According to his Twitter page, Bo McGuire has been “putting the queer in country since 1984ever.” Now, with his feature debut “Socks on Fire,” he’s putting some much overdue queer into the documentary landscape, with an anarchic, poetic and sometimes mind-blowingly surreal memoir that rakes over the coals of a very personal family feud. At its base, there is a very simple story: once his favorite relative, McGuire’s Aunt Sharon showed her true homophobic colors after the death of her mother (McGuire’s beloved Nanny) when she tried to throw her gay brother John out of the family home.
We’re used to these powerplays in glossy American dramas, all the way from “Dallas” to “Succession,” but in McGuire’s film the setting is his modest hometown of Hokes Bluff, Alabama. The casting is unusual too, with Aunt Sharon having the unusual distinction of being played by both a woman (Odessa Young) and a man in drag (Chuck Duck)…
It’s provocative stuff, and director had hoped to get a big reaction when “Socks on Fire” was accepted by this year’s Tribeca Film Festival, but when the pandemic hit New York, all screenings had to be canceled. There was a silver lining—the jury, comprising Peter Deming, Ryan Fleck, Yance Ford, Chris Pine and Regina Scully—awarded it the top non-fiction prize, but McGuire couldn’t help but feel robbed of the audience experience.
IDFA, then, is the chance for a rebirth—the festival audiences are the first paying public anywhere in the world to see it—and McGuire has high hopes. “Like Emily Dickinson’s definition of poetry,” he says, “I hope to take the tops of their heads off! In addition to that, I’d like for them to have a good time. And beyond that, I want to offer a space in which to reimagine knee-jerk narratives about small towns, specifically the ones in the southeastern United States, and I’d like that space to simultaneously challenge ideas of what queer lives look like and where and how they happen.”
He’s also keen, as this interview shows, to throw away the map and take a drive into the dark. “I’d like for us all to get more comfortable in the permeable boundary between documentary and narrative storytelling,” he says. “I believe in the power of stories that resist that binary, that push us towards a wider spectrum of storytelling.”
His interview with Variety follows.
What was your background prior to this? Were you always a filmmaker?
The quick answer is no. My background is in poetry and the stylized gossip of Southern women, and when it came to poems I was always frustrated they couldn’t fly off the page. The longer answer is: I’ve always been a storyteller, one who will use just about anything within reach to get a good story told. Spinning a tale in moving images is just my idea of the most fun way to go about it.
Why did you decide to make “Socks on Fire”?
I made it because I had to. Spike Lee told me to do what I could afford to do and do it for my mama, so I did it for Mama and a lot of other people, including myself. Nanny’s legacy was sacred to me but as her grandchild I stood at the fringes of the actual mundane estate drama of it all. There wasn’t much I could do to help Mama and Uncle John, and I didn’t have anywhere to place my own feelings and all their contradictory streams. So I did what I do and turned to melodrama; every witness has a testimony and “Socks on Fire” is mine.
Also, simultaneously to this particular family drama, I was feeling the specific weight of losing people and places integral to my roots. I wanted to create some kind of visual record of where I come from before it wandered off and became a stranger to me.
What inspired the title?
The title itself speaks to the metaphor of airing your dirty laundry in public. I admit in the film that it’s an act Nanny loathed. Unfortunately/fortunately I’m the grandson who wore her costume jewelry and therefore I’m claiming the airing as an act of queer rebellion, transforming the inherited dirty laundry (and the shame the metaphor both implies and hides) into something new, something that sparks with flame.
Was it always a movie? Could it have been anything else, like a play or a poem?
It was always a movie, but it could’ve been a play or a poem. In fact, it’s quite possible that it already is. It is a testament to my grandmother’s way of being in the world. It is a museum curation of the people and places who created me. It is a Christmas light firework extravaganza. It is a drag show, it is a piece of folk art. It is the continuation of a legacy and it is a disruption of it, and part of its disruption is it could continue to be any number of things.
What were your influences and inspirations?
First and foremost and always, Dolly Parton. I think Dolly holds a vision for Southern storytellers closest to the work I want to do. Watching live performances of Patti Labelle was also huge in the making of “Socks on Fire.” Anytime we wondered where our spiritual bar was, we’d watch Patti sing her heart out. The podcast “S-Town” planted a kernel because it illuminated how all of the South’s complexities could shine through just by letting the voices of a place speak. Beyoncé’s “Lemonade” was also an early inspiration; I saw how images and movements, if rhymed in the right way, could tell a deep and layered narrative all on their own. When we first started the edit, I introduced my editor and co-writer, Max Allman, to “Rupaul’s Drag Race,” and we often watched episodes together at the end of our work days. I think the possibility found in that show—the possibility of drag in general—really allowed us to be bold in our approach, and it reminded us to maintain a sense of play and creativity in the edit. And we always call Ross McElwee’s [1986 film] “Sherman’s March” the grandfather of “Socks on Fire”; we’re just the descendants dressed in rhinestones.
Did anybody – family or otherwise – try to talk you out of it?
