Bo McGuire on Tending to the Inflamed Passions of “Socks on Fire”

This past spring, Bo McGuire found himself at a dairy farm in Savannah, Georgia, hardly the most unusual place that “Socks on Fire” has taken him, but still largely uncharted territory for what he was about to do. After waiting a year and change to unveil his deeply personal debut feature, an alternately enchanting, playful and moving account of the discord that erupted in his family upon the death of his grandmother and his aunt Sharon’s efforts to block his uncle John from being a beneficiary because of his sexual orientation, the director wasn’t about to let the film slip off quietly into the night, instead seeing an opportunity to give an audience the same kind of emotional release as he would experience following a year in quarantine, staging premieres in towns that might not typically have the opportunity to see the film on the big screen and engaging local drag performers to strut their stuff before the show.

“I’ll never forget the first time I heard a gaggle of southern queers laugh at Chuck Duck’s performance of Aunt Sharon, and it’s something I knew that I had faith would happen,” said McGuire, on the eve of the film’s Los Angeles premiere at Outfest. “It’s such a blessed assurance to have it out in the world and have people respond and to see the power of queer individuals in rural places. I looked up at one point in Savannah and there were two people in that audience, and when I looked down and looked back up, there were 30 people, so it’s a testament to the magic of this film and the world we wanted to create.”

As much as McGuire has taken pleasure in creating one-of-a-kind experiences around “Socks on Fire,” he can take comfort in having made something that can travel far and wide through time and space, both intimate and inviting as only those in the great tradition of mellifluous Southern storytelling can spin a yarn. Making no secret of his own queerness as he makes his way back to Gadsen, Alabama in consistently flamboyant attire, McGuire attempts to find his footing on once-familiar soil after his aunt’s treatment of the brothers she was once so close to has shaken him to his core, particularly perplexed by her change of heart when he was raised to think love was bountiful among the women around him, and when this reality comes into question, the filmmaker begins to blend in recreations with Aunt Sharon played by various actors (Chuck Duck and Odessa Young) with present-day interviews from family members and former teachers to interrogate a community where memories are different from person to person and subject to change over time, much as certain aspects are clung onto tightly.

It’s only fitting that McGuire embraces certain narrative totems of Southern culture while breaking free of others as his Uncle John’s excommunication from the family begins to look like an escape and “Socks on Fire” manages to be both a celebration of how communities offer care for one another and the ability to step outside of them to see how they can do better. With the film now on the road with the “Uncle John’s Traveling Salvation Show” (with a list of tour dates updated here), McGuire spoke about how he turned a story of internal turmoil into such an exuberant reflection on all the things he loves so deeply, the influence of music videos and poetry on his filmmaking and the surprises that were in store for him as he plunged into his family’s history.

Is it true this all came about because you had to use some equipment before you graduated from NYU?

Yeah, I was hanging around at NYU and had a narrative script I wanted to film, but absolutely no money and I was just being stubborn as I’m wont to do sometimes and I was like, “No, I’m going to stick around this program until I find some money” and they were like, “Bo, you have to use this equipment and graduate or we’re going to graduate you without using the equipment.” I knew this drama was unfolding in my family and my friend Ruthie, who’s a native New Yorker, had come down to Alabama to visit Uncle John. Just in that meeting [where] he took her through the house and pulling all these objects that had belonged to my grandmother, [I thought] “This needs to be filmed.” Even though Uncle John is a character in my narrative script, no one’s going to be more Uncle John than this right here, so that trip brought it to life for me and I saw what was possible. And then NYU putting on the pressure, which they’re really good at, made me think, “I’m going to take this equipment to Alabama and see what the hell happens.”

You’ve described the initial short like a fever dream – did it give you an idea of what form you wanted the feature to take?

Yeah, and more than that, it showed us where the holes were and what could be added. A lot of the initial short was more impressionistic. I had just watched Beyonce’s “Lemonade” when we went down there and I remember one time there’s that shot with all the ladies in the field and my cinematographer Matt [Clegg] was like, “this kind of looks like a music video.” And I said, “Matt, this is a music video, the whole damn thing. We’re just writing a different kind of music.”

