Chances are you haven’t seen Rachel Mason’s first movie, The life of Hamilton Fish, a surreal and arty musical about two men – one a politician, the other a cannibal – who died the same day in 1936. He toured the independent festival circuit, and that’s about it , and Mason did not expect much more from his follow-up, the very personal documentary Circus of books. That all changed when Ryan Murphy came on board as executive producer, and she was amazed to see the film’s profile increase dramatically.
“I actually had no idea how big an impact Ryan Murphy’s reattachment would be,” she laughs. “But his support for the film was, right out of the box, a game changer. When we showed up at the Tribeca Film Festival last year, we went from the underdog movie that nobody really watched to the movie people were talking about. Almost all of our screenings were sold out. And it is like that all over the world.
Director Kirsten Johnson On
The appeal of the film is easy to see: on the surface, it’s the story of a cute, middle-class Jewish couple who took over the running of Los Angeles’ first gay bookstore in 1982, selling explicit magazines, sex toys and hardcore. videos (for a while, even producing them). But beneath this almost comical surface hides a story of sorrow and tragedy; It was bad enough that Barry and Karen Mason faced absolute ruin following an FBI injection surgery, but, before that, the AIDS epidemic of the ’80s had also robbed them of many of their friends, employees and clients.
With the famous’ 80s miniseries by Russell T. Davies It’s a sin Due to its success on HBO Max in February, Mason’s film seems particularly prescient in its desire to resuscitate memories of an era in gay history that many would rather forget …
DEADLINE: Did you know how important your parents’ store was to the gay community?
RACHEL MASON: Well I knew this was a really big store in LA, but when I left LA and was living in New York, I used to meet people there [who knew it]. In fact, all over the world I went to, people would tell me they remembered this store. I mean, literally every gay man over 50 knew the store, anywhere in the world. And that blew me away, because it gave me a certain perspective: at that time it was a small world. The gay community was small. There weren’t tons and tons and tons of websites and all kinds of stores everywhere. And especially in Los Angeles, there weren’t tons and tons of erotic material stores for gay adults. There were a few, and Circus of Books was pretty much the biggest and the most important. And so I didn’t know it was something bigger than Los Angeles until I left and lived elsewhere.
DEADLINE: How did your family feel about you pointing them at them?
MASON: At first they just thought I was making a movie on the store. My mother, like everyone who has seen my work Circus of books, probably thought, “OK, well, that’s gonna be something that’s in the arts.” So, I think, in a way, she accepted that thinking that it would be a very small independent project that I might show in a gallery, something that could have a tiny life and not make waves. . So they all started out thinking it was something really, really small. And I didn’t necessarily think it would be something as big as a movie that could be on the LGBT film circuit, or go to LGBT-focused academic institutions. That was my modest goal for the film myself. That being said, when it triumphantly came out as a great movie, I think everyone had an account with just a little shock factor.
DEADLINE: How did they take it?
MASON: It was my mother who had a bit of a seizure – she was afraid that her friends would discover this gigantic secret that she kept. And her best friend, who is extremely Catholic, very religious and also has gay children, had a similar process to my mom, but it turned out that she loved the movie. So my mom was very scared that her good friend would watch the movie and judge her harshly – and none of that happened. His biggest fears never came true, that this movie suddenly makes everyone hate them, condemn them and say, “How dare you get involved in such a disreputable business?” It was kind of a shock to her how praised the movie was, and my brothers both found it fascinating and fun. My dad, of course, is a very happy guy anyway, so pretty much the rest of the family was amused.
DEADLINE: How much did you actually discover during filming?
MASON: I think I came to a better understanding of what my parents did for the gay community when they were in their deepest pain. And I didn’t understand the depth of the suffering either. That’s where Ryan Murphy comes in – really using his power to share the stories that are so essential to the community that endured it. We have a toll that we haven’t even dealt with, where a community has been so traumatized, and that’s not even the right word to say. “Traumatized” is the most positive spin you can give to what the gay community has been through. I mean, they were going through hell and nobody cared. They were guys my parents really, really loved. They were their employees. They were funny, amazing, creative guys and when I was a kid I remember they were also funny and beautiful. They were very handsome young men, and then they would die, and the tide of death would roll over the store, the business, and everyone. I didn’t really deal with my parents’ job and the trauma they went through until I really started interviewing and talking to them about it.
