FROM THE SMALL TOWN GAY BAR TO THE CONTINENTAL BATHS: INTERVIEW WITH FILMMAKER MALCOLM INGRAM

Malcolm Ingram, the gay, Canadian documentarian, and former Film Threat writer, is a self-proclaimed blow-hard, and most people who know him would agree. He does a weekly podcast entitled Blow Hard, which appears on filmmaker Kevin Smith’s (Clerks, Red State) SModcast Network with various guest hosts including his mother, Gloria, or Glo as she is affectionately referred to, much to her dismay.

After making two feature films (Drawing Flies and Tail Lights Fade) and taking a hiatus, Ingram created a riveting doc entitled small town gay bar in 2007, which showed a seldom seen view of homosexuals trying to find their place in the backwoods of America. It also included portions of an interview with Westboro Baptist Church founder Fred Phelps, who is best known for protesting at funerals and proclaiming that “God Hates Fags.” His 2010 follow-up, Bear Nation, tells the tale of men who defy the stereotype of slender, hairless gays who live in the gym, was just released on Video-on-Demand and Amazon. Currently, Ingram is working on his next project, Continental, which will chronicle the Continental Baths in New York where Bette Midler and Barry Manilow got their start.

I chatted with Malcolm after one of his recent episodes of Blow Hard revealed that a planned porno he intended on making at the suggestion of Kevin Smith, tentatively titled Gay and Silent Knob, would be scrapped… and all might not be well in the world of fundraising.

Do you think people know you most for small town gay bar?
I think people know me most for being friends with Kevin.

What about in just the gay community?
In the gay community, I’m known as that big, fat gay dude.

King of the bears?
I’m certainly not the king. Just as every facet of my life, I’m on the fringes. I’m on the fringes of just about everything I do. I get more active and charged up dealing with issues. The gay community, like any community… I don’t want to start bashing the gay community, but gay issues, on a broad level, I’m very much in tune with. Gay issues on a smaller, village scale, I’m not so much involved with. I have no interest in the politics of it all, it’s just like a bunch of catty, sixteen year old girls. It’s just another place…

There’s an element of Zelig in me where I fit in everywhere, yet I don’t really belong anywhere. I don’t say that with melancholy, it’s just an observation I’ve made about myself.

Do you feel like you’re trying to distance yourself from Kevin and his projects?
Not at all. Me and Kevin were talking yesterday about a whole bunch of projects in the pipeline. I would never want to distance myself from Kevin, he’s like a brother to me. He’s the man who taught me how to fish. Without him, I wouldn’t have what I have. It’s such a complete privilege to have what I have. To even for a minute begrudge that or want to separate myself from it seems really ungrateful.

I think that it’s important for me to stand on my own two feet, because he has taught me to fish, and essentially I can’t keep expecting him to keep generating stuff for me. With small town gay bar, I was very fortunate to find a subject and work with people to create something that gave me my own voice. Given such an opportunity, it would be ridiculous for me to go backwards and not forwards with it. I feel it’s really important for me to keep going on my path and tell stories to my 16 year old self, which is my modus operandi of how I’m working my projects.

To talk to your 16 year old self?
As I get older, and I didn’t come out until my thirties, I realize how much I truly missed out on by not being true to myself when I was younger. I’m completely emotionally immature about relationships and I gave up on the fun and exciting relationship stuff in my 20s. I was terrified of having a real relationship and I was terrified to be myself. I think if there were more voices out there when I was coming out, about the positivity of the gay experience, i think it would have been easier for me to go on the path of what I really was.

How much of Blow Hard is just you trying to get a rise out of your mother, Glo?
Honestly, it’s not about trying to get a rise out of her, it’s just two people with such completely opposite viewpoints that anything I say quite naturally will get a rise out of her. We get a rise out of each other, just by conversing, because we come from such different places ideologically and spiritually. It would be impossible for us to really agree on much. I try and keep it as organic as possible, though. I try not to stay away from treating her like my mother. I totally don’t treat her like my mother, I treat her like my podcast partner when we’re doing that. I try and make her accountable for the things she says and she doesn’t like that. She is who she is, and I respect it.

I do respect my mother quite a bit. Glo had a very complicated upbringing. Her mother died when she was young, she spent some time in an orphanage, grew up very young and helped raise her sisters. She didn’t have much of a childhood. Glo doesn’t suffer fools gladly and she doesn’t have the most honed level of empathy. Glo is not a very empathetic person, and it’s not because she’s an asshole or cruel or sociopathic, but because it’s not her natural disposition.

How do you feel you’re most alike with her?
My temperament.

She says you fly off the handle.
But she does at well, and that’s the comedy of it all. I see myself in her, but she doesn’t see herself in me. I can be very argumentative, and me and my mother show a lot of those traits.

You’ve been talking about your older films recently. Was it because of how those movies did, or because of the studio system that made you turn to documentaries?
After my experience with Tail Lights Fade, I just realized that level of movie-making wasn’t for me at that time. I didn’t enjoy the experience doing Tail Lights Fade. I don’t think that movie has my voice in it. It has echoes of me, but it isn’t the essence of me. I didn’t know how to get my message through. I had a crew of about 70 people and your vision gets distilled through a lot of people.