That’s interesting when I’ve heard, for instance, that the opening scene had a Reba McIntire video [“Fancy,” a cover of the Bobbie Gentry song] as a reference…

Yeah, I think where a lot of people were figuring out what life was about on MTV, I was figuring it out on CMT. I was addicted to Country Music Television and the videos of the 1990s, of Reba and Garth, all these powerhouses of country at that time. It was the first time I saw the landscape I was in, and the characters that I knew were embedded in the landscape like Reba as Fancy Rae Baker in that music video, so I think that’s where my visual imagination first took root as a Southern storyteller. It was the first time I saw what was at my disposal and my backyard put to work in a narrative film way.

Was it inevitable that you’d appear on screen as a guide to tell this story?

I guess it was because there were a lot of times where I was like, “I don’t know what the hell we’re going to do. We have this location…” But I would just come through in a blue suit and a cigarette and see what happens, and that evolved into probably the second day of filming when we happened to be outside at magic hour in some really beautiful landscape and Matt was just like, “Go over there and tell me your favorite family story about…” I can’t even remember what it was about. But it became a tradition at the end of the day that whenever we were filming that we would just set up shop and I would tell a story. So I think it was inevitable.

I resisted being a prominent focus for a while through voiceover and actually appearing on film, but two very wise women have brought up the point that I’m not afraid to implicate myself in the work. I didn’t realize that’s what I was doing, but it’s inevitable that the story I wanted to tell involved implicating myself as a narrator, so it would be inevitable I would show up in the movie in physical form.

When this is ultimately a celebration of the wise women in your life, did you know it would be that from the start?

Yeah, I say this in the movie that I really set out to make a film that captured every person or place I was scared of losing through time. An impetus of the film is I never sat down and interviewed Nanny — I never got a chance to put her in my footage, in my camera and it’s also just the way I work. I have very wonderful men in life – my father, my uncle and my grandfather being some of them — but I feel led by women. It’s just how I was brought up, so that coupled with the fact that I really wanted this to be a record of the imaginative power I found in who Nanny was and who she taught me to be I felt was really what was leading the film.

I wanted to get as many of those women who I see reflections of Nanny in them and reflections of them in Nanny and it’s all being part of a place that is not always loving and lovely to really strongly opinionated people who think differently. It was inevitable that I’d want to sit with Miss Walton, who was my sixth grade teacher, and I don’t know that it was conscious to make a film about the women in my life who have informed who I am, but it was inevitable, just like me being on the damn screen. It’s just who I am.

I’m glad both those things happened. Does anything change your ideas of what this could be?

Yes, all the time, down to the damn weather. The shot of the women in the field was supposed to be shot from a bucket truck, but because it had just stormed, it wasn’t safe to bring in the bucket truck, so we had to think of another way to film that. Every person and location really informed how they wanted to be filmed and as I was looking for a solace or wisdom to wrap my head around what was happening in my family through the making of the movie, the making of the movie informed all of that, but also the way that it arranged itself.

I always think about the title of the original short “Socks on Fire: Uncle John and the Copper-Headed Water Rattlers” and I didn’t know about Copper-Headed Water Rattlers until we asked all those women to go into a field and my Home Ec teacher Miss Marbury was like, “Well, you’re going to clear out the Copper-Headed Water Rattlers.” And I’m like, “What’s that?” And she’s like, “It’s a mythical snake that you would tell people you didn’t want trollopping out in your field that existed out there, so they would be too scared to go out there.” So there’s a lot of this mythology that fits in that really just came from putting a camera in the place and trying to figure out how to film it in the way that I saw it.

Did you and Matt know from the start the reenactments would have the same visual language as the nonfiction scenes?

Yeah, it’s basically a hall of mirrors where they’re all reflecting each other, and when it would come to shoot the [recreation] scenes, I’d really rely on Matt for that. Obviously, I had my hand in everything, but I get the collaborators that I trust and get out of the way and I trusted Matt, so all of that wasn’t well thought out other than we all have good taste and aren’t afraid to go there and to be bold. But also looking through the VHS footage, Max [Allman], my editor, would find things that would line up almost perfectly with things we had already shot in the reenactments. We always say that Nanny is the silent executive producer of this film because there’s so many magic serendipities that happened along the way, so when I say it’s like a hall of mirrors, it really is hard to parse out who did what and what echoed what at what point because it all at a certain point just became a cacophony of really happy accidents that I believe are actually probably divine arrangements that I know nothing about. I was just there.

