“Our Plan for Financial Security is, We’ll Become Famous Hollywood Filmmakers”: Silas Howard and Harry Dodge on By Hook or by Crook
Silas Howard and Harry Dodge, the intrepid duo that wrote, directed and starred in By Hook or by Crook, still possess a collaborative spark that has outlived their ability to make art together. After their groundbreaking, ultra low-budget queer film premiered at Sundance 20 years ago, Howard immediately enrolled in film school at UCLA; Dodge, on the other hand, found the festival landscape far too overwhelming for his taste and decided to focus on sculpture, video art and writing. While they both followed their respective paths after By Hook or by Crook, they remain very close friends and respected colleagues. Above all, it’s clear that they’re both still proud of the film they managed to bring into a world made to reject it.
The film follows two butch, trans outcasts who develop a deep, loving bond in the face of societal ugliness. Shy (Howard) is a runaway from Hoxie, Kansas who makes their way to San Francisco, a supposedly queer haven, and stumbles upon Val (Dodge) during a late-night walk to stave off hunger pangs. Val is getting the shit beaten out of them by the spitting image of a white, cishet guy—but Val still manages to laugh as the punches land, grinning with a mouth full of blood. The two eventually fight the guy off and, to show their gratitude, Val buys Shy a warm basket of donuts. The two become fast friends, and eventually begin committing petty crimes with Val’s lover Billie (Stanya Kahn) to keep them financially afloat. Even in the face of adversity (homophobia, poverty, police brutality), Shy and Val are never stripped of their dignity. Their queer identity might make them susceptible to violence, but suppressing their innate personhood in order to conform to a world that ostensibly wants them dead would be a crueler self-imposed violence.
Currently, Howard and Dodge (along with producer Steak House) are working on an archival restoration for the film, originally shot on mini DV due to the filmmakers’ financial restrictions. Though they’ve been given some money from the Sundance Preservation Fund to start the process, they are now fundraising an additional $20,000 to complete the process and hope to screen the finished restoration by 2023.
Filmmaker spoke to Howard and Dodge via Zoom ahead of By Hook or by Crook’s 20th anniversary LA screening at OutFest on Saturday, July 23. Howard’s recent short film, directed with Naz Riahi, Madelynn Von Ritz Is Almost Famous, will also screen alongside the duo’s directorial debut.
Filmmaker: How did you two meet, and what made the idea of undertaking writing, directing and starring in a film together such an appealing prospect in the first place?
Howard: Aside from narcissism?
Dodge: [Laughs] We were both working in the mid-’80s. We both were young. I think Silas was 19? One of us was 18, one of us was 19. We’ve been friends for that long! We met working at a cafe called Cafe Commons, run by lesbians in the Mission [District] in San Francisco. Everybody was welcome at that cafe, but in those days you had to get a book of gay places in the city you were staying in. You would have to go to a gay bookstore—first finding one without a book, which was always a trick. I’m going to guess that’s how [Silas] found Cafe Commons, or you ended up in San Francisco and someone told you to go there. We’ve been friends ever since.
We eventually started our own cafe [Red Dora’s Bearded Lady Café] after a few years. We felt like we wanted a different kind of place. At first, our idea was to have a wrestling mat and a coffee machine. [Laughs] “We’re going to have a place where we can all hang out and feel comfortable!” We signed the lease—we did a bunch of scams, some of the ones pictured in the movie—then realized we would have to pay rent again the next month, and that we were going to need 600 bucks, or whatever it was, in 30 days. So, we started having events and started thinking, “OK, we gotta maybe sell some food. We gotta get it together.” Years later—we were about 26 or 27—we started thinking, “We need to do a grown-up job. What are we going to do?” It was right when that guy [Kevin Smith] had just made Clerks, and indie film was the thing. Now you could get rich by making a movie in your own house. So, we thought, “Why don’t we do that? Our plan for financial security is, we’ll become famous Hollywood filmmakers.” Thus, we began writing the movie.
Howard: I had started a band, too, in early sobriety. It was an era where if you didn’t see something reflecting you, you needed to make it happen. You couldn’t wait for permission, because nobody gave a shit. So, we made our own bands, our own events, spaces, record labels, cafes. We were this group of young people growing up in the middle of AIDS, not blindsided by it. We were told in no uncertain terms, “You should die,” that it’s retribution from God. So, instead of hiding, we went very flamboyant—mohawks and tattoos—which made you very unemployable back then, for sure. We wanted this queer space where we could all hang out together. There were so few of us that we weren’t really fighting amongst each other. We really needed each other—all different genders together instead of separated out. That really informed it and, for me, it was just an urgent need to tell a story. I loved acting, I wanted to act. When people said “You should have someone else direct the film,” I was like, “Oh, hell no.” We didn’t know what we were getting into, or we probably wouldn’t have done it. There’s a benefit to leaping before you look.