It can be a very wonderful experience if you’re prepared for it and understand it. It took me working with a small group of people to have my vision told that I began to understand how I could work it on a broader level. I would love to go back and make a big movie because I know how to do it now.

What led you to Mississippi and not a small town in Canada or a small town in the US?
I had been researching it for four years before we had the chance. There was a time when we were going to film in Paduka, Kentucky, and another time in Gun Barrel City, Texas. There were a variety of places. We actually went out and filmed two shorts, one in Traverse City, Michigan and another in Sudbury, Ontario. We did two 15 minute mini versions of small town gay bar just to see if the whole thing would work.

When it came time to actually make the film, I had discovered this place, Crossroads, that was originally going to be the subject of the movie. By the time we went and filmed it, the bar had closed down, so we were going to have Crossroads as part of the history of gay bars in small town. The main bar was going to be Rumors, in Shannon, Mississippi. We were going to film some exterior shots just to talk about the history of gay bars, and we saw that Crossroads was reopening. We had no idea, we literally arrived there and they were opening. It got really exciting, it gave it a more solid narrative. The entire making of small town gay bar was a series of small miracles. That movie had its own driver, I just was fortunate enough to be at the wheel.

The feel of Bear Nation is quite a contrast to small town
Bear Nation was just… stylistically, they’re very similar. I tell stories with music. Music is very big part of my storytelling, just because it’s a very big part of my life. Making Bear Nation was something I put off. It was never really something that I wanted to make. Kevin suggested it, and it was offered to me by Logo a long time ago. Kevin always suggested that I tell that story, that it was my story to tell.

Interestingly enough, I think small town gay bar is a more personal film than Bear Nation. There’s an irony there, but I feel I related more to the people in small town gay bar than the people in Bear Nation. In small town gay bar, I felt I was telling my story in a way; a very weird way. In Bear Nation, I just felt like I was telling a story. Not any story, just a story. I was telling other people’s stories.

I know so many bears, I just wanted to make sure I told as many people’s stories as possible, and I wasn’t so much focused on telling my own story. I wasn’t just as invested in it as I was with small town gay bar. I respected the subject of Bear Nation, but small town gay bar is something in my heart. That movie has my heart and soul in it.

That probably has a lot to do with the fact that you didn’t come out for a very long time…
Yeah, and I’m making Continental right now, and Continental very much has my heart and soul in it. Bear Nation was an exercise, it was a movie I had to make. After small town gay bar, it had been a few years since I made a documentary. I’d gone through a lot; I’d gone through a break-up, I’d gone through my father dying, I’d gone through a nervous breakdown, I’d gone through a lot.

Bear Nation was simple. small town gay bar was four years of complete… I gave my life for that film. My blood is all over that film, I willed that movie into existence. Bear Nation was something easier in life for me to make, and it was very much what I needed to make at that time. Making Bear Nation was effortless.

How has the reception for Bear Nation been?
Good, and it’s the same with everything… It’s funny, with small town gay bar, when it first came out, people weren’t saying much. It wasn’t getting the praise that it does now. small town gay bar found this really wonderful place in the world of gay film. It’s found a nice spot in there. I think that Bear Nation… it hasn’t been seen widely yet. I think people like it, it’s very respectful of the subject and it’s a good overview of the subject.

Give me a rundown of what Continental is all about.
Continental is a movie about the Continental Baths of New York City, which existed between ’68 and ’74. It was run by this guy Steve Ostrow who was this incredible maverick of a human being. He created this environment and this community for people who were recently, post-Stonewall, coming out of the closet en masse, and he gave them a kind of clubhouse where they could find themselves sexually, spiritually, emotionally.

It was just this really wonderful play land, just beyond a place to fuck. He had a travel agency in there. He had a nondenominational house of worship in there. It was this little world he created where people could feel safe, people could feel human, and people could feel respected. It’s the only thing like it that’s ever existed.

It’s such an interesting tale that hasn’t been told yet. After that came AIDS, and I think there’s a lot of guilt involved in the lifestyle of people pre-AIDS and what became the ultimate cost of that. I think people have opted not to look back at that much, because it involved great feelings of guilt. But I think enough time has passed that this is a good time to tell this tale.

When did you decide to tell the story of the Continental Baths?
I’d been decided for a long time. It’s always been something on the back-burner. It was something I was going to make before Bear Nation. I was actually watching a documentary called The Cockettes, which is this really awesome doc about this group from San Francisco, these ragtag artists who did wonderful shows. I was watching that documentary, and it had a lot of the talking heads of the people who were still living, telling their tale of this great time in history. It really moved me.

Gay history is still so new, and I feel it’s my responsibility to tell these tales while the people who lived these stories can tell them themselves. I feel it’s very important for me to be a conduit to get these things out there while they still can be told. I was horrified at the prospect of going to Australia. I’m a 300-pound doofus. Going to Australia freaked me out on so many levels, it was really something I didn’t want to do. Ultimately, I just had to do it, because Steve Ostrow has lived a very long and incredible life. If, god forbid, anything were to happen to him and he didn’t get to tell his tale, that would have haunted me for the rest of my life.

