Interview: Rachel Mason on a Peek Behind the Curtain of “Circus of Books”

Rebellion has been a driving force behind the art of Rachel Mason, who made the cover of the New York Times Arts section as a student at Yale with her thesis piece imagining herself with obvious disgust making out with George W. Bush in the style of the marble sculptures that lined the halls at the university, and sampled entries of Saddam Hussein’s fantastical diaries to use as lyrics for songs. It would be convenient to suggest that growing up with a stringent Jewish mother might’ve had a hand in that, but as Mason would come to learn, the apple didn’t fall too far from the tree and this revelation is what inspired the most radical thing Mason could do at this point in her career — to make “Circus of Books,” an unabashed love letter to her parents Karen and Barry, who quietly ran the legendary West Hollywood porn store that became a cornerstone to the gay community for over 30 years.

As it happens, the Masons’ stewardship of the business covers a transformative period in LGBTQ history, from the covert cruising scene of the late 1970s and early 1980s to the AIDS crisis to the gradual mainstreaming of gay culture in the 1990s, and as “Circus of Books” brings to light, the bookstore played a crucial role in providing the community with a place where they could see themselves without shame or judgment. Yet as much of a source of pride this should be for the Masons, it was something Karen and Barry could hardly talk about with their kids, who had to learn from others at their high school what their parents did for a living and continue to discover to this day as Rachel digs into their remarkable story around the time that the couple is faced with closing their doors.

The fundamental incongruity between who the Masons are and what they do would make “Circus of Books” worthwhile in and of itself, as Rachel tells the compelling story of how her parents’ desire to protect their children from the adult content they carried – and began producing themselves – may have created unintended pain inside their family, as well delivering as a deliciously entertaining counterpoint to the typical portrayals of LGBTQ activism, highlighting contributions to the cause that were more subtle than marches and rallies, but made a considerable impact, to the point where the Masons were seen as a real threat by the FBI during the Reagan Administration when the religious right grew in power. But the film is so much more simply in getting to know the unassuming Karen and Barry, who have led far more interesting lives than you’d expect or that even they’d think to mention, and Rachel passes on her own sense of revelation to an audience with great warmth and wit.

With the film now streaming on Netflix following its premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival last year, Mason spoke about how she unexpectedly ended up making such a personal film, engaging with her family under professional pretenses and the role gay porn played in giving the community confidence in themselves.

It was interesting to hear there was another director working on this with you at first. Did you want some distance?

Yeah, I didn’t want to take it all on myself and I very first started off with a co-director, Cynthia Childs, a really great documentary and reality TV show producer and director. I figured I needed somebody who knew how to do this to be there with me as I moved forward, but the story just kept getting more and more personal. Often times, it is just me and my mom in the house and I just kept having the arguments that I would have with her and the things people would say that they just wanted to direct to me and the conversations with my brothers, they just kept getting more and more personal in a way I was very uncomfortable with. And I wanted to make the definitive biopic on the Circus of Books, not the definitive biopic on Rachel Mason’s family. Yet what ended up revealing itself to me was that the film that forced itself onto me, like you have to direct this and it was very clear to everyone that that was going to make it sing. I had to direct it, I had to own it and it was the hardest thing I realized – to make something personal like this — but it is why I think the film turned out so good.

Could you relate differently to your family when you’re making a documentary about them, like it gave license to ask questions you might not have under ordinary circumstances?

Well, yes and no. Sometimes I had to not be the one doing questioning so that my mother would be more upfront in her response because growing up for so many years, she would always shield me from this, so when she would walk people through the store or talk on camera at the ANME, the sex toy festival, I actually had to hang out in the background and I had to get someone else to ask the questions – Cynthia, my co-director at the beginning, or my camerawoman Gretchen Warthen. The whole [central] interview with my parents on the couch, I had to be really cautious about and I wasn’t doing all those questions myself because being right there would’ve affected those answers. But on the flipside, sometimes I had to be the one walking right up and it was very important so people could see the dynamic that actually existed because that’s the story – how these people create this store and keep it a secret. You see my mom’s way of being with me throughout it all is part of the story, but in order to get her to tell the full story, I had to be cautious about how I was there or not there.

I also loved your presence so much in the film because you get a sense how surprising some of these revelations are to you. I’m thinking in particular of when you and your brother are talking about your mom’s journalism career. What was it like to make that connection as far as your mom creating Circus of Books?

Oh my God, it’s one of the most incredible, weird, twisted ironies that she started out in journalism and interviewed all the same people she would eventually end up having to deal with herself, including Simon Leis, a very sour, tight-lipped Republican who was saying “pornography is the opposite of family values.” She actually interviewed him in his office, in addition to Larry Flynt and Potter Stewart. She was pretty much right at the center of the fire herself with all these same people she would have to contend with later, so it’s just incredible. It was a made for a movie story.

