Tough, but diva fabulous, Leo, an aspiring drag superstar, is stuck working in a fish cannery in Alaska. He and his twin sister are trapped in the monotony of fist fights and fish guts. Out of necessity, Leo learned to fight back, which catches the attention of the local boxing coach. When a new boy moves to town and wants to be his sparring partner, Leo has to face the real reason he's stuck in Alaska.
Interview with Writer/Director Shaz Bennett
Why did you make your film?
I wanted to explore gender and the labels of masculine and feminine — and why is one considered stronger or more powerful. Femininity is not a bad thing. A lot of the movie was coming from that. I wanted to explore the time in someone’s life where they don’t even know what their sexuality is, but people are defining them for how they present themselves on the outside. I grew up with four brothers, played basketball, and was more of a tomboy. I remember being told I was in the wrong bathroom when I was a kid.
I love the power of drag -– there’s great strength and energy in tapping into and subverting the norms. Leo is just learning to harness that power. I wanted to explore the collision of gender and the pageantry of boxers and drag queens.
Alaska seemed like the perfect setting for the film, I spent a summer working in a fish cannery and Alaska is surreal and intense with the ethereal Northern Lights painting the sky, in stark contrast to the monotony of cannery life and the violence of isolation, where standing out in a crowd isn’t a good thing. I dove into the moments of where and how those worlds collide, intertwine and break away – the gay and the straight, the masculine and feminine, violence and non-violence, harsh reality and escapist fantasy.
I fell for an ad that said you’ll make $50,000 in a summer. What I ended up doing was slicing and processing fish in a cannery, being paid minimum wage for a really horrible job. I think I responded to being in a small town that’s so gorgeous and beautiful and there’s such incredible ethereal beauty in landscape, but the people there can be unforgiving, and if you stand out in the crowd you can kind of be “other-iced.”
Experiencing that was sort of the beginning of the film. There was one gay bar we would go, and the bartender was like Margaret Cho (thank god she agreed to be in the film cuz I can’t imagine anyone else in that roll). It really felt like living on the edge of the world, especially.
It all started from my own daydreams – while working in a cannery. I grew up a mutt in Salt Lake City, Utah. I felt trapped and dreamed of living in Paris in the 20s or PARIS IS BURNING – somewhere else. Leo is very much me. But so are all the characters. I think we all can relate to the daily struggles and feeling stuck. Leo is a fighter and I like to think I am too.
I think Utah and Alaska are similar in that they’re two of the most gorgeous states — outwardly, they are stunning and truly awesome in the most literal version of that word. But they can also be a little isolating and unforgiving at times. I wanted to make a movie about this world. My experience in small towns is, people just don’t talk about stuff like that. I wanted to play around with what’s spoken and unspoken.
Imagine I’m a member of the audience. Why should I watch this film?
Well, you’re already in the audience so you might as well watch it! Ha.
No seriously, the acting and the gorgeous cinematography really stand out — it’s a sweet family story about a fighter who never gives up. It’s a fish out of water story literally. Half Grace Jones Hedwig and half Creed/Rocky.
I love watching films in a theatre. My first job was taking tickets at the Sundance Film Festival, and that job changed the trajectory of my existence.
Matt Dallas and Christopher O’Shea are the perfect compliment to Martin & Maya — the four of them were so bonded. I love all the actors, working with Jason Scott Lee, Margaret Cho, John Fleck, Kevin Daniels along with the four leads was beyond my wildest dream. Come for the actors and hopefully the story will move you!
How do personal and universal themes work in your film?
I’m drawn to and obsessed with the flamboyance and bravado of boxers and drag queens – they are the fun house mirrors of each other. One is wholly female and the other wholly male – in a way that doesn’t always exist in real life. The actors and I talked about the innate sensuality and vulnerability of two men boxing that informs the relationship of Kyle and Leo and later Declan and Leo. At its core, the film is about survival and friendship.
How have the script and film evolved over the course of their development?
I wrote the feature script first based on my experiences in Alaska and later with my drag experiences in NYC. When, I finally got out of Utah moved to NYC, I performed in a drag sister act with a 7 foot tall black drag queen. Once, after a show, walking home dressed in matching fabulous outfits – we were attacked by two homophobic jerks. I’m a pacifist and a wimp and immediately cowered but my sister was fearless – she ran straight at them throwing hard punches and they ran away. She saved me. I asked her where she learned to fight like that and she said, “A girl picks up skills along the way.”
Those memories and just imagination and writing made the original story. Fun fact the actor Kevin Daniels who plays the twin's father in the feature played Leo in the first live staged reading I did with Naked Angels. From there I got into the AFI Directing Workshop for Women and I distilled the story into a short film. I read over 150 kids to find the right Leo and found and cast Martin L. Washington Jr in the short and then when I went to make the feature he was always Leo — and he introduced me to Maya Washington aka Shameless Maya - a Youtube superstar and incredible actor.
