Interview: Shaz Bennett on the Sweet Science Behind “Alaska is a Drag”

There wouldn’t appear to be anything fabulous at first about the life Leo (Martin Washington Jr.) leads just above the 49th parallel in “Alaska is a Drag,” doing thankless work hauling fish guts out of a local cannery and taking extra shifts to help pay for treatments for his sister Tristen (Maya Washington), who is battling Hodgkin’s disease. Still, the colorful swirl of the Northern Lights above can make it seem like the ground below is a dance floor and though the local bar owner (Margaret Cho) insists her joint not exclusive to gay clientele, lest any of its patrons with few other options decide to bail, its stage belongs informally to the drag queens that can make everyone inside forget the subzero temperatures outside, with Leo getting through the day just so he can turn up the heat at night.

Of course, Leo has dreams of moving to greener pastures, but in writer/director Shaz Bennett’s rewarding drama, he’s able to find them where he can amidst the icy tundra with a rare bit of good luck arriving in Declan (Matt Dallas), a new co-worker who may have left home because of an overbearing boxing coach for a father, but whose training comes in handy when Leo wants to learn how to defend himself from the various brutes in town. The boxing lessons start to become about far more than throwing a punch when it’s revealed that both are fighting against things in their past and as “Alaska is a Drag” unfolds and Bennett shows how Leo can become his true self when performing in drag, the film peels back the layers of protection that everyone on screen has felt compelled to put on over the years when feeling like the world wouldn’t accept who they are on their own terms, exposing the beauty that lies beneath.

Both hopeful and full of fun, frisky energy, “Alaska is a Drag” offers a perfect way to ring in New Year’s, ushered onto Netflix tonight as one final end-of-the-year surprise from ARRAY Releasing and Bennett was gracious enough to take a little time out from the holidays to talk about the personal inspiration behind the film, creating an operational fish mongery from scratch and collaborating with the film’s star Washington Jr over the course of its development from a short to a feature (and perhaps even grander plans ahead).

How did this come about?

I’m from Utah originally and didn’t grow up with a lot of money. I wanted to move to New York City and become a superstar, and my friend had told me, “Oh, you can go up to Alaska and you can work in the boats and the fishing canneries. You can make $50,000.” And I was like, “That sounds great.” So we drove up there in our little RV and it was nothing as promised. It was a really horrible job. Slicing fish all day is hard labor and not glamorous in any way, but you get into this rhythm and you just start daydreaming. So many of the ideas started that summer, when I was like 18 years old and it’s been percolating in my head [since].

Then I’m always fascinated with drag queens because I think they’re feminine in a way that doesn’t even exist in real life. When I did finally raise enough money to move to New York City, I worked in a drag bar there and I ended up doing some drag with a drag queen from Alaska. Her name is Jackie D, and we did a jokey sister act. I was always fascinated by people who grow up in these real small towns and they don’t fit in, and they could be dangerous, but they also just are so fearlessly themselves in a way that I think I always aspired to have that quality, so it was a combination of some real stuff and then some fantasy, just like movies.

Boxing is such a fascinating parallel to the drag, and I don’t remember it being part of the short. How did that enter the picture?

It came from two parts. One, is that it’s for this character and for many kids in these small towns that are queer and don’t fit in, it can be quite dangerous. I remember one night I was out with my friend that I used to do the drag act with, and we were attacked by these homophobic assholes. My friend just went in punching — and I was cowering because I’m very passive — but they ran off and luckily, nothing happened to us, and my friend was just like, “Yeah, like you pick up skills along the way.” It just always stuck in my head that he had grown up in Alaska and I’m sure had lots of dangerous experiences, and you learn to fight back and stand up for yourself.

Then the other side is I just love somebody coming in like Diego and Declan, and they’re going to change this kid’s life just by supporting him and being there for him, and the coach is a fun thing to play around with. I always had a joke that boxers and drag queens are like fun house mirrors of each other — boxing is strangely the opposite of drag queens, and yet there’s this sensuality to boxing in a strange way and they’re both very flamboyant and there’s so much bravado — and I love exploring gender roles. Why is masculine considered more powerful when feminine could be equally as strong and interesting? So I was just trying to play with those themes in a gritty, fantastic place like Alaska.

It seems pretty special that Martin got to stick with this from the time you made the short in 2012 to making the feature now. Was this a real collaboration in terms of figuring the character of Leo out?

Yeah, Martin has been like my muse, my friend, and my partner from day one. When I was casting the short, I was really open to reading all genders and ethnicities and was really open to whoever walked in the door. I was reading a lot of great actors and characters, but it was a little tricky to cast because [the part requires one] to be believable as well as a boxer and a drag queen and can act. And Martin had all those skills and he kind of tracked me down on Facebook when he read the breakdown and just sent me a note saying, “I’m auditioning for you tomorrow, but you have to cast me. This is my whole life story — I’ve done drag. My dad wanted to toughen me up,” and when he came in, it was really sweet because it was just like, “Oh, there’s Leo.”

