One of the highlights among the many premieres at SXSW this month was the documentary Behind The Curtain: Todrick Hall, which took us on a behind-the-scenes journey of the creation of Hall’s record Straight Outta Oz, its music videos and a subsequent tour – all put together in an impressively short amount of time. While at the festival I sat down with the film’s director Katherine Fairfax Wright and Todrick Hall himself, who will be heading down to Australia with the show in June. We talk about the pair’s crazy workload, working to deadlines, assembling a team and reflect on some of the film’s themes.
Thank you so much for taking the time to talk to me today here at SXSW. We’re less than 24 hours after the world premiere of your film. How are you feeling? It’s a lot to put out into the world, for both of you.
Katherine: I’m feeling great. I was thrilled with everything last night. I had so many people from so many different walks of life say pretty extraordinary things to me about Todrick and about the character study that is the film, and the love story between the mother and the son, and the bigger social issue things that come into the film and that all that played very organically for them. It was just fantastic to hear that.
How long before we saw it on the screen had you finished the cut?
Katherine: Approximately, probably like, 30 hours. Just enough time to make a DCP and FedEx it here.
It’s a common story amongst filmmakers here.
And it also, it feels very appropriate given how you operate Todrick. Everything seems down to the wire!
Todrick Hall: Yeah.
I mean it was asked onstage last night, you know, “How was it kind of keeping up with him?” I think you were having to keep up with each other. You both were doing so much. How do you keep your energies up when you’ve got that much happening all at once?
Katherine: Well, I think Todrick just naturally has it. I have it in bursts, but I’m also just … I don’t know if competitive is the right word, but I’m not going to let someone like, work harder than I’m working.
Given what you show in the film, Todrick seems like a dangerous person to be competing with…
Todrick Hall: No, but, she can hang. She really can. There were nights that you hung more than I did. I would fall asleep and she’d stay up.
She actually put in the shots of you falling asleep, too.
Katherine: And I had to cut out a lot of them, so –
Todrick Hall: So funny.
Katherine: – those are just the remaining ones.
Todrick Hall: Yeah, I will work until I literally can’t stay up anymore, until I’m … I will be practising –
Katherine: There’s a time when falls asleep mid-lyric, and then in the other time, like, mid-whatever, doing something on his phone with his hands still in the phone-cradling position.
Todrick Hall: Yeah, it was really crazy, but I think that this would … It wouldn’t have happened like this had it been someone else. We needed somebody who was down for the cause and she like, more than proved that she was down, not only to be the best person to make this documentary but to be a part of the team as well.
Do you work, for both of you, do you work best on tight deadlines? Because it seems like some of this you put on yourselves.
Katherine: I know I am that way, and I think maybe Todrick is, too.
Todrick Hall: I am for sure. I’m the type of person that … I have some videos that I have to shoot this week where the songs haven’t been done. They will get done but I’m one of those people that if I have three hours to do it, I will focus for three hours, but if I have three weeks to do it, I’ll wait until the last three hours, you know?
I feel like if an old school muso watches how you work, they won’t even be able to begin to get their head around it. You’ve grown up in the YouTube era of content creation which is completely different. You’re not having to book a studio six months in advance to work with a legendary producer to do this, to do that, to get your deal. It’s here, it’s now.
Todrick Hall: Yeah.
Is that a fair assessment of how you ended up kind of being that … Approaching your craft in that way?
Todrick Hall: Absolutely. I mean, just being someone right now in 2017. When you’re an online content creator, if you take two months, or two weeks, or two days to decide you’re going to shoot something that’s relevant now … Because there’s so much content and so many social things happening in social media and pop culture, if you wait, then you’re not going not be the person that gets their product out the fastest and that’s the way you get buys on your product.
People are so used to being able to get things right when they need them and not have to wait. So, just by nature, everyone that does what I do has to be kind of like, really quick moving.
You’re coming back a new set of performances for Straight Outta Oz pretty soon. The show was put together incredibly fast in the first instance. If you’d seen that performance, no one would have known that you were scrambling up to the minute you walked on stage. I must feel good, though, to be going into the next run of shows knowing that we know what we’re doing a little. Comparatively.
Katherine: Except that of course that’s not at all how Todrick’s approaching it. He’s decided to change everything.
Have you? You’re just redoing the whole thing.
Todrick Hall: A lot of it, yeah. It started out, “Well, we’ll just redo these couple numbers,” and now there’s new costumes for almost everything and there will be new choreography, so it will be just as difficult. There’s so many new dancers that teaching them the new choreography will be difficult, but we definitely have a structure of the show. There is a version of the show that has been performed many times, so it will definitely be easier this time. I’m not as tired this time as I was last time.
