Get ready to werq. If you haven’t binged the first season of Werq The World, our docu-series following the queens of the Werq The World Tour as they travel and turn it out through Europe, you’re in for a treat. The ultimate behind-the-scenes look at your favorite queens from RuPaul’s Drag Race, Werq The World highlights more than just the stunts and shenanigans that happen on- and off-stage.
Aquaria, Valentina, Kim Chi, Latrice Royale, Violet Chachki, Detox, Kennedy Davenport, Sharon Needles, Alyssa Edwards, and Shangela make up the cast of Season 1, with each episode of the WOW Presents Plus series telling the story of the tour through the lens of one queen and providing a raw and unfiltered look at her journey to the stage of the largest drag tour in the world. Season 2 has been renewed and will follow a new cast of queens through Werq The World’s North American legs, including Asia O’Hara, Aquaria, Kameron Michaels, Kim Chi, Monét X Change, Naomi Smalls, Plastique Tiara, Vanessa Vanjie Mateo, and current reigning RuPaul’s Drag Race champion Yvie Oddly.
With the series nominated for its first award for Best Docureality Series at the upcoming 2020 Realscreen Awards, we sat down with series director Jasper Rischen to reminisce on filming the first season, what we can expect from Season 2 ahead of its premiere later this year, and why the politics of drag make the telling of these stories more important than ever.
Walk us through your background a bit.
I’m from a small, medieval town in The Netherlands in what’s considered the Bible Belt of Holland. After 18 years there, I had to get the fuck out. After originally moving to the U.S. for one semester of school, I fell in love with New York City, stayed, and had a whole legion of odd jobs. I bartended in Tribeca, worked for Jake Shears of the Scissor Sisters while producing news for Dutch TV, taking nightlife photos at Gaga parties, and so on.
What got you into filmmaking and storytelling?
I went to Columbia for documentary film and made a doc for PBS about a gay Native American running for the presidency of his tribe with my co-director Saila Huusko, who also came along to film Season 1 of Werq the World and was indispensable in her camera work.
I got in touch with World of Wonder making “day in the life” videos of Aja, Gia Gunn, and Vanessa Vanjie Mateo, which ended up becoming the Follow Me series. I really liked the concept of following a queen all the way from waking up, through their performance, to going to bed. From there, Randy Barbato and Fenton Bailey asked me to go on tour with Werq The World and film with the same fly-on-the-wall style.
WOW Presents Plus is basically a playground of endless possibilities.
How did you make the transition from politically-focused features and photography to drag, which is explicitly political in its own right?
Oddly, I had never seen Drag Race, which I liked as a starting position. Before the tour, I wondered if I needed to speed watch all the seasons of Drag Race or if I should just go in and find out who they were. Having not watched the show, I think I ended up being able to approach them more as human beings. I wasn’t trying to create Drag Race: On The Road, but rather create something fresh and different. All these episodes give you a lot more background on the queens that you can’t get anywhere else.
What parallels have you experienced in filming both types of content?
Drag is inherently political. I’m drawn to powerful characters who are fighting on the margins and even while the specific margins of drag have been blasted into the mainstream, that in itself is a political act. Drag queens are dominating debates nationally. Drag can be a weapon to unite. It can be a weapon to fight all the stigmas, bullies, and Trumps of the world.
With whatever subject I film, I really try to get into the human being behind whatever they’re doing. Whether you’re filming with musicians, politicians or drag queens, they’re all just humans that took on a certain mission or are living out their passions. I spend a lot of time with my characters and the way I film is very intimate. I try to film largely without a full-fledged camera crew to be the least intrusive possible. I love completely delving into a world that I had no idea about.
As you already know, Werq The World has been nominated for a Realscreen Award! How does it feel to have your first season already snatching trophies?
I love the Realscreen Awards, it’s so exciting! Being a show that’s on an ever-growing streaming platform, it means a lot to be nominated up against giants like as Queer Eye on Netflix. It’s a big finger in the face to anyone who thinks a platform like WOW Presents Plus couldn’t take off. Making a show for the platform is exciting because you’re not beholden to any network executives who might get back to you with five thousand notes and ruin your vision. WOW Presents Plus is basically a playground of endless possibilities.
At what point in working on Season 1 did you realize you were creating an award-worthy show?
It all came together in the edit. Originally, the only clear mission on this show was just going on tour with a camera and getting content. There’s so much happening at all times when you’re on tour with 10 world-famous drag queens. For the most part of the European leg of the tour, I had no real idea yet of what I was making. I was just filming everything.
