Queer Cinema lions Cheryl Dunye and Tom Kalin’s latest project sees them each direct an episode of Pride, the new documentary series from FX. The show, which debuts May 14, retraces the history of LGBTQ Americans from the post-World War II era to today.
For both Kalin and Dunye, work on Pride represents a career-long association with queer history and cinema. Kalin helped usher in the era of New Queer Cinema in the 1990s with his seminal film Swoon. The film dramatized the story of famed gay murderers Leopold & Loeb, exploring the power dynamics and shame that brought them together in Bonnie & Clyde fashion. Dunye made a splash with her feature debut The Watermelon Woman, a fictional story about a young, black lesbian cinephile researching the life and love affairs of an African-American lesbian actress who achieved popularity in the 1930s. Both directors have continued to work since, with Kalin returning to features with the drama Savage Grace in 2007 and Dunye veering into episodic territory, with directing credits on Lovecraft Country, Dear White People and The Chi.
We scored time with the two directors to chat about the show, their careers, and their personal sensibilities as directors. Pride arrives on FX May 14.
What stands out to me the most in looking at the series is how personal it feels—each director was very much making his or her own mini-movie. Did you get to pick your own “era?”
TK: I was really lucky. I’ve had a long relationship with Christine Vachon, so when I first pitched for the show, I pitched the 50s. I did have a moment thinking because I had been part of ACT UP and all of that, maybe they would want me to do the 80s. I told Christine “I don’t want to do the 80s.” And she said, “Good, we don’t want you to do the 80s.
TK: So the 50s—I’m always very interested in the pre-Stonewall era in my feature work. I had dealt with the period, but I had never dealt with the 50s in that way before. It was an opportunity to show the 50s—that yes, Roy Cohn and McCarthy dominated and in some ways destroyed the decade. But in some ways, it was an unknown story that [queer] people had rich, full lives in that period. It also allowed me to do scripted material. For example, Bobby Hunt was still alive, but he was in his 90s. So I ended up speaking with his daughter. And it became an opportunity also to explore characters like Madeline Tress and to collaborate with Alia Shawkat in a way I wouldn’t have been able to do in other decades since the subjects are actually alive and available.
What about you, Cheryl?
CD: Yeah, so Christine Vachon—longtime friend & producer—I’ve always wanted to work with her. So when this came to be a possibility, she contacted me. She said, “You get to pick your own decade. Tom Kalin is already doing the 50s.” And I was like, rats.
And she said Yance [Ford] was doing the 90s, but everything else is open. So of course I was going to do the 70s. It’s a decade that speaks to me, and the personal archive had not been documented enough. It’s an archive people are still holding on to because it’s so personal and political. So I had all my stars who I loved—mentors who shaped my career—they came up in that decade. So it was a very good decision. I can’t wait for people to see it. My episode airs one day after I turn 55.
That’s awesome. I love, Cheryl, that you pay tribute to both activists and artists in your episode. Audre Lorde, Cheryl Clarke, Barbara Hammer—
CD: Barbara is someone I met early in my career. She was speaking at a film festival in the 90s, and she saw my work. She said, “I love your experimentation. What do you need from me?” And we bonded immediately. I’ve always been an Audre Lorde-ian. I knew this is where all I believed in as an artist, activist, filmmaker, director, came from. Everything is in Audrie & Barbara. It’s the work I do today, tomorrow and in the future. So choosing them to be the scene I go through in the 70s was very easy. And then, realizing they were both at the March on Washington—they might have known each other, they might not have known each other. Barbara shot some footage, Audrie spoke on several stages—and that meant everything in the world to me.
That should be your next movie—the two of them meeting at the March. Tom, what spoke to you about the 50s period?
TK: A key figure in understanding the period is George Chancey, who has done a ton of work looking at queer identity before World War II. We like to think of the idea of gay, straight—clear categories. But, as the Kinsey Report showed, the vast majority of men who had sex with other men didn’t define themselves as homosexuals.
TK: So, on the one hand, it’s supposed to be the dark ages, and everyone was supposed to be miserable. But to me, the revelation in my episode is finding the archive of Harold O’Neal. I show a smidgeon of it, and you see decades of this rich, full life—gay people in the 50s having a blast, yes, while McCarthy was hunting them. So I found that exciting to see the joy.
It’s amazing archive footage to see queer culture flourishing and established at that time. Tom, you opt for a format that uses an actor—Alia Shawkat—as Madeline Tress as a sort of guide through the episode, and the era. Why that choice?
