn’t right for an older gay man. Then one morning, I look out of my window and I see all the trucks and production stuff and I realise they’re shooting the actual scene with John Waters outside my window.
No! That’s just insult to injury. Oh my god, that’s awful.
Can you believe that? I could have poured a big tub full of water on them.
It was so funny.
Gosh. Oh, it would have been amazing to see you in that scene because I really love that show. And you know, it’s coming back. And literally just the other day, yesterday they were posting about the costumes. And I was thinking how the costumes tie in so well with The Sixth Reel as well.
John Waters was much better for the part than me.
Fair enough. John Waters, you can’t really argue with anything he does.
Yeah, you can’t argue with him.
You know, I was going to mention because you talked about your nun story – well, Benedetta is out now. You know, the Paul Verhoeven story? So it might be a good time to make The Divine Sister film.
Realistically, it would just cost so much money. But we have another idea for a movie that we’re hoping to make soon and so we’re just kind of getting started. The script is all ready and we’re figuring out exactly how we’re going to do this, and I’m very excited. I’ll play a female character in that.
It’s a very intimate film. It all take place actually just in this one apartment.
I love that stuff like that.
I hope that will happen soon.
For sure. I want to tell you one of the first reviews for The Sixth Reel on Letterboxd says “Charles Busch is a New York theatrical institution.”
I’ll take that. I’m proud to have that.
Obviously, New York is so important to you, personally. And also the Greenwich Village presence in the film is so great as well. You only shot for five days on location — was that difficult?
Well, no, not really. It was a little tricky with that we wanted the movie to seem timeless and not deal with Covid at all. So we had to make sure that you didn’t see anybody walking down the street with a mask on. Suddenly, when we’re editing, we’d think, oh there’s a guy with the bicycle, we missed that. Or, you know, all the restaurants here have outdoor dining. So we had to be a little careful with that. I guess the movie takes place a year before. We thought if it was to take place during Covid, then we should dress as part of the plot, you know? I was born in New York City. I’m just a native New Yorker. And I’ve lived in this neighbourhood since 1980. I just love it so much.
I really wanted the movie to be also a bit of a valentine to Greenwich Village, to where I live. And you know, we’ve got so many old curmudgeon characters here. At one point Julie and I were shooting right outside my – because my building where I actually live is the exterior for Michael’s apartment. And we found a real crummy building up the street to be where my character lives. So one day, we were shooting outside my building, and Julie and I are in the middle of the scene, and some old guy in the neighbourhood walks right between us while the camera is going and says, “Mask! Mask!” And I said, “Can’t you see that I’m giving a performance?”
(laughs) That’s hilarious!
And then of course, when we were shooting outside my character’s distressed building, we paid to use the exterior of the building. And so we put up like a sign on the door saying “Building condemned. All tenants must be out by Monday.” And I guess building management didn’t tell the old people living in the building, and we’re shooting, and some old woman started screaming at us. She said, “I write for The Huffington Post, and I’m going to – everybody in this building thinks they have to be out by Monday.” It was like War Of The Worlds.
(laughs) Totally. You can’t make up stuff like this.
“Oh, nobody’s leaving. Nobody’s getting kicked out. You are! Right now, because we’re trying to do a scene.”
“You’re ruining my shot.” Oh my god, that’s hilarious.
Yeah, it was very funny. And then Doug. Doug is such an eccentric young man and the way he looks – he’s so tall and thin. We were shooting, the two of us, and a man with his little daughter – she looked like she was maybe five years, six years old – happened to be standing by, and she looked at Doug and she said to her father, “Is it real?” She thought he was an animated figure. He gets that all the time.
Yeah, I can imagine. He’s such a great character. You know that’s what I was going to say earlier with the older people sexualised on screen. I love the fact that Jimmy wasn’t creepy in any way, and in fact, it was the opposite where, you know, Rodney [Doug’s character] is coming on to him. And Jimmy’s going like, “Well, I don’t know if that’s actually appropriate. And I don’t know if I actually want to.” I liked that.
At one point I did worry about that. “Oh boy, is my narcissism so out of bounds that it’s like a Mae West movie and that every single man in the film either goes to bed with me or wants to go to bed with me? Boy, talk about wish fulfillment.”
Well, that’s why we write, isn’t it? And I thought it worked out so well. Because yes, everybody has history with Jimmy. I liked that bit. I also really love the production design. And I really loved the contrast between the apartments – like you were talking about Jimmy’s apartment being shabby but it was so warm in terms of the colours and stuff.
