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5 Questions for Jennie Livingston, Director of “Paris Is Burning” and “Who’s The Top?”

5 Questions for Jennie Livingston, Director of "Paris Is Burning" and "Who's The Top?"

When I first saw “Paris Is Burning” in Los Angeles in 1991 it blew me away. Not counting Michael Moore‘s “Roger & Me,” it was the first true documentary, in this case a portrait of a group of New Yorkers who were part of the ball scene, I had ever seen in a movie theater. After it came out on video, I watched it many more times with friends and have always admired Jennie Livingston for creating such an incredible look inside a world that my friends and I found eye-opening. Listening to Cheryl Lynn‘s “Got To Be Real” today still takes me back to the first time I saw the film.

More than a decade later, I met Jennie and after watching her stunning new short “Who’s The Top?” I invited her to speak with my students following a screening of “Paris” at a New School class I taught this summer. “Paris Is Burning” will finally be released on DVD later this year and “Who’s The Top?” is currently screening on the festival circuit.

Learning that The Film Society of Lincoln Center would screen “Paris” and “Top” together tomorrow (Saturday, August 6th at 6:30 p.m. and 9:15 p.m.) at the Walter Reade Theater gave indieWIRE the perfect opportunity to email a few questions to Jennie about her films. While the format dictated that we send 5 Questions, the list grew to some 13 by Jennie’s count. Her answers to our inquiries are below.

indieWIRE: Screening with “Paris Is Burning” this weekend is “Who’s The Top?”, your new film that includes dancers, music, and a mix of old and new footage of two women in a relationship. Clearly, you began working on it a number of years ago. Was it always intended to be a short? Will you talk a bit about how the project evolved? What were some of the challenges you faced in getting it made?

Jennie Livingston: “Who’s the Top?” was a script I initially wrote in 1994. It was a script about the “lesbian sex wars” of the ’90s, about a couple who love each other but disagree sexually. The “log line” was “Woody Allen‘s younger dyke sister goes to the s/m dungeon… with musical numbers.” In 1998 I showed it to producer Ruth Charny (“Grace of My Heart,” “The Sleepytime Gal,” “Love Liza,” “Rick“) and we decided to do something akin to what I’d done with “Paris is Burning.” Back in 1985 I’d never made a film or gone to film school, so I created a “trailer” to show what the ball world was about, and to demonstrate that I could direct. In the case of “Who’s the Top?,” I had made a film, and it was a successful film, but it was a documentary. And where the script says “Dance number: The Leather Girls versus the Vanilla Girls,” no one, understandably, could guess what that would look like.

In 1999, Ruth and I raised some money, around $40,000, from private sources and teamed up with casting director Lina Todd and choreographer John Carrafa. We cast Marin Hinkle (now known for ABC’s “Two and a Half Men” and CBS’s “Once and Again“) as the lead, along with Brigitte Bako, Shelly Mars, Maureen Angelos, and Steve Buscemi. Then John cast 24 dancers and spent weeks in workshops creating the choreography. We shot for five days with DPs Michael Barrow and Darren Lew, and Annette Davey cut a “trailer” which we showed at the IFFM that year.

The “Who’s the Top?” ‘trailer’ was a big buzz-item at the Market, in part thanks to IFP Exec Director Michelle’s Byrd’s enthusiasm for the project, and a couple of companies came quite close to getting involved. In the end, though, no one stepped up to the plate. I think, in retrospect, there were just too many risky or unfamiliar items: kinky sex that’s not a McGuffin for murder or memories of an abusive childhood, lesbian relationships, dance numbers (before “Moulin Rouge,” “Chicago,” etc.), poetry slams, female sexuality, not to mention politically incorrect female sexuality, and — perhaps the most difficult — a dramatic structure that was considerably closer to Fellini than to Syd Field.

A scene from Jennie Livingston’s “Who’s The Top?” Image provided by Film Society of Lincoln Center.

As a writer, I was really interested in interweaving the drama in the real world with the drama inside the character’s head (a la “8 1/2“), but to make sure the screenplay was as clear as it could be, I did a rewrite with LA playwright/director Chay Yew, then head of the Mark Taper Forum’s Asian Theater Workshop. I knew I was on to something I would enjoy seeing and Ruth and I kept going out with it, but, whatever its genuine strengths and flaws, it wasn’t what people were looking for. I do think that lesbian sex comedies with nerdy, witty female protagonists are a hard sell, even in the indie sector, where strong female protagonists of any stripe are still news.

Finally, my pal Laura Teodosio — she’s a software entrepreneur and graduate of the MIT Medialab — and I went to Sundance in 2004, just to go, and she said, “damn, your ‘trailer’s’ as good as most of these shorts. You should make it into a short.” I said, “Laura, it’s not a short, and it’s impossible to make a good short, and anyway, I’m over it!” She said, “you’re wrong,” and I said, “fine, you produce it.” And she did.