Honestly, it wasn’t until the flight home that I came up with the idea to make one episode per queen. I thought, “How do I do justice to all of these girls and give them the biggest spotlight possible?” That’s where my idea of one episode per queen was really solidified. When I was editing and the backstories came out, specifically Latrice’s episode, I thought, “oh wait… this is really good.” Her story is just so incredibly powerful.
I want this show to be a celebration of superstars.
How does filming Werq The World differ from your work on our other WOW Presents Plus series, Follow Me?
Follow Me was easier to film because, at the end of the night, you get to sleep in your own bed. On tour for Werq the World, you’re sleeping on the bus with eight drag queens and they drag you out to bars every night for twenty days in a row. It’s a very fun experience, but it’s much more intense. You end up seeing a lot more when I’m actually on the bus with them and on a long tour, you’re really able to get to know them as themselves beyond their on-stage or on-camera persona.
How does filming subjects on the road and living with them impact your work and dynamics as opposed to following them during the day and leaving at night?
I built a better relationship of trust with them, and it makes me really want to do justice for all of them in the edit and ensure they each get really great episodes after getting to know them as people and friends. This is gonna sound cheesy, but I’ve grown to love all of them very much and it just makes me work way harder in the edit to make sure that they each get the best episodes possible. At the end of the ride, the most important audience members for me are the queens themselves. If they love their own episode, I did my job right. I want this show to be a celebration of superstars.
How does your experience in moody still photography impact your work? Not just visually, but as a storyteller.
I’m always trying to take the best shot possible, which isn’t always easy when you’re in a behind-the-scenes space with really shitty overhead lighting. I usually love the gritty vibe of my photos, but when I’m in a badly lit space with the queens, I’ll have to add light to make them look as good as possible. And trust me–the queens will tell you when you’re not properly lighting them!
Absolutely nothing is staged or produced and I think that’s what makes this show unique. As a storytelling device, a camera is a person in the room. Through that, the viewers are with the queens and hanging out with them. I’m just providing a mirror for the viewers to look into the queens’ lives.
What, in your opinion, was the million-dollar-shot from filming Werq The World Season 1?
For me, Season 1’s would have to be when Latrice Royale’s luggage got lost in the final city, Helsinki. It was such a low point because she was supposed to go out with a bang and have her most glamorous moment for the finale; but then her luggage got lost and she wasn’t able to perform. She ends up doing the show out of drag and plays a game with the audience, which becomes this triumphant moment that went from a super low to an immediate high. It was very special. The way she championed through it said a lot about her character.
Any stand-out memories of filming with the Season 1 cast?
Oh my god, Shangela dragging us to the club every single night. I don’t know how she does it… She’ll host a show, bust out a number, do a game in the middle, but then would also party the hardest at night. At one point, we all showed up for our flight in Oslo and Shangela was nowhere to be found, so we all thought she was going to miss it. Then, she rolls into the plane last minute when the doors were basically already closed. The fact that she parties the hardest but still makes the bus or plane and then delivers 1,000% at night is something to live up to. Halleloo, y’all.
How has the experience been different filming Season 2?
There isn’t as much hanging out in the busses like last season since the travel legs were shorter and always overnight. As a result, we ended up going out a lot more before the busses left and therefore there’s a lot more nightlife featured. Often, one of the girls would be performing at the after-parties, so I would naturally come along to film. These Season 2 girls loved taking shots at the club and stumbling back on the bus afterward, that’s for sure.
Being European yourself, where do you prefer to travel for filming?
Believe it or not, but Fresno is in a way more exciting than Europe for me because I’ve never been! I grew up watching American movies, so the sight of a yellow school bus will still get me excited. For me, the American visuals are a lot more enticing because even though I now live here, it still feels foreign. I have this forever-outsider perspective that I hope to never lose. There’s definitely more of an Americana filter this season. And we went to Canada, too!
Whose story has jumped out at you so far during the edit to tell?
Yvie’s story is really special because she is the freshest off-the-show and is going through this crazy whirlwind after winning Drag Race with so many expectations from fans being thrown into her direction. The episode is going to show the hardworking and passionate side of Yvie’s drag story. She is very honest about the challenges she faces in her current year right off the show and I think this honesty is what makes her very unique.
Can you tease out a moment from Season 2?
Let’s just say that Season 2 involves some wig pulling… and there’s also a moment when one of the girls fell on stage over an outfit that another girl left on stage. Yikes! Oh, and two queens fully made out on stage during an after-party performance. Casual.
Werq The World Season 2 premieres this year on WOW Presents Plus. Stream the full first season now!