Meet the Slamdance Filmmakers: David McMahon, Director/Producer, 'Skanks'
In the winter of 2012 a community theatre in Birmingham, Alabama mounted an original drag musical, Skanks in a One Horse Town. Skanks follows the actors and creators from rehearsal through performance, at work, at their homes, and with their families. The cast of amateur performers bond to form a family of sorts while creating an unconventional show in religion- and football-obsessed Alabama.
Documentary: How did this film come to be?
David McMahon: I saw a production of an earlier Billy Ray Brewton original play called We Three Queens a few years before Skanks came to be, and I was struck by how hilarious and irreverent it was. A friend suggested that I follow the making of one of his shows, and when I checked with Billy Ray they were just about to begin rehearsals on Skanks in a One Horse Town, their first original musical. I got very lucky with the timing, so I jumped in.
D: What in your background made you particularly suited to tell this story?
DM: I live in New York, but I grew up in Birmingham and still spend a great deal of time there. I'm fascinated by the city and its traumatic past and its contradictions. I used to be an actor, and I did community theater in Birmingham through my adolescence. I'm grateful for the safe, open-minded world that community theater provided me when I was young. I tried to enter into the process without an agenda, but in some way I guess I wanted to pay tribute to that experience in my youth. And I'm also a huge Alabama football fan!
D: Did you have other documentaries-or narratives-in mind as you started the film, and did that change over production and post-production processes?
DM: My editor, Brendan Reed, my director of photography, Cameron Cardwell, and I looked especially at some of the DA Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus films: Moon Over Broadway and Company: Original Cast Album. Brendan and I were lucky enough to see Jane at Film Forum last winter and to hear Pennebaker and Albert Maysles speak, which was great. I also told my DP to check out Gimme Shelter and a few other concert films for the look of the film.
Both Spellbound and a film called Sounds Like Teen Spirit, about the junior version of the Eurovision contest, were inspiring in their ability to humanize the characters circling around an event, which is something that we wanted to do with the Skanks cast.
And of course Waiting for Guffman, which I love, was on our minds. As we edited Skanks it became clear that we were in some way trying to defy the Guffman-esque expectations people have of community theater.
D: Was there anything about the story that surprised you along the way or did things roll along as expected?
DM: What surprised me the most was the strong community that the people in the play had built, and the similarity of their stories. Many of the performers were from conservative or evangelical families and the theater provided them a safe, supportive place that wasn't always available to them in the church.
At the same time I was surprised by the conflict that some of those families were experiencing. I think it is easy to dehumanize people that think differently from you. But when I talked to Gail Keith, Chuck Duck's mother, I was struck by her torment, her genuine pain over her sons' homosexuality and its conflict with her religious beliefs.
I was also surprised at how funny the people were. I have hours that we had to cut that are a riot.
D: Did you know the characters before you started shooting?
DM: I knew Billy Ray. We had worked together at Birmingham Shout, which is the LGBT film festival in Birmingham. A few of the others I had seen in plays around town, but I did not know them. But they were all wonderfully open to me and my crew, and we since have become friends. Several of the Skanks, so to speak, will attend the premiere at Slamdance.
D: Do you think that your film will lead to Skanks on Broadway?
DM: How I wish! Skanks in a One Horse Town is perhaps a little too out there for Broadway, but I think it would flourish Off-Broadway or Off-Off-Broadway. The play itself was anarchy, and a delight.
D: What else can you share about the production?
DM: I tried to use as much local talent as I could. The crew across the board was Birmingham-based, as is Flannery Hooks, who is a character in Skanks and composed the original music for the film. I was pumped to be able to find such a depth of talent in Birmingham. A special thanks should go to Alan Oxman, one of our producers. Alan gave us great feedback on the film and really helped us to sharpen it.
Michael Galinsky is partners with Suki Hawley and David Bellinson in the award-winning production studio Rumur. Their film Who Took Johnny premiered at Slamdance. They are currently working on a film about the connection between stress and pain.