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Focal Point

In-depth interviews with directors and cinematographers by Jim Hemphill

“I Wanted the Camera to Get Close… What Does Our Body Allow Us To Do, Or Prevent Us From Doing?”: Jennie Livingston on the Criterion Restoration of Her Classic Doc, Paris is Burning

Paris is Burning

In the mid-1980s, photographer and aspiring filmmaker Jennie Livingston discovered New York City’s drag ball scene and found the subject for what would become her debut feature, the landmark 1990 documentary Paris is Burning. A moving, empathetic, and very, very funny portrait of the black, Latinx, gay and transgender voguers who find support and community in rival “houses” during a time of cultural hostility defined by homophobia, transphobia, and racism, Paris is Burning is both a remarkable time capsule and a timeless ensemble character study about the need for self-expression and the desire to be heard. Livingston’s sensitivity as an interviewer yields a bounty of insights and revelations, and her fascination with the balls themselves is infectious and expertly articulated; she lays out the codes and rituals of the world in front of her camera with clarity and concision, and then gets down to the business of examining race, class, gender, sexuality, and how they all relate to the artistic impulse. Paris is Burning was a smash hit at the time of its release, and 30 years later it feels more resonant and profound than ever – and it’s still raucous and hilarious as well. Newly available on Blu-ray and DVD from Criterion with a generous array of supplements (including over an hour of never-before-seen outtakes), Paris is Burning looks and sounds better than ever thanks to a digital restoration supervised by Livingston. I spoke with her by phone the day after the Criterion disc’s release and began by asking how the whole thing got started.

Jennie Livingston: I first encountered voguing in Washington Square Park in 1985. My training was in photography and painting, and I assumed I was going to be a photographer, but I was interested in learning about filmmaking. I had quit my job as a staff photographer for the Staten Island Advance and was taking a six-week filmmaking class called “Sight and Sound” at NYU. So I was in Washington Square Park with my camera, which is typically how I rolled at that time. And I saw these guys who were posing in front of a tree and they were saying things like, “Saks 5th Avenue, the new mannequins, butch queen and drags,” and I thought, “Oh, they’re really great looking. I wonder if I can photograph them.” I asked them if I could, and they said yes. I asked them what they were doing. They said, “We’re voguing.” I was like, “Oh, what’s that?” They said, “Well, it’s a dance and if you want to see more of it you should go to a ball. And if you want to know about voguing you should meet Willy Ninja.”

So, that was my first, just random in a New York City public space, encounter with voguing. And then I did go to a ball, it was a mini ball that would now be called a Kiki Ball. It was small, for younger people, and it was at the LGBT Community Center on 13th street. I had a documentary assignment for the NYU filmmaking class, so I went with these windup, 16-millimeter black-and-white reversal film cameras that we had and kind of had my mind blown. I had never seen that cultural explosion of identities and energy and dance. I filmed it for the class, and as a result of that one experience I started to go to balls with a still camera and take photographs. I spent about two years doing that before most of Paris is Burning was shot, and then I began to feel like it wasn’t just a photography project. It was about people who had stories. It was about a subculture that was saying something not only about itself and its own people, but about the world at large and society at large.

And so, I began to explore how do you get the resources, how do you get the help, how do you raise the money to make a film? Because at that time there was no such thing as a prosumer digital camera. You had to raise enough money to use a professional 16-millimeter camera, which, even putting aside the rental of the camera or paying a DP, costs about $250 for every ten minutes. Just to buy the stock, shoot the stock, process the stock and print the stock into a work print that you could then begin to edit.

Filmmaker: What were your first steps in terms of the financing? I’m guessing that it was not a case where you just had all the money at once.