Writing 16 songs in two weeks is such a draining process because often times the songs start to sound the same. You have to be able to innovate and come up with a new idea, which isn’t difficult if you’ve had new experiences in between those two projects. When you’re writing songs every day, sometimes I would write something and it would be great, and then I would listen to it and I’d say, “Oh my gosh, Todrick, that’s the same chord progressions, the same rhythm, the same melody as the last song.”
So, you have to scratch this whole thing that you’ve worked on.
I’m really big on rhyming. I like every word to rhyme, and preferably, if we can have two rhymes on each line that match up to the two rhymes on the line previous or following it, it just rolls off the tongue more. I think people who focus on lyrics really appreciate the time and effort you took to make those things rhyme. Sometimes those things glaze over, you know, just the average person who’s watching it and taking in all the visuals at the same time, but those things are important to me. I really put a lot of work into every lyric that I write, and every song, and every chord progression, and also how it’s sang in the harmonies, All of those things are so draining, so this time will be a lot easier.
Katherine: You’re also writing songs from different POVs. You’re writing songs from the mother’s perspective, you’re writing songs from the Wizard’s perspective, you know? Because it’s storytelling, as well, because it’s a musical, essentially.
Todrick Hall: One hundred percent. That’s what also makes it difficult because the song has to further plot. Sometimes if you just want to write a song, you say, “Today, I’m going to write a song about people with big butts,” and then you just focus on that subject matter. It doesn’t have to come from another narrative and go into another narrative. It just is like a stand-alone piece. When you’re writing something that’s a musical that has to tell a story and there’s almost no dialogue, at all, there’s very little dialogue.
Katherine: Very little.
Todrick Hall: It has to make sense and that’s something that a lot of people don’t understand. I would never normally sing a song called “The Wrong Bitch.” Like, my mom would never have that happen. But I said, “The Witch in this story would sing this song. She would say this.” So, that was how I kind of like, got around it. I think the audience understands that. “Oh, that’s not Todrick’s point of view. This is Todrick, but this is the Witch. This is the Tin Man, this is the Scarecrow, this is the Lion,” who are all aspects of who I am, but that is also an important part because the Tin Man is not going to sing the same way the Witch would.
Those are things that I have to think about. My mom talks completely different than Chester would talk, you know what I mean? Those were the obstacles that I had to overcome.
You’ve just come off a run on Broadway, playing Lola in Kinky Boots. You were saying last night, eight shows a week. Somehow, that almost seems like a slightly less crazy pace than you’re used to. Was it nice to focus on something else, that you didn’t have complete creative control of?
Todrick Hall: Yes. Absolutely. It was nice to just be a student and have someone tell me what to do, and they were like, “You take notes so well.”
And I’m like, “Because I don’t ever get them!” I love being somewhere and having someone else tell me what to do, show up there at the time and only have to focus on my performance. I feel like I only excelled in Kinky Boots because I only had to work on that, on my part. It was difficult in a lot of different ways. I had to rest a lot to be able to sing, but I had to do that on tour as well.
That’s harder to do when you’re having to orchestrate everything.
Katherine: And do press every morning.
Todrick Hall: And you’re stressed also. Even when nothing happens, you’re stressed that something could happen.
Katherine: And then it’s on your shoulders, whereas with Kinky Boots it’s on someone else’s shoulders.
You can blame other people.
Todrick Hall: Exactly.
Assembling a team is so important and that’s, I think, the key to your success Todrick has been the people that you’ve placed around you and I think the film shows that very well.
Can you talk a little bit about the team you assembled for the film itself Katherine? I know you did so much of it yourself.
Katherine: Yeah, I didn’t have a team until … Well, I had Awesomeness Films who was great for like, the resources of course, and just like the business infrastructure and people to organise things back in L.A. if something needed to be done. In terms of like, day-to-day, in production, I didn’t have anyone until tour.
My cousin Breanne (Wright), who had never worked in film but who I just trusted immensely, she’s just like super capable and super smart and quick. We get along well and I just decided to hire her over some more obvious choices because, sort of like how, particularly, with such care that Todrick has to find his team, I felt the same way in terms of someone that’s going to be cool on the bus and able to just hang with everyone. She was really the perfect choice. She was there only for like, a third of the shoot, though.
