By Ken Williams | Contributing Editor
FilmOut festival to kick off with hilarious sequel to Del Shore’s cult classic
Brother Boy, Latrelle, Sissy, LaVonda, Noleta and the other wacky “Sordid Lives” characters are back for one final romp through homophobia and bigotry in Winters, Texas.
Complicating matters, a bisexual serial killer is on the run and he becomes smitten with Brother Boy!
Writer-director Del Shores and his large cast will bring a barrel of laughs when “A Very Sordid Wedding” opens FilmOut San Diego’s 19th annual San Diego LGBT Film Festival, which runs June 9-11.
“A Very Sordid Wedding” will screen at 7 p.m. Friday, June 9 at the historic Observatory North Park theater. Tickets are $45 for the film, the Q&A session with Shores and the cast immediately following the film, and the Opening Night party at the Sunset Temple.
Arriving 17 years after “Sordid Lives” debuted on the silver screen, the sequel is set in the summer of 2015, not long after the U.S. Supreme Court made its historic ruling in favor of marriage equality. The high court’s dramatic 5-4 decision doesn’t please too many residents of the Texas town, where big-haired gossips and beer-guzzling rednecks conspire with their homophobic preacher to stage an anti-equality church rally with the goal of preventing same-sex marriages from happening in Runnels County.
Why release the sequel now?
Shores, a real-life native of Winters, Texas, population 2,562, wasn’t so sure he ever wanted to do a sequel to “Sordid Lives.” He readily admitted to being “bitter” about his experience working with Logo TV on his 2008 prequel, “Sordid Lives: The Series,” which featured the original cast plus stars Olivia Newton-John as Bitsy Mae Harling and Rue McClanahan as Peggy.
Shores published a long letter on his Facebook page in 2009 and accused the network of not paying residuals — royalties paid to talent for repeat showings — and aired other grievances in explaining to disappointed fans why the TV series would not return for a green-lighted second season.
“I resisted it for so long,” Shores said. “I was frankly a little bitter after the demise of the TV series. But the fans kept showing me their ‘Sordid’ love, so I decided to complete the journey, if I could find the right story. And I feel I did.”
What did Shores want to say in the sequel?
“That people have the ability to evolve! To grow. To change. To learn from those they love,” he said.
Without spoiling the plot, Shores reveals that the character of Latrelle Williamson — masterfully played by Bonnie Bedelia throughout the years — is the one who has evolved the most.
“No question about it,” Shores said. “Sissy is right there by her side, but Latrelle makes a beautiful journey in the amazing incarnation by Bonnie Bedelia. That day shooting the church scene with Dale Dickey and Bonnie Bedelia could be my favorite day of directing ever.”
Dickey, who played Glyndora in the original movie and TV series, takes over the role of Sissy Hickey — aunt to Brother Boy, LaVonda and Latrelle. In the sequel, Sissy makes it her mission to study the Bible page by page to find out what the good book says about homosexuality. Sissy also updates her little notebook in order to keep up on political correctness, which is a hilarious recurring joke throughout the movie.
“This was my 15th time to work with Dale and I will work with her as long as she will work with me,” Shores said.
“I happen to think Dale Dickey is a national treasure, one of our best actresses,” he continued. “So, when Beth Grant turned down the role, I went right to Dale. She had done the LA revival of ‘Sordid Lives’ and won an Ovation nomination for her brilliant portrayal of Sissy and also did the national tour. She is perfection in the role. Deep, complex, funny, and my real Aunt Sissy lives on!”
An important theme
For actor/producer Emerson Collins, who is also Shores’ business partner, the sequel comes at a crucial moment in American history at a time when the Trump administration and the Religious Right are trying to curtail or take away hard-earned LGBT legal rights.
“For me,” Collins said, “it was important to continue to point out the hypocritical judgment that LGBTQ people encounter culturally in their families’ churches and communities despite advances in legal equality and at the same time celebrate that LGBTQ people of faith do have affirming church homes available!”
Shores explores the concept of “religious freedom” in the sequel, so the film is timely since Trump recently issued an executive order that allows legal discrimination by faith groups.
Will things get worse before they get better? Is Shores glum about the future?
“Amazingly, I’m not pessimistic,” he said. “We’ve seen how judges immediately rule against 45’s executive orders, and I suspect the same will happen with this one. These bigots are being exposed for their ignorance and I believe we have to scream loudly and continue to be heard — whether it be in our work, on stage, on social media. So, maybe we will take some steps back, but I do believe that we will continue to take more steps forward because the majority of this nation is now with us.”
“Progress is always made over the weeping and gnashing of teeth of those who prefer the status quo, but inevitably it moves forward,” he said. “The important thing for all of us is that, as bigots fight back, we protect and fight hardest for the most vulnerable in our community, from trans women of color to LGBTQ youth.”
The challenges of producing
Shores and Collins ended up as producers for the sequel, along with six other financiers. That added even greater responsibility for both men.
