In the age of reality television, social media stardom, and 24/7 celebrity access, how do you tell a story that hasn’t already been told? When Nick Zeig-Owens turned his camera on Trixie Mattel, one of the world’s most famous and heavily-documented drag queens, answering that question became his mission.
Trixie Mattel: Moving Parts, our new film documenting RuPaul’s Drag Race All Stars 3 winner and country music star Trixie Mattel, debuts this month at the Tribeca Film Festival. Directed by Zeig-Owens and produced by David Silver, the film follows an approximate year in the drag sensation’s life during her All Stars 3 crowning, filming of The Trixie & Katya Show, and nationwide tour.
We sat down with the director to get insight on the emotional highs and lows of filming, using drag as both a mask and an unveiling, and what surprised him most about the day-to-day life of one of the biggest names in the industry.
Visually and tonally, Trixie Mattel: Moving Parts fits in well with your body of work. What was it like following a character like Trixie as opposed to, for example, filming Gwen in Corpus?
I’ve worked on projects of all different types–some scripted, some doc, some silly, some serious–and the thing that always carries through when I have any creative say is that you can see a little past just what you see on screen. You get a sense that there’s an actor or a person that exists when the movie isn’t playing. So when I’m looking for those moments to mentally log, like “that’s gonna make it in the movie”, it’s basically the same for a bunch of the projects I’ve worked on.
How did you become attached to the film initially?
I’ve been friends with Trixie’s boyfriend, David, for a long time and had heard a lot about her but never had a chance to meet her. She’s always on the road and any time I was in L.A., she was in P-Town or they were on a break or something. David’s a producer and–the way I heard the story–there was chatter of Trixie wanting to participate in a documentary, so David put out some feelers and I was one of his calls. I think he liked how I could make big personalities feel naturalistic, so that’s really what I pitched when I first met with him and Trixie. I think I was also the person who turned David on to Drag Race years ago!
I wanted to think about how being in paint potentially helps Brian feel like he could do things as Trixie that he couldn’t as Brian.
What about Trixie’s story motivated you to sign on as director?
I spend a lot of time with people in theatre. There have been a ton of late nights talking about how humiliating it can be to put yourself on stage where you’re being personally judged in a way that’s different from most other professions since it’s about who you are at your core. I was super into digging into how Trixie deals with being so exposed on so many levels–TV, web series, live tours, social media.
I wanted to think about how being in paint potentially helps Brian feel like he could do things as Trixie that he couldn’t as Brian. I really asked a ton of questions about that while filming and most of the questions (and therefore, the answers) were so obvious that I just felt dumb for trying to push that so hard.
How do you feel Trixie, as both a character and a person, fits into the greater drag community?
You know… I like drag a lot and I like Trixie a lot. I’ve obviously spent a lot of time with her, but I definitely don’t think I’m at all a Trixie expert, let alone a drag scene expert. I read this essay where Alexander Chee talks about getting into drag and how it wasn’t that he was a just a girl, but that he was a ‘white girl’. And I think Trixie is in drag as, like, an “Ame-ric-an”. Like, she is capitalism, she is country, she is what we say we are. I think that’s super subversive. Is that how she fits into the drag community? I don’t know, but that’s the box I’ve kind of put her in, which is also obviously very unfair of me.
People will see a very different side of Trixie in Moving Parts. Why do you feel that side came out so strongly here as opposed to, say, on UNHhhh or Drag Race?
I think the very, very simplistic answer is you see a lot more of Brian out of drag than you get to on other shows or even on social media. But more than that, I think since I spent so much time with Brian, we get to see the small parts, the parts where he’s not performing. To me, that’s what so much of this movie was about. When are we performing? When does performing make expression harder and when does it make it easier?
Did you approach the film with a narrative in mind or did the story build itself out? How, as a director, did you ride the wave of the filming period?
Getting the chance to follow Trixie was a really a dream project in that I could just collect, collect, collect and figure it out later. We made the decision early on that it would be a real vérité style movie. While some docs have a lot of archival footage or need to track a story that happened in the past, this movie was really just like: follow Trixie, see what happens.
That was obviously really intentional because Trixie has so many different types of media about her already and the question became like, what else is need? Why should this exist at all? What kind of story hasn’t been told yet and what style of filmmaking could hold that story? To me, I think vérité just allowed us remove all other kinds of assumptions about what to expect. You start from nothing and it made sense that we’d approach the movie that way.
Which moments were the hardest for you to film emotionally?
When Katya was having a really hard time filming the Trixie and Katya Show, I definitely struggled with the ethics around documenting it. I knew just how humiliating it can feel to be seen by an audience and how that can extend to having a camera pointed at you. There were moments where holding a camera that day felt bad to do, so there were times when I put the camera down a lot. A part of me wishes I had put it down a lot more… and then in the edit room, I wished I had kept it up a lot more so that it would have been easier to tell an important part of this really human story.
Which moments resonated with you the most?
I think that day really shook me while it was happening so I’d have to say it’s also what resonates with me the most. When Trixie says [in the film], “how do you be a good friend in a time like this?” I just was like I don’t know but I’d like to find out.
I knew just how humiliating it can feel to be seen by an audience and how that can extend to having a camera pointed at you.
How did you guys know when the film was over?
When we started out, we had this idea that ending with DragCon LA could be nice. It’s basically a “tour doc” but Trixie is constantly touring somewhere, so we had to pick an event that had a little finality to it and that seemed as good as any. Then, to make sure we told the rest of the story, I went back and filmed a little more.
How did it feel approaching that point?
I spent so much time with Trixie and everyone on the tour bus that leaving was seriously melancholy. I can’t remember what my last day of camp felt like, but when I imagine what it felt like, that’s how it felt to leave the tour. But I was also so tired and sore from holding the camera for months that I was ready to go sleep for a week.
What about the day-to-day life of a drag queen did you learn that you never realized before?
I wouldn’t say I was surprised, but my biggest takeaway about Trixie in particular is how hardworking she is basically all the time. On the U.S. tour, the bus would pull into the lot of a new venue in a new city and everyone would wake up groggy-eyed, a little hungover, digging around for some cereal, and then you’d realize that Trixie was gone already and she invariably was at a gym working out so she could fit her corsets. I don’t know if that crosses over to drag queens in general. Maybe I’m just super impressed by anyone going to a gym ever.
How about the day-to-day life of a musician?
Trixie’s constantly playing music, but I would say I was most surprised by how you’d never see her “writing” a song and then she has basically a whole new album ready at the drop of a hat.
Maybe I’m just super impressed by anyone going to a gym ever.
Who, of the many people in Trixie’s life, stood out to you the most while filming?
This is gonna get me in trouble because Trixie’s tour bus is filled with people who stand out, but Fena Barbitall is so funny and gorgeous and has a New England-specific self-effacing humor that feels really comforting to me.
After filming this, who would you want to document next? Anyone on your wishlist?
I’m really nerdy. I think Brian Lehrer really represents what news and politics can look like on a local level and since he’s on radio, you really don’t know what he looks like or what it takes to engage with so many hyper-specific local ideas constantly. I’d love to watch a doc about him and I would die if I could actually be the one to make it. I’m also really interested in an ex-advisor to Putin who pioneered ways to confuse the public with ideas around fake news etc. and if I could figure out a way to follow him around, I would definitely risk it!
Trixie Mattel: Moving Parts premieres on April 26th at Tribeca Film Festival and will be screening through May 5th. Click here to get your tickets and click here to get tickets to the film’s screening at Hot Docs Film Festival.