Livingston: Yeah, there were many steps. There always are — I’m making a documentary now that has many steps. I mean, most nonfiction filmmaking is always this step-by-step process, unless it fits into a category where someone says, “Yes, that’s a famous person, we should make a film of that,” or, “Yes, that’s a very important social issue that journalistically needs to be covered.” So, the first step was, I had a friend who had been interning on films. She interned on a Lizzie Borden film, and she told me, “Well, what people do is they make a trailer.” I had this old car that had belonged to my parents, and I sold it and did this one shoot in February of 1986 at the Paris is Burning Ball at the Elks Lodge. I hired a DP. and we cut a five-minute trailer on a Steenbeck and then we made a VHS copy of it. And then we went out and tried to get money. The first grant was from New York State Council in the Arts, but those grants are little grants. They’re little grants now, they were little grants then. You need a chunk of change to shoot a movie and I just got a lot of nos, for various reasons. People just couldn’t imagine anyone would want to see a film about a queer black and Latinx subculture, and people from the black community or Latinx communities said, “We don’t want to show that aspect of our community.” People from the gay community were like, “We don’t want to show that aspect of our community.” There were just so many no, no, no, no, no, no, no, nos.

Also, female filmmakers to this day only make 6% of all films in general release, men make 94% of the films in general release. So, to be seen as a woman filmmaker, to be seen as a queer woman filmmaker, making a film on a topic that people couldn’t picture, much less picture it in a film…you can imagine. But finally what happened was that I had a friend, Michael Moon, who was interning at WNYC TV – it doesn’t exist anymore, but it was the TV arm of the radio station we have today. He was making VHS copies of my trailer for me and his boss asked, “What are those tapes you’re making?” He said, “Oh, my friend’s making a film. I’m making her trailers for her.” She said, “Oh, I’d like to look at it.” She looked at it and really liked it. She showed it to her boss, this guy, Madison Davis Lacey, who was the head of the station, and he really liked it. He had been the producer of Eyes on the Prize, and he directed a documentary about Hattie McDaniel, and he just really understood it. He brought me in for a meeting and asked me, “Well, what do you want to do?” I told him, “Well, this is my first film. I’m not going to film school. I’d like to make a short.” And he said, “Well, what would you do if you could do anything?” I said, “Well, I think there are definitely enough stories and action here to make a wonderful feature, but I don’t know how I’m going to raise that money.” He says, “Make a budget for a feature and come back to me in a week.” So, we scrambled to make this budget, and we came back with $250,000 and he said, “Okay, I’ll give you half.”

So WNYC put up that money and we went out in the summer of 1987 and shot for five weeks and then eventually got a couple more grants. We found cutting money from the BBC, from a man called Nigel Finch who had a show called Arena. Nigel was gay, so it’s a case where you have an executive who understands that people would want to see the film. The way I found him was really random. I had a friend who was working for David Byrne, David Byrne’s assistant. She showed my trailer to David Byrne, David really liked it, and said, “Oh, I know this guy Nigel Finch at the BBC.” Nigel was in New York and came to our cutting room, where we showed him dailies. And he was in for pretty much enough money for us to edit it, although we still didn’t have enough money for a credit sequence. So, we went to a couple festivals and were able to raise enough money to do our first print with a credit sequence, and then we went to Sundance and won a Jury Prize, and still no one wanted to pick it up. I had an acquaintance who was working at Miramax, Mark Tusk, and Mark told Harvey Weinstein about it. Harvey wasn’t interested. He didn’t care that it won the Jury Prize.

Filmmaker: So how did he end up distributing it?

Livingston: Karen Cooper at Film Forum said, “We’ll give it two weeks.” We were like, “Awesome.” We got a publicist who convinced some journalists to look at the film, and they really liked it – and it became a hit with audiences. I would say most of those audiences were queer. Many of those audience members were queer people of color. Anyway, it was the highest-grossing per screen film for two weeks, and that made distributors sit up and take notice. So we made a distribution deal with Miramax. And it’s so funny, because when Harvey was doing press during his trial to try to make himself look better, he talked to the New York Post and said, “I’ve done so much for independent films by women.” And he named Paris is Burning. He said, “Madonna told me about that film.” I can’t tell you if Madonna did or didn’t tell him about the film, but he picked it up because it was doing well. He didn’t pick it up because he wanted to support female directors, or because he saw that the movie was good. He didn’t do anything for female directors, even ones like me who helped build his young company. We made money for Miramax. Quentin’s first film made a lot less than Paris is Burning, but Quentin’s career was made by producers and companies like Harvey and Miramax. I didn’t have experiences with sexual impropriety working with Harvey, but what I did observe was that his company, like so many other places in our industry, was not a place that furthered the work of queer people, or women, or people of color, but particularly women.

