Heterosexual violence is different than queer violence. In fact, it’s actually totally fine, and not something that needs much attention. But when the queers do it, violence suddenly becomes hard to watch and too much for the eye to bear. Unfortunately, this is not a well-executed joke, but it’s something the directors of the Neo-noir, queer thriller Femme have picked up on during the film’s festival run and release.
Femme was developed into a feature-length film from a short, as there was plenty of ground to explore. Jules, (Nathan Stewart-Jarrett; Candyman, Doctor Who) a drag queen, endures a homophobic assault by a deeply closeted man. He decides to take revenge on his attacker, Preston (George MacKay; 1917, Captain Fantastic). Without his costume and makeup, he is unrecognisable, and his hunger for justice grows as their relationship progresses. Homophobia, intimacy, and identity crises drive the story, and audiences will be on the edge of their seats to discover how unhappy the ending could possibly be.
FRONTRUNNER sat down with the directors of Femme, Sam H. Freeman, and Ng Choon Ping to address big questions surrounding homophobia, the unspoken rules of genre-filmmaking, and to dissect the expectations imposed by our society to forever match our personal behaviour with the gender that others in the public realm would like us to have.
Femme is your feature film debut individually, and as a duo. The film dwells on quite the heavy subject to kickstart your directing career. Can you share the journey Femme took in blooming into a feature-length film from a short?
FREEMAN: We both have this moment in the beginning where we go silent and wait which one of us will go first. The seed idea was Ping’s, and I wanted to do a take on the neo-noir thriller, but a queer one. We’ve been watching neo-noir films, and were inspired by the Safdie brothers’ works: Good Time, Uncut Gems, and Scorsese’s films; films we already loved, but didn’t see ourselves in. We felt that queer characters don’t have a place in the genre, and that such films rarely exist. These queer characters always end up in supporting roles, or as comedic elements. We wanted to queer the genre, and kick the door down. We spoke with producers we knew who liked the idea. Neither of us had made a film before. Yet, very kindly, they put some money behind it. We first made the short film, Femme, which was more inspired by the previously-mentioned movies. [It’s where] we discovered this relationship between main characters Jordan (Paapa Essiedu) and a drug dealer, Wes (Harris Dickinson). We felt their relationship was the most dramatically interesting aspect of the story. When we returned to developing the feature, we realized that we were missing a plot. We planted the two characters at the core, and used them to explore themes of masculinity, gender, and the performance of gender. The idea of drag, which is about performing gender, became vital to us. Jules (Nathan Stewart-Jarrett) became the drag queen, which became crucial to the plot because it meant that after the attack, when Preston (George MacKay) reencounters Jules, he doesn’t recognise him. It became the central idea that the characters in the film are wearing drag. Everyone is performing a version of their gender. They feel that it gives them power or protection in the world and allows them to fit in and take their place in the hierarchy.
Toxic masculinity is at the core of the film. It’s represented in different ways, such as Preston’s interactions with his friends, or his behaviour with men in the sauna. There seems to be a misconception about the phrase, and many men perceive this as an attack on them (it’s not). Does this toxicity operate differently amongst queer men, and why is it so difficult for people to understand that working against it benefits us all?
FREEMAN: That form of masculinity is also damaging to Preston, and presumably all the other guys in his group. Ultimately, it’s not a benefit to anyone. I think, in the queer community, we have our connection to it. I believe we are conditioned to have a relationship to toxic masculinity, and we place that and the patriarchy at the top of the hierarchy. As queer men, growing up we were taught that we should behave like men. Jules certainly relates to that. It is something that Jules has fought back against by becoming a drag queen. We always talked about Jules and Preston being similar but have taken different paths. They both had to fight to stake a claim in the world and are protective of it. They are both fighting to claim their power in the world.
We can agree that as we tend to exist solely in our bubbles, we forget that there’s still so much hatred, racism, sexism, and homophobia in the world. Sometimes, when we are forced to interact with the real world, it’s a shock and discomfort to realise how much threat there still is to the queer community. It’s scary, and Jules found this out the worst way possible. Have you had any experiences with this that influenced Femme?
PING: Homophobia exists within the queer community too. I read somewhere that one of the paradoxes with queer experiences is the thing that bullied you when you were young becomes what you desire. An example I can think of is on Grindr many men put on their profiles “no femmes”. That is a product of toxic masculinity, as acting heterosexual or the behaviours that are classified masculine are valued much more. We wanted to shed light on this issue as well.
Intimacy can mean different things to different people. It’s evident in both Jules and Preston’s case. Preston is more violent, can’t control his impulses, yet plans dates and gifts Jules that special jumper. On the other hand, Jules is more measured and submissive. This changes throughout the film, and the relationship approaches a balance. It seems much of it was thanks to communication. This is a personal observation, but what is your take on intimacy?
