Director Georden West Speaks on Lady Bunny-Starring ‘Playland,’ a Daring Homage to Boston’s Queer Scene

Having its world premiere at the Intl. Film Festival Rotterdam, Georden West’s directorial debut “Playland” is an interdisciplinary film about the titular establishment, Boston’s oldest gay bar. “I was volunteering at an MIT event, like an archive hackathon, and I learned about People Before Highways, which was a grassroots movement against urban renewal and the construction of a highway through the middle of Boston, and they were successful,” says West of how they first came across the bones for the film. “I think it is a story of what happens when government intervention is very successful in a fringe subculture in erasing it. So I became quite impassioned, and that’s what led me initially to the archive to dig at the history project.”

Commenting on the ensemble-based format of the film, West says they were “interested in something that was polyphonic. Following a single protagonist through an overarching conflict didn’t really apply to this reality. I thought a lot about Emily Dickinson saying, ‘tell all the truth but tell it slant,’ thinking about what’s real or what’s not real in regards to who gets preserved and who doesn’t.”

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“Playland” (Courtesy of IFFR)

The film’s eclectic cast includes Danielle Cooper (“Pose”), and iconic drag queen Lady Bunny. “I think we had the opportunity to cast a pretty wide net because we weren’t looking for actors. We were looking for queer talent. It was a very interdisciplinary casting approach. Miranda is a dancer, and Jose is really involved in the ballroom scene. And Bunny, of course, is a very prominent figure in regard to moving image history and contemporary art.”

“What’s really wild is I didn’t really think about it,” said West when asked if they thought of how Lady Bunny would draw attention to their film. “I was just really excited to work with this icon. And, you know, she shared with me that she grew up in the theater performing. So that was the most exciting part for me, getting to work with a seasoned performer and be up to the challenge and really having to adapt and push myself to keep up with Bunny. That was something that really excited me as a director. I am, of course, also super excited about people who otherwise wouldn’t go see a film like this.”

Mixing music, dance, archival footage, opera and more, “Playland” is a sensorial experience that greatly benefits from its inventive work of costume and production design. Edwin Mohney, a costume designer who has worked with the likes of Beyoncé and Mary J. Blige, was the first name West attached to the project. “By looking at the work of Derek Jarman, loving Sally Potter and being enamoured with Peter Greenaway, [I know that] costume says so much. Also, the sartorial elements of what queer culture contains were really vital for the film, and kind of capturing that sort of subculture through garments was something that was very important to me. What Edwin does really, really well, is building things that stand the test of time and are still culturally relevant.”

Georden West (Courtesy of Georden West)

Despite struggling with a tight production schedule (the film was shot in a swift eight days), and a long-gestating editing process (it was edited in a less swift eight months), West says the biggest hurdle they faced with “Playland” was “wanting to do right by people who aren’t here anymore. And people who can still remember a time that has been erased, especially as they enter their twilight years.”

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It is clear how much weight West places on faithfully capturing a community that has often been marginalized. Queerness is at the center of the director’s possible next project, too — the filmmaker and “Playland” producer Russell Sheaffer have already optioned the rights to Sassafras Lowrey’s “Lost Boi,” labeled as a “queer punk reimagining of the classic Peter Pan story.” Another possible project on the horizon is a film loosely based on the history of Trinidad, Colorado, a city described by West as “the sex change capital of the world up through the end of the 20th century.” Still, despite broadening their cinematic horizons, the director’s curiosity for the capital of Massachusetts remains well alive: “I don’t think I’m done with Boston yet. There’s a lot there.”

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