In capturing the force of nature that is Todrick Hall, a tireless entertainer who casually mentions early on in “Behind the Curtain,” a film documenting the production of his album and accompanying stage show “Straight Outta Oz,” how it might be fun to write an entire album within 24 hours, filmmaker Katherine Wright had to be equally fast on her feet, somehow finding exactly the right place to be at any given moment. Naturally, this meant making split decisions that she never thought she’d have to make, and having a bit more impact on the direction of the story than she could’ve ever expected.
“There was actually an eight-hour period where I was either about to make a documentary about a play that didn’t quite get off the ground or I could sit there with my camera and not shoot for a few hours and help go purchase the 200 costumes that still hadn’t been bought prior to getting on the plane for the first show, so that instead it could be a documentary about a play that did in fact succeed,” Wright recalls now with a laugh.
It isn’t only the show that proves to be a major success, but “Behind the Curtain” as well, with Wright crafting a film true to its subject that is both enthralling and relentlessly energetic. The film follows Hall as he takes on his most ambitious project to date with the visual album “Straight Outta Oz,” a 16-track autobiography covering his difficult adolescence growing up as a gay, African-American boy in small-town Texas before carving out a career path in uncharted territory with the innate ability to turn any situation into a song, first gaining online fame for finding the harmony in a McDonald’s drive-thru order and becoming a semi-finalist on “American Idol” in 2009 before recording albums on his terms. (As he tells Wayne Brady, who appears in one of the videos for the album, when asked if this is his “Lemonade,” “It is, but it’s a little Kool-Aid-ish.”)
However, Wright finds a larger, compelling narrative in the 32-year-old singer/songwriter’s story as Hall grapples with the burden of not just higher expectations from his fan base, but highly specific ones after he witnesses on tour what impact he’s had on young men and women around the country who feel as lonely and isolated in who they are as he once did. With a connection to his followers that’s always on, thanks to social media, Hall has a responsibility that few artists have ever had before in its all-encompassing nature, but in rising up to the challenge in creative and deeply personal ways, reveals what a truly unique artist he is. Dynamically shot and edited entirely by Wright, “Behind the Curtain” doesn’t only draw on the considerable charisma of its lead, but creates a kineticism all its own as Hall hops around the country preparing to put the album out and eventually the performances to support it.
Shortly before “Behind the Curtain” makes its Los Angeles debut after premiering earlier this year at SXSW, Wright spoke about hitting the ground running with the project that came to her by way of Awesomeness Films’ film chief Matt Kaplan, getting such intimate access to Hall at a turning point in his career and the coincidence of making her second film about an unconventional LGBT pioneer following 2012’s “Call Me Kuchu” (co-directed by Malika Zouhali-Worrall)
Did you know what you were getting into with this? You see a glimpse of Todrick’s show “Straight Out of Oz” and then flashing the subtitle “One Month Earlier,” so it seems like it must’ve been a sprint.
In some sense yes because I had the natural arc of the actual production process of “Straight Outta Oz,” so I had at least some skeleton narrative-wise to hang the rest of the film on because I knew I was going to be filming the creation of the visual album, the staging and the choreography of the stage show and then follow him around the country on tour for the summer. But I didn’t find out who he was until the last day of May or June 1st, and [we were shooting] the entire summer- June, July and August, so it was a very quick start to the production.
Todrick mentions working 16-hour days himself. Was the camera always rolling?
It wasn’t necessarily always rolling in the sense that I’m also the editor and acutely aware of how much work you make for yourself, the more hours that you film, so I wasn’t necessarily shooting the whole time. But I was there the whole time, ready to pick up my camera when moments arose. There’s something to be said for spending a lot of time with the people so that they get to know you and you get to know them and you build an intimate bond, [which] I hope shows through in the footage [that they] forgot that the camera was there and were very comfortable around me. I really just wanted to tell [Todrick’s] story as honestly as I could in terms of getting across all the nuances of both his artistic process as well as the story of his life, which is the story that “Straight Outta Oz” tells. My only main path was just to be there for as much of it as I could.
What was it like having music as a tool to use to tell the story?
That was a really fun cinematic tool to be able to play with that I definitely hadn’t had before. I just love the quality of his music and it’s just a good way to keep up energy in your film as well, so I definitely knew I wanted to include as much of it as I could. One of the things I was most impressed by initially with Todrick’s work was his lyricism and what a nice combination of wit, intelligence, poignance and heart he manages to get across, so I knew I wanted that to be a big part of the film. But it was a challenge [as] I started to get these lyrics in so many different forms. I had him writing and recording the songs, choreographing the songs, then teaching the songs to the backup singers and of course, then I had many variations of him performing those same songs, so it was a complex puzzle to figure out when to tap into each one of those iterations of the same song in order to make the most compelling piece.
Did your own experience reflect how you wound up structuring this where first you’re confronted with the phenomenon around him and then are able to get deeper into who he is?