FREEMAN: At the beginning of the film, Jules has his power, his drag performance stripped from him, which is truly what the attack is about. The physical attack is not that extreme. The emotional is. It is the literal and the figurative stripping of the drag of Jules’ body. Jules’ revenge is rooted in him getting closer and more intimate with Preston. Intimacy within the film also serves as a form of revenge, and becomes more complex and confusing as the story progresses. The intimacy is both performed and real in the same way as all their identities are.
PING: What we are proud of when it comes to constructing the thriller aspect of the film is that every act of intimacy is advancing revenge. We hope people will respond to this because it’s so uncomfortable but hopefully also thrilling. Intimacy is used to get closer to danger and possibly more violence.
Sex is the third main character in the film. It’s a tool that gradually unpacks emotional dilemmas, desires, and self-doubt as the story progresses. The act changes as the story progresses. Can you share the importance of showing this onscreen and the conversations behind the scenes with actors and the intimacy coordinator?
PING: We were grateful for our intimacy coordinator, Robbie Taylor Hunt. When you said sex feels like the third character in the film, Robbie was that character. He specialises in queer intimacy. We had great conversations about working out what looks right on the screen. You are right when you say sex is the third character because it embodies power in the film. Each act of intimacy moves the protagonist’s story forward, and Jules wants revenge because he wants to reclaim the power that was robbed from him. Jules feels more powerful and in control of the sex, which pushes him towards his goal. We were careful when structuring the journey. After the attack, when Jules visits the sauna, he doesn’t have sex. He doesn’t feel quite himself. However, when he sees Preston, he sees the opportunity to retrieve what was taken from him.
FREEMAN: Almost all of the sex is role-play. Sex also becomes drag. I think we often put on a performance during sex with people who we don’t know well. We guess desires. That’s how it starts between Preston and Jules. They both play a version of themselves that they believe will turn on the other person.
You mentioned that Robbie specialises in queer intimacy, which many people in the industry can confirm they haven’t come across before. That must be such a support not just for you, but for the actors. It’s not uncommon to hear that actors don’t necessarily find intimacy coordinators helpful, but surely this was the opposite. He must have provided a safe bubble where all questions and discussions were welcome.
PING: It was important that the actors could say no safely and that the power structure of the set was designed to provide comfort. We wanted a space where we could safely negotiate this, especially because most intimate scenes are in exterior environments. We had to consider that this might be physically uncomfortable for the actors. These actions drove the plot, and we had to put the actors in a mental space that enabled them to perform wholeheartedly.
This is beautiful. It’s not routine to hear this.
FREEMAN: Especially for a film like this. Nathan and George threw themselves at it. We needed to let them work on these scenes with Robbie. They had rituals and were able to laugh between takes. Watching their bond evolve was lovely.
The exact opposite of toxic masculinity.
PING: The B-roll that we will not share included footage in the forest, where George and Nathan were in position, joking with each other. The moment they heard “action”, they jumped straight into it. It was funny to watch.
We are still far from making these stories universally accepted and understood. Would you say that the subject of this film is much better received now than ten years ago? Would you say that you’re creating a new and modern audience?
PING: We will see, but even if we say there is progress, we have been told before that Femme is too violent for a queer film.
FREEMAN: People said, “Oh the film is quite violent”. We don’t think so. If you’re talking about Femme in the sense of a thriller genre and we compare it to other films by Tarantino or the Safdie brothers’, it’s not a violent film. These films are filled with violence, and ours isn’t. Sometimes we questioned the comment, and the response was, “Well, for a queer film, it is.” We are being held to a different standard, as opposed to a straight director or a story. The message we got is that we are not allowed to do this because we are queer. I don’t think anyone is actively trying to make that point, but is there an indication that we should just be making emotional dramas? Our aim was to invade the space. The fact that it hasn’t been done before also means that people say that this feels different. Sometimes people don’t know what to do with that. We hope the film is well received and opens the door for queer filmmakers to make stories in whatever genre they want.
People don’t do well with discomfort. The more films such as Femme are out there, the better they will be able to cope with it. Hopefully.
FREEMAN: We were specific when making that attack at the beginning that it’s not about horrific violence on screen. Jules slammed against the wall and a kick in the stomach. Only a few seconds of physical violence. The attack is about humiliating Jules. Because of the film’s subject, people see it as violent. If we shot the same scene with two straight men, I don’t believe that anyone would say, ‘Wow, that was very violent’.
PING: There was a version where Preston stood at a distance, making Jules remove his clothes because the main idea is the humiliation, and the stripping of the drag. It didn’t work because it made Preston too cold. We hope we went down the right path and that scene correctly feeds into the story.
FREEMAN: There’s a lot of rage in the film. That had to be felt, in that moment. That was part of the energy of making the film. We had to capture that.
These films measure success differently than most commercial films. What is success for you as the director?
FREEMAN: Yes, T-shirts. Honestly, for people to see it, respond to it and to feel like we are making an impact. So far in the festival circuit, our experience is that people are responding, and feel moved, excited, and terrified. We hope for this to continue and to reach a real audience. Queer and straight audiences alike.
PING: Also, for people to say, “Genre, can be this good.”