Films A to Z
Leave It On The Floor
- 106 min.
- Year of Production:
- USA / Kanada
- Ephraim Sykes
Phillip Evelyn II
Dj Fatha Julz
Lady Red Couture
- Production Company:
- LEAVE IT ON THE FLOOR LLC
- Berlinale Section:
- Berlinale Category:
- Feature Film
As soon as twenty-two-year old Brad Lyle’s mother discovers that her son is gay she denounces him as a loser and throws him out of the house. Suicidal Brad drifts away from his suburban home in El Monte towards downtown Los Angeles. Like Alice discovers her wonderland, so Brad embarks on a queer initiation and soon finds himself plunged into the iridescent, vibrant and completely theatrical world of vogue balls. At first this underground counter-culture that exists beyond the realm of the established pop scene seems alien, bizarre and chaotic. But Brad has no idea of the bittersweet, erotic éducation sentimentale that awaits him and will eventually lead to self-realisation, acceptance and self-respect. And, once sexy Brad is taken into the fold at the ‘House of Eminence’, there’s no end of twists and turns.
This updated high energy musical version of Jennie Livingston’s 1991 dance hall classic PARIS IS BURNING contains eleven powerful dance anthems and celebrates the creativity, imagination, vitality and courage of the contemporary vogue ball community in L.A. and other urban centres in the US.
Q&A with Producer/Director Sheldon Larry
Q: When did your excitement about ball culture and the idea of making a movie about it begin?
The obsession began more than twenty years ago when I first saw the Jennie Livingston documentary, PARIS IS BURNING, released in 1990. That film took a remarkable look at the New York ball community of the late 1980’s. In the intervening 20 years, the culture has gone through major change and transformation and yet startlingly, no one since has seriously written on its recent history, or created any kind of resonant or reflective film document (either documentary or narrative drama). Indeed, most people who know the original film believe that the culture has long since disappeared, and that it had been a New York-only event anyway. Not true. Today, communities in more than fifteen major urban settings are flourishing throughout the country. Five years ago, when I discovered that the scene was still alive and thriving locally, I began in earnest to research it. It took time to gain trust and access and penetrate the wariness of its members. Still, the more I dug, the more I grew fascinated by its personalities, its complex sociology and its groundbreaking theatricality. I became excited by the idea of creating an investigation of the culture as a feature film with original songs, choreography and performance. Of course, I might have chosen to create a documentary. But I quickly realized that this film’s power would be in its imaginative form as a fictional narrative with an original contemporary soundtrack.
Q: Where did the story come from?
A: It derived from the reality of a number of personal stories we encountered when Glenn Gaylord and I did our research. We created the character of a 22-year-old gay African-American, Bradley Lyle, living uncomfortably in El Monte California with his narcissistic, abusive single mother. When she discovers her son is gay, she brands him a loser and throws him out. Homeless and suicidal, Brad, through a chance encounter in downtown LA, stumbles into a ball. Like Alice, in Wonderland down the rabbit hole, Brad is amazed and startled by the compelling event he discovers. As our guide into the world, Brad connects us to a rag-tag group of similar “orphans”, other runaways and throwaways, who dramatically live their loyalties and rivalries, and compete for prizes at these monthly events. Initially only looking for a bed, Brad’s unwitting journey through the film is identical to that of many of the culture’s members. At first, the world seems curious, funny, alien, chaotic, daunting, sexy, Fellini-esque. But Brad, like the viewers who will journey with him, ultimately discover it to be a resource of friendship, support, love and continuity. The House of Eminence of the film (patterned on the House of Prestige) will become Brad’s new surrogate family. This, then, is the film’s journey: Brad loses his dysfunctional family in the first scene, but, by the end, will discover a new, unorthodox but fully functioning.
Q: How accurate is your depiction of the ball community and what are the houses and balls like?