Not once. Everyone involved with “Socks on Fire,” at all levels, came to the film in the spirit of curiosity and wonder. We’ve always tried to ease off the pressure of creating and lean into the adventure of it. That was our foremost operating principle from the beginning and throughout. And besides all that, I’m a Taurean only child; I don’t think anyone would’ve bothered wasting their breath.
How did you find your (non-family) cast, and how did you get them on board?
Good friends and good luck. Both Chuck Duck, who portrays Aunt Sharon, and Carron Clark, who plays Nanny, are Alabama actors one of our associate producers knew. I cast both of them on my gut and they each enriched the recreations with a specific Alabama flair. Uncle Sonny and Young Aunt Sharon are played by Michael Patrick Nicholson and Odessa Young respectively, two friends I’d follow into any dark holler, who also happen to be brilliant actors. And young me is played by the daughter of a family Mama cleans house for. I don’t think she had any experience acting, but I knew by her quick, deadpan comebacks and heavy eye-rolls, she’d make a perfect younger me. I got everyone on board by asking nicely and promising them a damn good time and Waffle House.
Was there a script or did you freeform?
There was an initial script—basically a list of images from family memories or imagined scenes featuring people and locations I wanted to capture. That was our original map but almost immediately the film began to write parts of itself alongside us. Stories would be revealed by traveling to one place and those stories would invite other recreations that needed to be written. Instead of writing dialogue to memorize, I spent a lot of time talking to the actors about the people they were portraying, how they moved as individuals in my imagination and how they had changed over time. Then, when it came time for a scene, we would write it together, usually in collaboration with our DP, Matt Clegg, and anybody else around with a bright idea. The voiceover exists as a living document created in the origins of the editing process. I would write a section and record it, usually in tandem with a movement Max had created in the timeline. Then we’d polish the rhyme until it rang true, sometimes figuring out that silence said even more. The document continues to live, now as an artefact of all the sunset cliffs we dove off of while searching for glory in the edit.
What’s your favorite scene?
My favorite scene isn’t in the film; in fact, the most precious moments for me personally are buried alive in deep coffins of digital data. But the scene I’ll never forget making is the one of my former teachers in a field. I knew I wanted to gather as many of the women who had influenced me as possible in the middle of the field. Unfortunately, we were filming during prime thunderstorm season and a rough one was brewing the day we were supposed to shoot the scene. Still, these women braved the elements, took shelter in a Methodist Church fellowship hall, and waited for the storm to pass. With the sun setting, they then walked, arm-in-arm in pastels, down an impassable, red-mud road and into a field I claimed had magically been cleared of all snakes. They talked to each other and to me the entire time, and they did it all with a willing excitement that brought me to tears. When I walked Mrs. Robertson, my high-school secretary, to her place in the field, I thanked her for all the times she had covered for me in school. She looked at me with tears in her eyes and said, “I did it because I love you.”
When you saw the finished product, was it cathartic, or did it open your mind to anything you hadn’t thought about before?
The process of making this film, of reclaiming Nanny’s legacy in the name of queer storytelling, was a catharsis without question. The finished film was the heavy exhale from performing that righteous labor. Through making “Socks on Fire” I learned to remain open to surprise in the practice of discovery. Many times I happened upon a revelation about this film while I was on the hunt for something else entirely. The broadest example of that is in realizing that while I thought I was making a film about the loss of my grandmother, I was actually processing the slow loss of the exuberant, daring and loving Aunt Sharon of my youth.
Where is Uncle John now and how does he feel about the film?
Well, it’s the holiday season, so Uncle John is busy decorating. He’s also started moonlighting at a local bingo hall, so get ready for that series. He lives in Nanny’s house, but it’s his house now, and he’s in the process of revamping it to suit his personal tastes.
Uncle John and Mama have the same opinion of the film—that it’s simply our family being our family. They differ in that Mama can’t comprehend why anyone would want to watch us and Uncle John has been waiting for someone to watch us. It’s a true shame that the world is so that he can’t be out in it, performing for all of us, his adoring public—but there is always the future.
What would Dolly think?
Well I guess that would depend on which Dolly you’re referring to. But I do know this: the dreamer in Dolly, the one who fuels all other variations of Dolly (the songwriter, the singer, the philanthropist, the literacy activist, the businesswoman, the cultural icon) would feel right at home in the land of “Socks on Fire.” She certainly holds a vision big and bold enough to handle the kaleidoscopic turns of the film. And Dolly is no stranger to subversive storytelling; she knows these emotional and physical landscapes well. Dolly would no doubt have something wonderful and unexpected to add.
What’s next for you?
A continuation of vibrant disobedience and disruption. I’m currently hammering on a feature narrative script about a gospel singing queen while simultaneously hammering away on my home in Alabama. I’ve also got a couple documentary projects I’m dreaming on, one of them a bookend to “Socks on Fire” that tracks my father’s people and my tenuous relationship with masculinity. And in the meantime, I sure hope someone lets Kacey Musgraves and Mariah Carey know that I’m available for high-concept music videos.