Martin and I talked a lot about his character and Martin felt that I had written him as a young man growing up in Philadelphia, there is so much of Martin in Leo. We discovered his drag persona together, with heaps of Grace Jones and Hendrix. At its core, it’s really an origin story more than it is Hedwig, I wanted to explore the first time someone performs in front of an audience on stage. Throughout the film, Leo is drawing on that power, building inside of him. Drawing on the northern lights and memories of his mother and the strength of his sister. The core was there and in all the interactions its remained the same but its more grounde; I would say overall, once the actors came in and made the characters their own.
What type of feedback have you received so far?
We’ve won awards at Urbanworld and Chattanooga. Overall the audiences have loved it. My favorite screenings have been in small towns. On the festival circuit, I’ve been so honored to have had several audience members come up to me after and tell me it was the first time they’ve seen themselves on screen and a few even have been inspired to come out to their families and friends inspired by Leo. That just breaks my heart.
Has the feedback surprised or challenged your point of view?
It’s only been awesome! I’ve been in love with this character forever — I wrote something I would want to watch. Making the film has been unwieldy, demanding, glamtastic and wildly fulfilling – just like a day in a fish cannery.
What are you looking to achieve by having your film more visible on www.wearemovingstories.com?
I just want more people to see the film. We’re still on the festival circuit and there are so many great films out there it’s hard to break through you can follow the updated screenings at ALASKAISADRAG.com
Who do you need to come on board (producers, sales agents, buyers, distributors, film festival directors, journalists) to amplify this film’s message?
Distributors and Marketing are the next in line for our film.
What other projects are the key creatives developing or working on now?
I work in television mainly and would like to run my own show. I want to be Shonda Rhimes, Ava Duvernay, Vince Gilligan — a great creator — managing several shows and films at once.
My latest pilot was just included in the WeForShe WriteHer List — https://www.weforshe.org/2018-writeher-list
Interview: February 2018
We Are Moving Stories embraces new voices in drama, documentary, animation, TV, web series, music video, women's films, LGBTIAQ+, scifi, horror, world cinema. If you have just made a film - we'd love to hear from you. Or if you know a filmmaker - can you recommend us? More info: Carmela
ALASKA IS A DRAG
It’s like HEDWIG and ROCKY had a love child, and left him to fend for himself in Alaska.
ALASKA IS A DRAG is a Fish out of water story – literally. Our hero Leo is an aspiring superstar (Martin L. Washington Jr.) stuck working in a fish cannery in Alaska. Leo sees disco balls in the scales of the fish he slices. Everyone who slices fish all day, daydreams – Leo’s are glamtastic.
Leo and his twin sister Tristen (Maya Washington) are left to fend for themselves most of the time, they have to create their own magic, the Northern Lights follow them.
Most of the time they hang out at the one gay bar in a hundred miles, owned by their surrogate, surly mom -- Jan (Margaret Cho).
Their real mom (Nia Peeples) left years ago and their dad George (Kevin Daniels) stands on the side of the road preaching. After years of getting beat up by his former best friend, Kyle (Christopher O'Shea), Leo has learned to fight back -- his skills catch the eye of amateur boxer (Jason Scott Lee) who offers to train him to be a fighter. When a new boy in town, Declan (Matt Dallas) offers to be his sparring partner – Leo’s world turns upside down.
When Tristen enters Leo in a drag competition-- he's never performed for anyone but her -- his worlds collide -- the drag audition falls on the same day as the qualifying round for boxing and Leo has to face the real reason, he's afraid to leave Alaska.
Length: 88 MIN.
Director: Shaz Bennett
Producer: Shaz Bennett, Jean-Pierre Caner, Melanie Miller, Diane Becker
Writer: Shaz Bennett
About the writer, director and producer:
Shaz is a writer, director, storyteller. On her way to being a full time filmmaker (ALASKA IS A DRAG) and writer of television (THE GLADES, UnREAL, BOSCH) – Shaz worked in a fish cannery; bartended at a mafia bar; was a film programmer at Sundance, LA Film Festival and AFI FEST; peddled liquor undercover; developed films for actor Giancarlo Esposito; and was Cher’s stand-in for a day. Her films and performance pieces have been seen in festivals, theatres, museums and abandoned warehouses all over the United States, Mexico, Canada, South Africa and Europe. One of 8 women selected to the prestigious AFI Directing Workshop for Women, nominated as one of Fox's Top 20, Sundance Screenwriting Labs 2017 with director Crystal Moselle (THE WOLFPACK), and Fox's inaugural Franchise Directing program (DIE HARD).
Key cast: Martin L. Washington Jr, Maya Washington, Matt Dallas, Christopher O’Shea, Jason Scott Lee, Margaret Cho, Kevin Daniels, Nia Peeples, John Fleck, Adam Tomei
Looking for (producers, sales agents, buyers, distributors, film festival directors, journalists):
Social media handles:
Where can I watch it next and in the coming month? Please follow www.alaskaisadrag.com for upcoming screenings