That was the important thing. We had said to Jendra [Jarnagin], this DP, but also Dara Wishingrad, the production designer, that whereas Gerald’s apartment is so disgusting with the hoarding and there’s nothing on the walls because he just wasn’t interested in any visual thing. But Jimmy’s apartment should be, you know, distressed and that the walls are sort of crumbling with water damage. But it’s this very warm, inviting, fantasy apartment. A big part of the movie is sort of a fish out of water story with Julie’s character, this rather conservative widow from Florida who somehow ends up being part of this world that she should never have ever been exposed to. But Carl and I both thought that somehow Jimmy’s apartment for her is sort of like being in this very beautiful strange little jewel box, and that she’s instantly at home.
Yes! And you know what, I love the fact that Julie is such a great stand-in for us as people who – well, not us – like, you know, normal people who aren’t in the Classic Hollywood fandom – reacting to the characters and also reacting to that beautiful apartment. And yeah, the moment I saw that apartment, I felt at home in there. And not just because of all the memorabilia and stuff.
It’s the colours as well. I said it should be all sort of peach tones, rosy and golden tones so that it’s almost like a fantasy of like what a little girl would wish her apartment would look like. So that was that was really important that we wanted to do.
And you did that really well. It’s funny that you said that Gerald’s apartment is kind of gross to you, because I actually found once Gerald’s apartment was cleaned up, I really loved the way it was shot with those grey walls and the texture on the walls. And you know that beautiful – I was thinking god, it almost looks like a 1950s colour film with the muted colours and all that. So, you know, props to the cinematographer and the colourist because that was beautiful.
Yes, it was so interesting with the colour correction. Because in the twelve years since we made our last movie, the technology has changed so much. And often you know, I’d be complaining about “God, the weather’s so dreary. Our few days in New York on the street and especially this valentine to my neighbourhood that’s raining every day.” And [Jendra] said, “Don’t worry, the information is all in the digital information there,” and she kept saying colour correction, everything was colour correction. I said to Carl I’ve got to see what this colour correction miracle is going to be. And it turned out that it was amazing how you could turn things around, and even a certain amount of facial fluffing that was done. All our rainy days turned out to be sunny days.
With the costume choices, because costumes are such an important part in this movie – you’ve got the Waterloo Bridge reference there with the Vivien Leigh jacket. And then of course, the suit from Random Harvest.
My friend David who is a costume collector actually has the Vivien Leigh jacket, but he was not going to lend it to us. And I think it was probably a good thing because that’s all we needed was, you know, some paint to get on it. We were able to just get a period jacket. So none of the things I’m wearing are actually the things I say they are. But we did really try to get that Greer Garson look as close as possible.
So what came first? Did the ideas come first? Or did you see the costumes and think “I can use that”?
The idea came first. Although I think the leopard coat that I say is the Sophia Loren coat, I think that was – in the script, it was something that wasn’t going to work. It was like a trench coat or something that wasn’t really going to photograph well. And so when we were looking through costumes and I tried on this leopard coat, I thought this would be so great. What movie could that be from? Well it could be – so let’s put that, we’ll put that in the script.But the Random Harvest suit was in the script. We just had to try to see if we could make it look as [accurate] as possible, and we had that hat made to order, exactly like Greer Garson’s hat. I thought we did a good job on that.
So that’s a repro. Tell me about that process of sourcing – who was going to make the costumes.
We hired Sarah Laux who is a very talented young designer we’d actually worked with before years ago when she was just starting out as a wardrobe assistant. We just discussed with her exactly what the characters were like. In some cases, actually I ended up wearing almost all my own clothes.We went through my wardrobe. For the most part, it’s my stuff and then she added a couple other things. And then Margaret Cho is a real fashionista and she really dresses magnificently. So she was very generous that she wore all her own clothes in the movie, and she’d flown them in from California, this huge chunk of her designer clothes, and each one is just spectacular.
I really love the textures of Jimmy’s clothes, especially at the end with the leather trousers.
That was not mine. I think that was the costume designer’s own coat. Yeah, I thought that Jimmy at the end – he’s just really preening and showing off to all the people that sneered at him before. We had a funny bit that we cut when he’s speaking to the audience at the end, that he has a huge diamond ring on and when it hits the light, it gets this big glare and it hits Margaret Cho right in the eye. We spent way too much time trying to do that and it never worked.
(laughs) Oh, well. I remember the outfit that Jimmy wears that made me go, “Oh my god, I love all the details of it” was the outfit at the auction scene. You know, with the polka dots shirt and the texture on the trousers and the waistcoat. I was like “I would wear that outfit, that is my kind of outfit.”
