Sheldon Larry has been directing since the early 70s and has worked on shows such as The Twilight Zone,Knots Landing and Doogie Howser M.D.
The Canada native’s latest project is the fresh and original Leave In On The Floor – a musical, drama for the LGBT audience.
We caught up with Sheldon to talk about the movie, find out about the impact it’s made and discuss the making of it.
How are you today? Where does this Q&A find you?
I am in Los Angeles at my home and working on my next projects which I will tell you about later. I am just back from taking my daughters off to university ( 20 year old twins, of whom I am a single dad) who has raised them from birth.
Leave It On The Floor has just been released on DVD. Tell us about the movie?
Leave It On The Floor is a spanking hot musical feature film with 11 original songs set in the contemporary ball culture of Los Angeles bursting with incredible dance numbers featuring brand new talent. The film is the 20-year passion project of mine, with an exceptional screenplay and lyrics by Glenn Gaylord; an original score by Beyonce’s creative director Kim Burse; and heart-thumping choreography by Frank Gatson Jr. – the wizard behind Beyonce’s image and music videos (including the Single Ladies phenomenon and J.Lo’s hit On the Floor). The film was shot in Los Angeles in summer 2010 with eye-popping visuals, extraordinary music, and breakout performances by a cast of unknowns who act and sing and dance. In addition, it features a song by Beyonce, and a surprise performance by the amazing R&B artist Ledisi.
Many people will remember the Jennie Livingston documentary, Paris Is Burning, that first shone a light on this vital underground sub-culture in New York some 20 years ago. This ball-scene was the inspiration for Madonna’s song “Vogue,” as well. Leave It On The Floor is set in LA’s vogueing and ball culture – still very underground but nevertheless exciting and vibrant, stylish, fierce and fabulous.
Ball scenes exist in most major urban centers in the U.S. today. Groups of young African-Americans, largely gay and trans-gendered (with some Latinos and Asians), mostly runaways and throwaways, victims of rejection, bullying, violence and homelessness, come together below the radar to create innovative music, dance, theater, design and, most importantly, community.
Leave It On The Floor tells the story of an outsider, Brad, who has been thrown out of his own dysfunctional family onto the mean streets in LA because he is gay. By chance, like Alice down the rabbit hole, he stumbles into a ball – a startling underground scene populated by a ragtag assortment of strays. Brad’s journey is the journey of the film to where he ultimately finds home, love and acceptance in this new and most unlikely of places.
The score is an impressive mix of hip-hop, techno and house and gives the entire film its heart-pumping pulse and the dance numbers and choreography bring it alive. Leave It On The Floor has been compared to other musicals such as Rent and Dreamgirls and has been called “Saturday Night Fever for the millennium.”
What attracted you to the project? How did you become involved?
My 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.
Six 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.
Cultural attitudes of the last 20 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 been strongly shaped by it. In houses with (real) ball names like House of Chanel, Allure, Glamazonians, Xtravaganza, Balenciaga, 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. It is 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.
Tell us about the casting process. How difficult was it finding the right actors for the roles?
The casting process took about four months. We wanted to open the roles to any ball member who wanted to audition as well as any other performer who was intrigued by the production to come and meet us. The actors come from different places. Phillip Evelyn is an exBall kid from Atlanta who has walked face in New York for his House of Comme des Garcons; Miss Barbie-Q is a drag performer in the LA Club scene. Ephraim Sykes is an ex Alvin Ailey dancer who has been performing non-stop on Broadway. So the performers come from all different places. It was a challenge to find them all and talented performers who could act and sing and dance. But there is such amazing talent out there, particularly in the African American community that never sees enough opportunity in mainstream casting and yet are so deserving of our time and praise.
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 filmmakers. Others and myself made Leave It On The Floor in a 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 hard-nosed 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 USC 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.
The film carries an important message whilst also being colourful and fun. What did you do to balance all the different elements of the story?
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. 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 down-low 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 the film 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 re-united with their birth families in a church setting. 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. Sadly, 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.
I wanted to make the film a celebration of the extraordinary talent, and heroism of these kids. And to take kids who are on the margins of society ( to be black, gay, and transgendered is
Tell us about your directing style. Are you very hands on or do you allow your actors to improvise?
I walk into production with a finished script and a shooting plan for each day. This ambitious project was shot in only four weeks, an insanely brief amount of time to gt what I needed. But I’ve ben making films for 30 years, beginning my career at the BBC. I like to shoot the script and then will let my actors go. What was challenging here was working with actors of varying experience and styles and to try to shape them into an ensemble and a family. It was hard work, but always exciting and wonderful work.
What are you favourite memories from the shoot?
James Alsop who plays Eppie Dural with her baby bump always kept me laughing. In one scene, at the end, the lights in the room were supposed to be turned off by her. But they had not put a dummy switch on the wall, so she independently worked it out without my knowing. She just clapped and the electricians pulled the cable. There is a ludicrous commercial for The Clapper…where if you clap the lights would go out. None of the rest of us were expecting it and it ruined the take because the entire crew began to howl.
What is the one thing you hope viewers take away from Leave It On The Floor?
I want people to take away a great delight and appreciation of the talent, bravery, creativity and joy of these kids, who are tragically thrown away by their families, or who runaway from violence they find there. Rejected by their own families they build their own family and supporting world and who are uniquely, and yet, unrecognizably the creators of so much of the popular culture. I want audiences to celebrate them for their great heart.
The film has made quite an impact. How do you feel about the acclaim it’s received?
Getting the word out about these kids fills me with such joy. It;s been moving to get so much positive feedback, particularly from kids who see themselves up on the screen and may find something in their own lives to really celebrate.
What else is coming up for you this year?
I am working on a new feature film, a comedy, called Beautiful Lady which we are in the throes of casting right now, and plans are afoot to mount Leave It On The Floor on stage as a stage musical in the West End. I am blissfully happy and so thrilled at the growing recognition of the film and I get tobask in that.
Leave It On The Floor is available on DVD now through Peccadillo Pictures.