The art of being seen

Silas Howard, Harry Dodge and Steak House look back at By Hook Or By Crook

by Jennie Kermode

Harry Dodge and Silas Howard in By Hook Or By Crook
Harry Dodge and Silas Howard in By Hook Or By Crook

They say that art flourishes within constraints. The way that LGBTQ+ stories have been pushed to the margins for most of the history of cinema has caused a lot of problems, but it has also enabled some remarkable talents to emerge within the niche which developed as a result, creating impressive pieces of art even with limited tools. One film which stands out even after 20 years, and which will shortly be receiving an anniversary screening at Outfest Los Angeles, is By Hook Or By Crook, the story or two young transmasculine people surviving in the big city and finding a way to live life on their own terms. I was delighted to have the opportunity to discuss it with writers/directors/stars Silas Howard and Harry Dodge, together with producer Steak House, in the run-up to the big event.

All three have moved on it their careers since then. Silas has become a successful director, whose films include A Kid Like Jake, who has helmed episodes of Transparent and Pose, and who also has a short film, Madelynn Von Ritz Is Almost Famous, screening at the festival. Harry has become an author and has just released his latest book of literary non-fiction, My Meteorite: Or, Without The Random There Can Be No New Thing. Steak continues to work as a producer and is currently working on the series Queer For Fear for AMC’s Shudder. As they talk, however, the chemistry between them is so lively that it’s as if they were never apart.

A lot has changed in the interim. Times were tough back at the turn of the century and LGBTQ+ rights have advanced in some ways which we scarcely felt possible at the time, but there’s also a worrying backlash happening at the moment, with trans people denied medical care in some parts of the US, children taken from their loving families and concerns that non-heterosexual sex may once again be outlawed in places. How does it feel to be screening the film again at this time?

Silas Howard
Silas Howard Photo: Shervin Lainez

“It's interesting, I guess,” says Silas. “I feel like the representation of gender is very fluid now. I identify as trans, everybody here identifies differently. I think we were in our own world of creating, when pushing and playing with the stereotypes, because gender was a construct that we knew. We felt like we had a firm understanding of that, at least at that point. We were pushing back on the mainstream.”

“There's just a lot,” says Harry, reflecting on the way things are today, “but I mean, there's always been a lot, there was a lot then that was just as hard as now. It's just a whole different turbulent set of difficulties, basically, depending on who you are and what your body is like, and where you're located on the planet. You know, what kind of privileges you have and don’t have. But yeah, it's a tough time right now. But I do think that the film, either arriving then or now comes in as a kind of insistent, vibrant, empowered, spinning core of brightness, in that it doesn't pander, in that it doesn't explain, in that we were committed to the experiment of expressing something, and expressing it in a way that we wanted to know more about. Its experimentalness and the way we played with convention in places and the way we flouted it in other places, all of that, I think, then and now makes it a strong thing to land in a world that is both beautiful and extremely difficult.”

Silas nods. “I would just add too, I think all of us were really influenced by growing up in the early Nineties. With AIDS and activism happening. It was a very clear time of hatred for people like ourselves, it was not very subtle. There's still a lot of hatred, unfortunately, it just takes more subtle forms, but the church would be out there actively saying ‘This is God's retribution.’ And this was really in our faces. So we were trying to pretend like a revolution already happened and trying to queerify the straight world that we were living in.”

“ I think I thought I was fighting a battle that we would win something and then keep it,” Steak says. “I think that what's going on is very much the rug is pulled out on our feet right now. We're just in a place where, you know, it seemed like we were making progress on it. On our acceptance in the world and women's rights in the world. And right now it feels very much like, whoa, we've done 50,000 steps backwards, and it's quite terrifying. But I think for me, I'm going to be like this: it helps people to accept themselves, no matter when they see it.

“Now, there's people in the world who don't have the community that we had back then, who don't have the communities that we have now. At this point, I would say that I'm much more comfortable in life than I was then. I have a better job, I make more money, In a way I’m privileged, compared to who I was when we made this movie. When I made this movie I was living cheque to cheque, you know? Trying to get by, just trying to make it and trying to be in the world. And I think that when you're doing that, you're experimenting. You do anything, because you're living kind of so cheaply, and on the edge, that you make something on the edge. And I think that's the beauty of your first feature, right? That you do things that you could never do now. I couldn't make this movie now.

“And then, you know, we were lucky to have a community that did support and love and accept us. Sure, it wasn't perfect, and some people were not nice all the time. But it was definitely a community. And if a little bit of that community can be shown to someone who is struggling with who they are in the world, then that's wonderful that they can see this movie.”

It was certainly the case then that there were few LGBTQ+ films with happy endings, I note. There still aren’t all that many now, and I think that one of the most radical things we can do is simply to let people see that it’s possible to happy.

