Circus of Books, a new documentary about the infamous West Hollywood gay porn store and legendary cruising spot, is available to stream on Netflix from Wednesday April 22nd. The excellent, vital film, executive-produced by Ryan Murphy, was directed by queer artist Rachel Mason, who happens to be the daughter of Circus of Books proprietors Barry and Karen. Mason is a multi-hyphenate, a director-actor-singer and -sculptor, among others; her personal connection to the material gives Circus of Books a stunning sense of intimacy and immediacy, making her uniquely able to pick apart the ways her family history collided and intersected with local queer history.
Rachel Mason sat down with The Queer Review‘s Eric Langberg in advance of the film’s release to talk about what it was like to mine her family history, her own experience with queer culture, getting Ryan Murphy on board, and her fascination with Klaus Nomi!
Eric Langberg, The Queer Review: I was hoping you could start by walking us through your filmmaking experience. I watched your first film The Lives of Hamilton Fish, which I thought was pretty queer; you’re in drag, right, and you have the two male leads lip synching to your voice.
Rachael Mason: “That’s so awesome, to read it from a queer-slash-drag place, because it’s so weird I feel like I’m just so deeply queer that I didn’t even realize when I was making it. In my mind I was making this sort of arthouse, surreal, absurdist historical revisionist piece, and then I realized when it was done that it was so gay. ‘Oh my god, duh! You’re the gayest person ever.’ And I didn’t even recognize the fact that I was playing a male lead in drag the whole time, as the editor of the Evening Star, so there you go. Goes to show you that it’s very buried inside of me. I thought it was a murder mystery told through folk song ballads!”
“I’m glad you saw that film, because it’s something that I really love, but as far as my filmmaking experience, to go from that to a really hardcore documentary is something that I think a lot of people don’t really immediately realize is the case. And that’s one of the things that makes Circus of Books have the qualities that it does, that make it different from other documentaries; I really do have a completely different background than most filmmakers. I come from a space of total freedom to do what I want to do as an artist and not follow the rules. So I think some of the rules that I broke in documentary filmmaking came about because I wasn’t really trying to make those rules in the first place. I didn’t have a film school education, and I didn’t come out of apprenticing or working with any other filmmakers, or working in television, so I just really did what I thought made sense.”
Yeah and I think there’s probably a lot of connective tissue anyway, right, in terms of research that you had to do for the first film as well?
“Totally, it was strange, it was almost 7 to 10 years of research that kind of happened simultaneously to a songwriting process. I would just always have these songs in the back of my head, and when I would perform my little concerts, I would say, ‘Oh, this is a song that connects to this really strange story I’m investigating,’ and people would ask me, ‘What is that story? What are you doing with that?'”
“I actually had an art gallery say, ‘Why don’t you do something with that project? You’re always singing songs about it; it’s just this crazy obsession.’ I made an exhibition where I put together a bunch of music videos that I was kind of beginning to craft, and after doing that exhibition there was so much interest that I applied for grants and basically financed it through just the pure art, nonprofit route, and made it super low-budget. And it managed to do better than an average art-house film! So I toured it to museums and galleries and it got into real film festivals, even though those were the more adventurous film festivals, not necessarily Tribeca and mainstream ones. So that was my entré into filmmaking, in a strange way, through the backdoor of the avant-garde.”
So how did the Circus of Books film come about? What made you decide to turn the camera on your family instead of just yourself?
“Similar to The Lives of Hamilton Fish, it’s always been sort of gnawing at me, in the sense that I knew it was a story that I had, and that I was probably the only one who could tell it. The time had to be right for me to be able to do it. I was in New York and I didn’t know how I was going to do it, but I needed to do it. I had written a couple articles here and there, because people would ask me. They would find it so fascinating, like ‘Hey, can you write something about your experience growing up in the shadow of that store?’ So I wrote an article for an art website called Art21, back maybe 2005 or 2006 and so many people told me how interesting that article was. I remember thinking maybe this could be a radio thing, for This American Life, or maybe it could be something, this momentary, little story. I sent it around to some places, pitching it as a story idea but it never went anywhere.”
“I lost my focus on it until my mom told me that the store in Silver Lake was going to go out of business. That was a rude wake-up call. I was in New York, and the store had always kind of just existed, and I lived in this bubble thinking it would always be there. And when it was actually going to close, it was completely crazy. I spoke to a few different people, some of whom eventually became producers on the film. They said, go to LA, shoot this, just start somewhere. I had enough encouragement from people telling me to ‘just start’ and ‘if you don’t get something down, you’ll really miss this chance.’ So I flew to LA, and it started just myself, holding up my phone, videoing some of what you see now in the film.”