When I cast Martin in the short, there was no doubt that he was going to be in the feature, so it was always just like, when could we make the feature and how could we get it out in the world? There is a lot of Martin in it, for sure. Once we made the short film together, we were talking about “What is his drag?” [So it was figuring out] a drag origin story, and what elements does he bring to his drag? He brings the Northern Lights and his mother’s dress. We talked about Grace Jones and Bowie and Jimi Hendrix. Those were our touchstones — a lot of that was a combination of both of us, and then Martin’s this huge Mariah Carey fan, so there’s a lot of flamboyance of Mariah in there.

We also have the twin, who’s not in the short, and we were looking for someone that looks like Martin and he turned me on to Maya Washington, who’s a huge YouTube star. They share the same last name and the same ethnicity — half-Filipino and half African-American, but they’re not related, so it was just kismet.

There are a lot of wonderful match shots in this, which had to be pre-planned to some degree, but it also seems like you had a lot of scenes with spontaneous energy. Would one part of the shoot influence another as far as connecting things?

It was a combination [of planning and spontaneity], but Alison Kelly, the director of photography, and I had a pretty long prep before we had anything finalized. We would meet up and talk about influences — we talked a lot about Todd Hido for the mood of the place and Pipilotti Rist was someone we brought up a lot for the fantasy world — how all of her video art takes over the place she’s [so instead of] transporting to a stage, we wanted the stage to transport to his daydream, and we did a lot of video work that was reflecting on the walls. The production designer Michael Fitzgerald created a cannery that was not there [in reality] — it was just a empty room, and he created something that would work both for practical cannery life and it turns into disco balls and fish nets, which was just so incredible.

Then for the fights, we didn’t have stunt doubles and [the actors] are not professional fighters, so we designed a lot of the shots so that there’s always something blocking [the shot], like Kathryn Bigelow in the way that a lot of times the punches are just out of your eye, but your brain will fill it in. We plotted out a lot of that on set, and then when we went to edit, you get in there and you’re just like, “Oh, we don’t need that.” We shot it really fast because it was a low-budget movie, and there’s certain things that you go, “Oh, I think get that,” or, “I wish I got that,” but you got enough, and the actors were so good that you could just hide any little pieces that didn’t work.

And Jean-Pierre Caner, the editor who’s just amazing, was also on set, so he saw what we were doing. Some things weren’t in the script, like the mom. My mother passed away when I was really young, and they’re always there, even though they’re not, so we wanted [that character] to be very present. We only had Nia Peeples for one day, but she was amazing and we shot a lot of B roll with her, out on the river and looking at the water. I knew that all of that stuff was going to play somewhere, but it was great to see it come together in the edit because Nia was just giving us so much to work with. It’s another character in the film, even though they’re actually not physically there [in the narrative].

I can’t believe the cannery was built for the film – from the credits, it looked like you actually got a real cannery and filled it with real fishermen.

Again, some of it was the kismet of the film. We were going to shoot in Alaska, but we ended up shooting in this tiny little town in Michigan called South Haven. It’s the cutest little tourist town that Chicago people have second homes in, and the mayor of the town is actually in the movie. He’s one of the people slicing fish in the cannery, and the week before we shot, they had this big, giant fish competition, so there were hundreds of extras that are massive fishermen who wanted to come and be in the film. But the cannery itself was an empty building and I gave Michael Fitzgerald the general gist of the cannery I worked in and also what was important for the story [which was] to have this conveyor belt and an assembly line, and he created all of that by borrowing things. We went to a blueberry farm and borrowed bins and a conveyor and if you saw a before and after, you’d want to work with Michael having seen what he created.

And then we had all these fish from the week before that were caught in the competition. I just told the mayor, “If you can just put as many as you aren’t going to eat, just put them on ice.” So they had been sitting for a week in ice, and it wasn’t the most pleasant fragrance.

This may be one of the only benefits of having such a tight schedule.

That’s right. [laughs] We’re like, “When do we get to turn this into the fantasy [sequence]?”

It seems like a dream now that it’s going to be everywhere on Netflix. What’s it like to have your first feature going out into the world? Is it what you thought it would be?

It was all the things. It was incredibly hard and there were so many highs and lows, one of the highest being that Ava [DuVernay] and Tilane [Jones] and ARRAY picked it up, and it’ll be on Netflix because [after] every festival it’s played, there’s always these little queer kids that find me afterwards, and they’re like, “This is my story. Thank you so much.” So I just want as many people as possible to see it. I always say it was just one of the hardest things I’ve done and one of the things I’m most proud of. Now, my next goal is to turn it into a TV show and then a Broadway musical.

“Alaska is a Drag” will start streaming on Netflix on December 31st.