And I think there’s an interesting connection between assault and impropriety and not seeing women directors. We’re not visible. We shouldn’t have voices. No one at Miramax ever said, “Oh, look, Jennie Livingston made this film that made good money for us. I wonder what her next thing is? Let’s bring her in, let’s fund that next project.” I think there’s a relationship between not seeing female filmmakers as filmmakers and seeing other women as potential victims. Everyone is horrified at rape and at the kinds of pressures that male producers and male company owners put on women, on actresses, and on employees. But we need to see that in light of the question, “Does our industry want to see stories by empowered women?” I’m not saying most executives who don’t fund women’s projects are rapists, that’s not true, but the two cultures are not unconnected.

Filmmaker: Yeah, I have to admit I was always mystified by the fact that Miramax didn’t throw support behind you for another film, both because Paris is Burning was financially successful and because it was such an assured debut. You have a really firm command of the filmmaking language you’re using in it, especially in the interviews, with their wide lenses and handheld work that increases the intimacy between the audience and the subject. How did you arrive at that style?

Livingston: First of all, I come from photography. I was a big fan of people like Robert Frank and Garry Winogrand and Diane Arbus. So when you shoot with a Leica, the way I shot anyway, you have a wide-angle fixed lens. And so, you look at the world that way. You move around with that, and you see the world that way. And I think what I was really interested in is the idea that you’re given a certain body, you’re given a certain container, and you can do different things with that container that depends on what your society allows you to do, what you decide to do. In the case of Paris is Burning, there were many people who were trans, or drag queens, who wanted to modify their bodies to fit more how they felt comfortable in who they were. And so, I wanted the camera to get close, so that we, as viewers, could not only think about that body that contains the person who’s talking to us at an intimate level, but also think about our bodies in relation to them and in relation to who are we? What does our body allow us to do, or prevent us from doing?

So part of it was my background as a photographer, and also, I fell in love with movies in the ’70s. That’s when I came of age and started to go out to the Nuart Theater in Los Angeles, to see all those movies by documentarians like say, Werner Herzog, who were really quite enamored of a wide-angle lens. The telephoto lens feels a little voyeuristic, and I think with the wide-angle lens you intuitively feel that there’s someone behind it that is moving close to or moving away from a subject. And there’s something a little more visually honest about it in terms of what it says linguistically, if you know what I mean. I think the interviews feel pretty intimate, and I think they feel pretty intimate because by the time we finally went in there with professional equipment and a crew, people had come to trust me. I spent a long time getting to know people and hanging out; even before I could afford to shoot, I got a cassette recorder and did audio interviews. That was a way of not only me learning a lot and collecting audio, some of which made it into the film, but also of people becoming comfortable with me. They could get to know me. And there were people who, at the last minute, decided not to be filmed, and that was fine too. That’s pretty typical for documentary filmmaking, that people decide, “No, actually, I don’t want do this.” But the people who did had time to get used to the idea of me as a filmmaker, and also to get a sense of why I wanted to do it. It wasn’t just like, “Oh, I met you a month ago, and here I am with a crew.”

Filmmaker: And did you feel like some of them were performing for you? And if so, did you try to pull that back, or did you just see that as, in its own way, kind of an honest presentation of who they were?

Livingston: I think your answer is sort of encoded in your question. I mean, I didn’t feel people were performing for me, but I do feel that the people that I picked were by and large performative people. I wasn’t making a film about some mathematicians at Cal Tech. I was making a film about trans women, and gay men, and drag queens who performed at drag balls and were socially connected to other people who were doing that. So there certainly was a performative quality, but I also think I was capturing people’s real desires and real feelings.

Filmmaker: What was it like shooting on the streets of New York at that time? What were the pleasures, and what were the dangers?

Livingston: I think now, on the streets of New York, people pretty much have their heads in their phones. We’re a little bit enclosed by that. I’m not saying you never would meet a stranger on the street, or on the subway, and talk to them. You would. That happens. But I feel like it was more a fluid culture. The city was scary, so people talked to each other, because most people weren’t scary. Most people were safe. And so, when something crazy happened, you turned to the person next to you for sanity. And as I explained earlier, the whole film was made because I randomly met someone who was open to being photographed and who was open to speaking to me. So I think the pleasure was that it was a place that moved, and you moved around, and no one cared about a camera, and the people were cool with being filmed. I think what’s interesting now is that we live in an era when anyone with a phone could film something, and it would end up circling the globe in an instant…back then there wasn’t a concern that that would happen. And maybe that made people a little more comfortable, because they’re not trying to be YouTube stars. They have a relationship with you and your crew.

