Hamptons International Film Festival is wrapping up its 2019 SummerDocs series with Rachel Mason’s Circus of Books.
We recently caught up with Mason, who provides an intimate portrait of her parents, Karen and Barry Mason, a straight couple who owned the gay porn shop, Circus of Books, which served as the Los Angeles epicenter for LGBT life and culture, and a look at the iconic venue’s history in the Netflix documentary.
This was an extremely personal story for you to document. What was it like telling your parents’ journey in Circus of Books?
RM: I think, because it was such a personal story, it really helped that I had an editor and a producer that I trusted along the way so that I could have other people to help me look outwardly at the footage and say, you know what? This is really important, you got to use this and you have to use that. Because there were times when things were too personal and I didn’t necessarily have the perspective that I needed. I do have to say, I have just an amazing editor, Kathryn Robson. I was just looking at, the other day, one of the scenes where I cry in my interview with Josh, and I just don’t know that I would have kept that shot. But, she was like this is poignant, we need this. I think when you’re making something so personal, it really is important to have other sets of eyes that help you through certain things.
Sometimes working with family can be a bit challenging. Were there any obstacles that you faced?
RM: Yes, her name is Karen Mason. My mom basically tried for four years to get this thing to not happen. But I just kept showing up, and I think that was really it. My mom, it was just a major, major secret for her and me shedding light on it was not something she was particularly happy about. My dad could have cared less, as you can tell. He’s not the thing that makes the film so fascinating, even though he is fascinating. I think getting my mom’s sense of why this was such a conflict and what her issues were is really what drives the story of the film.
Unfortunately, Circus of Books ended up closing its doors. Were you aware that that was a possibility when you initially started filming?
RM: That’s really what was the impetus for making the film. When the Silver Lake store closed in 2016, that’s when a producer said, you know, Rachel, if you don’t make this film, it’s not going to happen. You need to go to LA, I was living in New York at the time. So, what was always a distant idea of a project – you have many different ideas on the back burner, and this was one of them. It just became something on the forefront when I realized the doors were going to close.
Growing up, what did you know about your parents’ business?
RM: Growing up, I knew kind of the vaguest things, like you might know about any parent business. I knew that they had a store and but, like the film says, I was told never to tell the name of the store to anyone, which, also, again, I didn’t really question. I didn’t know why I was supposed to not say the name of the store. So, growing up, I just knew that there were certain rules about how we communicate about what my parents do. But, as far as what they did, they were really, really, really hardcore business people. They would have stacks of invoices on the table and at dinner time, they would be talking about things like payroll, and things that are just really all consuming small business details, the tedium of it’s not interesting or glamorous or fun. It’s just really kind of boring.
When did you learn exactly what type of bookstore it was and what was your reaction?
RM: It’s detailed really well, the moment, in the film because my friend Fernando says, Rachel Circus of Books is a porno store because I knew the name of it, and, of course, I told my friends in high school. Because my friends were the artists and the gay kids who loved that store, that’s when it turned into something when I realized, oh, wait, you guys go to that store? In LA, it’s kind of divided. There’s the Valley and there’s the mainland part of LA and I went to school in the Valley, and my friends would come all the way from the Valley, which was like a 45 minute drive, just to go to the store. So I thought, wow, that’s so funny, you guys would go all the way out to visit the store. It was really my high school friends introducing me to the store that led me to understand its value.
Could you speak a bit about the impact that Circus of Books had on the community?
RM: It really had different impacts through the decades. I would say when it first opened, before my parents even owned it, it was the 60s, and it was really one of those rare places. Being gay was actually illegal, you could get arrested, and it was a completely dangerous thing. So at the time, when it existed in the very early days, it was just like a kind of outlier that I don’t know if it’s even possible to have a comparison to today’s standards, because it was doing something that was so not present anywhere else. What I was told, from the older generation, was that it was kind of a lifeline. People who felt ostracized, people who really were completely cut out of society, were given a little glimpse that they just weren’t alone as gay people with these sexual fantasies, and that they weren’t totally depraved.
Then, I think in the 70s, and the 80s, it became more of a place where people collected and met, and it was like a hangout, and there was a lot of sexual activity. It became a kind of celebratory place where people enjoyed meeting each other, and there’s all kinds of wild behavior happening. Then, of course, in the 90s, when the AIDS crisis was in full swing, the store became kind of the center of education, people have told me. I have to say I heard all this, not from my own experience because I’m not old enough, I was a kid. So, my perspective is really different. But, people told me that in the 90s, it was, again, a place that they felt safe because they were so ostracized, and also they could find literature about AIDS. So, it was again, at that point, a different kind of safe haven for people in the community.
Then, when the Internet came along, in the 2000s, that’s when the store really kind of lost its central value. It became kind of a relic. I think in the last decade that it was around, it was sort of almost like a museum. You could walk in and get a time capsule of a different era. I think that was what it served as for the last ten years or so. People went in and they felt like they were stepping back in time to a different era in LA history. I think that was the final thing that it served as – it was sort of like a memorial to a different type of time and place in the city.
Tell us about whom you wanted to interview and what sort of archival footage you wanted to feature?