Editing was also on my own, except a friend came on to watch some of the selects that I had pulled, and that was kind of nice, to finally have a second voice of, “Oh, this scene is funny. This scene is really powerful. Oh, that fan’s moment is really strong,” just because so much of it is so subjective. Especially when you’re the one editing who has also shot it, you run the danger of things seeming more important to you, or carrying different contexts because you have so much other knowledge of everything, you know? So, like, a moment with Chester may seem really strong to me, but less strong to someone else because they don’t know this. The moment with this thing might seem really strong to me but not so strong to someone else and –
Yeah, you can get so connected to one scene, and then you find that you get rid of it and it actually is much better without it, even though you loved that scene so much.
Katherine: Yeah, exactly. Killing your darlings.
It’s always hard. Those cuts are always hard, and I imagine you have to make quite a few of them along the way.
Katherine: Yeah, there is, definitely, but the beauty of that –
A lot of footage.
Katherine: Yeah, there was like, 200 hours of footage or something, so it was a lot to cut down. Although my friend Brock (Williams) came on for the last month and he was really helpful in the final stages of doing all that. The other beauty of it is, there’s so much footage that I can still sort of, that I’m sure at some point can find a life, still, with Todrick’s fans or whatever, putting it on his YouTube channel. There’s just so many nice little scenes and moments from the interview and stuff that didn’t make it into the film that are still so powerful.
This feels not only a love letter to your fans in many way, just another way for you to connect to them and for them to connect with you, but also a way for people to discover you and people to learn your story. How aware are you of the fact that this may open you up to a world of new fans?
Todrick Hall: I don’t know, it’s really difficult, because when you’re not doing traditional media … The way I grew up, you are aware when you are on television, that millions of people are going to see it. Even though I realise that I have 400 million views online, you don’t equate that to being real people sometimes. So now, I do so much content and so many interviews that I don’t really think about where it’s going.
I think the answer is, not very aware, and I kind of like that. I just kind of like putting things out and if it touches someone … You can never predict who it touches. Sometimes straight men, who I’ve always been afraid of, like my life, come up to me and I’m like, “Oh my gosh, they’re going to say something to me,” and they’re like, “Yo, I’m a really big fan of what you do.” I’m like, “How would this person have ever seen my videos?” I think that’s the really cool part about this. So, I don’t really think about it, but I hope and pray that it reaches new people, or even just gives people who thought they knew me a new perspective on who I really am. I might lose some fans –
Katherine: I doubt that.
Todrick Hall: – from it. I doubt it, but who knows? I’m just, I’m trying to not be, like –
“He’s not the boy we thought he was!”
Todrick Hall: Exactly. “He says curse words! Oh my gosh!” I hope that everything that I do reaches someone new and that I bring in new fans and new followers that way, that can hopefully be moved and be inspired by the things that we have done.
I certainly found it inspiring. And it’s surprisingly emotional, too – when the film is unexpectedly set against the backdrop of the Orlando Massacre, those are some incredibly powerful and difficult scenes to watch. What do you hope people take away from the film Katherine?
Katherine: I think, with the fan stuff in terms of giving them a sort of angle on Todrick that they haven’t necessarily seen before. Even this morning I met up with a guy who has his PhD in history and was just like, “This is not normally my thing. I had no idea who this person was, but I just think his, you know, he’s just so captivating, and I’m so grateful that I saw this film…” That’s the power of long-form documentary for me.
Then, also, what you said about the sort of larger social issue type stuff that I think are woven somewhat organically into the film, and that certainly came up organically over the course of the summer that we filmed the documentary … I hope people just start to think about, you know, put a face to the name sort of thing, like with the Orlando scene. Those weren’t just people who were gunned down. They were fans of Todrick who were gunned down. That could have been Todrick who was gunned down because he was there (at Pulse Nightclub) all the time. It was, you know, these are people with mothers like Brenda … I think that’s also the power of this type of media, so I hope that’s what some of it does.
Well, thank you so much for your time, and we’ll see you in Australia in June.
Todrick Hall: Oh my gosh, I can’t wait. You have no idea.
It’s going to be a fun show.
Todrick Hall: I am so the most excited that I’ve ever been to go there, and I’m glad that it’s the last spot for shows.
Katherine: Yeah, you can stay for a little bit.
Oh, are you going to stick around for a little bit afterward?
Todrick Hall: I might, I might be able to stay. I’m supposed to go to Hawaii the next week, but I hope to stay there for a little bit and if so, I will definitely be spending time in Sydney.
Behind The Curtain: Todrick Hall will be released later in the year. In the meantime, those in Australia have his debut tour to look forward to!
Straight Outta Oz – Australian Tour Dates
June 1st – Astor Theatre, Perth
June 3nd – Plaza Auditorium, Brisbane
June 4th – Enmore Theatre, Sydney
June 5th – Athenaeum Theatre, Melbourne