The dangers were definitely real. I mean, there was street crime. I didn’t worry about it. It was just where I lived. I was a young person. It was where I’d chosen to be. There is an outtake in the DVD that’s fun to show, where we’re in Dorian’s apartment. It was at St. Nicholas and 150th Street, which was a rough neighborhood at that time, less so now. And it was a basement apartment, and we’re filming the interview. And suddenly gunshots ring out, and Dorian just looks at the camera and goes, “Oh, gunfight at the O.K. Corral!” And suddenly the D.P., Paul, was just like, “Oh, my God, was that really a gunshot?” And then Dorian says, “Well, didn’t you hear the people running?” And then the camera chokes and shuts off, because Paul ran outside to make sure that our crew in the van were okay, which, thank God, they were. That night, the sound woman quit. She said, “You’re running through places that we’re not protected from, and it’s not a risk I want to take.” Understandable.

So I think, yeah, there was a certain amount of danger, but I think also, for me, as a young queer person, as a young person in New York, it was so exciting to be moving all over the city. I was an AIDS activist, and I also was a young person living in the East Village, excited about the art scene, excited about the theater scene, excited about activism. I mean, also devastated, because gay people who were around ten years older than me were dying. So it was the best of times and the worst of times. A lot of the activism had to do with a whole segment of society where essentially the Reagan administration’s attitude was, “Fine, let them die. We’re not going to do anything.” Now that there’s so much historical material on the Internet, you can watch this press conference with Reagan’s press secretary. There’s a journalist, a straight white man who was investigating AIDS and the Reagan administration’s refusal to deal with it. And he’s asking the president’s press secretary about this, and the guy is literally laughing. He’s kind of snickering, like basically sort of implying that somehow this journalist must be gay if he cares. And that was the attitude about thousands of Americans dying.

Filmmaker: I know that recently you’ve been working as both producer and director on the FX series Pose, which is a dramatic look at the same milieu as Paris is Burning. What else are you working on right now, are you veering more toward fiction, or do you have other documentary work in the pipeline?

Livingston: I’m working on a movie called Earth Camp One that I’d call more a hybrid than a quote-unquote documentary. But it’s a first-person story, and it’s about how I lost four family members in five years, between 1996 and 2000: my grandmother, my mom, who was a children’s book writer, my uncle, who was the filmmaker Alan Pakula, and my brother, Thomas, who was a music executive. It’s about those losses and how American culture views loss and impermanence. And the title Earth Camp One refers to a hippie summer camp I went to in the ’70s, and that’s kind of like…when you’re young, you often want to break away from your family and find different cultural markers. But what happens when they leave you? So I went to this camp to get away, but years later, I lost all these people. Do you become your parents no matter what? Are you always sort of running away from your family no matter what? And the film uses a lot of archival stuff. It also has animation, it has a musical number, so it’s like a thought piece, a memoir. I’ve been cutting it myself over time, and we’re just about to gear up to do a big edit. I often joke that in the lexicon of the ball world, where you compete for trophies, I won a trophy for “World’s Slowest Filmmaker.” And that’s my way of saying, yeah, I’m not speedy, but each thing I do is something I really care about. I hope after this they’ll just throw a lot more money at me, because I definitely want to be speedier. Usually, I’m slow because the battle to get the money is slow. So that’s why I bring up the Harvey issue, because I think in our industry we really need a consciousness about the need to see stories by women, and people of color, and stories about economic struggle. I mean, a film like Roma, that movie just rocked my world, but we need more movies like that by filmmakers who are not the usual suspects. Because the stories that get told that are meaningful, I think they change us. 

Jim Hemphill is the writer and director of the award-winning film The Trouble with the Truth, which is currently available on DVD and streaming on Amazon Prime. His website is www.jimhemphillfilms.com.

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