During the recent Raindance Film Festival, Thirsty director Margo Pelletier, Producer Lisa Thomas, and star Scott Townsend sat down with Garth Twa and Simona Viackute.
Thirsty is an utterly unique hybrid of West Side Story, A Star Is Born, and Outrageous!, with a healthy (odd adjective to use in this instance, I know) dash of Tennessee Williams, following the life of Scott Townsend and his creation of Thirsty Burlington, a character who performs a stunningly accurate Cher. It is by all measure a stunning debut for first time narrative feature director, Pelletier, and a celebration and vindication for Townsend.
The film is a daring hybrid of showbiz glitz, with humour and musical numbers, and hard social issues like alcoholism, suicide threats, bullying, and sexual abuse. How did the tone of the film come about?
Margo Pelletier: We definitely wanted to talk about some important issues surrounding gender and Scott’s life so lends itself to that. But we did want to balance it out and make it highly entertaining because Scott is an amazing performer, and Cher’s an icon, so we felt that balancing the very dramatic tough messages with zaniness and more light-hearted fun would really work.
Were there any creative difficulties where the content and presentation clashed? For example, the West Side Story musical number in the beginning moving on to the scene where young Scott was—potentially—sexually abused by the bully, Chicky (Christopher Rivera), who’s plagued him his whole life?
Lisa Thomas: I think one of the things that we were trying to do within that scene was make it ambiguous but also we felt this sort of incident happens a lot to queer children. There’s a lot of bullying and harassment and sometimes it goes to that level of an assault. And I think that happens a lot but it’s not discussed and talked about very often so that was one of the things that was important for us to have that in the film.
Scott Townsend: It’s like the tears on the clown, you never really show the pain. You laugh through it, you sing through it. A lot of people, like my family, deal with trauma by making jokes, because if you don’t laugh about it, you’ll just crumble. You have to fight through it sometimes and that’s how we chose to do it.
There is a very complicated relationship between Scotty and his mother. They appear to be so close, and from very early on it seems like she not only accepts his gayness, but also encourages it. I mean, they even have pet names for each other, like drag names, Gertrude and Mabel.
Scott: Yeah. Those were our nicknames for each other. Hello, right? I know she definitely knew there were some gender issues going on the entire time. How could she not have, with all the Gertrude and Mabel and all the love and support, the singing and dancing, the person who wanted to cut out my eyelashes to look more masculine? She was telling me I was beautiful just the way I was so she always knew, she just didn’t want to have that deep discussion with me, especially at that time in her life when she was just trying to breathe,
It really came as a surprise that she wasn’t accepting. She seemed like she’d be the world’s best gay mum.
Scott: She came from a time when they just didn’t want to talk about it. She wanted the best for her children and back then they would think it would be a tough life. When she knew it was already becoming that, at the end of her life, she just didn’t want to know.
Margo: That, too, is pretty universal among queer people, that initially their parents will reject them. That’s why we chose in the edit to have a very long pause so that there’s such tension built up: you’re hoping that she’s going to come around and say, ‘Not only are you beautiful, but whatever you are, I love you,’ but no, she doesn’t. She isn’t able to, even on her deathbed. Her answer, realistically, is, ‘I don’t want to know about it.’ And, for a lot of people, it gets worse – get out of the house, etc. etc. So we were using Scottie’s life story as a vehicle and he’s perfect for what we wanted to put out there in the world in hopes of helping out, you know? Let’s have these stories of people who have gone through this and are resilient and come out on top in the end. And they’re not perfect people, so people can better relate to that; they have the ups and the downs but eventually, you know, there’s this embracing of oneself.
Lisa: There was a discussion about that scene when we had a rough cut screening in New York City like a year ago before we finished the edit on the film. There was one woman in the audience who said, ‘I really can’t stand that the mother says that to Scott, I think that you should not let us hear the answer because, as an audience, we’d rather think that she supports him,’ and I was really taken aback. You know what? So many of us that are gay have to hear that in our families, like, ‘Hush, hush, don’t let your aunts know…don’t let grandmother know, don’t let …,’ so it’s not only society that’s putting this scarlet letter on you, it’s also your parents or your family saying don’t let the world know, so it’s so important that we show that scene because it’s what so many of us face.
I think you’ve nailed it there. It’s the purpose of the film: it’s about being honest, being truthful. And Deirdre Lovejoy as Doris, was tremendous. How did she come to be part of it?
