Award-winning artist, performer, musician, and filmmaker Angelo Madsen Minax returns to Outfest this month with his deeply personal feature North By Current, following its world premiere at the 2021 Berlin Film Festival, where it was nominated for both Best Documentary and a Teddy Award. The raw, unflinching portrait of his Mormon family reeling from tragedy was shot over five years in his rural Michigan hometown after the unexpected death of his infant niece.
Ahead of the in-person and virtual festival screenings of North By Current at Outfest LA 2021, Angelo Madsen Minax spoke with The Queer Review’s editor James Kleinmann about the film’s evolution, how his trans identity comes through in the work, what appeals to him about filmmaking as a creative medium, and the impact that The Rocky Horror Picture Show had on him when he was growing up.
James Kleinmann, The Queer Review: how would you define yourself as an artist?
Angelo Madsen Minax: “I try to work in the format most well-suited to the ideas at hand. Time and cycles, the relationship between history and the future, and where intimacy falls within the mess of life are all moving pieces I think about a lot. I make a huge range of work in different mediums. To some this might seem like a lack of focus or lack of specificity, but to me it just means that I get to follow whatever methodology is most meaningful to me at any given time. It’s a very liberating way to work.”
How did you first get into filmmaking?
“By Accident. I had no interest in it, but had to take a 4-D Foundations class at the art school I was going to and as soon as I got into using Final Cut Pro 2—I’m dating myself here—I was hooked! The editing part was what grabbed me initially, the ability it offers to manipulate and reshape time. Filmmaking also lets me use a lot of my different skills and interests in the same place. There are so many different opportunities to write in filmmaking; critical, poetic, screenwriting, subjective, and storytelling.”
“It’s not uncommon for me to score and soundscape my own projects, or, like I did on North By Current, work very closely with my collaborators. Probably more closely than they’re used to! Then there’s photography of course and image making. And that’s only the formal side of filmmaking. The breadth of ideas that you can think through in filmic form is endless.”
Did you have any formal film training?
“Sort of, but not really. I went to art schools with no particular focus, meaning I didn’t study a specific medium. I studied where ideas come from and what it means to manifest ideas in any form, and put them out into the world. Conceptual stuff. I learned how to shoot on a Bolex, and have been using a Canon 5DS almost my whole career, so I’m not sure that qualifies me as a techie! I can compose a beautiful shot though, and edit in a totally idiosyncratic way and make sweeping soundscapes, but would have no idea how to turn on a RED camera.”
What was the impetus for making North By Current and how did it evolve over the years?
“I started working on it in 2016 and exported the final edit in January 2021. North By Current came from a kind of helplessness, which I think is reflected in the finished project itself. A sort of not knowing what to do or how to care in the right way. It evolved from that to being a sort of group process. The constant tension between thinking about the project in terms of what would be a good film versus what would be a good—or necessary—experience for me and my family was ever-present.”
What do you think this work says about you as an individual and as an artist?
“I guess that I’m mushy?! I think the film says a lot about my values, my sense of responsibility, and my commitments to being in conversation and sitting with hard things. Those values come out in the way that I choose to work with friends and community. I think it also says something about how I like to go into the dark places. I don’t want to be afraid of them. I want to sit inside them and think through them.”
How do you think North By Current relates to your body of work as an artist?
“North By Current definitely falls on the more linear and conventional side of my work. It has been called experimental, but it’s really quite conventional. There is a beginning, middle, and an end. There are obvious, named characters and it moves chronologically from 2016 though to the present, albeit with lots of tangential and archival hiccups.”
How did you want to address your identity as a trans man through the film?
“In some ways I feel like I addressed my identity just as little as to be legible as trans. I’ve been doing this so long—being trans—that my transness is not something I sit with and stew over anymore. It just is. I address it in the ways that it is relevant to the film only, where it penetrates the weird symbologies between spiritual and sexual mythos, or where it becomes an overt stand-in for grief.”
How would you describe North By Current to someone who hasn’t seen it yet?
“I would probably tell them it’s a meandering first-person portrait of a family trying to accept each other. It’s soft and sweet and hard and raw—maybe I should say bitter too—all at the same time. It will take you where you need to go, if you let it.”
You’ve had previous films shown at Outfest, but what does it mean to you to have this particular work play at Outfest LA 2021?
“Your own people are your harshest critics, so I guess we’ll see! It’s largely about expectations, and if the audience comes in thinking they will see a transition-specific narrative then they’ll be disappointed. The film is quite raw and I think catches people off guard with how “unpolished” it all is, especially in a place like LA, where high production values are normalized. Also, I’m not interested in making you feel good. That’s not what this film is about. That’s a challenge too. But I think for the right viewer, this film is a total gem, cutting right to the core of how messy and complicated our lives really are. I certainly think my fellow queers are ready for a little more nuance in their representation and they’ll get that in North By Current. Maybe it will inspire a few phone calls to moms too.”
What’s your favourite LGBTQ+ piece of culture or a person who identifies as LGBTQ+; someone or something that’s had an impact on you and resonated with you over the years?
“I don’t know that it’s my favorite, but the first thing to pop into my mind is The Rocky Horror Picture Show. It was on VH1 all the time when I was growing up and I remember watching it at 11-years-old in my parents’ basement feeling this gravity, a deep pull into the universe it was showing me. As a budding trans homo, as a musician, and as a huge sci-fi and fantasy nerd, it’s no real surprise I was captivated by it. I don’t know that I would call that gravity arousing, but it was certainly erotic and carnal, in particular the fact that Meat Loaf’s character Eddie was an object of desire for both Frank-N-Furter and Columbia; that Frank-N-Furter wasn’t trying to pass; that the weirdos are more interesting; and that trans people are hot aliens. And, the Riff-Raff/Magenta sibling play speaks for itself.”
By James Kleinmann
UPDATE: The US broadcast premiere of North by Current will show as part of POV’s 34th season, broadcasting on Monday, November 1st at 10 p.m. ET on PBS (check local listings) and streaming online at pov.org. The film will be available to stream until December 31st, 2021.
North By Current screens in-person at Outfest LA 2021 on Sunday August 15th in DGA 2 at 1:30pm, with virtual screenings available August 16th to 18th. For festival passes and tickets, as well as this year’s full lineup head to OutfestLA2021.com.