Lee Cooper is a first-time filmmaker and for his first film, he has tackled a local Brighton legend.
David Raven, aka Maisie Trollette, is the UK’s oldest performing drag artist and Cooper made it his mission to truthfully show his life and personality on screen.
Find our full interview below.
How did you first meet David? How did you get interested in his story?
I’m a massive fan of drag in all its different forms. I live in Brighton, where there’s quite a big drag scene, and there’s lots of amazing cabaret venues. David’s a bit of a drag icon anyway, in the drag scene, but in Brighton in particular. He’s the grand dame and I think everyone knows of David Raven. I was just really fortunate to be introduced to him at a charity event. And he was just really generous with his time, really open and honest. It just kind of snowballed, it happened quite naturally.
Did he need any convincing? Because he seems in the film, in no means shy, but maybe a bit reserved to share about his life?
On the one hand, he was guarded, sometimes; but on the other hand, he invited us into his home, he invited us backstage. These spaces are quite small and intimate when you’ve got a sound guy in there, and you’ve got the DOP here, and then you’ve got me in there. Those rooms got quite full. He’s a bit of a diva, he won’t mind me saying that.
Did he need any coaching for the camera?
This might surprise you, but when you put a camera in front of a drag queen, they actually quite enjoy it. I’m sure Dave Lynn or Miss Jason and certainly David wouldn’t mind me saying that. They were very open and very honest. And I think it certainly helped that we always made sure David was with someone, we never went in a room on our own with him. We wanted to make sure he was supported and also make sure that it felt quite natural. There’s a very different cut of the film, which had lots of talking heads, and it felt more modern, in some respects. But actually, I wanted to make a real fly-on-the-wall, observational piece. And hopefully it feels a bit stronger for it.
It is a documentary and you’re capturing real people in real life. How much can you plan in advance? You already mentioned that you had a completely different film.
I’m a first time filmmaker. So I kind of just went with it. It started off with just can we interview you? And then it became apparent that it was his 85th birthday coming up. So there were lots of celebrations already in the diary for that. Can we attend that event? Would you mind if we came to that event? And along the way, we got friendlier and friendlier.
Certainly, when I went into it, I thought it might be more the life of David Raven and of Maisie Trollette, he’s performed for over 65 years. Sadly, there’s not that much archive footage from way back when, certainly in queer spaces, because it was so underground. People weren’t filming this stuff. It became much more powerful, just to be there in the room with him.
And like you mentioned in the beginning, David’s kind of like an icon, everybody kind of knows of him but don’t necessarily know him. Did you learn something about him that was unexpected?
We definitely learned that David Raven and Maisie Trollette are two very different people. David very much sees Maisie as an act and there’s a reason he calls himself a drag artiste. And what we found was that actually because it was so underground when he first started performing, it was illegal for two men to commit homosexual acts. So there was definitely a sense of internalised homophobia that David has. And we found that quite surprising, because when he’s on stage, he’s the consummate performer, he’s so professional and so flamboyant.
But actually, when he’s out of drag, he’s quite a different person. And that was the most surprising thing for me. He keeps all his dresses, all the drags in a shed, he won’t have them in the house even.
What I was really impressed by is that quite often, whether it’s fiction or non-fiction, stories about anyone in the LGBTQ community tend to focus so much on trauma and hardship. So was it very clear to you early on that that’s not what you wanted this film to be about?
Absolutely. There’s loads of amazing coming out stories committed to film. I really wanted to explore and show the other end of the tale. And we rarely get to see that just in society, let alone within the LGBTQ community. So I really wanted to explore that and to show that on camera.
For me, it was important that this was a story about ageing as much as it was about drag. And we were really quite conscious in the beginning that we show the challenges of David being in his 80s, watching him struggle to get into his stilettos and hear him berating his friend who’s trying to help him to get into the dress. We wanted to show that and we wanted to let people join the dots and come to their own conclusions. But we definitely wanted it to be celebratory.
You very briefly show that David is taking medication for potentially dementia or Alzheimer’s. Did you talk to him about that beforehand, to clear with him that it’s okay to show that?
David did actually talk about it and we felt it wasn’t appropriate to put it in the film, but people can draw their own conclusions. And we felt if we didn’t show some of it, it wouldn’t be authentic to David’s story. And also, some of the behaviours in the film, it kind of explains some of it. It felt inauthentic to leave it out but at the same time, we didn’t want it to be the focus of the film by any means.
Has David seen the film?
We did a little screening with him, Miss Jason, who also features in the film and Alan, who’s also from the scene, and supports David, when he’s performing. We did quite an intimate little screening round at Alan’s and we watched it together. I thought David would get upset about or moved by him struggling to get into his heels or whatever it might be, but actually, he was a bit nonplussed.
What he did find quite moving, was some of the old archive footage that we were able to find that maybe he had not seen for years, and it was the moments like that, and the radio interview about ‘his Don’.
Having said that, at the end of the film, I took him to one side, it was just me and him. And I said, honestly, tell me what you think. And he said, “Well, it’s an SOS film, dear.”
I thought, oh my goodness, that sounds terrible.
He said “The Same Old Shit.”
Bohemia Media presents Maisie in cinemas and on BFI Player and Bohemia Euphoria 5 August