How long did it take to make? At the start of the film, your dad does a bit of math figuring out how long the store’s been open, and I think his conclusion means that the film has been in the works for a while. You have lots of hair colors throughout as well!
“The store has been in existence since the 1960s, and my parents took it over in the early 1980s, but were involved in the late 70s. So their story is a 40-year story. My actual film took, all-told, through the end of post-production, four years to make. There was two years of active production, and then a third year of post-production work. Maybe the first year was development of the story, and doing a bit of the fundraising that was needed. Then there was a gap in there to do more fundraising, so all told it spread out over four years.”
One thing I was interested in was just how often your mom in the film downplays the importance of her role in local history. I bet she’s probably seen the film at this point, so… does she get it now?
“She’s seen it a few times! She gets it, but, it’s really uncomfortable for her, because I do think the sad reality is that it got burned into her that porn was a dirty business. For a high percentage of the world porn is considered a dirty secret. It’s sort of the weird tragedy of the film for me, that even after the film’s amazing success and all the wonderful things that have happened, there’s still this sense for her that just simply being in the adult business is not a thing that an upstanding citizen would do. I think she feels that from some members of our own family who still feel that way. It is still a very highly-charged industry to this day.”
“But I will say that what she’s aware of is that there’s no denying the reaction. She’s had multiple standing ovations when we’ve screened it at Frameline and at Outfest. People come up to her in tears. Who knows how many years it’ll take for it to sink in. Maybe on her deathbed she’ll recognize that she can’t equate this whole heavy religious moral judgment that she’s had for years, with this incredible experience that she’s given to so many people, simply by doing something that took courage to do. Even though she, I don’t think, recognizes that courage, because she was just looking out for a business to run to support a family. She was being a really good capitalist in the process and was trying to make money, and got excited about the business. I think that’s where the contradiction lies, is that my mom loves business. She enjoys it, she’s a huge risk-taker, she loves challenges and this business just clicked every single one of those boxes. She never expected to be doing something that actually was doing any bit of good for anybody.”
How about the rest of your family? Was anyone else resistant to you mining your family history for the public? Your brother’s coming out is a big emotional part of the film.
“Yeah, I would say that Josh, my younger brother, was the most nervous, and I think for obvious reasons, because his story is the most delicate. Josh and I have a really wonderful, close relationship. I have to say, I just feel so moved by what he brought to the film. And I wasn’t expecting him to be so earnest. He’s a very reserved person, as you can see in the film, and yet I think that’s why it resonates with so many people. So many people see themselves in Josh, like… that’s the gay experience, right there in a nutshell.”
“My gay experience of loving every single John Waters movie, running around with every possible freak in the freak show, is a small fringe of the gay experience. And you can be a queer person who loves it, or you can be a queer person who’s an engineer, who focuses on your job, and doesn’t want to tell anybody anything about your life, like most people in the world, and just so happen to find men attractive, and so who cares. And that’s Josh. He is just that guy. So I think he didn’t want to get into a big exposé on his personal life. I think that’s why him doing it is what makes the film so powerful, because I think pretty much he has come to represent the voice of almost everyone. He’s just that kid who everyone can relate to, that’s just struggling, and it just so happens that his family was the center of the gay porn universe!”
“I think he had the hardest time, and that’s why his piece did so much for the film. No one else really had a hard time with it. My dad couldn’t care less. My dad is the same person he is in the film, that’s who he is off-screen. My mom, obviously… [laughs] is the reason the movie is great, because my mom is so conflicted.”
One thing I was thinking about while watching Circus of Books is that I was grateful that the film exists. I just moved to LA last summer, a few months after the West Hollywood store closed, so I never got a chance to go. I feel like gay people don’t often have a connection to our history, cause so much of it was hidden. And that’s in the film too, all that stuff your parents collected over the years now has value as an archive. So I was wondering if you’ve thought about the film not just as a documentary, but as a document itself, something that captures something that would have otherwise been lost?
“I’m so glad you’re bringing that up. That’s why I made the film, period. If you had told me a couple of years ago that this would have a Netflix deal, and that anyone outside of the gay community would be interested in it I wouldn’t have believed you. My entire, sole purpose was that I just felt I needed to document the store. Because this is gay history. It is. And there’s so many stores like it, so many bars and so many places where gay history is just an underground, uncovered, still-unearthed history. And it’s because this was a population that was under siege, unable to document its history properly. And I knew that was the reason I needed to make the film.”
