Filmmaker Lee Cooper wants us all to call our grandparents. Speaking to him over Zoom, he expresses adamantly that “particularly in the UK, as a culture, we don’t have enough respect for our elders,” going on to point out that, “the little old man you see wandering down the street might have had an incredible, colourful life, and we are at peril of losing that history without even realising it.”
The man in question, at least from Cooper’s viewpoint, happens to be Britain’s oldest performing drag artiste Maisie Trollette, or simply David Raven in his everyday life, and the history at risk of exclusion is the tradition of British pantomime drag. Cooper’s film, which premieres at Sheffield DocFest on Friday 11thJune, is a rivetingly intimate portrait of a performer in their twilight years, navigating a recent diagnosis of Alzheimer’s.
It is also, undeniably, a story about friendship, collective history, identity and joy. It is Cooper’s first feature film, and is testament to the notion that a great story transcends the specifics of individual lives, while suggesting that for some, a lifetime of performance is inseparable from the performance of a lifetime.
Screen Queens: This is your directorial debut Lee. How did you decide you were ready to make a feature-length film?
Lee Cooper: Well I’m a natural storyteller – so never get stuck with me at a bar because I’ll bend your ear off! I don’t think there are enough LGBTQ stories being told in general. There are loads of really good ‘coming-out’ stories in film but you rarely see the other end of the tale. Even in mainstream cinema, you don’t get to see what it’s like to be old. But particularly in the gay community, a film about an ageing gay guy – to put it bluntly – it’s not very sexy, and so a lot of these stories are just not told.
SQ: How did you come to meet David?
LC: I’m a big fan of drag, and living in Brighton, there are lots of opportunities to see really good drag acts. I had my mid-life crisis and decided to go back to school and study film. As part of the course we were tasked with making a short, and a friend of mine introduced me to David. I kind of fell in love with him a bit, as I think you do when you see the film. I just found him absolutely fascinating and it made me think, we never hear our elders’ stories. I felt very compelled to hear his.
SQ: David struck me as a wonderfully warm and open person – but also, at times a bit cantankerous. How did you build a relationship with him?
LC: Well it was easier than I thought it would be. I won’t lie, drag queens are natural performers, so you point a camera at David and he immediately turns on. But he was also very brave in letting me have access to more intimate moments. I don’t want to speak for him, but I think he’s reached an age now where he just doesn’t care to a certain degree. Which is how I got those more vulnerable scenes, when he’s undressing in the dressing room and in moments when he was feeling unhappy or insecure. And I can’t lie – having a good-looking crew helped a lot… David quite likes having some attractive younger men following him around!
SQ: There was a brilliantly natural sense of narrative progression throughout the film, which felt very graceful. It never felt as though you were pushing for a certain reaction. How did you control this?
LC: We didn’t go into the film with a story and I feel as though it’s quite an old-fashioned film in many ways. There wasn’t a script or lots of found footage, we just followed David around. Originally, we had filmed lots of talking heads and there was a lot of reminiscing involved, but it just didn’t feel true to the film. For me, it was more important to see David applying makeup with a used Brillo pad or struggling to get into a pair of sequined high heels than it was to hear people talk second-hand about his life.
SQ: I feel like you still manage to get that insight in the film through the figure of Miss Jason (a fellow drag queen) who was a great conversationalist. The wider drag community also helped to contextualise some of David’s experiences…
LC: David and Miss Jason are life-long friends, and I think that shows. David has been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, but at the same time, he has this incredible support mechanism around him, in the form of the cabaret community. When you strip the story back, it’s really just about friendship and ageing and support and love. It transcends the LGBTQ experience in that sense. That’s why I felt that it’s ultimately quite an uplifting film.
SQ: Most of your previous experience has been in art directing and producing fashion campaigns. Did that artistic training influence the way you approached the finer details of the film?
LC: I really wanted to highlight the juxtaposition between David Raven, this older man living alone in his apartment with Maisie Trollette, the glamorous person on stage with her sequins and big hair. We worked hard with the grade and the lighting set-up to highlight that contrast. And, of course, being an art director, the details meant everything to me. That’s ultimately why all the talking heads went, because when I watched him spitting into his proper old-school makeup and applying it with his fingers, I understood that to be the truly valuable stuff. It was really beautiful and ultimately, I hope we showed the beauty of old age. David looks truly beautiful, and every single one of those deep lines on his face helps tell his story.
