A Drag Come True: Interview with 'Pageant Material' director Jonothon Mitchell

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It’s not every day that a film comes around that feels made for us queers. Or, if it is, it’s subjected to be delegated to the LGBT section on Netflix. This isn’t a bad thing - I know where to find all my queer movies that way - but at times, it does feel like LGBTQ+ folx are being told to go sit in the corner while the “real” movies get made.

This isn’t the case for Jonothon Mitchell’s Pageant Material. While the film is about a gay teen striking out to the big city of Atlanta to compete in a drag queen competition...okay, I just re-read the sentence I wrote and yes. Fine. It’s a queer movie, and it’s unabashedly proud of it. But there’s plenty of stuff for the straights, too, as I found out when I sat down with Mitchell for a tête-à-tête about his new joint, which is being featured as a part of the 2019 Atlanta Film Festival.

Mitchell and I chatted about mom life, Atlanta, and being a queer teen growing up in the South:

Tell us what Pageant Material is all about. Give us your elevator pitch!

Pageant Material is a modern adaption of Cinderella. It’s about a teenager in Alabama who sets out to win a drag pageant to honor the legacy of his beauty queen mother.


What was your process in regards to making Pageant Material? How did this all begin?

After spending all of last year making an absurd comedic web series and several wacky short films, I resolved to spend this year creating more original content with weight and purpose. I really want to tell stories that showcase positive representation of the LGBTQIA community. As I began to consider different ideas I had, I was drawn into telling this specific story. It’s a story you don’t hear. Across mainstream and independent media there are very few stories of being gay in the South, let alone stories about being a drag queen in the South. So I took that idea and reworked it as an adaptation of Cinderella and the story for Pageant Material was truly born. It was then I was able to take inspiration from so many different aspects of my own life. It was a little bit of small-town life, a little bit of my own nostalgia for my childhood, and a lot of my obsession with RuPaul’s Drag Race.

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As most of us are! How did you come up with the idea for the film?

I think all writers pull from previous experience in their work. I grew up in a small town that was two towns over from Natchitoches, Louisiana, and that’s me presenting that information like Natchitoches is a big place. It’s not. It’s only known for being the filming location of Steel Magnolias and meat pies. It was hard living there and being fully aware of my sexuality when I was in elementary school. You’ll definitely see that struggle embedded in the story.

In addition to that, a huge driving force in the film is the main character’s relationship with his mother. The foundation of this story is the relationship between Rodney, the protagonist, and his mom. I grew up an only child in a single parent household, so my mother and I are incredibly close. She has always been my biggest support system so I feel like it would be a disservice to my deep love for her to not let my own relationship with her inform the story. In a way, the relationship you’ll see on screen is a love letter to how much I love and admire her.

What was the most difficult scene to shoot?

I think there’s a tie between the two hardest scenes to shoot. There’s a pretty aggressive fight scene that propels us into the third act of the film. The scene is exhausting and heartbreaking, so we were already contending with that, but due to time constraints and set restrictions, we had to re-choreograph the entire sequence the day we shot it. It presented all the challenges you expect and are forced to face when you’re an independent filmmaker. It was hard, but it taught us the importance of being adaptable, so the difficulty of the scene was worth it.

Additionally, the finale scene was incredibly hard to shoot. There was nothing wildly difficult about the set up, but we happened to schedule the finale on the final day of shooting. In a way, Rodney’s journey directly paralleled our own. We we all tired and emotional and we’d been fighting to make it to the finish line and when we did, it was amazingly sweet. It was an emotional day, and the difficulty was in saying goodbye to the characters and to the people we bonded with in the experience.

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That’s so sweet! How about your favorite scene to shoot?

One of the heaviest scenes was actually the most fun to shoot. There’s a scene where Rodney is on a bicycle riding down a country road towards the end of the film and shooting it was such a great experience. We rigged the back of my husband’s truck to get the shots, and we got to ride in the bed of the truck while we were escorted by these small-town cops. It was fun, because it was one of the first times I was able to look around and think, “Oh yeah…we’re making a real movie here.”



Any on-set hot-and-steamy gossip you can share?

One fun tidbit I love to share from set and pre-production is that our lead, Hart Morse, took on the role of Rodney without ever seeing a drag show. It felt ridiculous that he was gonna step into the heels of a baby drag queen without knowing drag culture so we took him out and introduced him to all our local queens. He got a chance to see Shawnna Brooks, Lena Lust, and one of our cast members, Brigitte Bidet. It was a fun night to get a lot of the cast and crew together to just go out and experience it together.



What’s next for the film?

The ultimate goal for any film is distribution of some sort, but beyond Atlanta Film Festival, our only hope is to share the film with as many people as possible. I’ve been working on partnering with local queer organizations to arrange a screening during the month of June [aka Pride Month for the rest of the country]. I hope we can see continued success on the festival circuit and screen as a part of many festivals throughout the rest of the year. I just want audiences to relate to the story, and I hope that this film provides a platform to share more queer narratives.


Any advice for young, queer filmmakers?

My advice to young, queer filmmakers is don’t let your own self-doubt hold you back from telling the stories you want to tell. Don’t let the mainstream narrative convince you that your ideas don’t matter. Go out and create the work you wish to see by any means necessary, and uplift others to do the same. The world is hungry for it. If you have a camera on your phone and an idea, then you have the capability to make anything. Your voice and the story you have to tell makes you so uniquely special. We want to share that with you.

Yassssss! Last thing - tell us a bit more about why you wanted to make this film. Why film it in Atlanta?

Atlanta is home. We are the melting pot of the South. This city is a reflection of beauty and diversity and talent. Our main character grows up in rural Alabama with hopes of making it to Atlanta. Atlanta isn’t LA or New York, but for kids in the South, it absolutely carries the same magical characteristics you’ll find in any other major cities. For some, it is the pot of gold at the end of their rainbow, and it means a lot to me to showcase that. I honestly can’t think of anywhere else to make this film.

And clearly, Atlanta feels the same, with Pageant Material now showing at the Atlanta Film Festival on Saturday, April 13th, 10 PM @ Plaza Theatre. The original showing on Tuesday, April 9th sold out quickly!

Check it out, and remember, queers (especially baby queers): no matter how your heart is grieving, if you keep on believing, the dream that you wish will come true.




 

Anna Jones is a writer and producer currently based in Atlanta. She is the proud owner of digital copywriting agency Girl.Copy and independent film production company Tiny Park Productions. She loves a lot of stuff, but mainly: her husband, kid, and cat, writing and filmmaking, coffee and Diet Coke, millennial pink, sushi, gay stuff, and horror films.