Heaven Lee Hytes and Donnarama engage in A Dragged Out Affair. Photo by Amy McConnell.
Priscilla and her queens better watch their backs—a new drag musical is making waves at this year’s Reel Asian Film Festival, and this time, the talent is all local.
Directed by Sonia Hong, produced by Olga Barsky and Claire Lowery, and co-written by all three, A Dragged Out Affair is the winner of 2009’s So You Think You Can Pitch, a contest in which Reel Asian offers emerging filmmakers the chance to formally pitch their ideas and compete for the ten thousand dollar prize to realize their concepts. On Thursday, the short will have its world premiere as part of the festival’s On the Flip Side short-film program.
A Dragged Out Affair is an all-song, all-dance Romeo and Juliet–inspired musical-comedy set in the dynamic world of Toronto’s drag scene. In this vibrant world of boas and bustiers, two performers struggle with the ramifications of breaking the one cardinal rule of drag: queens must never, ever fall in love with each other.
“I think we all got immersed in the drag scene for different reasons,” says Barsky. “It was a place where I felt really safe, and I just thought it was so amazing that you could go into a bar and actually be entertained, be inspired, have that artistic element.” Hong, meanwhile, started frequenting drag bars while being introduced to gay culture after coming out during university. While out at Crews one night, she saw Heaven Lee Hytes, the film’s leading lady, perform. “I thought, ‘Wow, this is a performer. What is she doing here in this dingy bar that kind of smells?'”
The trio, all graduates of York University’s film program, originally tried to sell a reality show about the queens’ daily lives, but soon decided to focus on the actual performance aspect. Four of the city’s most popular queens were cast: Heaven Lee Hytes (Derek Gravelle), Donnarama (Vince Pincente), Daytona Bitch (Dustin Redshaw), and Miss Conception (Kevin Levesque). Next, Hong, Barsky, and Lowery—none of whom had previous songwriting experience—took to writing lyrics for the musical numbers, which would serve as the script. “We were inspired by Hilary Duff and her song ‘Beat of My Heart.’ And then it came to us: Queen of My Heart,” says Hong. The lyrics were then transformed into ballads and show-stoppers by composer Matt Montour. Finally, the filmmakers settled in a single-stage theatre at the Annex’s St. Vladimir Institute for the shoot. “We wanted to mix elements of the theatre and film together. So it’s shot in a really cinematic way, on a stage,” Hong says.
From left: Daytona Bitch, Donnarama, Heaven Lee Hytes, and Miss Conception. Photo by Summer Gaal.
The film is a comedy, but also a showcase for performance tradition frequently dismissed as a joke. “Part of the problem is that people don’t really look at it as an art form,” Barsky suggests, pointing out that everything from makeup to choreography is part of the drag art, in which performers seek to challenge gender and political norms just as much as they aim to entertain. “They’ll take these songs and mash them up in a really cheeky way. They appropriate something that’s existing, but they add their own identity and style to it.” This tendency towards irreverence matched the filmmakers’ own non-traditional sensibilities, Hong points out. “Each of us loves challenging people’s ideas of gender and what’s normal, what’s not normal.”
On set, of course, there was the occasional diva moment—Lowery recalls one instance of having to fan Heaven Lee Hytes while the drag queen performed a “Single Ladies” dance—but overall, she says, the process was entirely collaborative. Redshaw (Daytona Bitch), for example, choreographed the entire film, while Pincente (Donnarama) designed and created all of the film’s costumes. “There are forty-eight looks, and he had peanuts to spend on them, and everything looks amazing,” Barsky says.
Working with the drag queens was quite a different experience from working with regular actors, as well. “Sonia would say, ‘Make a sad face.’ And Donnarama would make a face like someone lit on fire would make. She’d say, ‘that’s drag sad,'” recalls Lowery. ” But ultimately, she says, the queens’ performances were perfect. “Sometimes that silent-movie acting works, because in the end, we’re not making 21 Grams or anything. We’re just trying to make something over-the-top and awesome.”
Now that the film is complete, the filmmakers will continue submitting it to festivals, and will continue to pursue projects as a team. “We’re all creative, but in three very different ways. Together, we’re like the Terminator,” Lowery says. Their plan is to form a female-driven production company called Final Girls Productions, she notes. “We want to employ female DPs, editors. Our crew really responded well to the fact that we had this tight-knit group of women. We run a different ship.”
Barsky and Hong, in particular, would love to see A Dragged Out Affair expanded into a feature. “We have all-original music, and we could take it so much further,” Barsky says.
And a feature might allow Hong to see her ultimate fantasy realized. “My dream is to have a Moulin Rouge cancan scene with a hundred drag queens,” she laughs.
A Dragged Out Affair premieres as part of the Reel Asian Film Festival’s On the Flip Side Program on Thursday, November 11 at 6:30 p.m. at Innis Town Hall (2 Sussex Avenue). Watch the trailer here.