A: It was all-important to create the world with as much truth and celebration as we could. With names like House of Garcon, House of Chanel, House of Allure, these kids compete for trophies and sometimes money at monthly galas, each one sponsored by a different house. With a different theme and sometimes more than 50 categories, these events are rowdy, energetic, sexually-charged entertainments which rarely get started before 2 am. The music is house and hip hop. Kids, once invited to join a house, renounce their surname and take on their house name. Brad meets the motley members of Eminence house. They use the family terms “parent”, “mother”, “son”, “daughter” and “sister” to describe the powerful relationships they have built together. Eminence House is run by “Mama” Queef Latina, a thirty-something powerhouse, who once had legendary status as a category winner. Queef, like her real-life counterparts, rules the house with love and authority, scolding, counseling and watching out for the welfare of her children. In our film, Eminence House is actually bricks and mortar. The clan occupies a rundown rental house in a marginal neighborhood where the “outcasts, freaks, and the temporarily displaced” of the group share dormitory bedrooms housing as many as five. The house exists as a safe environment where the members socialize, help each other with family or job issues, counsel each other on crushes, health and sex, plan the balls and prepare their costumes or choreography for the monthly events.
In the film I stage pieces of three balls. With different themes and sometimes more than 50 categories, these events are rowdy, energetic, sexually charged entertainments that rarely get started before 2 am. There are runway categories for “sex sirens” and “butch queens” to walk in drag. In addition, there are a number of “realness” categories, including “executive realness”, and “schoolboy realness”. For these categories, entrants must come dressed to “pass”... as a Wall Street businessman in a three piece suit, or as a student with requisite baggy jeans, backpacks and schoolbooks...there is a poignancy to all these categories with ball kids looking to see if they might, with the right wardrobe and attitude, be able to fit invisibly into a straight world.
Q: What is “voguing”?
A: Leave It also highlights the different “voguing” (dance) categories. Madonna’s song Vogue was inspired by the ballroom scene. Our choreographer freely admits to have been inspired by moves he’s seen while attending various balls for use in his (even in Beyonce’s) music videos. In dance too, these kids are on the cutting edge. They battle with free-style improvisation using moves that are a cross between hip-hop, breakdancing, Brazilian capoeira and a knife fight. Fights sometimes do break out as well. At one ball I attended, proceedings ended prematurely when a house member actually pulled a gun. A contestant had been “chopped” (eliminated). He didn’t like a judge’s decision, and so threw himself across the judges’ table. House-members started fighting rival house-members, a gun came out and the police flew in! One of our film balls ends in similar disarray.
Q: What about the world most fascinates you and why did you want to do a musical?
A: At its core, all ball culture is about reinvention. Its music-making, costume, make-up and hair creations, impersonations, choreography and performance encourage ball kids to express their talents but also to channel their inner voices in an almost primal need for transformation. I grew convinced that original melody, lyric and dance would enable me to echo these inner voices powerfully. The characters in my film would sing. And so, I have been working to create an entertaining and provocative landscape using the combined input and resources of a multitude of my colleagues and my students, creative film talents all (composers, musicians, music producers, screenwriter and lyricist, actors, dancers, singers, choreographers, cinematographers, production and costume designers, editors etc.). The film’s indie production, its own creative energy, and its extremely limited budget mirrors and amplifies the journey of its subjects.
Q: Talk a little about your collaborators.
A: With screenplay and lyrics by my extraordinary colleague Glenn Gaylord, a successful filmmaker in his own right, the film features eleven musical numbers. The music crosses the contemporary musical spectrum...gospel, rap, house, hip-hop, R and B, Broadway-style power ballads and book songs. The songs and score are revelatory....written by Kimberly Burse. She brought most of the members of Beyonce’s band to the Spielberg Scoring Stage at USC to record the instrumentals for the soundtrack. And she led me to secure the talents of Beyonce choreographer, Frank Gatson Jr. is a multiple MTV-Awardwinning choreographer and the genius behind all of Beyonce’s moves including the “Single Ladies” phenomenon. He has choreographed feature films and The 30th Kennedy Center Honors Gala and worked with Michael Jackson, Diana Ross, Destiny’s Child, En Vogue, Usher and R. Kelly. We call the musicians working on the film the L.O.L. Band (for Labor of Love)!
