Connect with us


Interview: Matthew Hays (Author of: The View from Here: Conversations with Gay and Lesbian Filmmakers

In all, thirty-eight gay and lesbian filmmakers have finally found themselves interviewed for one anthology about their careers, their sexuality and how the two affect each other….Matthew Hays, has compiled The View from Here: Conversations with Gay and Lesbian filmmakers.

It would seem to most like a no-brainer. Yet somehow, up until last year, it had still not been done.  Despite a growing list that boasts such known names as Pedro Almodovar, John Cameron Mitchell, Bill Condon and John Waters, no one had thought to put it all together. The list goes on: Gus Van Sant, John Greyson, Lea Pool, Don Roos, Robert Epstein, Kenneth Anger – and it doesn’t stop there. In all, thirty-eight gay and lesbian filmmakers have finally found themselves interviewed for one anthology about their careers, their sexuality and how the two affect each other. Not one to wait for someone else to snatch up his plan first, Montreal-based arts writer, Matthew Hays, has compiled The View from Here: Conversations with Gay and Lesbian filmmakers. The experience is personal, heartfelt and insightful.  The tales of both trial and triumph found in each interview make the read compelling while Hays’ admiration for his subjects and respect for their bravery makes the experience a lasting one.

Hays was raised in Edmonton, Alberta, but while it may be booming now, it was far too small to contain a 22-year-old Hays. The young pioneer left his home for a semester in New York City before he was admitted to the film studies program at Montreal’s Concordia University. Not only did his time there solidify his love for film but it also gave him the opportunity to fall in love with Montreal itself. With the exception of a brief return to Edmonton (a time Hays likens to hell), Hays has called Montreal his home for over a dozen years now. In that time, he pursued his graduate studies in communications and worked his way up from a freelance film reviewer at the Montreal Mirror to one of the popular alternative paper’s associate editors. His ambition led to more freelance work in the Globe and Mail and the New York Times, to name just a couple, as well as part time teaching opportunities at the same university he studied at in Montreal just a few years prior.  As is often the case, drive like his leads to an overwhelming amount of work.  Between the writing, the editing, the teaching and trying to have a life on top of that, something had to go.  And so, in 2002, Hays walked away from the Mirror. With that door closed behind him, he found himself unlocking a new one.  Behind this door, Hays would find the time he needed to write and compile his first book.

In some ways, The View from Here, has been in the making for over 20 years. Ever since Hays sat down with John Waters cast regular, Divine, in 1986 for what would become his first official interview, he has been a voice for the marginalized. His graduate thesis would lay down the framework for his examination of gay cinema while his activist sensibility would then voice his appreciation for these films and the people who made them. His work as a film critic/enthusiast has often flirted with his writing on gay identity and gay rights and this collection was the perfect way to fuse the two sides of Matthew Hays. On an oddly warm January Sunday, Hays was kind enough to invite me into his home. As we sat surrounded by movies on shelves, movie posters on walls and movie magazines on tables, the interviewer became the interviewee.

Conversations with Gay and Lesbian Filmmakers

Joseph Belanger: Thank you for having me in your home, first of all.
Matthew Hays: Not at all.

When you set out to develop this project, did you expect or hope for a common thread to develop between all these diverse filmmakers?
That was tricky.  I didn’t want to force anyone into a mold.  I wanted each chapter to be about each person’s passions.  What I did notice was there were various different strains.  The biggest divide I noticed was the difference between fiction and non-fiction filmmakers.  Fiction filmmakers, people like Almodovar or Waters, are prone to say they’re not really activists but rather filmmakers just telling stories.  Whereas the documentary filmmakers are much more prone to say they come from an activist background.  They do what they do to in part to change the world.  Definitely, I think it’s fair to say that most of the filmmakers are pretty lib-left; I can’t think of any right-wing filmmakers who are gay and working.  Also, as I wrote in the introduction, in many cases there is a strong self-consciousness to the work.  Gays seem pretty post-modern.  When you enter into film, if you’re gay or lesbian, you realize how much negative baggage there is for us on the big screen.  There is always a wink and a nod in their work.

joel schmacher gay filmmaker

Did you meet with any resistance from your subjects or potential subjects?
I did phone one filmmaker and he just hung up.  And then there was Joel Schumacher – we went through all the motions; we did the interview; I sent him the transcript for his clearance.  He e-mailed us after and said he just didn’t want to do this.  I was saddened by it but I respected his decision. 

Schumacher is quoted in your introduction as saying, “I’m a big opponent of labels.  African-American judge, Jewish vice-presidential candidate, lesbian congresswoman, transgendered military officer, whatever.  I don’t recall anyone referring to Bill Clinton as our Caucasian, heterosexual, WASP, male ex-president.  In other words, he’s normal and everyone with a label isn’t.”  One common thread I found throughout the interviews is that people are either comfortable with being labeled a gay filmmaker, embrace it even, while others want absolutely nothing to do with the adage, as if it takes away from their work.
I feel like we’re getting over the labeling now.  It was a hot topic in the 80’s and 90’s.  I feel like now that so many people have come out, it isn’t such a big deal anymore, at least in our part of the world, so the label is like so what?  Now we can talk about queer identity without being so caught up in the label issue.  Still, I understand that people don’t want to be labeled but I find there’s something a bit weird about that.