Lisa: She was on Broadway with Tom Hanks in a show, and she literally came over from a rehearsal for that and she hadn’t even seen the scene we were doing. As she was reading it, her hand started to shake. She got really emotional. Deirdre put down the script—she didn’t even have it anymore—and she just blew us away. I was so tired seeing these women do this scene—at this point we had seen maybe 50 or 60 women already doing this very melodramatic Doris—and now this. The minute she did it, I was like, ‘There’s our Doris.’ I just knew, you know?
This was both a movie and someone’s life. Who had final cut?
Margo: There was some rewriting during production. Scottie was on set a lot and watching this come back to life. There were some adjustments to make: the mother should have more contradictions because that’s really how we live, it’s not one way or the other: you can desperately love a child for everything they are and still feel so torn in terms of how society may interpret that, that you’re going to deny that child that kind of embracing verbally, you know what I mean?
Because you co-wrote the script (with Laura Kelber) and were working closely with real-life material, was there anything you had to compromise?
Margo: Compromise is an interesting word when you’re a filmmaker because we had a focus group where they watched the rough cut and then we handed out questionnaires and then there was a discussion. Based on all those notes and the discussion, a lot of things changed in the film. It wasn’t a compromise, it was a collaboration with a lot of people we respected and we knew would give us honest answers. It’s a tough process but it’s really necessary. Then, late in the game, very late in the game, we had a consultant who works with independent filmmakers and he gave us notes and we cut out thirteen minutes, which is a lot.
Lisa: There were a lot of darlings we lost, it was very hard for us. Things we were very attached to, like a whole musical scene came out. We wrote the first couple of drafts, Margot and I, much more sequentially, starting with Scott as a boy, then going to the teen years, then going on – we had five or six different readers who gave us feedback on the initial script which was initially a finalist for the Sundance lab screenwriting program but it didn’t win and we thought maybe there’s something we’re not seeing. Laura Kelber ended up being one of our readers and she sort of took it upon herself to say, ‘I really like the story. I think there’s a lot of good stuff here but I think that I can reconstruct it in a way to make it much more dynamic, are you open to hearing what I have to say?’ It was like she just put it in a blender and hit mix. Anything that goes into that world of fantasy came from Laura.
Was there anything that wasn’t included in the film, that didn’t have a place or was maybe too difficult to touch?
Scott: Well, of course! It would be a fifty-year movie.
Thirsty, the mini-series.
Lisa: One of the early drafts started with Scottie being born and while Scottie was being born, Cher was on television celebrating her twenty-first birthday, the fact that they actually share a birthday, they have the same birthday just 21 years apart so we had the movie starting this way initially, and Laura was like, this is just way too contrived. But it’s true. So, that was cut.
Margo: Laura is a great member of the team because she’s very different. She was brought up in New York City, she has a great sense of humor, and she is really into popular culture and a TV junkie so that’s a person that can make something very contemporary. Like Lisa said, the initial drafts were rather traditional, they told his story. Eventually it became very clear this movie, while being about a real person’s life, it’s also about gender, so if we kept focusing on that kernel, the scenes began to be a lot more focused and then we had the themes that met the personal and internal development. These themes added up to eventually Scott embracing all that he is. Laura Kelber was very instrumental with that.
The film, being Scott’s story, did you even consider doing it as a documentary?
Margo: We had just finished up a very heavy documentary about a former United States political prisoner and we had made a decision that our next project would not be a doc. When we did extensive interviews with Scott, we would go to his home and all we would bring would be audio gear, intentionally because we knew if we started to film that we would go the way of a doc. But we really didn’t want to, especially shortly into it when it was decided it would be a musical. That seemed a better vehicle for having tough subjects and also for showing the magnetic quality of his performances.
So how long ago did the project start?