“Actually, when I took a Gay and Lesbian Studies Class at Yale, my professor, when he found out about the store, said, ‘Rachel, this is a treasure trove of gay history, you know that, right? And I didn’t! Because we’ve been marginalized, and criminalized, we don’t have good artefacts. That is why, you see in the film, the ONE Archive collects from the store. I really have to say, it’s the work of people like Joseph Hawkins, who runs the ONE Archive, who just understands this so well. You see him in the film up against my mom, who’s the heterosexual soccer mom, being like, ‘Ugh, you can get rid of this…'”
‘Just throw it out.‘
“Yeah! It’s people like Joseph Hawkins who have to wrestle – literally rip – gay history out of the clutches of the people that don’t understand its value. That’s what he’s doing and has done for so many years. And I, as their kid, have had to do the same thing. My parents would have just closed the store and gone on their merry way without at any point recognizing the value or importance of this for the community. So I think it’s because of my connection to being in the gay community for so many years, that I felt a duty to do this. These are my people, and I had that realization that this is my history as well, and I cannot let it go, especially as an artist. We have this small community that got destroyed by the AIDS crisis, and I would say that the arts are 95% gay, it’s a super-gay world, y’know, and being that I’m queer and also an artist, the store was always a central place. If I hadn’t documented it, I just don’t know that it would have had any bit of historical reckoning.”
“I will say one other thing. As an artist, I put on lots of exhibitions with various artists in the community there over the years. So we’re gonna do another online exhibition during the coronavirus to pay tribute to the years of work where we did our shows at the store, and they had a warehouse where we did shows, so it was an ongoing place for artists too.”
I saw you’re releasing music along with the film, could you tell me a bit about that?
“I’m working on some music as we speak! That’s one of the things that is basically my most creative space. I’m a pretty prolific, constant songwriter, and that’s the kind of thing that I can always be doing no matter where I am and what I’m working on. Over the duration of the time that I was working on the film, I would be working on songs pretty much constantly, and I have a collection of songs. Over the next year, after the film, I’ll release some tracks.”
“I’m working with my partner, Buck Angel, who’s a well-known activist, on a podcast. I should say, lover? Partner always sounds like “business partner” if I’m talking about stuff like this! Anyway, he and I are doing a podcast. And the end credits song that I wrote for the Circus of Books, when you see the movie, that’s actually my song at the end. I did a music video, and Buck is in it, along with Peaches, which is really cool. We’re gonna have a really great podcast, and I’m gonna feature some of the new music that I’m gonna be releasing throughout the year on that podcast.”
Awesome, I can’t wait for the podcast. As for the release of the film on Netflix, how did Ryan Murphy get involved?
“I have a wonderful sales agent named Josh Braun, and Josh brought the project to Ryan, and then Josh created the whole magical deal that involved Ryan as an executive producer, and then Ryan connected the dots. To be honest, it’s a little mysterious to me, how the business side works. You can quote that, cause I can’t even say really how the dots all got connected with the Netflix deal in the world of Ryan, but Josh, being the sales agent, managed to handle everything.”
“The film was shown to Ryan at a rough-cut stage, and he fell in love with it and wanted to meet. He came, met with me, and told me how much the store meant to him as a young gay man moving here in, I think, the 80s. It was a really important store to him, and he felt like I had done everything right in this film. He loved the story, and immediately had ideas for fictionalizing it, which was a pretty huge shock to me. Ryan became an executive producer and gave some notes on the cut, and he became the film’s really amazing, big-name executive producer. I love that we have his name on a condom box in the opening credits.”
Yes, that was great! One last question for you, we usually close out by asking what your favorite piece of queer media is… film, television show, play, book, music, up to you.
“God, that’s a hard question.”
“In terms of iconic, Earth-shaping, world-changing for me, it would be Pink Flamingos, obviously. That’s one, and the second one would have to be Klaus Nomi, who is my hero in music. He died of AIDS, in 1983 , and he’s my all-time hero as an artist. I don’t even know that queer is a term that embodies all that he encapsulated, but he was an amazing singer, and performer. He was a gay man who was a trained opera singer in New York, and he emerged in the world of gay nightlife. Because he was so radically different, he stood out. He wore this kabuki-themed clown makeup, and David Bowie and everyone took pieces of what Klaus Nomi brought into the world, almost like an alien goddess.”
“I feel like he embodies everything to me that speaks to the heart of what it means to be queer, in a cosmic way. He’s like a clown shaman character, and that’s something I’m very drawn to, clowns and shamans of every culture. That’s to me where the essence of queerdom lies, in a kind of shamanic space. Shamans were always the people to exist between genders, and cross over cultural and internal boundaries, and I think that’s the heart of what it means to be queer. Being different allows you this access into another world.”
What amazing note to end on. Thanks so much for chatting, this was great. Looking forward to everyone getting to see the film on Netflix!
“Awesome, thank you!”
Rachel Mason’s Circus of Books launches on Netflix Wednesday April 22nd. For more details and to watch the film head to Netflix.com/CircusOfBooks.