It’s a premise that sounds like the stuff of Fox News fearmongering nightmares: A movie, based on a true story, about a teenaged boy with dreams of becoming a drag queen. And not only that but it’s being put out by Amazon.
Everybody’s Talking About Jamie is the movie, and arrived in theaters September 10, before hitting Amazon Prime Video this Friday, September 17. Based on the stage musical of the same name that hit the stage in London, it was in turn based on the story of an actual boy in England that was made into a documentary called Jamie: Drag Queen at 16.
The film is not only a pure joy, but it’s a very traditional musical, about an underdog overcoming adversity and winning acceptance.
Ahead of the film’s release, we sat down in Philadelphia with the film’s director, Jonathan Butterell, and actors Max Harwood (Jamie) and Lauren Patel (Pritti). While Butterell is a highly regarded choreographer and stage director on both sides of the Atlantic, this is the first film he has directed ― and it’s also the film debut for both actors.
Congratulations on the film, I thought it was a delightful movie. Jonathan, I know you were involved with the original production on stage, tell me a little bit about how that came together, and how you became part of it.
JB: It started with me falling upon a documentary called Jamie: Drag Queen at 16, about a 16-year-old boy from the Northeast of England, in a working-class community, Jamie Campbell, who I subsequently found out, at 15, wrote to documentary makers and said ‘I want to come out as a drag queen at my prom, but I’m scared. Would you come and film me and follow me?’ I thought ‘whoa, what courage!'”
But then to watch his relationship with his mom, and that love and support from his mom, and his mom’s best friend. And the complex relationship he has with his dad, and then watch the community around him make a safe space in which he can go out and be himself. I just thought this is a story to be told, and this is a story for today.
And did you always envision this as a movie?
JB: I oddly did. I mean, I’d never made a film. This is my first… I created it in the medium that I do very well, which was theater. I wanted it to sing, and I wanted the music of it to be pop, so we went to Dan Gillispie Sells, who is a pop writer, with The Feeling, and Tom MacRae, who was writing lyrics for the first time. The three of us wanted to create a pop world, that felt immediate and now.
So Max, what was the process of you being cast in this?
MH: It was a long process. I responded to an open call because I didn’t have an agent at the time, I was in college. And I just sent Jonathan a video, basically talking about myself, my love of putting on my sister’s dress when I was little, and my love of music, and how much I love the show. And then they finally agreed to see me, and they didn’t ignore my tape as they so often do. Then I did like seven rounds of auditioning, they put me into drag twice, and then Jonathan offered me the job in the room.
[Lauren], what about you?
LP: Yea, a similar thing of, I was 17, I was still at what would kind of [be] your high school, and I saw it online and it said to send a little videotape of yourself in, so I did, expecting to hear nothing back. So I did that on the 5th of May, and I did two auditions, and I got the job on the 25th of May, and then we had our first day on set with Max and Richard E. Grant on the 25th of June. So it was all like a complete whirlwind for me.
Jonathan, I know you’ve done a lot of work in the theater. What was the adjustment like, going into film?
JB: I loved it. I loved every bit of it. It’s complex, making a film, you know, especially the first time, because you can’t prep for what you don’t know. But what I love is that what cinema can give you is scale, and so I wanted this film to feel real, and give you a feel of a particular community. Because I grew up in that community, I literally grew up on those streets, and I wanted to show that community in its realness and show the vista of that community.
And also what film can do like nothing else is get close, so you get right into the soul of a character, but also it allowed my imagination to fly because Jamie’s imagination flies. So when it came to the big musical numbers, I could create worlds in which Jamie could exist in all his fabulousness.
So were there any big differences between the stage and film versions? Did you have to tighten it up a bit?
JB: The heart of it was exactly the same. The essential story is exactly the same. Of course, the scale is different. We had 3,000 people in the street, singing and dancing at one moment. And also, we have a new song in the [movie], that wasn’t in the stage show, called “This is Me,” which explores the story of Hugo and what he went through when he was a young man.
That generation was my generation, and that generation had to get out on the streets to fight for their identity and fight for who they were and to take their place in the world. And it was a complex time because HIV and AIDS was prevalent. And I wanted to pass that story on from Hugo to Jamie, and my generation to the next generation.
[In that musical number, Hugo (Richard E. Grant), an older gay man and drag performer, sings of his life story, while old videotapes play of his friends in the scene back in the 1980s. As the years advance on the VHS time codes, it soon becomes clear that the height of the AIDS crisis is nearing, and likely to decimate the group.]
That was an amazing part of the film. And Richard E. Grant was in Philadelphia a couple of years ago, shooting a show called Dispatches From Elsewhere, and I heard a lot of stories about people running into him and the other actors during the filming.