TK: I just think she’s a perfect match of person to character. She just looks so much like the real Madeline Tress. She’s a contemporary figure, more associated with comedy, but to me, the minute I thought of her, it just zinged. She must have felt the same way. I didn’t know her; I just approached her to offer the role. And we only shot for a day.
TK: In terms of the fourth wall, I think her memoir, being first person, it was a direct address. And I’m not making up a thing about sleeping with [a girlfriend] in high school, or going to lesbian bars and dressing as a man at 13. And she had a queer sibling. I had never heard of queer siblings in the 50s. I’d never heard of a 13-year-old in the 1950s going out, picking up people, and saying “I enjoyed it.” And despite my coming out being very difficult in the 1970s—the Anita Bryant era—I think it is just really startling. And her brother, Arthur Tress, is a subject.
TK: So it just seemed effortless. And Alia—there’s something so intimate about her speaking straight to you. She invites you in very quickly.
She’s an underrated performer for sure. Always interesting. And I love Arthur Tress’ story about picking up men on 42nd street in New York by wearing short shorts. I guess that’s always been a thing. Who’d have thought?
Cheryl, you act as your own on-screen guide, which fits both with your filmography and, I’d wager, your own personal search. Why?
CD: You know, I think it’s in my signature work, The Watermelon Woman. I think the Dunyementory is something people really identify with in my work in film. The Watermelon Woman really took that, and all my short films as well. I’m doing episodic right now, which is a whole other method of storytelling. But I love to play with the form. I love to fictionalize the narrative stories in my head about myself. So it just kind of rolled out that way. It felt perfect, like wine and cheese.
One of the most surprising elements of your episode, Tom, is how you drive home the point that gay culture flourished pre-Stonewall, and how the 50s was a turning point where it went from wink-wink, nudge-nudge to criminal. Was that because of the Red Scare? The Senator Hunt story is crazy.
TK: There’s a very famous book called Advise and Consent, and the Otto Preminger movie with a gay scene. It’s an iconic scene. I didn’t know that Advise and Consent was a fictionalization of the Lester Hunt story. Part of that was because his widow didn’t want that story told.
TK: To me, it’s amazing that Tammy Baldwin tried to bring this case to justice during the Obama Administration. I knew nothing of it. You ask 29 out of 30 people, no one will know that a US Senator shot himself in his Senate office in 1954. That’s insane.
TK: And in the Senate, one vote separated the parties. Does that sound familiar?
TK: And you had these three senators—we all know McCarthy. And somehow Welker and Bridges have escaped turning into the Mitch McConnell and Jesse Helms they should have. Welker drank himself to death. Bridges died leaving a ton of money to his widow. And obviously, it had a huge effect on the Hunt family. I found that case so shocking. I could have done the whole episode on that.
Hey, there’s your next movie.
TK: Totally. So the Red Scare, to borrow a phrase—when they couldn’t find communists they chose to stick it to the homosexuals instead. The Republican party—then as now—were very good at finding targets.
On a similar point, Cheryl, you do a great job linking the Queer liberation movement with the Civil Rights Movement, the Women’s Movement, the anti-War movement in the 1970s. And, you also make a point that Black Lives Matter has sort of readopted that strategy. Jumping off that, “Respectability Politics” come up in your episode more than once—the idea that to make progress, a movement needs to abandon certain elements to make progress. That’s especially true of Betty Friedan and the Women’s Movement.
All of which is to ask: what’s the best way to go about balancing “respectability” with the fringe?
CD: Well I think that the 70s really represents the strength of the margins. Marginalized people were able to mobilize, form coalitions and fight our way in. And in doing so, we create culture together. Look at Audrie: realizing she was black, lesbian, a mother, etc., and that there were others who wanted to do that as well as being a poet, as well as being an educator—to do it all and still have this kind of culture. You’re trying to fight your way in with social justice, but in the margins, you can tell stories and have your kind of “secret gay society” that feels kind of good.
Yes it does.
CD: That decade lit that magic. It spot lit all the magic we were making ourselves, our own code, our own language. And it was attractive, it was sexy, it brought others to us in the movement. We had a revolution, and we had fun. We were trying to build a broad coalition, and I think that all falls down after the 70s. We’re still in recovery from that. And [that culture] is what I really wanted to put a spotlight on. Creating our own music, our own businesses, our own sense of pride.
And we see the first Pride emerge in your episode, as well as the culture of pride. The other thing that shocked me in your episode, Cheryl, is this ridiculous bathroom issue. The same arguments we now hear against transpeople in locker rooms or bathrooms were used against gay people in the 70s. What is that hysteria about? What is it about the bathroom that scares people?
