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SxSW 2017 Interview: BEHIND THE CURTAIN: TODRICK HALL director Katherine Fairfax Wright

by Jason Whyte

"BEHIND THE CURTAIN follows Todrick Hall during the creation of his most ambitious project yet; Straight Outta Oz, through recording the album, filming the visual album, staging the musical, and bringing that stage show to sold-out audiences across the United States. So it is a film about the creative process of a visionary with dreams far bigger than his budget. But Straight Outta Oz is an autobiographical project, so the documentary is also an intimate coming of age story, a love story between a mother and son in all its beauty and complexity. It is about self-expression, self-acceptance, and the redemptive power of art, but it is also about fun and friends and song and dance!" Director Katherine Farifax Wright on BEHIND THE CURTAIN: TODRICK HALL which screens at the 2017 South By Southwest Conference.

Congratulations on your film playing in Austin at SxSW this year! Is your first time here and are you planning to attend your screenings?

Yes, this is my first time at SXSW and I will indeed be at my screenings!

So how did you get into this business? Talk to me a bit about how you got your start and what you have worked on in the past.

I grew up in Los Angeles and while neither of my parents are in the industry, they both genuinely love film, so I spent my childhood at double features at LA's repertory theaters and watching boatloads of laserdiscs. A strong sense of adventure, appetite for physical rigor, and respect for the diversity of flora and fauna -- humans included -- are also things that my parents instilled in me, and film offered a way to fold all of that into my vocational pursuits. I double majored in film and anthropology in college. My first feature-length documentary is called CALL ME KUCHU and tells the story of the first openly gay man in Uganda, David Kato. I also produced a narrative feature called IMPERIAL DREAMS with John Boyega that's about a young formerly-incarcerated man coming back to his hometown that we filmed on location in Watts, Los Angeles.

How did this project come together for you?

I didn't know who Todrick was prior to Matt Kaplan at Awesomeness bringing him to my attention. So I just started googling him and was smitten in no time. The trailer for Straight Outta Oz had already been released, which piqued my interest because it is visually and musically enchanting, and also because in many ways it marks a tonal, aesthetic, and thematic departure from Todrick's prior work. And where there's a departure, there's a story! Todrick is an astonishing lyricist: he strikes a beautiful balance between gravitas, levity, wit, musicality, individuality, and universality. I was really impressed by that. I also happen to believe deeply in inclusion, in ingenuity, and in costumes, and Todrick's shared admiration of that trifecta was immediately apparent in his work. Todrick is a super captivating presence on screen, which helps explain why he has garnered such a following, and also why I decided to spend nine months studying him.[br]

What keeps you going while making a movie? What drives you? What’s your poison? Coffee?

During this shoot, Todrick's work ethic was a driver for me. If he wasn't going to sleep, then I wasn't either! He also doesn't really drink coffee, and he doesn't drink liquor, so our poison was really just our own stubborn tenacity. I am not AFRAID of failure, I just think that through hard work and conscientious intention, it can largely be avoided. And there's no need in for more mediocre media. So I work hard.

What was your biggest challenge with this project, and the moment that was the most rewarding to you?

My biggest challenge in making this film was the time frame. I only found out about it really at the exact moment that production needed to get underway, so I hit the ground running. And then Awesomeness was eager for a swift turnaround. It was just go-go-go for nine months straight. I finished the film yesterday, so I suppose this moment right now is quite a reward!

I would love to know about the the visual design of the movie and how it was shot!

BEHIND THE CURTAIN was filmed on the Canon C300 Mark II. I suppose the visual design was simply to make it as beautiful and grand as possible, without losing any sense of immediacy or intimacy. I wanted to capture the scope of the stage show, but more importantly, allow Todrick's audience to access him in a way they haven't been able to before. It's of much greater importance to me to not miss moments than to have moments perfectly captured. So in order to have more shoot days, and to be able to sleep on the bus with the cast, I opted out of having any crew, with the exception of my extraordinarily capable cousin Breanne, who I hired as my field producer for a chunk of the shoot.

What are you looking forward to the most about showing your movie here in Austin?

I am really pleased to be premiering the film in Todrick's home state of Texas, and even more so since Texas plays a big part in STRAIGHT OUTTA OZ and it's also where a large portion of BEHIND THE CURTAIN was filmed. I'm thrilled that Todrick's mom will be able to join, since she contributed so beautifully to the film. And of course, the Toddlerz, as his fans are called, I am so eager for them to see it. A theme that comes up a lot in the film is the idea of representation in media: how important it is to see faces that look like yours, and personalities that feel like yours onscreen. That's part and parcel of Todrick's appeal to the Toddlerz, and I feel very fortunate to, with this film, have been able to offer some more fodder towards the fire of self-acceptance.

After the film screens at SxSW, where is the film going to show next?

We are still figuring out the details of the release, but it will surely be available broadly in due time!

If you could show your movie in any theater outside of Austin, where would you screen it and why?

The theaters that aren't theaters at all; a screen that's set up on scaffolding directly over a river as part of DokuFest in Kosovo, houses of parliament and embassies, homes for pregnant and mothering teens, the CIA, on public television throughout Africa, at refugee centers, these are the screenings that make my labor endlessly worthwhile for me.

What would you say to someone who was being disruptive, like talking, texting, leaving or so forth through a movie?

Leaving halfway is that person's prerogative, and I suppose by its nature it's 50% as distracting as going to the restroom, since they don't return. And talking, well in some instances like in the picture houses in much of sub-Saharan Africa, it can be a functional element of audience engagement, and ultimately your job is to entertain your audience. But texting, especially if you don't have the wherewithal to turn your brightness down, well I just don't have much sympathy for commandeering the viewing experience of others like that, and have been known to intervene, or at least silently judge.

We have a lot of readers on our site looking to make movies or get into the industry somehow. What is the ONE THING you would say to someone who is wanting to get into the filmmaking business?

Try to strike a balance between being humble enough to thoroughly research every step along the way so that you can maximize the quality of your product, and being confident enough to carry on no matter how little money or support or expertise you have.

And finally, what is the greatest movie you have ever seen at a film festival?

I have been to many, many film festivals, and try my hardest to see many, many films at each one. So rather than one film, an answer truer to my heart would simply be: seeing films at festivals. There is just so much to be gained, as a filmmaker and as a world citizen, by exposing yourself to such extraordinary, and extraordinarily varied content.

[bigger]We hope you enjoyed this SxSW filmmaker interview as part of our coverage of SxSW 2017. To see the entire series click on the Live Report sidebar on your right. We will have interviews posted all throughout the festival so be sure to visit us often for more coverage!

This is one of the many films screening at the 2017 SXSW Conference in Austin, Texas taking place March 10-18. For more information on this film screening times, point your browser to or use the SxSW GO App for Android and iOS.

Jason Whyte,

link directly to this feature at
originally posted: 03/12/17 02:32:38
last updated: 03/15/17 03:33:43
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