Filmmaker: This was clearly an urgent project, so how long did it take from inception to completion?
Howard: Three years. It felt longer, writing a couple of scripts where we wanted a regular movie with people like us in it and we didn’t explain it. But then we realized that we wanted a story about a friendship and [to] still not explain the characters—let the audience do that—and just show the power of being seen by somebody for the first time and feeling that impact.
Filmmaker: Something super refreshing about the film is that it does just allow these characters to exist and doesn’t need to tell a story so that the audience knows what it’s like for people who live outside of these social margins.
Dodge: That was really purposeful. We knew that trying to explain was going to put people at a distance, and would also put us at a distance. Really, we were kind of like, “Fuck off, we don’t need to explain anything to you. But we’re charming, we’re smart and you will probably like watching us in a story about a friendship. We’ve spent our lives in a disidentification process, picking and choosing ways to enter narratives where we’re not represented. Everyone’s doing that all of the time.” That’s what fiction is! The mainstream wasn’t going to let butches necessarily be in a picture or a band or anything—it was anathema to capitalism at the time—but we didn’t see why that had to be the case.
Howard: The “not explaining” thing is something I’ve carried forward in authentic casting. It’s finally opening up more with all different kinds of identification. [Back then], it was a friendly invitation: if we don’t explain—which is a power dynamic, to explain yourself—it keeps the audience at a distance. It keeps them in a more voyeuristic position, and I think when it’s authentically built from the ground up, anyone can identify if it’s a good story. Like Harry said, we’ve been doing that our whole lives. If it’s a good story and has nothing to do with me, I’ll still have feelings about it. I think the same goes for authentic casting. You get to circumvent tropes when people are just guessing, and that makes it more universal.
Filmmaker: The film has this fluidity that is incredibly absorbing, and a lot of that comes from the very natural and idiosyncratic way the dialogue is written. It’s very conversational in a way that’s actually true to life, and I think that’s a testament to the way that you captured these relationships and the complexity of queer identity, instead of this standard-issue queer narrative roller coaster of being happy-sexy-tragic from one minute to the next. How did you do justice to these emotions concurrently through your performances?
Howard: We took some acting classes, and I remember one at City College where one of the teachers said, “I don’t know what’s happening here, but it’s something really strong.” We weren’t giving context [for our performances], so I think it was about a dynamic, and a lot of that had to do with Harry’s performance language coming into play. Only Harry could pull that off—so warm and inviting. For me, I was borrowing things from my life and fictionalizing slightly, but these things were true, which can be harder to play sometimes. I think without being too aware that we tried to have funny, sad, sexy in every moment, we could have them all included without being separated.
Dodge: I hadn’t really thought of it that way, but it makes sense. I’ve always been a fan of connecting. I’m not moved that often when I watch movies or look at art. I actually find dance to be the most moving form for me, for some reason, which usually doesn’t have language at all—which I find fascinating, because I’m obsessed with language. But often when I’m making something, I try to put all of my inscribing or figuration around the thing that I’m actually interested in, because I don’t want to pin down the actual theme or my interest with language, because I can’t. That’s another reason why we didn’t explain: what would we say? It’s more ontological. And there were a lot of aesthetic considerations—we were struggling against this video camera we had to use because we couldn’t get money for film. We would spend hours lighting something, you know? There was a kind of unreality in the lighting, but also a kind of beauty in it. There was this Fassbender-ian knowledge that if we put a practical in the back, there would be this blown-out effect that would evoke a ‘70s era look.
Howard: Do you remember when we tried to shoot it blurry?
Dodge: I know! We even tried that, because we were so dissatisfied with how it looked.
Howard: We shot a couple of scenes totally blurry, then were like, “We can’t do that.”
Dodge: I think we did send the footage to Steak House—our producer, who’s so amazing—to start doing experiments to figure out how we would get it to look like film, or at least less like a soap opera. We also had a commitment to figuring out our chemistry and growing a movie from that. Then, a lot took place in editing. The first cut of the film was, per the script, three hours long. We saw certain experiments we had done that worked and other experiments that did not work. We were really interested in stretching out what was possible with a film, inspired by the weirdest of mainstream films.
