“Well, if hiding who you are isn’t making you happy, then why not try living your truth?”
That’s a line from Auburn-based director Elmer J. Howard’s newest short film, “Kings & Queens,” shot over this past pandemic year at various locations in Portland, including historic Chapman House, Little Ghost vintage clothing store and, most pivotally to the half-hour film’s story, Blackstones (technically, a deft doubling act from the legendary Maine gay bar and the under-new-management Geno’s Rock Club).
The story of Lucy (Emily Kokido), an outwardly shy gay woman couch-surfing in Portland after a breakup, “Kings & Queens” is about finding some inner peace by being courageous about who you are. As the wary but broke Lucy wheedles her way into a job at Blackstones (interiors courtesy of Geno’s), she becomes intrigued by the club’s successful weekly drag nights, where people of all genders live out their most glamorous and uninhibited selves in front of a supportive crowd, finally leading her to embrace her own inner “drag king.”
Howard’s film (written by Melissa Martin, who plays the Blackstones barkeep-with-a-heart, Nikki) has followed in the footsteps of the filmmaker’s previous short, the LGBTQ-themed “Loving Martin,” in racking up a trophy case’s worth of film festival awards. It recently took home best LGBTQ film, best first-time screenwriter, and best supporting actress and actor awards (the latter for Portland’s own Thomas Smallwood) at the Vegas Movie Awards indie fest, to go with some dozen (and counting) more honors “Kings & Queens” has received.
It’s not hard to see why. Crisply shot (credit to cinematographer Brett Bays), packed with Francis Snyder’s bracing score, brimming with uplift, and energetically and honestly performed by a cast including members of Maine’s real drag community, “Kings & Queens” is the feel-good, find-yourself movie everybody could really use right about now. Says Howard of his heroine’s journey of cross-dressing self-discovery, “We wanted to get across that you can be your authentic self. Don’t be afraid, hiding and playing a role because you don’t want to rock the boat with the people in your life.” Indeed, one of the most interesting parts of the film is how, even for out gay people (like Howard, who identifies as both queer and pan), there’s too often pressure to remain in certain, expected boxes.
For the Maine-raised Howard, his own filmmaking journey has seen him change course multiple times. Noting that he wanted to be an actor before deciding that storytelling was his real love, the filmmaker (and professional bookkeeper, a day job that’s especially handy for an indie director) followed his passion, as many Maine movie types do, to California. Working craft services on big movie sets (you can spot him as an extra in Robin Williams’ “Flubber” if you look really hard) led to his own filmmaking journey, which took him back to Maine, out to the indie film hotspot (no really) that is Phoenix and then, finally, back home to Auburn. Says Howard of his thriving Thrive Productions, “I want to make movies – and make a movie studio – here.”
Noting the tremendous support of so many filmmaking professionals in the Maine film community (and the invaluable assistance of new Geno’s owner Carl Currie, who threw open the Portland rock institution as “Kings & Queens’s” primary set), Howard yet admits that making a low budget film during pandemic conditions was an even tougher prospect than usual. The “hidden blessing” of getting Geno’s spacious environs to double for the cramped Blackstones (where Maine drag performers are often dressing “in a closet” by the ice machine) was offset by the myriad new challenges safe and responsible pandemic filming brings.
Noting that everyone on set had to sign a rigorous, three-page document concerning social distancing and other protocols, Howard is proud that “Kings & Queens” did things the right way. (He does admit that he had to fire someone midway through production, but, hey, that’s why you do things the right way.) Explaining that Melissa Martin’s script and his own experience in the LGBTQ community were ready for the task of telling the film’s story, he yet sought out local drag kings and queens (including co-stars Cherry Lemonade, Lou Zer and Gigi Gabor) to lend the project the necessary fidelity to the true drag experience. “I wanted it to be as authentic as possible,” said Howard.
As for Maine moviegoers looking to see “Kings & Queens,” well, let’s all practice some of that pandemic patience we’ve been cultivating over the past year, as film festival and eventual distribution rules mean that Howard’s movie won’t be viewable by the general public for a while. That said, Howard suggests that the curious seek out the film’s Facebook page for details on “Kings and Queens”’ upcoming, sure-to-be-lauded virtual festival bookings to come, and to watch out for more news about Thrive Productions’ future, Maine-made projects.
Dennis Perkins is a freelance writer who lives in Auburn with his wife and cat.