By Chloë Westerfield, Associate Creative Director
Writer, Producer, Director, and Documentarian Michael Seligman wears many hats. He’s a long-time producer on RuPaul’s Drag Race, he co-created the hit podcast Mob Queens, and he co-directed the documentary P.S. Burn This Letter Please. During a snowstorm in Chicago, he was kind enough to join me (virtually!) from sunny LA to discuss collaboration, representation, and authenticity in creative work.
Over the course of an inspiring hour, Seligman touched on many important aspects of creating work that is relevant, impactful, and inclusive. Below are some of the highlights of our conversation.
Talk about the process of making the podcast Mob Queens. How did that come together and why was a podcast the best format for this type of story?
MS: I started doing research for the documentary, P.S. Burn this Letter Please, and I came across this woman named Anna Genovese. She was married to the namesake of the Genovese crime family in New York City. She was an Italian woman living in Manhattan and when her husband was exiled to Italy, she ends up running part of the mob business: the gay bars and drag clubs, which were illegal at the time. My cohost on the podcast and I kept coming across this name and thinking, how has this person not been profiled before? We put it together as a television pitch in 2015.
However, this was before the #MeToo movement helped launch a desire for more inclusive storytelling in Hollywood. So, we would pitch it and people would say, “Well, she’s a complicated female character, I don’t know if that’s the lane we want to be in,” or “Yeah, this LGBTQ storyline, good luck with that, those stories don’t sell.” We put it on a shelf and thought, oh well. Then, we were at a podcast convention in Brooklyn and happened to talk to someone who worked at the Stitcher network about this story. She said, “You’ve got to do a podcast!” That got the ball rolling and it took us about a year to really dig deep.
So, attending a podcast convention helped you to pivot your idea into a different form?
MS: Yeah, I think as a creative person, you follow your curiosity and look at things that interest you, and podcasting was interesting to me. I wasn’t necessarily thinking about the Anna Genovese story going into it, but I definitely believe there’s a universal energy. If you’re quiet enough and do your meditation and relax into it—there’s a force that guides you.
Your work probes into “invisible histories”— the topics left out of textbooks. Much of this history was destroyed and many of the people who held onto the oral tradition died prematurely in the AIDS epidemic of the 1980s. What do we lose in our culture, our society, when these histories are erased?
MS: It’s been said history is written by the winners. Those of us who are on the margins are often left out, or our history is written in a way, even by the most well-meaning historians, so that there’s a prejudice and a lack of understanding and nuance. When other people are writing your history, you don’t get the full picture. Even the historians in the documentary — who are all queer historians writing about queer history — were excited to talk because we had these letters that were very personal. George Chauncey, who wrote Gay New York, said most of his research came from police records and hospital records, because those are the records that existed.
The way to fix that right now is to talk to your gay elders. Or whatever community you live in, if you’re interested in preserving some kind of history, talk to the old folks. Our culture focuses so much on youth, but there’s incredible beauty in older people. They have so much wisdom.
While watching P.S Burn This Letter Please, I was struck by the amount of archival footage you were able to pull together. What’s the process like of gathering all the letters and media for this kind of epistolary documentary?
MS: There’s no clearinghouse for gay history. But there are lots of LGBT archives around the country and world. It was several years of shaking trees and looking under rocks. I’m a stickler for authenticity, so I didn’t just want pictures of drag queens, I wanted pictures of drag queens in nightclubs or house parties in the 1950s. In a 90-minute film, we have pictures and footage from 72 different archival sources on three continents. It was laborious, but what you see in the film is very, very authentic.
What’s interesting is even the big archival houses would often have footage or photographs that were catalogued decades ago. When I went in with modern search terms like “LGBT history” or “queer history” what I found was, when it came to footage about drag, oftentimes it would be categorized under “mental disturbance” or “psychiatric disorders.” We had to get creative with our search terms. I would follow up with a letter to the archivist letting them know they should consider recategorizing this, because we don’t think in these terms anymore.
Lessons From a Documentarian
Like advertising teams, Seligman is used to pitching on the reg. Try taking a page from his playbook by using one—or all—of these 5 techniques on your next big idea.
- When conducting research, listen. Really, listen. Avoid confirmation bias by preparing to be surprised by what you hear, instead of reinforcing what you already believe.
- Change up how you find your insights. Everyone can Google. A trip to a university library, a phone call to a septuagenarian, or a visit to a relatively unknown museum can really shake up your perspective.
- No matter the project, inclusion of team members from all kinds of backgrounds makes the work stronger. Representation in the room is key to creating work that impacts culture in a meaningful way.
- Don’t over rely on PowerPoint (or Keynote). Shake it up and get off the screen to tell the story from the heart.
- Empathy is a strong tool – when used effectively. In a culture of pretense and self-promotion, telling stories about the hopes, fears, dreams, aspirations, and yes, even foibles of our fellow humans is refreshing and necessary. True story.
To learn more about Michael Seligman and his work, check out www.michaelseligman.online.