As far as the content of the reenactments, sometimes they were really brought about by the spirit of improvising with Chuck Duck, who plays Aunt Sharon, like when she calls into the radio show – that never really happened and we hadn’t planned to make that a scene, but that conversation just happened in the playfulness of me figuring out how Chuck Duck would play Aunt Sharon. Then the story about me getting tied up to a pole was never even thought about as a scene but it was just a story that would be told as we’d go from family member to family member, so eventually it wanted to be a scene and we made it a scene.

Was the notion that Aunt Sharon being played by various people immediate?

Yeah, I knew that I wanted to bring a drag element in somehow and I had asked our associate producer Billy Ray [Brewton], “Do you know any drag queens in Birmingham that would be into playing a character?” And he said, “Well, my friend Chuck Duck comes alive in drag.” That’s how that happened and beyond the drag of it all, I wanted to really mess with how characters got shaded in because none of us are exact representations of who we actually are. We are some representation of it, but it’s not a one-to-one ratio — it’s like a one-to-glitter 13 ratio of what I wanted to do, which was say that even myself as a narrator, I’m more than one thing. I’m the grandson in this situation, but I’m also the narrator, I’m also the director, so I’m pulling all the strings and when you bring in Uncle John to tell the story about what happened to him, it’s all coming through him, but he’s also many different shades of a person. Aunt Sharon is many different shades of a person. She is both my hero and my villain and that’s the complicated contradiction I wanted to hold in this film, so it led me to be playful in how I painted people physically.

The rhythm of this is pretty hypnotic and after learning of your background as a poet, I wondered if the idea of phrasing influenced how you structured this?

I always said it should move like a poem or how I think of a poem moving, which is a lot like how Nanny would tell a story, which is in a million directions all at once, assuming you already knew all the characters even if you did not know any of them. But because she was the speaker and she had such an entrancing voice — and this carries into how I think about a poem working — you didn’t need it all to make sense to be changed by it or to understand what she was talking about to get the gist. The rhythm of “Socks on Fire” is really relying on the rhythm and the lyricism over the exact sense or an A-B-C logic. It’s really held together in the silvery glittery strings that I’m stringing along in my mind — in my queer imagination — that holds them together in the way I see that makes sense for me., so what I brought from poetry was this leaning on lyricism as opposed to sense in meaning. We always rely on the rhyme over reason.

When the intention was to preserve these memories, what’s it like to have this as a finished product?

I really love it. I count it as a jewel and not only is it a record of the past, but it’s very much a record of the making. I see all the roadblocks that we levitated across and all the attempts at wanting to do something bold and new — I see all of that as part of the legacy now too and out of the old family that was in ashes, we really brought in a new family around this film. I’ve got new collaborations and friendships that extend into family now. My mother always wants to know how everybody’s doing – Max, the editor, because he came and lived in Alabama for such a long time, that’s like Mama’s other baby when it comes to this movie. She wants to know how Max is doing all the time.

What’s it like getting it out into the world?

It feels great. I feel like we were justified in waiting because we were supposed to premiere at Tribeca right as COVID was rearing her ugly head on the situation, so I really buckled in and put my foot down and was like, “I really want this movie to be shown in person, in community and I just feel like now even though things are obviously crazy and uncertain, and not completely safe, I do think we have the tools to make it a safe experience to come together now. This is why we have launched this Uncle John’s Traveling Salvation Show, which [came from thinking] about how can we harness the energy of waiting and bringing something spectacular at the end of it. We always felt like we wanted to perform the art of drag on the documentary form and now we’ve carried that over, like we’re bringing the spirit and the art of drag into distribution, whatever that means in the future. I really feel like audiences really respond to just a little something extra, and I always believe that going to the cinema should be an event, or it was an event at one point and at some point, people got used to it and it just became not the event it once was, so I thought how do you make the movie come off the screen for the people. This is just the perfect way and by the end of the pre-show, people are chomping at the bit for the film. It really is a special, magical experience and if you can, come on out to us because it’s a good time.

“Socks on Fire” will screen physically at Outfest Los Angeles at the Redcat on August 14th and virtually available from August 15th-17th. It will next play at the Sidewalk Film Festival in Birmingham at the Alabama Theater on August 28th.