It was tricky with him. You’re so astute. We wanted him to have a real style, an elegance. And yet it’s all found things that he would find in a thrift shop. A lot of that is based on my friend David who has great style and, you know, he just has the Issey Miyake jacket, and he just finds them. But at the same time, we didn’t want Jimmy to be so stylised that he’s just this outrageous – we wanted him as a mixture.And Julie had to look like this very, you know, elegant lady from Florida. I love what she had at the memorial service, that black dress.
Oh, I love that black dress, especially with the sleeves.
Yes. Sarah did a great job. It was a challenge doing Dee Hoty’s costumes with the one arm because it’s really evoking The Seventh Victim.
And she’s got her arm across her chest or?
I guess at the back here or something.
Oh, back. Oh my god, poor Dee. So most of the film is about the obsession for material things, and collecting material things. But then I really love – and it really took me aback because I didn’t expect it at all – that bit with Jimmy when he’s talking to Mr Beltrane, and he has that moment where he’s talking about [his deceased partner] Danny and collecting a human being, the realisation that Jimmy owned a person as a trophy. At what point did you realise you wanted to put that into the movie?
Well, we wanted to have that in a way Jimmy and Julie’s character, Helen, are both sort of widowed. We wanted that he once had relationships, that he was not always alone. you know, and then that made me figure out that it was this very beautiful boy. The picture of Danny is my friend Bobby who was in my original company who died of AIDS in 1992. It was special having Bobby’s picture in the movie. But then I guess you start going through it, thinking okay, how do you layer this in? And then I guess I thought oh what if there was this through line that he just was so proud to have this beautiful, beautiful lover. But if the guy had lived, they probably would have broken up. Jimmy lives this certain fantasy life anyway, and one of the fantasies is that he had this perfect relationship and they would have lasted if the boy hadn’t died. But then he starts, you know, gaining some insight towards the end of the movie.
I love that he did do that, that he does get to that point where he actually acknowledges that he was a toxic person in that relationship. And I loved how that connected through to the whole materialism of being a collector.
Like Beltrane. Beltrane is this collector, this billionaire who takes all these beautiful things and they’re never seen again.
Yes. I really liked that whole line going from being a selfish hoarder to sharing film and sharing artefacts with the world. It was so much about community, like the community that you can find in a fandom, in the Classic Hollywood fandom as well. There’s a really lovely tenderness in the film with that couple as well.
Oh, thank you. One of the reasons we had that whole scene with the couple was that we were feeling that we were kind of making the whole collecting world just so negative. And I thought it was important that we have some example of the sense of community of collectors. And so this couple who had this terrible tragedy found this whole new life with horror film collectors, and that it can be a very positive experience. So that’s why we put that in.I think the idea originally was just to add another element of suspense that he’s being chased around by these strange people, almost like the movie Diva. But then, you know, I thought, oh maybe it would be interesting if it turns out they’re just like this really nice suburban couple who have this big interest. They’re marvellous, John [Ellison Conlee] and Cady [Huffman], the way they play the scene, they cut through the sentiment.
Yeah, I’m so glad to see that in there. That honouring of – you know, rather than just demonising – because so often fandom has just been demonised. And I’m like, you know what, no, you don’t understand how important it is.
I was worried that with Jimmy and Doris [Margaret Cho’s character], it would be all just that one thing.
I wanted to ask you about that ending bit. When Jimmy says “Kathmandu a revelation”, is that a quote? Because it felt like a quote.
No. I just thought that at the end, now that he’s got the best of everybody, that he – you know, how Madonna suddenly started speaking with a British accent – that now he’s so rich, he starts speaking with kind of a very affected sort of speech. But in this case, he’s kind of turned into Audrey Hepburn, and they’ve been around the world, and I thought if he talks about Kathmandu and how it was fascinating – you know, he’s just putting on such airs, to get back at everybody that has been nasty to him.
Love it, love it. What are you guys planning in terms of distribution and streaming? I know it’s been in so many festivals. Is it going to be online?
Wolf Distributing has taken it on. There’s talk that in June it will be released on streaming and also the other films.
Excellent. And I’m really looking forward to the other films as well because I really want to see Die Mommie Die. Thank you so much for your time, Charles.
It’s been lovely talking to you, you’re delightful.
Two of the people that I told I was going to interview you – both had the exact same reaction. They were like, “Oh my god, Charles Busch. He wrote Psycho Beach Party! I love that movie!” So I just thought I should let you know that.
Oh, I’m glad. Yeah, it really has its genuine cult, that movie.
Yes, I was going to ask you questions about that but we can do that another time for your next film. Thank you so much, Charles. Have a lovely evening.
Thank you so much.
The Sixth Reel is screening as part of the Mardi Gras Film Festival 2022 in cinema and online. www.queerscreen.org.au
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