If you don’t want to be labeled, that’s fine.  However, you’re not taking that step to be identified as gay and it’s almost a denial of that identity.
There are two things going on here at once.  On the one hand, some people feel like that’s who you are so just say it, like you have an obligation to say it.  The more people who come out, the more normalized it will be.  The flip side of that is, and I understand this too, some people feel like the minute they have that label, they’re going to be limited.  In the film business, people are so easily pigeon-holed for years.  I’ve talked to many people about it and some have said that they felt that after they did come out, they had a rainbow flag stamped on their forehead. 

The very fact that people feel limited as a filmmaker after coming out says it isn’t as normalized as we would like it to be.  Otherwise, there would be no stigma attached and no limitation.
Exactly.  Not having Joel Schumacher in the book was sad because he is a competent director and everyone knows he’s gay.  He makes standard Hollywood films that make lots of money.  I think he has done a lot for the gay community even though he doesn’t want to acknowledge it.

One of the approaches I really admired about the book is that the interviews are not just about queer sensibility.  You discuss at length each director’s body of work, different experiences while shooting, reactions to their films, criticism.  Considering it’s a book of interviews with gay filmmakers, you certainly didn’t limit yourself to discussing gay issues.
I wanted each chapter to be a tribute to that filmmaker and to do that we had to delve into their work in addition to discussing their politics and queer sensibility.  I always wanted the book to have a filmography that people could reference because, while some of the subjects are quite prominent, many are not.  For instance, Janis Cole and Holly Dale, a lesbian filmmaker team, people don’t see their work and what they were doing was really important.  They were talking to women who were really marginalized at a time when people just weren’t doing that.  They were giving voice to people when no one else would. 

The filmography is staggering; I have a lot of ground to cover myself.  As a film critic though, you can’t possibly have enjoyed all of the films you referenced.  When you’re interviewing your subjects, how do you mask your feelings about their work?
So much of film criticism is being a consumer advocate and to talk about what you like.  Academia though doesn’t stress the thumbs up/thumbs down approach.  It’s not at all about what’s good and what isn’t.  Genre analysis is about why something is popular and what it’s tapping into in the social arena.  Personal opinion is often frowned upon in academia.  Most of the filmmakers though, I chose to talk to because I do genuinely like their work.

And how does it feel to have the critical eye turned inward?
It does feel strange.  I completely lucked out though because there weren’t really any negative reviews.  People had negative things to say but they all seemed fair to me.  I think if I had been slammed, it would have been much harder.  It’s funny because when you get good reviews, you think that guy really knows what he’s talking about but when you get bad reviews, you think what a fuckwit.  I have to say I’ve just been bowled over with some very nice reviews.

Brokeback Mountain

Every now and then, the critics agree on something.  One film most critics agreed on that is mentioned numerous times throughout your interviews is “Brokeback Mountain”.  It seems as though your subjects, regardless of whether they liked the film or not, agree that the production and its reception will have an impact on gay cinema.  What they can’t seem to pinpoint is what exactly that impact will be and whether it will be good or bad in the long term. ttttttttttttttt I think it almost certainly has to be a good one.  Whenever something like Brokeback comes along, something people see as a real landmark, I’m always intrigued by what’s next.  And in fact, nothing significantly gay has come out of Hollywood since then and yet the next big thing will be two competing projects about [assassinated, openly gay politician] Harvey Milk.  Hollywood is a very weird place.  On the one hand, it is one of the most liberal populations in the world.  Still, all of these people know their movie has to play in Peoria [Illinois].

In addition to “Brokeback Mountain” references, one thing that is often discussed is how the directors’ gay sensibility plays into their work.  I was wondering, how does it play into yours?
I think there is a reason why I’ve written often for the alternative press.  Over time, I’ve done a lot of writing for more mainstream publications and there’s a script, a mold you have to fill for these kinds of publications.  The alternative papers are often a lot more fun because you can just be yourself more and explore gay ideas. The mainstream press has been reluctant.  It’s something that dailies are criticized a lot for is that they’re very white and middle class.  This notion of objectivity in mainstream journalism often just means keeping different perspectives, minority perspectives, out.  That could lead to the demise of these papers as people look elsewhere to find their own press.

John Waters

Congratulations on being able to cross back and forth between those two worlds with such success and again, congratulations on putting “The View from Here” together and emalgamating two of your strongest passions.  One last thing, looking back on your own life, when did your love for film and your sexuality first converge?
When I was 18, I went to London, to the Institute of Contemporary Arts, and saw those John Waters films from the 70’s.  That had a really huge impact on me. Pink Flamingos, Female Trouble and Desperate Living – I was completely flabbergasted and blown away.  I had never seen anything like that.  They were so completely against the grain.  He was taking every Bourgeois, middle class notion of what good film was supposed to be, what good taste should constitute, he was throwing a wrench into all of that.  Very self-consciously, he was going to make an ugly film about ugly people doing fucked up things.  He didn’t care about the filmmaking rules.  It’s all the better that it’s lunatic.  I’ll always owe John Waters something.  I’ll always owe this great debt to him because he expanded my universe.

And for inspiring the birth of a great, gay writer, we too are indebted to Mr. Waters.  Matthew Hays’ The View from Here: Conversations with Gay and Lesbian Filmmakers is in stores now or

Continue Reading
You may also like...
Click to comment

More in Retro

To Top