Gay producer Theodore James
by Sawyer J. Lahr
Superheroes Premieres on HBO August 8th (check your local listings)
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Sawyer J Lahr interviewed openly gay documentary producer of the HBO Documentary Superheroes. Theodore James (I Owe USA, Wordplay, Square Roots: The Story of Sponge Bob) answered some tough questions about being an openly gay documentary producer who makes movies for everybody.
Why make I Owe USA, Wordplay, and Superheroes instead of say a coming age gay melodrama?
The reason I decided to work in documentaries and not do the gay melodrama is because I wanted there to be a way to showcase gays in a way that would get to the mainstream. Wherein Wordplay, one of the contestant we profiled, Trip Payne, was gay and we profiled him and his boyfriend. It’s always great to showcase someone within the gay community alongside someone who’s straight. It captures a wider audience - not just the gay community who is going to see a film because it’s gay themed anyway. This [Wordplay] goes to a much wider audience. The same with Superheroes. When I discovered that Zimmerman was an openly gay real life superhero and I read a quote that said I don’t do anything in costume because it’s too much like being in the closet. I said this guy seems like a really interesting character - I’ve got to include him in my film. So I try to include members from the gay community, but I don’t try to force them in. I think it’s really nice to have their presence in a very normal, mainstream kind of way. Anybody who likes superheroes is going to watch the film, but the gay melodramas - it’s a very small audience.
James paused to talk about his upcoming project following the Transgender community of Tennessee in the aftermath of the Duanna Johnson police brutality case.
It’s in development right now. I’m going to Memphis. I’m leaving at the end of this month to do some filming. It’s about the transgender community there and the struggles they go through with a backdrop on Duanna Johnson. She was a transgender arrested for prostitution back in 2008 and was brought in to the police station where she was beaten by one of police offers for not going over to get her fingerprints. He [the police officer] called her he-she and faggot, and she was just like “I’m not going to go over there until you call my Grandma Dee,” and he [the officer] forcibly attacked her with metal handcuffs, pepper-sprayed her, and it was really terrible. The footage was leaked to the media in 2008 and became this huge sensation, and the two cops were eventually both fired. Then she was murdered six months later very mysteriously, and it’s a cold case now. So I am trying to do some more gay themed pieces.
Is a gay superhero any different from a straight superhero?
There’s no difference whatsoever. You would never know that Zimmer was gay unless he said. He is proud to be who he is. There really is no difference between him and other superheroes. There are big differences between real life superheroes in general, but nothing that separates him from any of them because he’s gay.
How do you see yourself among other documentary producers and other queer filmmakers in the fiction realm as well?
I’ve never really thought of myself of as a queer filmmaker. I mean, I am, but I’ve always thought of myself as a documentary filmmaker. Just because I happen to be also gay - it doesn’t carry over to my work unless it fits to the subject when it makes sense to include, but I’ve never really looked at myself and thought I was a queer filmmaker. Eventually, I want to get into narrative films. I would like to continue to make mainstream films that include some sort of character or gay theme, but I don’t think I’ll ever make a film that’s specifically marketed to the gay community. I don’t think it’s where my interests lie. I would much rather make a big film that a lot of people see but also has positive gay messages. The main characters may not be gay, but there are some stories that include that and are seen by a larger audience. Hopefully by doing that, it’s showing that it’s normal in the film and it slowly changes reception in different parts of America.
Who would you name as significant queer filmmakers or filmmakers in general as your influences?
I don’t really watch too many gay films. I don’t know of anyone off hand, but I’m sure they do terrific work. The whole reason I discovered the love of film was watching Jurassic Park. I think I was 10 or 11 when that came out and I knew ever since then that this is what I wanted to do. It wasn’t until I moved to LA that I realized that documentary films were more interesting to make because you have the power to spotlight an issue that gets hardly any attention or no one really knows about and get it out there to the mainstream. There are so many people I look up to in the documentary world. Morgan Spurlock is a huge influence and so is Errol Morris - two really terrific filmmakers I admire and look-up to and respect the work they do that I try to emulate in some way.
When I look at gay documentary filmmakers, I don’t see many films in their filmography. I think it’s wonderful you found a way to integrate gay people and gay subject matter into your documentaries without relegating them to gay topics.
Thank you. That’s definitely something I’ve spent a long time to figure how to do in the right way.
Sawyer J. Lahr is Chief Editor of the forthcoming online publication, Go Over the Rainbow. He also writes a monthly film column for Mindful Metropolis, a conscious living magazine in Chicago, IL.
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