Howard: Certain experiments were 50/50, because we test screened all the time, to the point where we didn’t know if it would work at all. When it played at The Castro, we thought that gay and lesbian people would hate this movie. Instead, we got this 15-minute standing ovation. In LA, it won awards. We had thought, “We’re just too weird. We’re the outsiders of the outsiders.” It was actually very touching that people responded to the film the way that they did.
Filmmaker: You brought up your dissatisfaction with shooting on mini-DV, and I want to go into that a bit more because I know it’s something you’ve also expressed in previous interviews. But I think that there’s this very DIY texture to the film that evokes the era so wonderfully. I wanted to know a little bit more about what that experience was like, and how it affects the way you view the film upon rewatch now?
Howard: That’s so nice to hear. The lack of resolution is one thing. I’m glad we have Super 8 in there for another texture.
Dodge: I watched it a few years ago and the sound was a hair fuzzy, and that’s really painful. And a lot of the brightness had gone out of it—it was generally a little darker than I remembered, or some of the grain is just eating up the picture more than I remember. I’m hoping that when we do the restoration, we can start again and get something a little less distracting. It’s never going to look high-def; it will always have that feeling of the era that you were talking about.
Howard: I don’t really like high-def that much, either. Sundance gave us some funds for the restoration, we just need to raise a bit more to go back to these formats, like Final Cut One, and do the EDL output. It’s a process that we’ve started. Steak has been doing a great job at helming that. We might figure out a GoFundMe page to finish the rest of [the funding]. If we find a patron out there that wants to help us finish it up, they’re welcome to,
Filmmaker: What do you think the cinematic landscape would be like now for like a young pair of artists who want to make a film without that formal film school background?
Howard: I think they would have access to a beautiful image. One thing we felt is that it doesn’t take money to set a dynamic frame, to compose it a certain way. Now, with the iPhone being 4K or something crazy, there is a way to do something DIY—and not the fake way [where you] “use an iPhone,” then build it out with a million lenses which costs tons of money. The younger generation have made content on YouTube and watched other people’s content. They’re very savvy about story and experimental storylines. But it’s still very difficult, because even if you can get the crew for free, you’ve gotta feed everybody and all of that. I made my second feature on a DSL. They’d go 12 minutes and cut, so you’d always have to time things. New technologies have always enabled me to make work. I’ve only now had access to bigger budgets and I’m just finishing my first studio movie—which is really crazy to do, but it’s going OK so far. But it’s still a character and story, no matter what the budget.
Filmmaker: Silas, how has helming bigger studio projects made you reflect on your first directorial endeavor?
Howard: I think I bring a lot from By Hook or by Crook, like not explaining certain characters and making those dynamic and authentic casting choices. Right now, there are a lot of companies and streamers saying they want inclusivity. I’ve been able to say, “OK, here’s how we do it.” We opened up the pool and I was able to cast this young trans woman. There’s been support around that. It’s a good time; we have a very organically diverse cast. I get to make the script, and they get to make this role their own once they’re cast. It’s about getting as authentic as possible and looking at everything from every angle. Directing is your point of view, so it’s baked into your DNA. Your life experience informs how you look at a scene, what questions you ask the actors and what stakes you find. I felt very able to say what I meant and push back on things that I felt strongly about and be heard. In the end it’s always about money, so there are certain compromises for sure. But it’s been good so far, actually.
Dodge: After [By Hook or by Crook] got into Sundance, we went to LA and visited a bunch of publicists and other people who were bringing a whole truckload of clients to Sundance. This industry was all new to me, then Sundance was wild to me and I was overwhelmed. After all of that calmed down, Silas was like, “I’m going to go to film school. I’m going to go to UCLA and be a director.” I was like, “I’m going to go to art school and make whatever I want to make when I get up in the morning and try to figure out what I’m interested in”—to give myself the gift of always being focused on what I’m interested in, and hoping I can be specific enough to gamble on making a connection. So, we went our separate ways. I continued to make art videos, but bringing those weird chops and skills I had taught myself on By Hook or by Crook. To reintroduce some of these cinematic conventions into some of those works was really interesting. Like, I would film one person, then do an over the shoulder shot for the next. Using those kinds of conventions at the beginning of my art career were odd and unusual, but really helped me tell a story.