As an indie producer with a tight budget and a limited number of days to shoot, the challenge was “finding the right story for each character to complete their ‘Sordid’ journey,” Shores said. “And, raising the money!”
Collins said his challenge as a producer was “shooting a low-budget indie with 32 actors in two different countries with two different crews in 15 total days!”
That’s right: The movie was shot in Dallas, Texas, and in Manitoba, Canada. So how did big-city Winnipeg become a stand-in for small-town Winters, Texas?
“Caroline Rhea [who plays Noleta Nethercott] is Canadian and did a movie up there several months before we shot ‘A Very Sordid Wedding.’ She called me and said, ‘Why don’t we shoot in Canada?’ The incentives to shoot there made sense and this became the only way we could make the movie we wanted to make,” Shores said.
“The Canadian dollar had slipped — unfortunately for them, fortunately for us,” he continued. “I called my good friend Michael MacLennan, another Canadian, who produced and wrote on ‘Queer As Folk’ with me, [which] we shot in Toronto, and he plugged us into Buffalo Gal Pictures and it was a match.
“I could not believe we found the locations to match Winters, Texas, but we did. And best crew I’ve ever worked with.”
Did they save money by shooting in Canada?
“We did! We had incredible partners in Buffalo Gal Pictures who put together an incredibly gifted crew and helped us take advantage of tax incentives that ensured that we stretched the budget as far as possible to make sure all of the money is on screen,” Shores said. “It did make for an interesting adventure getting 24 actors there and shooting with snow flurries one day standing in for July in Texas.”
The scenes shot in Texas were done in Dallas, mostly at the Rose Room, a gay landmark inside the Station 4 nightclub in the Oak Lawn neighborhood. It was a thrill for Collins, a former Dallas resident, even though they had only one day to film their drag-show scenes involving Brother Boy.
“We had four different locations in and around the club to shoot in 12 hours with more than 250 extras,” Collins said. “It was possible because of the phenomenal Dallas crew, the support of Caven Enterprises [which owns a slew of LGBT bars there], the incredible cast and the enthusiasm of the extras!”
“It was one amazing crazy day. We pulled it off all because of Emerson Collins,” Shore said.
Another amazing day of shooting accommodated the ever-busy Whoopi Goldberg, who had only six hours to film her cameo role as a wedding officiant.
“Whoopi is a good friend of Caroline Rhea, and Caroline introduced her to the series.” Shores said. “One day Caroline called me, passed the phone to Whoopi, who praised my writing and told me she wanted to work with me. I wrote her into the second season of the TV series, which never happened, and Caroline informed me that Whoopi would love to be a part of the new film. I wrote the role and I’ll let Emerson tell you how we got her to Winnipeg for those five magical hours. She was amazing. Is amazing. A delight. Gracious. Loving. A pro!”
“Whoopi and her team were incredibly supportive in making it possible,” Collins said. “They found one six-hour window during our shoot schedule on a Friday night that she could be with us.
“We built the entire plan around that one night and she rode her bus 27 hours from New York City to Winnipeg after a taping of ‘The View’ to get there,” he continued. “She was gracious and generous and when Del told her she could improvise her lines she responded, ‘What you wrote is brilliant, how about I just say that?’ When she finished, she got back on her bus and drove on!”
Besides producing, Collins also played the part of Billy Joe Dobson, a bisexual serial killer who escapes prison and hooks up with Brother Boy, played again by Leslie Jordan.
“Del wrote the part for me, so it’s basically typecasting, I think! Seriously though, the most important start to playing this kind of character is to not judge him as the actor,” Collins said. “It’s my job to make sure his motivations are clear and rooted in the real experiences that got him to this course of action, and then the audience can make judgments about his actions.”
End of the road
Despite a legion of fans, the “Sordid Lives” cottage industry is closing shop.
“Yes, this is the last chapter,” Shores said. “I have lots more characters and stories in me, but it was time to end my amazingly wonderful ‘Sordid’ journey.”
So what’s next for Shores and Collins?
Besides promoting the sequel, Shores said he is developing a new TV series that he loves, writing a new play called “This Side of Crazy” and working on his new one-man show, “Six Characters in Search of a Play.”
Collins is promoting the movie as it travels the film festival circuit and gets wider play in mainstream cinemas.
“The audience reaction in theaters is jaw-dropping with multiple applause breaks in every premiere we’ve attended, from Palm Springs to Dallas to Fort Lauderdale, and the laughs cover the next lines throughout the film,” Collins said.
“It’s a special community experience to laugh together,” he said. “In this particularly difficult political climate, this is our contribution to the conversation about continuing to advance the rights and quality of life of LGBTQ people in our country.
“So we are spreading it as far and wide as we can and letting the word of mouth continue to open new doors for screening the film.”
To learn more about the film, visit tinyurl.com/mrz6arh.
—Ken Williams is a contributing editor of Gay San Diego and can be reached at email@example.com or at 619-961-1952. He is a volunteer board member of FilmOut San Diego, serving as Film & Media Relations Director.