RM: The people that we interviewed, I really wanted somebody who was a major, major player in gay history. That was Alexei Romanoff, he’s somebody who’s been like the Grand Marshal of the Gay Pride Parade every year. He’s one of the actual founders of the Gay Pride Parade. The fact that he’s in our film… For the gay community, people know him and are just in awe. He’s a major, major, important figure. Amazingly, he was a co-owner of the bar that was called The New Faces, which was on the actual site of the original Silver Lake store, which was down the street from The Black Cat, which was the site of basically the LA Stonewall. It was a dream to get him in the film, and that he gave us a great interview…
Then, of course, Larry Flynt was really critical to the story to talk about how my parents got involved. I always knew that they knew him, but I didn’t know that he knew them. That was interesting when I met him. Then, of course, Jeff Stryker was important to the story because he was the most relevant gay porn star in history – that was the person that pretty much made my parents’ distribution careers happen. So, I just went through the story and found each and every person, my parents’ lawyer, who was available. I have to say, when I think of it, I’m just really lucky that everyone I reached out to, pretty much, was available and gave such good interviews. I think that’s really part of the success of this film is that we had incredible, excellent interviews with people whose memories are just wonderful. Then, of course, the members of my family, my brothers and my parents, they were willing to get interviewed.
In terms of historical documentation, it was really important that we found the early footage of police arresting gay people in bars. We have an amazing archival producer named Rachel Morrison, and she dug through and found incredible stuff for us. There was no footage of West Hollywood that we wanted to use and we went through lots of different archives to find the relevant footage, footage of the AIDS crisis. It was actually kind of a challenge to find footage that hadn’t been used before. So, one nice compliment we got is somebody who is a historian said he hadn’t seen this AIDS footage, because a lot of other documentaries use and recycle a lot of the same footage from that era. So, really, again, Kathryn, my editor, she did a great job. I worked with her just to sort through and make sure we were getting footage that we felt was useful to the story, and also some of the images that are the men in the AIDS section, the photographs that fade out, those are actual porn stars who I located through a friend of mine, who was a photographer for one of the original gay publications. I asked him and said I really want to be accurate here, can you find pictures of men who died of AIDS that I can use? He went through his archive and chose specifically men that he had photographed that he knew that he had the model releases for and he was really generous about giving me the permission to use those images. I had a graphic designer fade the images out, because I just thought that was really poignant, that you could just imagine the disappearance of these men. That was a big part of the AIDS section, just trying to encapsulate just how much loss was felt in this particular community. And, these men, a lot of people look down on porn stars, and think of people in the porn businesses as lesser, but these are guys that had families and they were people too. I just really wanted to humanize them. That was important to me, personally.
How much did you know about your parents’ story before filming?
RM: Quite a bit of it. But, of course, all the fun, juicy details, a lot of things I found out while making the film – things that were relevant to John Weston, their attorney, I didn’t know how close they really were to going to jail. They gloss over it, I did know of it, but from what they would say it was like, oh, it would never have happened. John Weston said, no, they got really close, really, really, really close. It was really luck in a lot of ways. He did great lawyering, but it was a lot of timing. I didn’t realize that they could have truly gone to jail and lost everything. They were really close to the edge. Talking to Jeff Stryker was really fascinating, because he is also a religious person, just like my mom. I didn’t recognize that there could be other people in the industry that had similar conflicts, and it was just fascinating to have the depth of interviews. I didn’t know that he saw it as a business too and he clocked in and clocked out, that there was just a real family oriented side of things that I wasn’t aware of, until I really started in earnest on it.
What do you hope viewers take away from the film?
RM: I think, actually, that last point – that when you look at porn stars, and you look at people in this industry, first off, the funny thing is that most people, especially men, there’s been a lot of studies on this. There was a study I read about in California that had to be cancelled, because they needed to find people that hadn’t looked at porn, compared to people who had looked at porn. They could not find a single person that hadn’t looked at porn. It’s just a part of who we are as humans. To deny that we are sexual beings, and that we have eyeballs, and we want to look at sex from time to time is kind of like denying any element of being a human. I feel on one hand, you get a glimpse into just the real, regular people behind this industry. People who died during the AIDS crisis, or people like Jeff Stryker who is a funny guy with a funny sense of humor, not some freak or pervert. I just feel like you see the employees, you see my parents, you see the store, you see that the people in this industry are just regular people. That’s one piece of it.
Then, the other piece of it is really my mom’s overcoming her religious views. I feel like we’re at this really scary time in our society in the US here where a part of our culture is just incredibly dug in, and very hateful and the other part is unwilling to communicate. I think we have a really divided society. I feel like, especially for the LGBT community, it’s really important to find a way to have outreach to a world that just might not understand and is just inherently offended by what exists in our culture. I just hope that because you see my mom struggle with her biblical convictions and overcome some of the things that led her to be so homophobic, even though she was in this world, that could be an example for other people. I really hope that this film, because it’s being distributed on Netflix, which is just giving it this wide access to the mainstream, allows the film to be a kind of ambassador in each really divided times, and that would be my ultimate hope for the film – to do outreach in that way.
Circus of Books will screen at Guild Hall on Saturday, August 24 at 7 p.m. The viewing will be followed by director Rachel Mason and special guests in conversation with HIFF Co-Chair Alec Baldwin and Artistic Director David Nugent.
Guild Hall is located at 158 Main Street in East Hampton. For more information, visit hamptonsfilmfest.org.