Howard: I went to film school because I didn’t get the memo that to make independent films, you had to be independently wealthy. So, I went to practice directing and pretend to be rich, but came out with huge debts. I also knew I could teach, and I did for years. The economy crashed shortly after I got out. So, I made a second feature 10 years later, on the same budget that we made By Hook or by Crook on. I made short documentaries on $200 or whatever money I had, focusing on people that are dear to me—people that were going to fall off the map, like Bambi Lake or Kris Kovick, that I wanted the world to have access to. I went to New York and taught at-risk youth. I taught at Queens College, and just kept making stuff on no money. I made a music video with Justin Vivian Bond. I did the opposite of what you’re supposed to do in this career. Then Transparent opened up an opportunity, I went for it and Amazon said no at first, because of how low the budgets have been in my past work. And [Transparent producer] Andrea [Sperling] said, “They don’t understand reading queer work.” There wasn’t a budget for the stories I was telling. I thought, “Lucky for them, because they’re making a bundle off of very queer world right now.” But it all worked out. I was able to get in there. I have been able to turn stuff down, and do stuff that I feel like I connect to. I’m only as good as I connect. It’s not good for anyone if I take something on that’s just for a paycheck. I don’t know, I’ve been broke for so long that I’m not really motivated by the paycheck alone. But sure, it’s nice to be able to pay bills. [laughs]
Filmmaker: A significant aspect of By Hook or by Crook deals with heightened policing of queer bodies in general—not only from the literal threat of arrest for committing crimes to survive, but there’s also something significant about the social surveillance of queer bodies in general. I think if anything, political scrutiny of queer bodies has arguably gotten more draconian in recent years. What felt important to you about communicating the right to expression and bodily autonomy in the film, and what are your thoughts about our current crisis?
Howard: With the movie, we were so in our own world. We weren’t really trying to give a message to any specific person, and that allowed us to have the joy and the pain. We didn’t want to do trauma only, but we couldn’t take that away. We thought, “Maybe we can show the trauma, and the humor and the connection that comes out of surviving trauma.” I think it’s important to not make that the [whole] story, because nobody lives with only that emotion, hopefully. As soon as transness in particular became a big deal and was overshadowing other parts of queerness, I knew there would be backlash. I felt like, “Oh, there’s a target.” Of course there’s the bathroom bill, but there’s also just ignoring a lot of queer culture in general. And, with Roe v. Wade, it’s been so many steps backwards. The only thing I can hope for is that, historically, our bond came out of aggressive attacks on us. If we can create an even more active community, or coalitions of communities that work together, I think it’s easier to know where the bullets are coming from. Showing up is also important. It’s important for men and masculine people to show up around Roe v. Wade, big time. It’s important not to tear each other apart as much, even though we also have to acknowledge differences and racism, classism and misogyny within the community. It’s a tall order, but I think we have so much more empathy and insight. We see the cracks and the facade which everybody will eventually see at some point in their life.
Dodge: It was a tough time when we made By Hook or By Crook. There were a whole different set of challenging—and incredibly pleasurable and beautiful—circumstances. We’re now in a whirlwind that’s somewhat familiar, but there’s still a lot of turbulence. So, this progression that we might have wished for isn’t exactly legible, and that’s its own lesson. I hope the movie can stand as a kind of beacon or vibrating example of will and bravado, of expression under pressure, and that it can be inspiring. I think that the violence, unfortunately, hasn’t gone away. As cities are gentrified, violence just relocates to different neighborhoods. But it was common to get gay bashed. We both have been gay bashed several times, or held at gunpoint. One time, a guy ran by and dropped a machine gun. I picked it up, and the cops were running towards me. It was just a common thing, and it’s still happening. Being visibly different, we wanna celebrate our weirdo-ness as much as we can.
Dodge: We had done a lot of projects before that movie. We had the cafe, Silas’s band and my performances—all these things where people would come together and help get an event made. We all attended each other’s events. There was a really big, close-knit community. There was so much natural intelligence and wit and love that was bubbling and buoying us. We couldn’t have made the movie without all of that help.
Howard: The community is the only reason why I stayed making films when it took 20 years to make money doing film directing. So, all of those other projects were greenlit by our community.
Filmmaker: It feels incredibly vital to maintain these facets of art and culture that are propelled by a community that has a common bond as opposed to a lot of fractured outputs.
Howard: So many amazing young filmmakers I’ve been working with are looking at healing through the filmmaking process and doing beautiful hybrid work of documentary and narrative. I’m so excited for those voices to get amplified, because we need them.