CD: Oh, I have no idea. You go to any other country—Mexico, Europe—they just have toilets. They’re not [gender] designated, especially in small businesses. It’s a toilet. You use it. Somehow, we got it wrong. Religion, the Right needs some way to separate us. You know about Phyllis Schaffley and all the other Right Wing-conservatisms and capital—how to bring money to it to provide this diversion to politic against us. That’s when we see this strategy birthed. And it hasn’t changed.
It’s amazing. That’s also a great lead-in. You really emphasize that art fuels a political movement—both as a cause and a result of social change. How does art best serve a movement?
CD: Well art gives a lens into how we live, how we love, where we love, who we love—it can go into any space. And it’s a conversation starter for education on all levels. My wife Karina Hodoyan is a teacher at the University of San Francisco. Every Spanish 2 class she teaches, she begins with music. Students as they gather hear the music playing. And we can translate that. We can talk about that. We can feel that. We can have an opinion based on our own narrative.
That’s so cool.
You both are associated with seminal debut films, Swoon and The Watermelon Woman. They seem to follow you everywhere. Does that ever get tedious?
TK: Honestly, I made it 30 years ago. That anyone gives a sh*t about anything in the culture made 30 years ago, it’s a miracle. So to complain about that kind of attention, I dunno, is grotesque. I was amazed that for the 20th anniversary the Berlin Film Festival invited the film back. That’s incredible. I made the movie at a time when a “queer movie” wasn’t a thing. Then I’m at the 20th anniversary of Swoon and there’s a mom with her 17-year-old son asking me to put her arm around her son for a picture because he loves the movie. How could I ever be cynical about that?
TK: Now, on the flipside, Swoon is a bit like having a blond haired, blue eyed child. I made another film called Savage Grace. It was a very difficult film that wasn’t well receieved, and that’s like having the troll under the bridge child.
TK: Some people adore it. I’m incredibly proud of it. But it was a difficult movie. I always like, in my work, to make something challenging. When that connects with an audience, and you have another one that doesn’t, you learn from it. I’m just glad [Swoon] is still relevant.
And for you, Cheryl?
CD: It’s interesting. When I made the film, there was no recognition in the national granting systems to give the kind of recognition that, say, a film made 11 years later, Dee Rees’ Pariah which was great. It took 11 years to make another black lesbian film, and she’s made it all the way to the Academy Awards. It changed her career. For me, all those major institutions had no place for someone doing the kind of work that I was doing in it. I felt I was able to live the life I wanted to live. I think there’s a lot of pressure on producers today who are gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender to find something that speaks to the masses with dollar signs attached to it. I—fortunately, or unfortunately—found a way to live and work without dollar signs attached to it. I created my work because I wanted to. So it created a great lens for me to work through with all the episodic work I’ve been doing. And it provides an opportunity for me to create a kind of legacy and truth that I can rely on.
How has that association affected your career opportunities? Tom, You’ve only done one feature since Swoon.
TK: I’m a slow director in terms of material. I did produce other movies: Go Fish, I Shot Andy Warhol. I co-wrote the one and only film the photographer Cindy Sherman made. I’ve had such an odd career. For the last four years, I’ve been working on a book about the films of Andy Warhol. It’s coming out this year. I teach at Columbia University. I’ve done journalism, short. So, I’ve had a weird career.
Do you feel like being associated with a queer film has limited you?
TK: I think if you had asked me when I was 38 I might have been more frustrated. But having the opportunity to do things I’m passionate about over a long period, with my collaborators, is wonderful.
CD: You know, [The Watermelon Woman] is a conversation starter for me. If people are able to move on, I’m happy about it. If that’s all they know, I’m not. For a lot of people, it’s there first time seeing the work, they’re like talk to me. And I’m like no, I don’t want to talk to you right now. But I’m glad they make the discovery. I don’t need the same things I needed when I made the film. I’m very comfortable now in creating and living in someone else’s world. I’m fine: I’ve reached a level where all the frustrations I had about not being recognized, or my anger at culture, at racism—I can figure out a way to do that in the projects I select to work on. For example…
CD: I’m here in Canada right now shooting a show called The Umbrella Academy. I think the Gods and Goddesses: Elliot Page’s storyline is one I deal with in the episodes I got to shoot. Steve Blackman, our showrunner was like you’re the best person to do this. And I was like…wow. And that’s what happens when you get the right opportunity. You show up. That’s what matters: showing up where you belong. That’s one thing the 70s and my episode of Pride really show. Show up. Your showing up is the revolution.
Now that’s a great line.
Pride airs on FX May 14.