What that came out of, to be honest, is when I delved into his music and the lyrics, I wanted to be able to cut to the performance because that’s such a big part of what he does. That’s where he develops such a strong connection with his fans, and I couldn’t cut to performance before we got to the performance, so that’s why it’s frontended with a little bit more of the artistic process [of creating “Straight Outta Oz”]. Then we get to the first show in Vancouver, and after that, I could take a step back and get a little bit more into his backstory, as told by his lyrics, and other things that were coming up over the course of that summer.
A pivotal point in the film becomes the Orlando nightclub shooting, which Todrick has a close connection to since he spent part of his youth in Orlando. Did that open the door to broader themes than you might’ve initially expected?
It definitely did, especially because he had just written a song [“Water Gun”] about gun violence just hours prior to Christina Grimmie being shot and then made a video for that [song] just hours before the Orlando shooting. But what I didn’t know right away was that Todrick not only had a connection to Orlando, but had a connection to that very nightclub since he spent a significant amount of time at Pulse over the course of both his time living in Orlando. He would stop through there every year on tour. So that brought a whole other angle to it that was important to include, but I was very cognizant of it needing to feel warranted to the audience, and not like a cheap shot where I was trying to infuse my film with some political relevance or some dramatic tearjerk moment, but that it really was relevant to the story that was being told.
You wouldn’t want to draw a direct parallel between this and your first feature “Call Me Kuchu” because the subjects are wildly different, but I felt like making that film might’ve informed this. Did you feel that was the case?
I’m not sure. I photographed and edited both of them, so I’m sure there’s some patterns there, which isn’t terribly conscious. I’m just a little bit more freeform in that I go with what feels right instinctually, but I think one of the greatest attributes that longform documentary has is to really capture an individual and the complexities of the human experience and convey that to other people and when you talk about human rights or LGBT rights, one of the most functional ways to get across the legitimacy of someone’s human rights is to show them to be the human that they are. It’s harder to deny a person when you know them on an intimate level, and you know how their heart feels, how they are with their mother and with their best friends, and talking about their first loves. That was something I definitely wanted to do with “Call Me Kuchu” as much as “Behind the Curtain,” even though they’re quite different films in very different areas of the world.
This absolutely looks like the film you wanted to make, but I noticed Todrick, and his manager Scooter Braun, are credited as producers. Did you actually see this as a collaboration with them or were you just making your movie?
I think Todrick would be the first to say this wasn’t a collaboration at all, in the most respectful sense. He really was very gracious about this being my project and really giving me the space that I needed to gather the footage that I needed. He trusted that I knew my craft and intervened very, very little, yet was very willing to be engaged with anything I asked him to, like allowing me to film him in the shower on the second day of the shoot. [laughs] Then Awesomeness was equally great to work with. It helped that Matt Kaplan was the head of the film division and we’ve known each other for a couple decades, so he trusted me to work hard and make a product that was up to snuff. So I was very fortunate in both of those respects that I was able to make the film that I wanted and then they were also there with the resources that I needed, which was really wonderful.
You shot the film as well – were you pretty much a one-woman crew?
There was no crew at all, except for my cousin Breanne [Wright], who is a total godsend. I was sleeping in the back of the bus where the couches convert to beds all that time, so it was a super intimate production process and [Breanne] had never worked in film before, but I just knew that she was wicked smart, lickety split and enjoyable to be around and would get along with Todrick. The most hectic day [of shooting] was actually the first day [Breanne] came onboard. She had just returned from Sweden and just came from LAX to my house to start filming right away. I didn’t even have time to instruct her very much on any of the equipment she was going to be dealing with, but we just hit the ground running and that first day was 36 hours straight because that was the final day that we had in L.A. Then [it was] straight on the plane to Vancouver and the opening night of the show.
She did a wonderful job and was a big help, however, she was only there a few weeks out of a few months, so all of the time in rehearsal, it was just me.
Now that you’ve survived, what’s it been like bringing this out into the world?
It’s been so wonderful, especially because I’m super excited for Todrick’s fans to see it once it’s available in the ways that they get their media, but for the time being it’s just been at film festivals, which by and large are a pretty different demographic and it’s been so fun to watch all these people who have no idea who Todrick is come out of the theater so wowed by his messaging, his charisma and his energy. That’s just such a pleasure to see people taking a liking to him and get this strong sense of who he is and who his mother is and all of the good stuff.
Also, I’ve been surprised by how comedic people find it. I certainly find Chester [Lockhart] and Todrick and that whole group of people fantastically funny, but in these screenings, people have been laughing so much, even people who I wouldn’t normally think would necessarily get all the jokes because they’re very pop culture oriented. And on the flip side, they seem to find the more poignant moments moving, so it’s the best of both worlds. I think a lot of people don’t necessarily know who Todrick is and it’s easy to think at first glance that a music doc is just for the fans of that musician, but that’s one of the great things about this film and about Todrick in general is that he’s just really captivating to people from all walks of life.