Filmmaker Interview: Jon Manning (Burlesque: Heart of the Glitter Tribe)

‘Glitter Tribe’ is a documentary feature about the passion and personalities at the heart of today’s new wave of burlesque. On stage and in candid conversation, twelve of today’s hottest performers reveal the naked truth about an exotic world where artifice is a route to authenticity and pretending to be someone else is the ultimate journey to become yourself.

These burlesquers put it all on the line in performances that are sexy, funny, elegant and outrageous – and they bare more than just their bodies as they discuss their artistic vision, their financial struggles, the misconceptions that infuriate them and the community that sustains them.

With ‘Glitter Tribe’ currently making the indie film rounds, I caught up with the film’s Director Jon Manning to discuss his approach to the documentary form, a bit about the neo-burlesque movement, Portland’s subcultures, and more.

Burlesque Heart of the Glitter Tribe from Brightwater Media on Vimeo.

What was the starting point for you with this film?
My wife took me out to a burlesque show with her friends and I was mesmerized. I knew about burlesque in a general historical way but didn’t really realize there was a vibrant new-wave scene. These performers were dancers, actors, sexy, funny performers that performed burlesque for the fun of it not the money. I was moved by the passion these people had. Within a week I was shooting that exact show with six cameras. I just knew there was a cool story to all of this and I didn’t want to miss a beat of it!

Documentary approach?
I had been a filmmaker for 30 years before I shot the first frame of this movie and the film took seven years to complete. Most of my work has been in commercials so I bring a stylized look to anything I shoot. My approach was to search for the most interesting characters because they’ll have the most interesting stories and then make sure to convey the inherent beauty of these shows performers and costumes. It took the first 3 years of shooting shows and interviews to realize where the heart of the story was and who the real rockstars in our movie would be. If anything is gonna be great – it takes time.

Describe the way you approached cinematography for the film?
I have worked with DP Randolph Sellars for about 17 years so he and I have an easy way of working together and making things happen. And we knew that there would be over a dozen camera operators on the film before it was done. So we had to develop a look that everyone could share a reference point visually.

How did your conversations/approach to the visual look of the film evolve from pre production to production?
Once we started shooting the shows and initial interviews we realized we needed a ton more verite’ footage. So we started taking the camera off the sticks and shooting interviews handheld – in cars, out in city parks, streets, doorways, backstage and in the dance studios around Portland. Any good doc about dance and performance has to m-o-v-e so we made sure that everything did had some movement to it.

Was there ever a particular story you heard or interview as part of the film’s production that was particularly memorable?
Many stories – one that really sticks with me is when Isaiah told us about his childhood sexual abuse and ultimately how that effected his body image and wanting to connect with people in a positive way. And truly he is one of the most beautiful people I have ever met – all the way through inside and out. Just an amazing man.

Another story that stands out is when Babs Jamboree told us the story of her developing her “Burrito” routine. The story starts with her love of burritos and how she was developing the concept when she realized . . . she had to be the burrito.

Perhaps, something that stayed with you at a strong emotional level?
I was surprised when we interviewed Isaiah’s mother, a lovely lady who seems to care about her son very much and she started yelling at him during the interview – correcting him on what is important in life and seeing his reaction. Isaiah is a huge man and his mother is very petite. These kinds of moments cut to a real truth within the characters. Nothing in the film is contrived in any way. These are real people with real lives and emotions. And in the doc world stories often unfold in front of you if you are ready for them.

For those who have not seen the film, describe the burlesque scene of Portland?
First of all – it’s alive! There are several venues and many troupe’s of burlesquer’s. There’s usually at least one show each week and most shows around town are sold out. Very well attended. There are teachers, workshops, cabaret’s and all kinds of genre shows – from geeklesque, boylesque, fire shows, Twin Peaks shows, classic shows, rock and roll shows, horror, mermaid shows, SNL type shows to drag kings. There as probably as many clubs and performers as there are types of burlesque being performed.

What’s most amazing to me about neo-burlesque in America is not that you can find it in Portland, Seattle, San Francisco, New York or New Orleans it’s that you can find it in Cincinnati, San Antonio, Denver and St. Louis. It’s absolutely in every state of America let alone in many, many other countries. New-wave burlesque is hot right now no doubt.

The best burlesquers around the world also go on the road to perform at national and international shows and festivals all over the world. Many of the rockstars in GLITTER TRIBE are at that level of internationally known performer. And can also be seen in Milan, London, Glasgow or Miami.

How does it fit in with the general social dynamics of the city?
Well Portland is well known as a liberal city with an established dance, theater, music, LGBT and strip club scene and many burlesque performers cross over into these other artistic areas of interest. The arts are generally well supported by Portlanders and burlesque is no different.

Also, for those who don’t know, what exactly constitutes the definition of “neo-burlesque”?
Burlesque has a long history – in recent times there have been many waves of a burlesque scene since Victorian times, as an art form it came to America from Paris and Italy at the turn of the twentieth century

There were times when burlesque stars were the biggest stars of the day on Broadway in NYC to where burlesque was considered corrupt and “cleaned” out of the city.

That type of burlesque was usually slow (also referred to now as “classic”) with comedy acts in between. Today’s burlesque is a vibrant group of performers (mostly women) that are as likely to set their routines to JayZ or David Bowie with the dancing portions more hip-hop or pop and lock with additional aspects such a aerial work. With today’s stages of laser LED lights and fog machines it seems more like a Cirque de Soliel show than something from the 1920s or the 1960’s.

Glitter Tribe is set squarely in the center of today’s neo or new wave burlesque.

What remains from the rich history is the fun atmosphere, the costumes, the pasties and an evening of bawdy tease.

On that point, why did you feel this was a subject you wanted to undertake at the feature length level?
I simply hadn’t seen anything in-depth about this form of dance and theater and came to realize that this new wave of burlesque was just so entertaining. I knew that if I could find interesting characters that there would be a really fun and interesting story to tell.

What is your screening and distribution strategy?
As soon as we completed the film and had an industry screening in LA – we had multiple distribution offers. People really respond to the film and that is just so exciting to all of us. To share these stories with as many people as possible is really a dream come true.

What would you say the main thing you learned while making this documentary was?
I learned that nothing is ever what you think it is. And to not judge any sub-culture before you completely immerse yourself and see what it’s all about from the inside.

I also learned the deep meaning of chosen family.

Thank you so much for your interest in our film!

glittertribethemovie.com
Facebook: /glittertribethemovie
Twitter: @GlitterTribeDoc

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