Margo: About six years ago. Yeah. We’ve grown together. We found Scottie so inspiring when we first came upon him. I mean, Lisa and I were both interested in gender, and I am especially interested in it because I am decades older than Lisa, come from a different period, so I’ve seen more change, and I’ve also suffered through more persecution. So it’s been a passion of mine. We ran into Scott in a club where he was both the hawker on the outside, standing out in front as kind of a boy-man, you know like, dressed rock starry and very bubbly, and he invited us in, or insisted we come in, so we did and were just hanging out in the audience with other people getting a drink and all of a sudden this gleaming, magnetic, crazy-ass Cher figure comes out on stage singing all glammed up, and we’re just taken with it. It was fun, it was sad, it was nostalgic; it just kept bringing up all these emotions. And then we’re thinking, ‘Oh my god, that’s the same person that invited us in the club.’ That kind of turning gender on it’s head, especially for me, there’s nothing more fun. I really think that’s how gender really works, that the soul doesn’t have a defined gender but we’ve pinched it in there, you know, in terms of society or our fears of our own potential, trying to make it into a neat package. But when somebody’s out there playing with it, turning it upside down, shifting it around, I find it so joyous. So we kind of came out of the club blown away and decided, if nothing else, we would follow Scott’s work and keep asking ourselves, ‘Is this a viable project?’ and then we would approach him. And that’s what we did for a few years; he came to our area, we watched his work there, my sister got married in Provincetown, we watched his work there. Finally, we said, ‘That’s it, we’re ready,’ and left our card. And Scott throws most of those away.
Scott: Yeah, you get offered strange opportunities all the time, like ‘I want to make a movie about you,’ and I’m like, ‘Yeah, yeah, yeah, whatever.’ And then I called them. We’re like family now. I gave my life to these people.
Was there ever any hesitancy?
Scott: Ohhhhhhh yes, right up to the last second. It’s terrifying because not only am I giving away my own baggage, I’m giving away my family’s, as well. It’s like opening up your diary and saying, ‘Look what happened to me. Look what I’m doing.’
Lisa: But at the same time you’re like a canary, you really wanted to tell it, you couldn’t hold back. As scared as you might have been to tell your story, you just immediately told it to us, so it’s strange.
Scott: I was giving information away freely and then at the last minute, I was like, ‘Oh, what am I doing?’
For the casting, there were three Scotties, from a child (Cole Canzano), to an adolescent (Jonny Beauchamp), to the real thing. That must have been difficult, getting a continuity. How did it feel to be casting younger versions of yourself—how did you decide?
Scott: I wasn’t there for the actual process but towards the end, when we’d narrowed it down to about three people that kind of resembled me, they would say, ‘What do you think of this person?’
Lisa: The casting director in New York City, Erica Palgon, helped us with the leads in the film, and it was a laborious process. It was not easy to cast the film! I mean the middle Scott, Jonny Beauchamp, was the last person we cast. We spent months looking for him. We almost didn’t shoot the movie on schedule because we couldn’t find someone that would do the part because so many agents and managers would not send talent to us to audition because they didn’t want their teens getting pigeon-holed as potentially a gay actor. We found there was a lot of homophobia even within the casting. Margo found Johnny doing a web series from his bathroom on the Internet and said to Erica, ‘We want to bring this kid in.’ He was sitting in his bathroom talking about his feelings, singing… I don’t know if it’s still on the web. He was totally unknown. He’s incredibly gifted.
He was doing a series from his bathroom?
Margo: Yeah. In Spanish Harlem.
You found a star!
Margo: Well, we kind of made a star.
Lisa: That was his first film.
He seems so confident.
Margo: He’s very gregarious. You know, he came in and he had done the homework—he came in singing Cher. He really won us over and he somehow could look like a middle Scott, become the little boy, and Scottie himself.
Lisa: It wasn’t so much that the features were perfect but the attitude was there, the whole essence was right so we went with it.
I think they have a casting Oscar, don’t they? They should. All your actors were entirely believable as the same person at different ages, as well as needing to have the performance skill. That was a feat, congratulations.
Margo: Well, we were very tenacious. So often they’ll cast a straight actor who’ll pretend to have gone through some of these things, but we worked really hard to have a lot of authentically queer people in the film and it turned out that way. One thing that was very interesting in casting is we kept getting very blatantly gay men try out for the part of the father. We were really curious as to why this was happening. One wrote to us afterwards and said that he so wanted to be part of the project because it really was about his life, and we heard that over and over again. People coming up to us and saying, ‘My god, you made a movie about my life.’ This is how much people can relate to both what goes on societally but also the turmoil inside.
The father, Virgil (Keith Leonard), is key as he offers redemption when he does a turn-around and accepts Scott.
Margo: Yeah, but you know, it’s not necessarily something that a gay or queer person would resolve to immediately; there’s a lot of back and forth, unfortunately. Well not unfortunately. I think that’s one thing that happened now with a new generation, they’re going to go back and forth and they’re not going to label it and they’re not going to apologize for it. They’re going to celebrate it and they’re going to meet a lot of beautiful people that they love, whether they’re gay, straight, in between, whatever. This is now happening, all these walls are coming crashing down and we wanted to be a small part of that and make our own contribution.