Even in the most conservative areas, theater provides a home for the misfits, the oddballs, the outcasts and the rebels. In his new documentary, Skanks, David McMahon follows a group of performers as they prepare to perform Billy Ray Brewton's raunchy drag musical Skanks in a One Horse Town, in Birmingham, Alabama. Skanks plays tonight at the DocuWest International Film Festival; to learn more about the production, we spoke with David McMahon.
See also: iKE ALLEN on Tonight's Premiere of Reverend Yolanda's Old-Time Gospel Hour: The Movie
Westword: Talk about Skanks.
David McMahon: The movie is about a community theater in Birmingham, Alabama, which is my hometown, that does an original drag musical called Skanks in a One Horse Town. We follow them through the course of rehearsal and performance and see what the cast and creators' lives are like. It's funny and sweet and interesting as well. How did you pick this subject?
I am originally from Birmingham, but I've lived in New York for a number of years; however, I go home all the time. My family is there. I had just finished working on my previous film, which was a documentary about a serial killer in South Louisiana called Bayou Blue, about a man who raped and murdered 23 men. As you can imagine, it's a very depressing, hopeless story. I was looking for something to do after it.
The guy who wrote Skanks in a One Horse Town is a guy named Billy Ray Brewton. I had seen one of his shows in Birmingham earlier. I was thinking it was going to be not particularly interesting. It turned out to be surprisingly irreverent and vulgar. Billy Ray has no respect for the rules of theater, which I really admired. A friend suggested that I should contact him about following one of his shows. The timing worked out perfectly. I did. They were about to go into rehearsal. So we started. That's how it happened.
Talk about some of the conflicts that come up in the film.
It's interesting. The film itself immerses you. It doesn't operate in a simple, conflict way. What emerges is that there are a couple of gay actors in the film who have issues with their families. In particular, there is conflict between them and their evangelical, fundamentalist Christian parents. That emerges as the film goes on. Generally, it's about a group of people who have created this world, in a conservative place, who have created a very open-minded liberal pocket within that and who have forced a strong sense of community independent of the town around them.
I think what they maybe don't get from the outside world is the family they get from each other. They really formed a surrogate family to love and support each other and to celebrate each other. Maybe that's not something that happens very often, and not just in Alabama, but all over the country, actually.
I would say the biggest conflict is between religion and sexuality, and I think that plays out both as a battle between parents and children and particularly within parents themselves. It's actually kind of hard to watch the torment that some of these people are going through.
The parents particularly?
Yeah. There's a guy in it named Chuck Duck. His mother says in the film, "I don't know what to do. I love my son. I love my God. I don't want to get rid of either one of them."
I wanted to say, "Just go to a different church," but I couldn't. It's a real torment. I think it's easy to be dismissive of those types of people. I didn't want to do that with this film. I wanted to be respectful and really examine that conflict.
Do you have a sense of why that conflict exists in people?
I think it's religion. The question is why are some people are liberal Christians and some people are conservative Christians or whatever. With this example, it is strictly people who have a very literal, strict interpretation of the Bible, and there's just no getting around that. We can go into a long conversation about why that happens.
It's interesting. In Colorado, too, I know Denver's awesome and open-minded, but you have Colorado Springs with the New Life Church and Focus on the Family out there. That sort of mindset in Colorado Springs is pretty pervasive in Alabama. It's becoming more so. It wasn't like that so much when I was growing up there. That's not to denigrate religions, but that ruthless, strict interpretation and closed-mindedness has proliferated pretty strongly in the past twenty years.
Read on for more from David McMahon.
David McMahon says the actors he documented found solace in the theater.
Talk about the process of shooting this film and what it was like to gain the trust of the people you were working with.
We started the first read-through. I knew Billy Ray, but I didn't know anyone else from the cast. When I started the process, I had no agenda. I didn't know what the film was going to be. I think they sensed that and that made them feel a little more safe that I wasn't out to prove a point. Also, I think, being from Alabama, when you're from Alabama, I think they were fearful that they would be made to look like Waiting for Guffman buffoons. In a way, the film maybe parallels Waiting for Guffman, but here, these people are really smart. They're not fools at all. I think being from there and being agendaless was really helpful. And then I just kind of fell in love with them. I just adore them. They are so funny and weird and quirky and just delightful people.
How long were you shooting on this?
We started November 2011 and finished principle in February 2012. And then as we were editing the film, we had to go pick stuff back up. I think we really spent two months, but the last thing we shot was in September of 2013.
Have the people in it seen it yet?
We actually played two Sundays ago at the Sidewalk Film Festival, which is the film festival in Birmingham. They all saw it and the community as well. We had almost 1,000 people there. It played at one of those big movie palaces...
It went over extremely well. I think people really relate to it. I think the film is also about my hometown, about Birmingham, and touches on certain religious aspects of the community and also football. It's a huge football town. I've said this before, as religion is to some people there and football is to some people there, theater is to people in the cast. I think the audience at large saw that and related to it.
Were some of the parents gridlocked with their kids there?
No. Unfortunately, no. One of the mothers was going to come, and she backed out at the last minute. It makes me sad. I think they're worried that they're vilified, and they're not at all. No, they haven't.
The film is raunchy. It's not as raunchy as the play, but it is raunchy and it's called Skanks. The mother who was going to come was like, "I just don't know why you want to be in a movie called Skanks.
It's like, "Well, you're in the movie, too." As far as I know, none of the parents have seen it. What's next with the life of the movie?
So it just came out on iTunes and Amazon and you can get it online. It's also going to do this thing called Gathr Films that's like theatrical screenings on demand. So if somebody in Seattle wants to do a screening of it, they'd try to sell a number of tickets, and then a screening would happen. But really, it wraps up its festival run in October, and then it's a matter of getting the word out and getting people to see it and rent it on iTunes. What do you want audiences to know coming in?
It's really funny. The film stuff is really irreverent and really funny, and even if you've never done theater in your life, I think everybody at some point has felt like an outsider and can relate to the plight of these people and that time in your life when you finally feel like you fit in. I think, in some ways, that's what the movie's about.
Are you going to make it to Denver?
I am. I'll be there at the screening. Join David McMahon at 6:30 p.m. tonight, September 11, at the SIE FilmCenter for a screening of Skanks. For more information about Docuwest, check out the festival website. Find me on Twitter: @kyle_a_harris
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