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Interview: Del Shores and Emerson Collins discuss SBS and queer cinema

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Southern Baptist Sissies saw its theatrical release last month. The film showed in many cities around the country (the film is still making the rounds), after successful theatrical runs. SBS features many queer actors and allies whose work have made them known within the community; from Leslie Jordan to Willam Belli.

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Here, the project's leading actor, producer, writer and director, duties shared by Del Shores and Emerson Collins, reflect on the themes behind SBS and the current state of queer cinema.

What inspired SBS?

DS: I started the journey of Sissies right after the murder of Matthew Shepard. A picture of one of his killers home in Newsweek started my mind churning. There was a picture of Jesus in that picture. I wondered if those boys learned hate in pews. I had dealt with the church in therapy, but I really hadn't gotten rid of the anger. Sissies allow me to vent, to be angry and ultimately to heal and to continue to hope for a better world, like Mark, my lead character.

How did you meet? What inspires you to keep working together?

DS: He was in a production of Sissies in Dallas, playing Benny (the Willam role). I fell in love with his amazing talent. We then started working together and I realized his brilliance as a producer as well. It's a great partnership of artists and producers. And he has things on me.

EC: I did a regional theatre production of SBS in Dallas, playing the role of Benny (played in the film by Willam Belli) and Del flew in to see the production. Afterward, he wrote and invited me to join his LA revival cast. Following the 8 month LA run, we decided to take Sissies on a national tour. I had worked a great deal in large theatres so I produced the tour while also performing in it onstage. That began our producing relationship. Then he asked me to be a co-producer on Sordid Lives: The Series which I was also in. We have now produced theatre, film and television together and finally have our own production. We are a great pairing and I describe it as he sees the forest and I see the trees. He has great respect for my work as an actor, which I appreciate, and they say if you want to work, the best way to do that is to make your own. Also, he's brilliant and hilarious and a great friend.

When it came to filming SBS, what were the priorities to turn this stage piece into a cinematographic experience?

DS: The letters. I kept getting letters from those who had been touched, healed -- one even told me he didn't take his life because of the play. I tried to get it made a few years back as a film, a true adaption of my play, but we just couldn't get the financing. This was Emerson's idea initially, to film the play, and I am so glad we did. The impact on lives already is huge.

EC: The goal of this unique hybrid piece was to bring the film-goer in and meld them with the live theatre audience. We wanted them to feel like they were essentially in the theater at the play. The electric reaction of this play onstage has always been incredible, and we wanted a way to share that with a larger audience rather than one performance at a time. The goal was to capture the performances being as true as possible to the comedy in the world of the theatre and then allow the benefits of film to heighten the intensity and intimate experience of the drama.

What is your casting process?

DS: I cast those I love. I had worked with every actor in film or TV or theatre except for Willam. And I had worked with him in an acting workshop. It came together flawlessly. I knew I needed great actors to do what we had to do schedule--wise. Nobody disappointed.

What do you see as the strongest theme of SBS?

DS: Hope.

EC: It's ultimately, and most simply about love. The ability to see everyone for exactly who they are and love them for exactly who they are. It's focused in the world of religious rejection of homosexuality, but the experience of being rejected for some aspect of who you are by family, friends or a community is universal. It shouldn't, and doesn't, have to be that way. Mark's vision of a world where all are accepted is achievable if we all stop judging each other.

What do you see as the main focus or connector of the piece and audiences all over the US?

DS: That many have been damaged by religious bigotry. By churches. It's not just about being gay. It's about being different.

EC: I sort of addressed this above, the universal experience of rejection has allowed audiences all over the country to relate. We won nine Audience Awards in 25 festival appearances, from Chicago to Atlanta and Birmingham, so it resonates far beyond the south.

What has been the most enjoyable portion of being part of the SBS film?

DS: The festivals were amazing. The response of the audiences. The tears. The laughter. Okay, the awards have been nice too.

EC: The cast and crew across the board are amazing, so the experience of working with artists committed to telling a story we all think is important made it a joy even in the most challenging moments. Really though, the most enjoyable portion is when we are told by parents that it helps them understand the experience of their LGBT family member growing up in the church in a way they had not before, or when a gay man says it's hard to watch but how healing it is to know they weren't alone in how they felt growing up, or when a Christian says, "I'm a Christian, and that does not reflect how I see Jesus, the world or gay people. Love is love." It's knowing that our story is touching people and creating conversation. That's why we're here.

What are your thoughts on contemporary queer films? What works? What can be improved?

DS: I love that so many young voices are being heard. Comedy has come forward in many films like Gayby, The Go Doc Project, Birthday Cake, First Period and GBF. The new generation of gays are more comfortable in their skin and that is reflected in queer cinema. I think we're doing pretty good!

EC: I think the struggles for contemporary queer films are no different than "straight" films. It begins and ends with the story. If you have a great story, and as a result a great script, you can make a great film no matter the budget. If you don't, no amount of money will fix it. One of the greatest problems facing contemporary queer films is getting support and attention from the LGBT community. The ironic benefit of our continued movement toward complete equality is that there is less focus, especially in major city centers, on specifically LGBT organizations, bars, arts etc. The best thing for contemporary queer films is for the LGBTQIA community to continue to show up and support them. When filmmakers can show success, they can continue making bigger and better films. There is no lack of great queer film, but there is a great lack of awareness. Traveling the film festival circuit this year I saw a great number of films that I was floored at in such a wonderful way, and yet most of my LGBTQ friends will never see them. Supporting great queer films will lead to more great queer films.

Are there any projects in your creative queue?

DS: I'm working on two new Sordid Lives sequels. Hope to film them late 2014, for release in 2015 and then call it a day with the franchise!

More interviews: Joey DeRuy, Ryan Lill, Laura Pausini, Vanessa Carlton, KENN, Mary Lambert, SATURN, Stephen Dittmer, Stephan Nance, Mark David Gerson, Eric Himan, Kevin J Thornton, Sammy Crawford, Eddie Christie, John Carrasco, YogaBear, Bryan Nevin with Christopher Van Etten.

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