This was the first time you ever met Steve?
Yes. We’d been in contact through email for years, and I would always say “We’re coming! I’m coming, I’m coming, I’m coming,” and it finally got to the point where he was like, “Whatever.” I didn’t want to approach him again until I could say “Here’s the date.” And that was it, I did that Kickstarter campaign and as soon as that was over I booked my ticket immediately, and off I went.

Let’s talk about fundraising.
It sucks, it’s horrible, it feels like begging, and I’m still doing it. I had to switch campaigns, and you’re just harassing people. The initial Kickstarter was great, it really worked. I just think going back to the well… a lot of people just think I’m asking for too much.

Going back to the well by creating a second campaign?
Yeah, I think maybe that was a mistake. Basically, after this campaign, I’m going to another campaign that’s ninety days and if people want to put money into it, great. But to actively go through my Facebook friends and my Twitter people, the people who have been cool enough to follow me through Blow Hard, the audience I’ve created… I feel it’s a little too much to go back to the well and ask for more and more and more.

Right now I’m thinking about generating stuff for free just to give back to that audience. To keep asking for things just seems ridiculous. I was actually thinking about throwing out one of the shorts I did for small town gay bar, and just telling people on my podcast that it exists, just to start giving people something for free so it’s not about… I just don’t want to be constantly canvassing.

I think a lot of people would be interested in the shorts. A lot of people online talk about the complete Fred Phelps interview you did for small town gay bar. Will that be coming out?
It’s so funny, that’s been lost. The tapes have been lost, and the only person who had a copy of that interview was Kevin. I had sent him a copy of the interview on DVD, because he wanted to study it for what eventually became Red State- that was the whole genus of Red State. He wanted to look into it, and ended up being the only person who had a copy of that interview in its entirety.

The DVD he sent back was so well used; he didn’t know he was the only person to have a copy. I only realized when I came up with the idea of releasing it that all copies of that interview didn’t exist. When we got it, it was in very rough shape. Shawn Stanley, my editor, started putting it through all these programs to salvage it, and he ended up salvaging it.

I think a lot of people will be pleased to hear that and will want to to see it. In the few scenes that we do see, you were sitting across from someone who didn’t know you, but who probably gathered that you were gay and all that he thought was wrong in the world…
It’s a fascinating interview, and it’s the only one like it. He had never sat down and done an interview like that before. It’s a very calm conversation, and he’d never done a calm interview before. I don’t think he’s doing well. You don’t really hear about him anymore, it’s mostly the daughter and the granddaughter. You don’t hear much from him anymore. He must be in his eighties. I imagine he’s pretty aged by now, and I think that interview is the only thing that exists of its kind.

How do you plan on releasing it?
I don’t know. I want to get it out there and have it help me finance my future endeavors. That’s something I don’t really want to give away for free. It took a lot of work for me to get that and I don’t want to fucking make a million dollars off it, but I would like to utilize that to help me with my endeavors. Right now, we’re figuring it out. I’m offering it for $50 as an incentive (for the IndieGoGo campaign for Continental) but that will only get it released when (Continental) does get released. We’re going to do a special version of the interview for the IndieGoGo people.

What do you think about gays in the media now?
I just watched Six Feet Under in its entirety last week, and I really loved that relationship. I think Keith and David were a really great representation of a gay couple. The whole meth subplot was a little on the nose, but I thought that it was a wonderful relationship. And of course, done by a gay man, Alan Ball (American Beauty, True Blood). I think the couple on Modern Family is a wonderful thing to have out. Although they’re a little queeny, but they’re absolutely… more so than Will and Grace, that couple is relatable. I think that’s a positive thing.

In the past you’ve referred to certain shows as “minstrel shows.”
Yeah, on Will and Grace, that whole Just Jack character might as well have been in blackface – or pinkface. It was a little much.

The other show you made mentioned was…
Queer Eye for the Straight Guy. I was perfectly all right with it existing, like, I don’t care, people can do whatever they want. But don’t try and present Queer Eye for the Straight Guy as something that is socially valid or important, because it’s not. It’s bullshit entertainment. That’s fine, but the fact that Carson Kressley was getting celebrated as some sort of important pioneer was ridiculous.

So who should be getting celebrated in the gay community?
A lot of people. A lot of filmmakers, like Todd Haynes (Velvet Goldmine, Mildred Pierce) is a wonderful queer voice. Bruce La Bruce is a great queer voice. Alan Ball continuously keeps his foot in the gay world in a very provocative way. I very much admire what he does. There’s a lot of stuff going on that’s exciting and cool. I feel a lot better now than when I started filming small town gay bar about the progression of gay representation in the world.

You say people know you because you’re Kevin’s friend, but when the time comes, what do you hope to be remembered for?
I don’t focus so much on myself being remembered. I think I’m fortunate that small town gay bar is a strong enough work that the story will live. Having my name attached to that is an honor. Making small town gay bar put me in a very comfortable place, where no matter what happens, at least I’ve accomplished that. At least I got to be a part of telling that story, and anything else is gravy.




Posted on October 31, 2011 in Interviews by
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