What was it like finding out you could tell the larger story of gay culture through your parents’ story?

I knew that their store mattered for the gay community and I knew that porn mattered for the gay community in a way that was so deep and so specific — and focusing on gay men because that’s who this store was for and that’s who I saw there. It was so beautiful to me in some ways because I knew this was a group of people that had been vilified and shamed throughout this historical period in our country’s existence and [it was important] to be able to showcase the real footage of men getting shoved into paddy wagons from being pulled out of gay bars and to hear Alexei Romanoff, an elder in the community and one of the first to start the gay pride movement, to talk about that what porn meant.

I have a real love and admiration for gay porn that could be unique because I understand its significance in history. We have an idea about porn that came from the mainstream, [which] comes from thinking about straight porn, but there’s a world of difference. There’s almost nothing about gay porn that’s the same as straight porn because of what it did culturally for people who didn’t ever get to see this in the world. It validated their entire existence. I’ve had so many people come up to me, older gay men, just saying with tears in their eyes how this store and these films and magazines were life-changing and when you look at porn in this way, I look at a lot of people that publish those magazines and that were in those magazines as heroes and activists. Even though many people will say they’re just doing it for money, there’s other ways they could’ve been making money and this really is a type of activism that was so profound for so many people on a very deep level.

Was there anything that came up in the course of filming this that changed your ideas of what this could be?

Yeah, I started interviewing my brother Josh, I realized that here we are in the same family and I was basically a member of the gay community with my freak flag waving all over the place and [with] my friends being artists, the word “gay” was conservative for who my friends were – we were counter-cultural. Then my younger brother was just a shy guy who was doing everything he could to keep his head down and fit in, but he’s struggling with his own sexuality and his parents are running the biggest gay, in-your-face operation on the planet and he is in the closet. I just couldn’t believe that, so I thought that was this amazing, shocking and sad revelation that I had to rethink my own sense of “Wow, what was I doing?” I was so caught up in my own teenage stupidity that I was just ignoring my poor little brother.

What’s happened since the film has come out is so many people say that scene with Josh is the most relatable [in the film] because so many were not like me. Artists tend to be unafraid and on a maverick side of things, but most people are more like Josh and I think he and his openness to tell that story was game changing. Then my mom’s ability to tell her story and to rethink her religious values is the hidden truth of the film. It’s not really a film about gay porn, as much as I would like it to be. It ended up being a film about my family and what my mom endured with her religious training. All the things that you deal with with religious bias against LGBT people is what she overcame and she is very eloquent. I think somehow she knows religion might be wrong, but when you’re somebody that’s religious, there’s this type of thought process of [how] you believe what you believe. That is their truth, so how do you proceed if you want to be a good person, a good mother, but you’re looking at this ancient scripture and you believe it? It’s a very strange thing, but I’m really glad she’s articulate enough to focus on that and to rethink it.

What was it like showing this to your family for the first time?

I was nervous, mostly about Josh because he was the one I think had the most at stake on a personal level. I can’t even begin to say how grateful I am to him. I don’t have words really. I just feel lucky.

It’s interesting to hear you talk about the counter-cultural background you come from as an artist. I wonder with a documentary like this that comes with a certain set of rules for it to work as well as it does, was it satisfying for you to work on?

No. [laughs] I have to say it was a nightmare for me because I’m somebody that wants to do everything myself and work it all out and be in a studio and tweaking it all. But I had to give it over to an incredible editor Kathryn Robson, and I had to work collaboratively and it’s a lesson for me. As an artist, you’re often in your little isolated world and you’re working very hard, but I think that artists that reach a higher level as this film is doing for me know how to collaborate, so I am totally grateful that I was able to work with an amazing group of collaborators.

There’s a lot of talent that goes in a film and any director that takes credit for any movie is totally narcissistic. You are dependent on your team, and if anything, a director is somebody that chooses that team well if you’re making a good movie and I think I did and held the ship together, but was it satisfying in terms of how I’ve ever done anything? No. I like to write songs and perform music and that’s actually a big part of what I still like to do – that’s way more satisfying. I’ll write a song, I collaborate, I get onstage, I perform, so this to me was like the opposite, I had to hold back and do tedious stuff like calculating the budget on a spreadsheet in the hopes I had to pay for it all. [laughs]

You were able to contribute a beautiful song to the end of the film. How did that come about?

Oh my God, that was the highlight of the whole thing! [laughs] I think I was dying to write that song and when I wrote it, it completely came out of me. The song is called “Give You Everything” and if you listen to the lyrics, it’s all about the store. That was the ethos of the store was just give you everything and I actually am releasing a music video that features Peaches, a really amazing singer who has a cameo in it, it’s on Spotify and people can find it, so I’ve been getting a lot of nice feedback on that and as an artist, that’s one of my proudest personal achievements.

“Circus of Books” is now streaming on Netflix.