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VIFF 2017 Interview: SISSYMAN director Joshua Atest Little

by Jason Whyte

"SISSYMAN is a short intense drama about two characters clashing over what it means to be a man. It is set in the midst of the Stonewall Riots, which took place in New York City in 1969. After years of abuse and marginalization, a spontaneous mob of LGBTQ people fought an intense days' long battle with the NYPD. The protagonists of SISSYMAN, a riot cop and a drag queen, are on opposite sides of the conflict." Director Joshua Atest Little on SISSYMAN which screens at the 2017 Vancouver International Film Festival.

Is this your first VIFF experience and will you be in Vancouver to attend your screenings?

Proudly, this is my first screening at VIFF. Unfortunately due to other projects I will not be able to attend.

Would love to have you here but totally understand. How did you get your start in the filmmaking biz?

I came out of undergrad with a desire to work in film, but I had no idea of how to begin. I started working free on shoots. I learned how to work on set and made connections. After about a year, one of those connections told me about a job opening. I landed a job as a stage manager, sweeping the studio, booking clients and loading grip trucks. That job led to more connections and freelancing as Grip, Electrician, Gaffer and eventually DP. From there I decided to pursue my own films, the first of which was the self-funded zero-budget digital feature EVER SINCE THE WORLD ENDED which won some awards and had a small theatrical release. The next project THE FURIOUS FORCE OF RHYMES was financed, and I am currently developing new work.

So how did SISSYMAN come together for you?

It started as a screenwriting exercise. We were given a short story about two boys getting in a fight after one of them calls the other a "Sissy". I always found this subject of manhood interesting, and the lengths to which males will go, even up to the point of getting themselves killed, over the slightest insult to their masculinity. I was thinking about scenarios in which extremes of manliness clashed, and I read about the Stonewall riots in which hyper-masculine homophobic cops found themselves losing to a motley group of drag queens, lesbians and gay men. It seemed like the perfect setting for a film on this subject.

Once the script was written, my first objective was to find producers to help me get it done; this is a great thing for first-time filmmaker to do, GET HELP with the fundamental planning and organization, don't try to do it all yourself. I was in the new Stony Brook University MFA film program run by Christine Vachon and Pamela Koffler of Killer Films and approached the classmates who I felt had the most experience. I was lucky to get Vasi Laurence, who had years of Broadway producing under her belt, Adam Bradley who had produced a few indie-features, and Candace Janee as casting director. Once this core team was in place, we divided and conquered and got the film made.

While you are working on a movie, what keeps you going? What drives you, creatively? How much coffee we talking about here?

There are long gaps from shooting one project to the next. Every time I get to the point where it is time to shoot I feel blessed to have made it, usually against great odds, and I am totally driven to make the most of the opportunity. I also recognize how long it takes to shoot things, how often we run out of time and have to cut corners, and I feel a constant pressure to maximize every second. Finally I am totally exhilarated by the opportunity to materialize my gestated creative vision. There is a lot of strong coffee but even more adrenaline.

What was your biggest challenge with this project, and how did you overcome it?

Always lack of budget and time. But more interestingly, shooting a period piece set in a riot for under $4000, I decided on green screen as the best approach. Green screen is challenging, as you have to match angles of actors on set with background images shot in various locations. Then the post-production process is extremely time-consuming, particularly since I self-taught and did the visual effects myself.

If you had to pick a single favourite moment out of the entire production, what would it be?

I am always worried that the big emotional moments will come across as either overblown or cheesy. Michael J. Warner, the lead of the film had a really big and challenging scene that required rage layered over anguish. Doing this in the artificial environment of a green screen stage, with 20 people standing around can't be easy. But he did it, and when he finished there was a hush over the room and you just knew it worked. That was a great moment.

For the aspiring filmmakers who read our site, I would love to know about the technical side of the film and how your look was achieved visually.

The green screen was shot with a combination of RED Scarlet, Panasonic GH4 & GH2 cameras. Live action was shot with the GH4 and background plate shots were a combination of GH4 and Canon 5D. The film was cut in Premiere and composited in After Effects. Borna Jafari, the DP and I worked from storyboards for the VFX shots which had to be setup accurately to match foreground performances to background images. For the live action scenes I like to be a little more flexible and we worked off a looser shot list.

Where is this movie going to show after Vancouver?

The movie is making the festival circuit with confirmed upcoming screenings at the 26th Heartland Film Festival and OUTshine in Florida.

If you could show your movie in any theater in the world, which one would you choose and why?

For SISSYMAN, probably the Castro Theater in San Francisco, which is a big, classic, gilded-age movie house that happens to be located in the neighborhood epicenter of gay life in America. It's also my hometown and a venue where I have seen many influential films over the years.

Movie theaters are the best place to see a movie, but sometimes they can be distracting! What would you say or do to someone who is talking, texting or being overall disruptive during a screening of your film?

Pssst! Could you please turn off your phone? This is a film festival and the people who made the movies are sitting right next to you, waiting to kill you.

There are many aspiring filmmakers reading us for our articles and reviews for inspiration. If you could offer a nugget of advice to them on how to get their start, what would you say to them?

If you want to make your own film start right away and keep pushing yourself to produce. It's free to write scripts which are the lifeblood of most movies. If you have ideas that you can't self-finance, write those for later and focus now on stories you can get made using your own resources. If you want to crew, figure out where shoots are happening and volunteer for free, or pay if you can get it. Absorb everything you can on set; creative, technical and making friends. Don't give up.

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

I have seen many great films at festivals, but without a doubt my favorite festival films have been my own! Don't get me wrong, I don't think my films are the best, far from it. But the pleasure of sitting with an audience, experiencing their reaction, and then getting a chance to speak with them during Q&A is really one of the most rewarding filmmaker and personal experiences of my life.

This is one of the many films screening at the 2017 Vancouver International Film Festival taking place in beautiful Vancouver from September 28th to October 13th. For more information on this film screening times, point your browser to

Jason Whyte,
Twitter: @jasonwhyte / Facebook: jasonwhyte / Instagram: jason.whyte

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originally posted: 10/07/17 02:26:17
last updated: 10/07/17 02:29:29
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