With her roots in the avant-garde art world, Rachel Mason’s highest hope for her family film was landing a screening at the ONE archive, USC’s library of LGBTQ media. A well-reviewed Tribeca Film Festival premiere led Ryan Murphy to sign on as Executive Producer, which brought about a buzzy Netflix debut and an unexpected Emmy nomination. After being continually surprised at how far her labor of love has taken her, Mason is going all the way: Why not chase an Best Documentary Feature Academy Award nomination?
It’s not out of the question. Hitting Netflix during the early weeks of stay-at-home orders, “Circus of Books” is a wildly entertaining documentary that charts the improbable story of Mason’s straight Jewish parents, Barry and Karen. For thirty years they owned a popular gay porn store and cruising spot in Los Angeles, at one point becoming the largest distributors of gay porn on the West Coast.
Their fascinating story — which encompasses the AIDS crisis, the death of retail, and obscenity laws, among other things — could have filled a straightforward documentary treatment many times over. What elevates “Circus of Books” is Mason’s personal perspective, exemplified in her complicated relationship with her mother, whose conflicted feelings about not only her life’s work but her daughter’s provide much of the film’s all-too-relatable comedy.
Being so close to the story, it took time for Mason to see the juicy possibilities of leaning into the personal. “I was avoiding the first person for some reason,” Mason told IndieWire by phone. “I guess in a way, I didn’t want it to be so personal. I was fighting the thing that the film really was. Then, when it shifted, it was like everything landed perfectly, once it was like, ‘No, this is the POV. We’ve been doing it all along.’ It’s funny.”
Mason never appears in sit-down interviews, though her two brothers and parents do. We hear her asking probing questions of her brothers off camera, and see her in the background helping her father clean a cluttered storage room, or chasing her mother around a sex expo with a mic pack.
Her producer and editor Kathryn Robson, with whom she shares an Emmy nomination for Outstanding Writing for a Non Fiction Program, encouraged her to see the potential in the personal. “Capturing Rachel on camera speaking to her brothers was so key, because [that] let the intimacy come through,” said Robson. “It felt like this beautiful intimate family conversation that we happened to be filming, but it was so personal and revelatory, and I thought that that was what was missing in terms of the first-person that we were able to get.”
“It goes to show, when you take yourself out of it a little as a director and allow someone else to give you the thing that needs to happen because you’re not seeing it, that was what happened with Kathryn,” Mason added. “She really took my blinders off.”
Though Netflix is not officially campaigning the film for the Oscars, the Emmy nomination gave Mason and Robson the push to mount their own awards campaign. They understand Netflix has a lot of powerhouse documentaries to put its full weight behind — “Dick Johnson Is Dead,” and “Crip Camp” among them — films which Mason supports. Director Kirsten Johnson even wrote to Mason saying she is a huge fan of “Circus of Books.”
“If the top documentary people in the world that are getting these high nominations are saying that, I’m not totally sure why the film’s Oscar bid isn’t being more widely supported,” said Mason. “So many people have told me they’re going to tell people they know to put it on the short list. We are David and Goliath up against the world’s biggest powerhouses [that are] pouring money into campaigns, but COVID leveled things off. 20 of my closest friends emailing 50 powerful people might actually be in the same ballpark as whatever giant networks are doing right now. This film is a total underdog… we have as good a chance as any.”
Mason may have never made it to the Whitney Biennial as an artist, but she’s seen how unexpected triumphs can come from the unlikeliest of places. She’s come a long way from being told the film had no commercial appeal. Now, after a noisy Netflix debut and Murphy’s name attached, documentary branch voters could even perceive the film as too mainstream.
“It is funny how many times we would have meetings with different people who said things like they didn’t see the project being commercially successful,” Robson said. “It is fun to circle back now and see they were wrong.”
After years as an independent experimental artist, the doubters only fuel Mason’s passion to prove all the naysayers wrong: “Yeah, because a gay porn movie getting an Oscar? The very first thing out of someone’s mouth will be, ‘That cannot be done.'”