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Raindance: ‘Thirsty’ Director Margo Pelletier on Gender Identity, ‘Post-Queer’ Cinema and the Search for Cher

Director Margo Pelletier’s musical biopic tells the story of Provincetown Cher impersonator Thirsty Burlington, AKA Scott Townsend

LONDON – Margo Pelletier’s “Thirsty,” her first narrative feature after the 2009 documentary “Freeing Silvia Baraldini,” arrives at the Raindance Film Festival within weeks of winning the Audience Award at the Harlem Film Festival. It’s not hard to see the film’s appeal; riffing on musicals as diverse as “West Side Story,” the series “Glee” and John Cameron Mitchell’s seminal “Hedwig and the Angry Inch,” it draws on the story of Scott Townsend, an extraordinary boy from an ordinary background who grew up to be a gifted Cher impersonator.

Though it deals with some of the harsh realities surrounding sexual identity and LGBTQ issues (a “good percentage” of the cast is LGBTQ, claims the director), “Thirsty” is nevertheless an uplifting experience, an inspirational, not to mention handsomely set-dressed, story of self-invention and survival. Says Pelletier, “For as long as I can remember, I have been conscious of gender, how its assignment fits or not with our desires. I have been drawn to the people who live their lives soul-first – people who feel a need, whatever the price, to resist the prescript attached to the male and female gender.  From the moment we laid eyes on her, Thirsty just seemed like the perfect protagonist to make a film about.”

In what may be considered a first for the festival, the film’s U.K. premiere on Oct. 1 will be accompanied by a Cher lookalike contest. The winner will join Thirsty and the filmmakers for “a night on the town” following the screening….Variety talked to Margo Pelletier about “Thirsty”:

How did you first come into contact with Thirsty/Scott and what appealed to you about him?

When I first met Scott Townsend, AKA Thirsty Burlington, he was in a bomber jacket and tight jeans standing outside a club hawking a show. Lisa [Thomas, producer] and I were in Provincetown, Massachusetts, and it was off-season. The town, usually bustling with people from the gay community as well as families seeking summer excitement, was quaintly quiet. We were easy to spot and the energetic boy-man hawking the show insisted we come in. The crowd was sparse but content. Within a few minutes a gleaming figure, dressed, singing and moving like the superstar Cher marched onto a small stage. We were goners, lost in an illusion so beckoning that it fused the emotions of lust, joy and sympathy. It was sometime before we realized that this living spectacle was in fact the same person who had called us into the club. Recovering from Thirsty’s stardust, a bit dazed, we left the club. Once outside we turned to each other acknowledging that we had to do a project involving this person. Scott/Thirsty was a natural subject.

How closely is the film based on Scott’s real story?

The film is inspired by Scott’s life. Most all of events depicted in the film are events that Scott lived: the fights with his mother over her alcohol and pill use, his dumping her vodka and flushing her pills, the mother’s need to steal food to feed her three children, the violent assault by a neighbor, the neighborhood bullying, his starring in the high school productions, his trouble at restrooms, his estranged relationship with his father, his father taking Scott and his drag buddies to the gun range to teach them how to shoot, gay male boyfriends rejecting Scott based on his femininity and probably their own insecurity about their masculinity, Scott’s trying out for and winning a drag contest and it leading to a career in female impersonation, Scott/Thirsty getting fired for drinking…

Did you take any liberties?

All this said, my co-writer Laura Kelber peppered the script with dream and fantasy elements to better balance drama and humor and to reinforce the repercussions of gender identity. The fact that Scott is a gifted singer/performer allowed us to lace the film with entertainment that served to drive the themes. The artist license that we took was to our attempt to make the film an entertaining musical, one that truly sparkled and to better put forward the important issues surrounding gender to a wider audience.

Was it always your intention to make a musical?

Lisa [Thomas, producer] has always loved musicals. Our previous film was a feature documentary called, “Freeing Silvia Baraldini” on the life of former, U.S. political Silvia Baraldini, one of the activists who in the last 1970s help to free Assata Shakur from prison. We were looking for our next project to be equally important but more light-hearted in nature as well as entertaining. The fact that Scott is a Cher impersonator had a lot to do with it being a musical and of course the fact that Scott sang beautifully and is a magnetic performer. So yes, very shortly into our film’s development it was decided the film would be a musical.

Are there some original songs in the mix? If so, what were the challenges of that?

There are four original songs in the film, including the opening song, “You’re a Freak Kid” to the closing song, “All That I Am.” The entire film was additionally scored by composer Chris Anderson, a New York-based composer we have known and worked with for years in television. The original songs were written in large part out of necessity, as we could not afford to license any more pre-existing music for the film. Obviously a film about a Cher impersonator does necessitate having to license pre-existing songs from music publishing houses, so there was no getting around the music rights issues for the film entirely, but we interwove some original tunes to make the music rights overall doable.

How did you fund the movie?

We wrote several grants and became finalists a few times, but had no luck winning one prior to going into production so after a few years of this we decided not to wait for permission and Lisa and I mortgaged our home and took out a number of credit cards. This year after “Thirsty” was complete, the film was awarded a distribution grant by New York state. We also ran a successful Indiegogo campaign earlier this year to pay for the festival, musical rights for the popular tunes within the film. In short, though, we are still paying for the film and looking for a distributor to take this out far and wide.

It has a very warm feeling, almost like a ’70s sitcom, and yet it’s quite experimental in style. What were your influences?

The influence for the final script was Todd Haynes’ “I’m Not There,” one of Laura’s favorite films because of its structure and unique way of presenting a real person. John Cameron Mitchell’s “Hedwig and the Angry Inch” was certainly also a big influence.

What would you like people to take away from the film?

We want to contribute to sensitizing people to people like Scott, who are gender fluid, gay and very out. But more than that we want to inspire people to be true to themselves, to be everything they feel, to live up to the endless possibilities of the soul if this inclination is living within them.

Does Cher know about the movie?

Yes, we believe she does. Initially we had written her a cameo part in the early drafts. Perhaps naively, we thought she might want some involvement given part of the film is a homage to her. After traditional attempts at reaching her through her agent and manager we tried other means, as we did not know if Cher was being told about the project. Lisa joined – and came second in – a contest to meet Cher. It was an enormous effort and she came close, and as a result someone tipped her off on where Cher was going to be during a visit to NYC. Lisa found out that Cher would be performing at a club in New York and stood in line for hours in the rain until Cher arrived. Script in hand, Lisa eventually got into the club. At one point Cher passed by Lisa and she gave the “Thirsty” script to Cher. Cher tucked it under her arm as if she intended to keep it and got into her limo that night with it. Several days later Scott found a photo that someone had took of Cher with our script and it’s on our film’s Facebook page. We also invited her to a recent screening through her close friend Paulette.

What’s next for you?

Selling the movie and adapting the film to stage someday. We also have various scripts we are kicking around that we may want to develop.

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