DEADLINE: What kind of things did they tell you?
MASON: Well my mom could barely get through her interview without being very upset when I asked her about it because what would bother her the most was that she would have to talk to relatives who would show up after her death. their child. They might have been an employee or a tenant – they owned the building – but these are people my parents have come to know and love, and they are the ones who were there for these kids when their own parents weren’t there. not there for them. So my parents were almost balancing two families when I was a kid – they had this whole other life, a whole family that they really supported emotionally and were there for.
DEADLINE: What are your memories of that time?
MASON: I remember being a kid in the 1980s, and we didn’t talk about AIDS around children – people were trying to protect children from it. [At that time] being gay was a real sin in the eyes of the general public, so thinking that my parents had to live a double life because of societal norms, i came to really understand the depth of that and understand why they had to be there. ‘be. so secret about it. My mom told me in the movie, “We were worried that if our children’s other parents found out, they wouldn’t let them play with you.” And I actually think it was true. If other parents had found out that my parents were working in the gay business at the height of the AIDS epidemic, we probably wouldn’t have had many dates with other children.
DEADLINE: Are you aware of their legal issues that followed?
MASON: When they had to fight the federal government, throughout my high school years, I had no idea both of my parents were potentially going to jail, spending all their money on legal fees, and could have lost everything. My father could have gone to jail for at least five years, if not more, according to his lawyer, who told me, “I didn’t know your father was going to leave. It really could have gone either way, and in some ways, that’s where luck really played a big part. Their lawyer said, “We were really lucky that the Clinton administration came along and the rules relaxed a bit, because if they hadn’t, your father could have gone to jail.” And that would have been my whole adolescence.
DEADLINE: Under the Trump administration, America appeared to become more oppressive and tense again. Did that have an influence on the movie and were you aware of that when you were making it?
MASON: Well no. I mean, first of all, it’s a weird contradiction, the Trump administration being so tied to the conservative Christian right, because Donald Trump, when he showed up, was a notorious reveler. If anyone could be related to porn, straight porn, this is the guy. I mean, Stormy Daniels! But his right-hand man was Mike Pence, the most conservative right-wing Christian you can imagine, and then he managed to pull together this massive right-wing Christian coalition to rally behind him. And what really upset me, as a person who works in this industry – well. I’m basically in a secondary angle of the sex industry, you might say, and my partner is in that industry as well – is that during the Trump administration, last year’s Covid relief bill specifically removed a provision to provide federal relief to anyone working in the sex trade. And there weren’t a lot of restrictions – there were maybe five – and one of them was that you couldn’t work in the sex industry. Now my parents have paid taxes all their lives, my partner pays taxes, everyone I know does. It’s a real legal industry, it’s not illegal. So these people were simply denied federal assistance during a pandemic period. It is unthinkable. When the film came out, I started to notice that the Trump administration was specifically targeting LGBT people. Why was there a transgender military ban? It goes back to the Christian right, which looks at LGBT people, looking for people to vilify: sex workers, homosexuals, anyone outside the mainstream.
DEADLINE: Were you satisfied with the election results?
MASON: Yeah, I’m so happy that Joe Biden is the new president and sure enough he reversed everything really quickly, but at the same time we got so crushed. And I can’t tell you how many people in the sex industry, who legitimately work in porn, have children. They are people like my parents – just ordinary people. They are not crazy outlaws, they are not criminals, they just work in this industry and they are just trying to survive. So I felt like it was kind of my mission to fight for the movie right now, just to raise the cause and say, “Hey, the people who work in the sex trade are normal and should be treated with basic humanity. ” And I have a feeling that all over the world, sex workers are still really fighting for basic respect.