When thinking about the gritty criminals that skulk the screens of Martin Scorsese films, Drag Queens don’t necessarily come to mind. But directors Sam H. Freeman and Ng Choon Ping are out to change that in their sensuously sinister new film, Femme.
The directing duo sat down with Brig at Edinburgh International Film Festival to talk about how their complicated characters play with power in their spine-tingling feature debut.
Jules’ identity and career as a drag queen are destroyed after a homophobic attack. But when he happens upon the assailant, Preston, in a gay sauna he sees an opportunity for revenge. The Femme directors are clearly not afraid of culture clash as Queer expression collides into the hyper-masculine world of Neo-Noir.
Beginning as a BIFA award-winning short film Femme immediately attracted praise. The directors would have been forgiven for chasing that feeling by rehashing their initial idea in a longer format. But rather they have honed their focus along with their craft, creating a feature that honours its origins while fully looking to the future. Choon Ping told Brig:
“It was very clear to us that every story has its proper length. The short story had finished and it would do it a disservice to try to extend it artificially. So the way the feature started was a subset from that central relationship. The core relationship that we kind of dimly saw happen in the short led to the fully fledged feature.” Said Choon Ping.
This dynamic is realised by the brilliant Nathan Stewart-Jarrett (Misfits) and George MacKay (1917). The two leads battle it out in an intense and disorientating relationship that will leave even the most astute viewer questioning where they stand. As soon as you think one has triumphed in the battle, the other begins sounding the war drums. It wouldn’t be a surprise if Preston and Jules become a cult classic pairing.
Comparisons to predecessors in the revenge thriller genre are inevitable. In fact, Freeman pointed to the likes of the Safdie brothers, Nicolas Winding Refn, and yes, Scorsese, as inspirations for those first fleeting ideas that became Femme. But the film takes the best of these tropes and gives it a new face:
“We were talking about these films, and feeling like we as queer people love these films, but also feeling like we had no place in them.” Said Freeman:
“We didn’t see ourselves represented. So, the initial sort of passion was to flip the genre and do a queer take on it.”
Part of this journey was to immerse the cold sweat climate of Neo-Noir in the bright lights of the London drag scene. This was where they found their story, beneath the polished make-up and carefully sewn skirts, there are opportunities to bend the truth and play with your identity. Watching Femme it is clear that Drag is more than performance art, it’s a chance to question who you are. Freeman continued:
“We talked a lot about drag. What drag is your character wearing? What character are you performing right now? That was true obviously for Jules who is very actively in some form of disguise throughout most of the film. Whether that be as Aphrodite, the drag queen in the beginning, or the other version of Jules that he takes on to exist in Preston’s world. But ultimately, what he’s doing is slowly stripping away Preston’s drag and revealing what’s underneath.”
Choon Ping added that to find these answers there often was a physical root. Choon Ping told Brig:
“The two actors [Nathan Stewart-Jarrett and George MacKay] were very involved in prepping all the practical things like costume, makeup, choreography and tattoos. These practical processes were such great vehicles for what we were talking about. Why do you want to use this? Why do you want to pick that?… It’s about really marrying the practical processes of prep with talking about the story and character.”
These story elements are Freeman and Choon Ping’s bread and butter. While Freeman began his career screenwriting, Choon Ping has directed countless productions for the stage. it’s no wonder that Femme feels razor-sharp in its focus. But Choon Ping argued that more than anything, the experience of making a feature was a great big learning experience:
“What I realised was that in the theatre, in film terms, you’re always blocking in a wide, right? And then suddenly the camera gives you so many other formations to look at. It’s just been really, really fun. Being able to tell a story with tools that I didn’t have before.” Choon Ping said.
“The big joy of it is taking an idea from conception and bringing it all the way to that final point. Creating something in your head and seeing it so clearly, and then actualizing it and being like, ‘Oh, we’ve actually made the exact story that I wanted to tell’. You can’t go back after that.”
Featured Image credit: Jonathan Boomer