SQ: There are also some great moments with Darcelle XV (America’s oldest drag queen) – when they have high tea together for example. It’s full of comedic tension!
LC: We were cringing and laughing inside while shooting that scene. I think at one point you might actually hear me laughing in the edit, because we just couldn’t stop ourselves. The two represent two very different practices; Darcelle is from the world of Pageant Queens, where it’s all about the look and the lip-synch, whereas David is an out-and-out British panto dame. The British tradition is all about the cheeky jokes – it’s very much like your Uncle dressing up in your Auntie’s frock at Christmas after a few too many drinks. It was a meeting of two very different traditions, which was fascinating to see.
SQ: The film deals with some difficult topics – the main one being Alzheimer’s, which kind of hangs unspoken over the film. There’s also mention of the AIDS crisis and internalised homophobia but it’s all handled with a real grace and candidness. How did you navigate these moments?
LC: To some degree those topics flowed naturally out of the wider discussions we were having. But obviously, I had spent a lot of time with David by that point and to a certain extent knew the story elements I wanted to feature. David comes from a time when it was literally illegal to be gay. He would go into the Vauxhall Tavern and there would be police raids. He definitely has this internalised homophobia which is quite sad. It would express itself most explicitly if you accidentally called him ‘Maisie’ while he was in his ‘man drag’ as David. He also hates the term ‘drag queen’, which is why the by-line for the film is ‘Britain’s oldest performing drag artiste’ instead. It’s fascinating. But again, the word ‘queen’ was an insult for a gay man not that long ago – in a similar way to the word ‘queer’, which is now being reclaimed by the gay community. David comes from a very different era and it’s another reason it felt important to preserve it on film.
SQ: Do you think that showing the not-so glamorous side of drag is especially important nowadays when so much of LGBTQ+ culture seems to be commercialized and commodified?
LC: Definitely. There’s a lot of talk at the moment about how the pride flag has been appropriated beyond LGBTQ culture. In fact, there are lots of gay men I know who think that drag started and ended with RuPaul! There’s this great English Pantomime Queen tradition that has been around since Shakespearean times and it felt essential to record that. But it was difficult to get funding for the film because people didn’t want to see an old man in his pants! It’s a real shame, because, for me, that kind of thing is our history – it’s where we came from! It’s quite incendiary to say, but I think the RuPaul-style of drag is killing the Panto Queen tradition – it’s like when the grey squirrel came to the UK and killed off the red squirrel, in many ways.
It’s a very intimate film with quite unique access. There were moments when we wanted to look away but as a filmmaker and as a documentary maker I felt that the most honest thing to do was let the camera roll and just be there with David. Because there are so many untruths around at the moment; so much gloss put over things.
LGBTQ stories were not often recorded back in the day because it was literally illegal to be gay. What little bit of culture and history we did have is disappearing quickly [because of its commodification]. So, respect your elders, learn their stories, and for god’s sake, give your Grandad a call!
The emotional maelstrom of Cooper’s film is best exemplified in the final scene. Maisie, resplendent in a glittering dress and gravity-defying earrings, performs fellow diva Shirley Bassey’s ‘If I Never Sing Another Song.’ His voice is tremulous, triumphant, and weary all at once, betraying a complexity and resolve so often obscured by the bright lights and stage paint. It is an immensely moving scene, depicting the radical inhibition of an old man, rejecting the social constraints imparted on him over a lifetime, through the joy of performance. Bassey sings ‘you know my name’ and we most emphatically do … Maisie.
Lydia Rostant is a 22 year old writer who’s lived in Manchester for the past four years. Her cinematic interests include (but are not limited to): women in film, women being bad in film, food in films, weird snacks that symbolise something else (a hot is never just a hot dog … or however the saying goes), great soundtracks in films, characters singing in their cars, tracking shots that start with the feet and work upwards, films about drop-out music geeks that pretend to be teachers in order to live out their fantasy at a local rock gig (yes, School of Rock is in her top 5).You can read her work on her blog: https://thepristineinnerexperience.wordpress.com