In documentary filmmaking, honesty is a director’s most valuable currency. It was top of mind for Matt Timmiss, now signed to Great Guns, as he set out to tell the moving and uplifting stories of eight London drag queens in his now-celebrated film City of Queens.
Set firmly amidst the humour, glamour, and beauty expected of the drag scene, the film won plaudits for its ability to ground those narratives within the context of the tenacity, resilience, and courage required from those pursuing drag. The result was an engrossing documentary which paints an authentic and full picture of life as a London drag queen.
And yet despite the specific location of the documentary’s narrative, the response to the film has been utterly international. So much so, in fact, that City of Queens has been acquired by Peacock, the US-based streaming service, with a view to not only streaming the film but pursuing a six-part follow-up based in different American states.
To reflect on the reaction to City of Queens and look forward to potential future projects with Peacock, LBB’s Adam Bennett spoke to Matt…
Above: City of Queens, released in 2021, has been acquired by Peacock with a view to a six-part follow-up documentary series.
LBB> First things first, huge congratulations on the Peacock series. Having spent four years shooting the documentary, how does it feel to watch it go from strength to strength internationally?
Matt> Thank you so much. It’s really exciting! It was a long time in the making, and with a project like this you never really know what will come of it. It’s my baby so I obviously love it, but it’s great to see the reaction it’s getting out in the real world now too.
Once it was fully finished I spent a lot of time working out where it could go to be seen by the most people, and make the biggest impact on the young queer community. So I was thrilled when Sky UK, Now, and Sky Italia first aired it. From there our global sales consultant James Braham (formerly of Endemol Shine) has done a fantastic job of finding a wider audience globally, first with Paramount Australia - 10 Play, then with our latest licensing deal with Peacock. Seeing a project you care so much about be picked up in the USA by one of the biggest networks in the world really put a smile on mine and my team's faces!
LBB> What first inspired you to create the documentary?
Matt> I started City of Queens after seeing a video on Facebook Live of one of my friends, Elric (Chai Latte in drag) being beaten up on a London bus simply for existing in drag. It was the fifth time it had happened to him (we actually open the film with this footage). The next day Elric posted on Facebook that he was going to come back more glittery, more fabulous, and that the attacks wouldn’t stop him presenting himself in a way that made him happy. That resilience and determination inspired me, but I wanted to do something about the reason he had been attacked, and the perception that somehow drag queens are a target.
I put an ad out for a DOP and built a strong team. We began by interviewing Elric and his mum who had never seen him in drag before, which is a particularly tender moment in the feature.
At the heart of the project is this core principal of humanising the people who do drag without sensationalising them. They are friends, siblings, children, they have the same feelings and fears as everyone else which they deal with through incredible resilience and glamour. They matter, they are important, and they do not deserve to be made into targets.
LBB> And how did Great Guns get involved with the project?
Matt> We were a good way into filming the first round of interviews (Bimini Bon Boulash, Barbs, Camile Leon, Jacqui Swallows and Chai Latte were all in the can) and I had been determined throughout to keep the production standard high to maximise the film’s potential, but I knew that to take the project to the next level I would need to support.
I approached Great Guns CEO and founder Laura Gregory through a mutual friend and we set up a meeting. I took a mini pitch deck and a very, very rough cut of some of the footage we’d filmed and she saw the potential in the project and in me. I was very grateful and moved. Laura has been a good mentor and the Great Guns team have championed me and pushed me, which was perfect. I don’t like cutting corners and I think that showed in the final film. To achieve the post quality I wanted, Laura reached out to her friend in NY, James McPherson, chief production officer at Townhouse. James agreed to put the might of his entire post production team behind the project.
LBB> You’ve noted the film takes a very fresh but gritty approach to the world of drag. How did you work to balance a fun, uplifting tone whilst also exploring the hardships experienced by those in the community?
Matt> That’s a very good question and something that was always on my mind. There’s a tendency sometimes when queer stories are being told to really lean into the dark and the traumatic side of our experiences, to sensationalise the sad side in a misery porn kind of way. I wanted to steer clear of that.
The documentary is about how drag has helped the queens overcome the hard parts of life. It’s something that really resonates with me, I’ve always used art as therapy and the way the queens use their drag characters to celebrate themselves and explore different facets of their identity is both positive and very healthy. I think people will be refreshed to see the queens overcoming their traumas, rather than being overwhelmed.
There are plenty of laugh out loud moments in the film, too. Stories that might have ended badly with someone out of drag, like a mugging or a cake thrown from a car at a queen, are turned into funny anecdotes through their tenacity and drag spirit.
LBB> And was there any particular moment in the documentary that especially resonated with you?
Matt> Elric’s mum, Alby, is both eloquent and inspiring. You hear her voice in the trailer saying “I fear every time the phone goes that my son’s going to be abused or beaten” yet goes on to say “but I don’t want him to stop, because that would make the world a smaller and sadder place.”
Seeing her meet her son as Chai Latte for the first time, accept Elric so fully, and support him in being who he wants to be no matter what, that was really moving. There were a few of us with tears in our eyes on set that day! I hope that parents who see the film see in her a role model of how to support your queer kids.