“Absolutely,” says Silas. “We were really certain that this was where the little queerdos didn't die, weren’t killed, could be different – could be challenged with mental health issues or whatever poverty issues, and that they still got to have joy and community through connection, that sort of thing. And it's like, let's take the thing, when you wake up and you're so illegal, you know, just just being yourself, it's not a hard step to feel like doing crime, you're already kind of forced into that position. And if you looked queer in that era, your job options were very limited. You did pay a price for it. And we made ourselves visible. with mohawks or whatever. It's just like, because we were told that we should be invisible.”

Harry Dodge
Harry Dodge Photo: courtesy of Harry Dodge

It’s still really rare to see transmasculine or butch people onscreen, I say, and Harry says that that’s one of the reasons why they made the film..

“I mean, there was a couple of reasons. Silas and I were like, 26, or something. We were running a café and we thought, what are we going to do when we grow up? This was right when Clerks had just been made, suddenly indie film was a thing. And then you could suddenly get famous being a film director with a film that you made, like at home, and we were like, ‘Yeah, that's what we'll do. We'll be Hollywood film directors, and that's going to be how we get enough money to be grownups.’ This was our financial plan. And so with that, we started writing, we started this project. So there was that, and then there was also this other thing that Silas and I had in common, which is we were like frustrated movie stars, you know?

“I call myself a tomboy. As a kid, there wasn't a lot of anything really, save for I would say Kristy McNichol and Jodie Foster. And that might be more than there is right now, as far as who's on TV. I don't watch that much TV. So we always thought, ‘We'll never be movie stars unless we make our own movie.’ And we had been always waiting for some representation, and it really wasn't coming fast enough. It wasn't enough and it was never satisfying. So we thought we'd try something ourselves.”

“Yeah,” says Silas. “And you know, I think we knew people were like, ‘You should have someone else directing. You act.’ And I was like, ‘There's never going to be another role after this for somebody like me! We’d better do it.” He laughs. “And that was a good call. But yeah, I loved acting as a kid and I was like a weirdo in this working class, small town. I have a real passion for – as a director, now – working with actors, the collaboration of it. And the benefit of the hyper vigilance we were used to, in a film set, has parlayed into a positive thing.

“But yeah, just an urgent desire to tell the story, I think, is really what drove us. In that time, you had to make your own thing. I had a band. We’d make our own band, make our own record labels, make our own clubs, make our own café, make our own art spaces. And it was good. We didn't wait for permission, because we knew nobody cared. That was a good motivator for us, to know that it was on us to make it happen.”

“That's what I mean by world building,” says Harry. “You know, it's kind of like, what do you want to do next? You know, what do we need? And how can we make it happen? And it was never just us alone. There was always people helping us with the café, helping with our clubs and our events. And there was just a sort of groundswell of people community building together, and we didn't know we were doing. It was very innate.”

“And it was just our world,” adds Silas. “I mean, we're not a monolith. So we were trying to represent a very specific friendship. Because there's so much pressure sometimes when there's so little representation, to take on representation that's maybe too far from your own experience to feel authentic.”

The film still feels very personal and very fresh today. It’s a marvelously constructed thing, a collage of small incidents which gradually builds together and develops meaning. What was the development process for that like?

”Over the various years, we wrote two scripts and tried to shop them around and there was no uptake,” says Harry. “Those were more big budget, shoot ‘em up bank robbery heist things, you know, which we retained an element of, but eventually we realised we needed to do something that we knew more about, and we knew about our friendship. We had been friends for a long time. So we we used a couple of details from my life, a couple of details from Silas’ life, and some of the specific chemistry and love that we had for each other, and then just just went with that. We tried to get into very specific things, and details in life and build from that. So it became a character driven film instead of an action driven film.

“So then we wrote that third script and started to get uptake. And then we shot it for the script. And then we had this three hour edit, and I knew that that was too long. But also some stuff we shot didn't work because scenes didn't work. Other stuff was really strong. And there were some experiments we had done that hadn't worked out, and some of them were very beautiful. And so we did ten days of reshoots to reconstruct a story, not the script anymore.

“So we let it teach us, but we also formed it like a piece of clay. From the first edit to the last edit of the film, a lot can happen and definitely a lot happened for us, but we weren't just watching Hollywood films. The ones that were inspiring in some ways were the weirdest stuff, right? Julien Donkey-Boy had just come out and I was really inspired by that visually. And Y Tu Mama Tambien, I think came out either right then or right as I was editing, and that was a very odd movie too, but both of those, in our eyes anyway, were as radical as we were.”

