Tom CJ Brown gives us a deep dive into his queer utopian historical drama ("but make it Gucci")
Welcome back to the LBB Film Club, where we’re showcasing short films and the odd feature every day to give you a brief distraction from your likely hunkered-down lives.
We continue today with a short film/music video titled Cousin John from Psyop director Tom CJ Brown, that was in competition at SXSW (before it was sadly cancelled). The beautifully crafted film is a speculative future celebration of gender fluidity, with themes of safe spaces that offer harmony and hospitality, all of it a reinterpreting of the '60s classic song ‘Cousin Jane’ by the Troggs.
The cast includes drag queens you might know and love, West Dakota and Rify Royalty, and stars writer/performer/illustrator Hilton Dresden as the central star, as they await the arrival of Cousin John whether wearing an Oscar de la Renta gown or draped in Marchesa. The whole thing is a sumptuous, reassuring queer daydream.
Watch the film and read about the peachy vision and inclusive utopianism that Tom CJ channeled into it below.
LBB> What was the genesis of Cousin John as a project?
Tom CJ> Sitting on a stalled Q train on the Manhattan Bridge (classic pre-2020 MTA) and staring through the glare of the setting sun at Lady Liberty I saw a vision of peach. I was thinking about Miley Cyrus, her Happy Hippie Foundation (a foundation for LGBTQ youth), and how she would one day lead us into a post-gender, post-binary future, where everyone would be free to live their truth, HENNIE. Thinking about what that future would look like, how it would feel for me, I had the vision. A beautiful quaff of thinning white hair - rinsed to a perfect peach paired with the delicate flowing peach silk of a suit that glimmered in the sun as it passed me by, the flowing silks of a cream pussy-bow around their neck, pearled ears, and a lollipop lip to match the rouge on their cheeks. My dear Cousin John.
Building on the ideals of their birth (Miley's Happy Hippie Foundation) I wanted Cousin John and their world to be a utopia, providing a safe space both physically and emotionally for everyone to feel safe to be free; and so The Carrington House Hotel
was born, Cousin John’s bold utopian vision of harmony and hospitality, a conservation haven hidden in the mountains of upstate NY.
LBB> So I wasn't familiar with the original Cousin Jane song (haha I have been on a Google rabbit hole adventure), but I now get that the song plays with gender fluidity as the film does - why was that an interesting seam to explore?
Tom CJ> I love how Crystal Jacqueline's cover of Cousin Jane subverted the gender and made it queer just by using the same lyrics, which brought a whole new meaning to the song, my experience of it, and a reminder that cousin is the only gender-neutral familiar tile. Both the original and the cover treat, with such tender care, a sinful act - which totally gave me flashbacks of the confusion I felt as a kid about being gay and when I thought about combining this narrative with the world of Cousin John, it felt like the perfect vehicle to introduce the world to my dear gender-fluid cousin. Adding Hilton Dresden (they/them) into the equation to perform the song and co-star in the video, adds a modern twist to this complicated affair of sinful love.
LBB> The film has a really beautiful, and perhaps melancholic play on the feeling of isolation in crowds juxtaposed with the idea of finding one's way to one's people or tribe... I was wondering if you could talk a bit about the themes and emotions you wanted to explore?
Tom CJ> The world of Cousin John and the Carrington House Hotel are set in 2047, in the fragile environment of post-climate-crisis, mid-climate-catastrophe, after a global environmental and ecological collapse that yielded a never-ending Autumnal season known as "the Long-Fall." Dead leaves lay on the ground and bare tree trunks are silhouetted against the sky and the searing sun (we shot in early April 2019 to achieve this look). Cousin John shields his guests from this reality but bears the responsibility of interacting with this dangerous outside world. So in those shots in the city, I really wanted to get a sense of Cousin John's not belonging, and immediately, visually, you see it. His flowing and glowing peach juxtaposed with the reality of modern life. Seeing that intercut with Hilton at the Carrington House Hotel with the ensemble all matching CJ's aesthetic, you know they are even more alone in that crowd when you realise what they are missing - safety, community, and love - three things you can't find outside Macy's. When CJ makes it back to the welcoming arms of Hilton, I wanted to invoke that feeling of home that I think we are all feeling right now as we spot our homes at the end of the street, safe at last.
LBB> There's a wonderful modern twist on a historical aesthetic in the film with regard to the costuming and styling... how did you develop that look and who did you work with on art/costume/production design?
Tom CJ> By portraying a future that draws inspiration from the past, I wanted audiences to be able to indulge in camp baroque fantasies that liberated queer narratives from historical prejudice, a utopain future of our own creation. I wanted historical drama but make it Gucci. I'm a big fan of Palomo Spain's queer-sci-fi fashion, Pansy Magazine... basically give me beautiful queer boys in pearls, bows, and rouge. I drank all that inspiration in but still wanted the DRAMA of period costumes. Our stylist Bex Sheers
hooked us up with an incredible wardrobe of designer clothes from Oscar de la Renta for the staircase moment to Thom Browne, Marchesa, Landeros and more. My executive producer Zack Kortright provided us with the hand-painted mural walls of his exquisite Victorian mansion in upstate New York where Alexandra Kaucher
joined us as production designer extraordinaire.
LBB> You've won awards for your animated shorts - because animation is such a stylised medium, I'm curious if that fed into your approach with live action?
Tom CJ> I'm over-prepared. Before I even had a producer I had a full storyboard and animatic. I think working in animation has taught me how to visualise film, and also how to extract that vision from my brain, and put it onto paper. All this homework enables me to be super clear about what I want from each shot. I love to reference baroque tableaus and renaissance paintings in my drawing, and this has definitely influenced how I think about staging and composition in live-action. Being able to share that vision with Cristina Dunlap
our amazing cinematographer, to show as well as describe what I wanted, created an almost psychic link between us on set that was exhilarating.
LBB> And Christopher at Sea is your current project - what can you tell us about that and when should we look out for it? It won a couple of pitch prizes I believe - what can you tell us about that?
Tom CJ> Christopher at Sea is a queer nautical thriller set aboard a Cargo Ship on a transatlantic voyage - 20 minutes of sumptuous hand-drawn animation. As the ship journeys into open waters, Christopher finds himself torn between truth and fantasy as the solitude of life onboard feeds his obsession with the cargo deck, the showers, and the omnipresent engine room. We pitched the film at Annecy Animation festival's Mifa Pitch session in 2018 where we won the support of Arte, who pre-purchased the film, and the Ciclic Animation Residency, and subsequently applied to the CNC with our French Co-Producers MIYU to secure 75% of the film's funding. We were just about to launch a Kickstarter campaign on FRIDAY 13TH at SXSW but... let's just say it's been postponed for a while. If you go to my Instagram page @tomcjbrown
I have Story highlights of the film's progression plus my own trip on a cargo ship (PLUS Cousin John highlights) xo