Q: What makes the film so timely?
A: Cultural attitudes of the last twenty years have seen a growing recognition and acceptance of homosexuality. Moreover, particularly in Los Angeles, the expanding obsession of the popular culture with fame, wealth, music, fashion and media has both shaped the ball-scene and has strongly been shaped by it. In houses with names like House of Chanel, Allure, Glamazonians, Xtravaganza, Klein, and Mizrahi, the ball kids in LEAVE IT ON THE FLOOR more than nod to their fascination with contemporary style, affluence and fashion. Their cutting-edge music, their unique costume and fashion design, their innovative style, original choreography and even their own hip language that ball kids are creating every day go on to become the new-now-next of popular culture tomorrow. A few ball kids are beginning to cross over to the mainstream and find paying work as dancers or designers. (Its interesting to note that some of the fantasy designs that Lady Gaga regularly sports these days seem completely connected to what one regularly sees in the ball scene.) One of our characters, Princess Eminence, has ambition to choreograph dance videos and in one of the film’s most memorable numbers, “Justin’s Gonna Call”, Princess fantasizes how Justin Timberlake will be calling him to do exactly that.
Q: Gay life and lifestyle is more known and in many ways more accepted now than it was 20 years ago in PARIS IS BURNING. Does your film reflect that?
A: Tragically, certain aspects of ball culture are still painfully distressing and consistent with the earlier attitudes of rejection and hostility touched on by the Livingston documentary. So LEAVE IT ON THE FLOOR sits in and examines this same painful context. While beliefs are beginning to change, some of the African-American community, with its strong connection to tradition, remains socially conservative and homophobic. The film touches on the downlow lifestyle, bullying, and homelessness that endures among black LGBT youth (Los Angeles has almost 2000 African-American LGBT kids living on the street right now, more than twice the number of homeless white LGBT kids.) Most of the characters in Leave It have either been forced out of or fled an intolerant and sometimes dangerous home life. Many have suffered abuse; some, like Brad, are driven to despair and even to contemplate suicide. When tragedy hits the House of Eminence, the kids are unceremoniously and painfully reunited with their birth families (in Church). There the parents reveal their varying degrees of disdain, rage, and even violence that their children have experienced, internalized and fled. The emotional center of the film is the gospel song, “His Name is Shawn” when the parents face off with their offspring. Tragically, it seems from my research, parts of African-American culture have yet to embrace differing definitions of masculinity or achieve widespread tolerance with regard to sexual orientation and transgender. The film achingly (and perhaps controversially) examines the pain and loss that is the result.
Q: I heard you made the film with a largely student crew.
A: No studio or large production company would ever have invested in a ballroom musical! So, to get it made, I needed to evolve a production paradigm for creating quality work with limited resources. I have worked as adjunct faculty at USC’s School of Cinematic Arts for the last three years and that experience has opened my heart and my eyes to the talent and passion of our next generation of performers and film makers. Leave It on the Floor has been made by others and myself in fleet-footed, penny-pinching partnership. The cast (all newcomers), and crew of mostly present and past USC students (hand in hand with a number of energetic professionals) were all fed, paid and/or offered some deferred payment. But together, with my student producers we have always been extremely hardnosed and dollar-conscious as we weighed the myriad of production decisions from both a creative and financial perspective. The experience became a teaching opportunity for me to engage SC students to participate and learn in both the “show” as well as the “business” trenches along side of me. What we have accomplished is nothing short of miraculous. Where there is a passion to make a film, there is now, with today’s technologies and bullheaded commitment, truly a way. (Source: press kit)
FILMOGRAFIE Sheldon Larry (selection)
2011 Leave It On The Floor