In terms of the creative work, I looked at what I had — which was excerpts of a film-to-be, not a film, and with writing, editing, and more production, crafted it into a shorter narrative. Marin Hinkle, the lead, now lived in LA, and had a TV series and a baby, but she generously agreed to fly out so we could do one day’s shooting. I went to LA twice to record voice over and re-edited the film myself on Final Cut Pro, which I really liked doing. (My friend the editor Jim Lyons told me, it’s a well-kept secret — editing is fun. ) The film premiered in the Panorama section of the Berlinale in February. I’m still definitely interested in making the feature, as well as happy with how “Who’s the Top?” turned out as a short.

iW: Will you talk a bit about how you came across the idea for “Paris Is Burning”? What was your initial inspiration? And as a follow up, in his review of “Paris,” Vincent Canby called you a “compassionate anthropologist.” How did you view your role as a documentarian?

JL: I would definitely not call myself an anthropolgist. I much preferred Terrence Rafferty‘s New Yorker review, which says the film “is smart enough not to reduce [its] subjects to the sum of their possible meanings.” I was astounded at how profoundly this “marginalized” subculture commented on our society’s center. And thrilled with how articulate and funny the people I met were. In one of the outtakes that we put on the DVD, Pepper Labeija talks about war. I was asking her about military conflict in relation to the “military category” where masculine guys and transgender women dress up in military drag. She says “the military’s cute for the protection of the country, but we don’t always use it for that… we use it to intimidate.” I still feel what the people I met had to say, particulary the elders of the community, was not only relevant in the moment (the late ’80s) but was perceptive and timeless.

I started going to balls after I met some guys who were voguing one day in Washington Square Park. I was 22 and was taking a summer filmmaking class at NYU. My background was in painting and photography and English Lit. I studied photography at Yale with Tod Papageorge, who taught picture-making in the tradition of Robert Frank, Garry Winogrand (his teacher), Diane Arbus, Brassai, etc. So naturally I wanted to hang out in cities and see what there was to see. That’s how I met the voguers in the park, and started going to drag balls.

At first it felt like a photography project. But then, the stories seemed more important, or equally as important. Also, I was trying to figure out how to be gay, and so going to balls was a particularly intense and heady atmosphere — along with AIDS activism — in which to come of age as a queer.

My documentary influences — at that time — ranged from Werner Herzog to Frederick Wiseman to Errol Morris to Ross McElwee to the Maysles and Martin Bell, but I was always thinking about my favorite dramas as well — films by Fellini, Tarkovsky, Fassbinder, John Waters, Kubrick, Peter Weir. I liked films where there was an implication that underneath it all lay some great mystery — hinted at in what’s visible, but never fully revealed.

I didn’t go to film school but was lucky in that older filmmakers were encouraging: I wrote Werner Herzog and sent him some photos, and when he came to New York he took me to dinner and encouraged me to make Paris: I went to see Martin Bell present “Streetwise,” introduced myself, and pretty soon he was introducing me to Jonathan Oppenheim, his associate editor, who became Paris’s editor; I told my uncle, Alan J. Pakula I wanted to direct. He warned me away. Kind soul, he was trying to save me a life of struggle and heartbreak! But when he saw I was serious (I interned on a Laurie Anderson film) he gave me a job in the art department of his film “Orphans.” So I learned by working for others, and by doing the work itself, and I also prepared for “Paris” by reading a lot: James Baldwin, Dick Hebdige, Esther Newton, Alex Haley (on Malcolm X), a whole list of writers who commented on the interface betwen black and white worlds, gay and straight worlds, on American ideals and histories, and on American delusions.

iW: OK, a few more “Paris” questions: What did you think of Madonna‘s “Vogue” when it came out in May of 1990? Also, wow did the film change, if at all, in the months between its debut at Frameline and New Festival in June ’90 and its Sundance ’91 screening? And how did Miramax get involved?

JL: With “Vogue,” I thought, uh-oh, Madonna’s video is out before my film is done! But, in the end, that sequence of events turned out well for the film, because now many people had heard of “voguing,” and so the film could be described as a film about where voguing really came from.

When Paris was initially screened there was no money for a real print or for credits. The New Festival screened it in video, and Frameline screened, at the huge Castro Theater, in double-system interlock, so there was a 10 minute pause for reel change! Between Frameline and Sundance, we raised funds to create a real print with an optical soundtrack. Just as crucially, editor Jonathan Oppenheim and I created a 7-minute credit sequence that included many key bits of footage, including Chipper Corey doing Patti Labelle singing “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” which I think is an uplifting and appropriately wild ending.

I met Mark Tusk who worked for Miramax and he’d told Harvey about it, but Harvey wasn’t interested. Then we opened “Paris” ourselves, at the Film Forum. Critics loved it, audiences were lining up to see it, and for two whole weeks the film was listed in Variety as the highest grossing film, per screen, in the country! So the distributors who wouldn’t talk to us, not even after taking home a Grand Jury Prize at Sundance, suddenly wanted to talk. That’s when Miramax picked it up. And they did an amazing job — they organized benefits for gay and AIDS organizations to accompany the film’s major openings, and really understood how to build an audience.