Aside from that, filming backstage in the changing rooms at Sink the Pink in east London was really fun. Seeing the ‘drag drama’ unfolding over a night with all the wigs and costumes flying and drag queens arriving and leaving all night was really exciting.
LBB> Is there a message that you hope viewers will take from the film?
Matt> I hope people come away from watching with the knowledge that drag is more than wigs, makeup and people going “YAAAS”. Drag does something for the people that do it that modern therapy only wishes it could achieve - existing as a character in drag, not being trapped in what you expect of yourself, not having any of the hangups you usually have, as contrary as it may seem gives you this freedom to play and explore and try out all the parts of you that you never felt confident enough to let out.
I hope more people will try drag, see live local drag shows and at the very, very least, respect and celebrate the people brave enough to do it already.
LBB> You’re looking at a possible US remake of the documentary - and have previously mentioned branching into other countries too. What are you looking to explore and achieve in these new locations?
Matt> For the next phase of the City of Queens concept I want to elevate and go bigger. There is a whole world of drag out there to explore. In the USA, the drag scene is greatly varied and received differently in each state. Every city has their own relationship with the LGBTQ+ community and the art of drag. Very often the queer community will collect together into cities, with the bubbling metropolis facilitating unique and diverse drag across America.
With this in mind, I want to take the same core principals we used when creating City of Queens in London and apply them to these new, unseen drag hubs: these are human stories from the queer scene, dressed in all the pageantry and beauty drag offers.
As City of Queens expands and develops, we will be able to take the refined format to more cities and more territories. While the difference between cities and states within the same country can be clearly seen, the way the drag community is perceived and expresses itself between different countries is vast. The life experience of queens living in these cities is completely unlike anything else.
LBB> Let’s go right back to the start. Growing up, was it always your plan to become a director, or involved with filmmaking in some way?
Matt> From a really young age, it was clear I was going to end up mixing art and storytelling. I always think if I had been born a couple of centuries ago I would have been a portrait painter.
Growing up me and my little sister used to build the animals from the Creature Comforts series out of plasticine and animate them with stop frame animation (which, on Windows XP Movie Maker, was a challenge in itself!) and then do the VO through a pair of headphones we plugged into the mic input. I also remember downloading lightsaber software from TuCows and choreographing lightsaber battles, filming them, adding the lightsaber effect frame by frame, and of course, writing the opening crawl in the stars. So, looking back, yeah I can see how I ended up here!
In terms of queer film, I was outed pretty early at an all-boys school and thought I was the only gay person in the world. It was incredibly damaging and isolating and I want to rectify that problem and make sure kids watching TV have role models who are different, but who are also succeeding in their difference. Nobody deserves to feel alone, and as a society and as a media industry, I think we can do better. I want to be part of that change.
LBB> And how important has mentorship, and support from those already in the industry, been for you?
Matt> I can be a bit of a lone wolf sometimes, particularly when it comes to my art and my projects, but, as Laura told me at the beginning: “it takes a village to make a documentary”. I was really lucky to have a core team of experienced and talented women working at every stage of the production. In the beginning I had my fantastic DOP Fatosh Olgacher, who was with me every step of shooting, whether it was on the roof of a bus, backstage at a club night, or delivering kit back at 2am before a very exhausted McDonalds Drive Thru run. Without her expertise, emotional support and camaraderie, I couldn’t have done it.
In post I had Emma Nathan, a talented and experienced editor shaping the film and teaching me so much about storytelling (and patience!) and we sat for many months in her kitchen over the three years mapping out the film.
Laura, our executive producer has mentored me since the beginning and I know she does so much to nurture new talent both in and out of Great Guns. Without her seeing something in me at the beginning, I wouldn’t be where I am today: looking at a US series of my own.
LBB> Finally, directing a full-length documentary is an incredible step into the industry! What have been some other projects that you’re really proud of, and what are you looking to tackle next?
Matt> Thank you! In terms of film, my close working relationship with drag queens has allowed me to create two really exciting promos commissioned by Atlantic, one for Ava Max ‘My Head & My Heart’ featuring Bimini in the video and the other for Charli XCX’s ‘Good Ones’
which was a Halloween special featuring RuPaul alumni Asttina Mandella, Cherry Valentine, Krystal Versace, A’Whora and Elektra Fence. I’d love to do more of these stylish short form films.
Above: A gallery of behind the scenes images taken from the shoot for Charli XCX’s ‘Good Ones’ Halloween special music video.
My big project outside of film has been my paper sculpture headpieces. It started in lockdown when I needed an outlet, and since then I have created seven of these massive pieces. They’re made entirely of paper and PVA using the skills my grandad taught me when I was little. I was commissioned in December by Vox Vanguard to create a full collection based around the Palace of Versailles, which I completed with bespoke boxes for shipping. They’re currently on display in the K11 Musea in Hong Kong
which is super exciting!
Above: A series of gorgeous and intricate headpieces created by Matt pursuing a hobby he began in lockdown.
Looking forward, I can’t wait to start pitching City of Queens: USA which really will be something special. Based in six US cities I’m looking this time to include queer animators who will create cartoon backstories for the queens. It’s going to be big, camp, colourful and full of heart.