Steak House
Steak House Photo: courtesy of Steak House

“I've just done my first studio film [Darby Harper Wants You To Know] and it’s the same thing,” says Silas. “You cut parts off and other things you add. But I think mostly our goals were pulling from Harry's performance, and I think that was a stylistic choice. And I think it was also the power of being seen, you know, as opposed to being looked at. Being looked at is basically distancing and can be very isolating. And then the first time somebody sees you, like, when they're running, and they're looking at each other, and there's a sense of like, there's somebody like me, then all of a sudden, the world opens up and you feel empowered to be yourself. But it's hard to do that without at least one person seeing you and getting you.”

Now they're working on an archival restoration. Does that involve making any changes?

“We’re not going to change the story of the film,” says Steak. “We're just working on the look. At the time we shot on DV, which, honestly, is not the best looking format. It's what we could afford. I think it's probably something that I brought to them saying, ‘Well, if you want to make it, this is how we can do it.’ And there was a lot of film talk, but we just didn't have the money to shoot on film. So we shot on DV and we now want to see if we can make a better look, based on the tools available today versus 20 years ago, and really make sure that we restore this film as the classic that it is and should be.

As a producer, I had a short film at Outfest and I went to these morning brunch meetings where industry people would tell you, you know, how you can be in a movie. And I was like, ‘Come on, who wants to support this movie?, And 99% of them would say, ‘You can't make a movie with two butch or trans leads.’ I was like, ‘No, we can and we will. We will do this.’

“Finally Bruce Cohen said to me, ‘Look, every movie has a two headed monster. This is your two headed monster.’ They both wrote the movie, star in the movie, and are going to direct the movie, and have never actually made a movie before. And it was a big undertaking for all of us. But it was cool to have one industry person say it's going to be okay. And then, you know, I think we just kept believing in ourselves. We all had made so many things ourselves before that, we didn't look to the outside. So we just said ‘No, we we can do anything.’ And our rent was 300 bucks in San Francisco or something? 400 bucks, maybe. We left with nothing.”

“I think Jack Halberstam or somebody said ‘nothing stops capitalism like a masculine female,” says Silas, and they all laugh.

“I remember, even our friends that were in bands, if that band started to get popular, or got on a label, that big labels wanted to get rid of the butches in the band,” says Harry. “They were like, ‘Well, we'll sign you for a record deal, but that drummer, she's got to go. The public won't buy these records if you have that butch person in your band.’ Or, you know, they’d try to make them look more stereotypically female by putting certain clothing on and lipstick and things like that.”

“Yeah, I think it's still a challenge,” says Silas. “Trans. If you're passing, you know, that becomes okay. If you're butch or you’re non-binary...” He shakes his head. “It’s changing. I mean, I've worked predominantly on queer shows, which is incredible, because there are streamers and networks. But until something's built from the ground up, you know, that's when it gets universal and has all those details and the specificity to become a human story instead of explaining.

“To me, it's always about the transformative power of loss and grief and about not explaining, you know? Because it's a power dynamic. The audience do the math. And so by hook or by crook, I've carried that forward.”

The film gets a fresh lease on life every five years or so, he tells me, when festivals start to take an interest in it again.

“I sat in on classes that have watched it and young people going ‘How I have not known about this movie?’ and I'm like, ‘You're only 19.’” He laughs. “But it's amazing. It's a real gift that it hasn't aged out, you know, because we lose our history quite a lot when language changes. And so that's the thing that I've been most concerned about. Anyway, I feel really thrilled that it still has its diehard crowd.”

“We’re actively fundraising right now to do the restoration,” says Steak. “We're looking to raise about $20k to get a beautiful new restoration so that the film can live on and on and on. I think the thing about this film that's interesting is that it's always been kind of sneaking along, and then more recently, it started to pick up. I think in the last couple of years, it's been two or three screenings a year. This is, I think, like the first step of really saying, ‘Hey, it is the 20 year anniversary, let's really get out there and push it a little bit and get some new audiences to see it.’ I think it's just so important to keep that film history alive.”

“I think it's really gratifying that people still want to watch it, people still find it gripping and moving,” says Harry. That was the job that we wanted to do. What we undertook was to hit people in their hearts, and the fact that it can still do that is great. And I remember at the time wanting it to be timeless. Those are the last few phone booths. There was sort of this retro feeling already with the cars, all the cars that we decided to use were not of the era. And so there was some kind of a historical aesthetic anyway, that was underlying the whole thing, that I feel helps as well. And then the fact that we weren't engaged with explaining meant that we weren't cementing or telegraphing the historical moment of the history of queer rights, so that’s really fascinating too. We really focused in on the specificity in the weird details of their friendship. And I think that that is a great vehicle to get other kinds of things done, the specificity and the beauty there.”

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