When I was planning the film’s festival strategy, an important indie producer cautioned me not to go to gay festivals at all, as it would taint the film’s reputation! I think “Paris is Burning” really helped change the perception of whether or not gay people had money to spend at the box office, and whether or not straight people would pay to see homosexual and transgendered stories.

Jennie Livingston, director of “Paris Is Burning” and the new film “Who’s The Top?” with Laura Teodosio, producer of “Top,” at Outfest in June of this year. Photo by Eugene Hernandez/indieWIRE

But at the level of funding production of queer-themed films, change came (if indeed one can say it has come) slowly. “Paris” made four times as much money as “Slacker” and a million more than “Reservoir Dogs” (to compare it to two great indie films of its era) and I still couldn’t get a film afterwards! Miramax’s idea of a lesbian film was “Chasing Amy.” From my end, I did a poor job of trying to figure out what would be saleable. I assumed, quite mistakenly, that because I’d followed my passions and directed and produced a “hit,” I could write my own ticket. I had tons of ideas and proposals and a couple of scripts, but wasn’t finding the funding for those projects. It’s as if because I’d done it once, I was certain I could keep re-inventing the film industry. My uncle Alan always said that your greatest strength can also be your greatest weakness.

iW: What do you feel was the lasting impact of the “New Queer Cinema” movement of the early 90s? How do you think it has it influenced the work of queer filmmakers today, if at all?

JL: Critics coin terms, and unless you coined the terms yourself, it’s hard to know what to say about those definitions. I think a film like Todd Haynes‘ “Poison” was made with the premise that queers would not only tell different stories, we would tell them differently. And now, I think lesbian and gay and transgendered films are by and large formally indistinguishable from other films. In our country, it’s all about genre, as Manohla Dargis observed in a recent New York Times Cannes blog in which she critiques a Hollywood Reporter essay for saying that most of the films at Cannes can’t be distributed in the U.S.. Dargis’s point is that as long as distributors continue to assume Americans will only see genre pictures, and publications support that view, we’ll develop less and less of a taste for anything else. And she’s talking about movies that tell stories that are perfectly comprehensible — they’re just not strictly genre.

Not to deride queer genre pictures — Alice Wu‘s “Saving Face” is a beautifully made studio-funded Chinese-American lesbian romantic comedy — unimaginable twenty years ago, and an admirable first film. For those of us who grew up watching the films of the 70s, many of which could be termed, the cinema of the unofficial view, and for those of us who in the eighties and nineties fell in love with Hou Hsiao Hsien, Immamura, Wong Kar Wai, etc., it’s perhapst too much to wish queer film was more often than not taking some formal risks. But I guess that dates me! There are thrilling new works by seasoned queer filmmakers very much in that tradition: last year, Jonathan Couette‘s “Tarnation,” this year, Gregg Araki‘s “Mysterious Skin” and Jenni Olson‘s “Joy of Life” expand our ideas of what stories can be told, as well as surprising the audience with how the stories are constructed, visualized, imagined.

iW: What else are you working on? And, will “Who’s The Top?” be screening in any more festivals?

JL: “Who’s the Top?” is on the festival circuit. After Lincoln Center, the print goes back to LA, where Outfest is doing a reprise of its Girls’ Shorts program, on August 10th at the Egyptian Theater. And more coming up, so please check our website.

And, if someone wants to put up the money, we’re up for the feature: More Busby Berkeley, more nerd sex, more hermeneutics, more whips, more chains, more Kant. Even people in Red States have sexual and marital conundrums that aren’t being addressed by the movies, and it’s not like people are flocking to the new Michael Bay pic… audiences want something new, something really new.

Meanwhile, I just finished a short for the WNET show Reel New York, “Through the Ice,” which was broadcast in June. For the future, I’m developing a science series, and an ensemble script set in 1989 in New York and Berlin. In the present, I’m shooting and cutting a personal feature documentary, Earth Camp One, about how I lost 4 family members in five years, and about a hippie summer camp I attended in Northern California in the 1970s. It’s a meditation on loss and identity. It’ll also include animation about the Afterlife, which I would like to personally experience only after making several more films.

Perhaps I’ve been the slowest filmmaker in the world, because I’ve been adamant about doing things I believed in and because, regardless of who we are or what stories we’re telling, it’s always hard to find money for films where the whole point is that the film is not just like other films. What’s more, women are 5% of directors, and a woman who’s openly queer is 10% of 5%. I’ve heard some of my colleagues, women directors, play down the difficulty of being female in this business. They’re afraid of being labelled a a harpy, or harridan, or (the very worst) a he-she. (I guess it’s too late for me to worry about that last one.) But black directors like Spike Lee and John Singleton have never apologized for speaking their minds. It’s unattractive and unproductive to spend your life complaining, but it’s also naive and dishonest to pretend the things that challenge you aren’t staring you in the face. Now that some things have changed — there’s digital editing, queer TV networks, shows like “Six Feet Under,” a renewed interest in political topics, a revival of dance and fantasy — I’m completely hopeful and confident things are speeding up for me and my next ten pictures. Time, and a theater near you, will tell.

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