SXSW: 'Continental' Director Malcolm Ingram on 'Gay Fatigue,' Bette Midler and His Fallout With Kevin Smith (Q&A)
From dealings with the mob to discovering The Divine Miss M, the filmmaker speaks frankly about bringing the story of New York's most notorious bathhouse to the screen.
THR: You have a cross-section of activists, journalists, authors and former Continental Baths staff, like former manager Jorge La Torre, detailing its history. How did you go about picking these sources?
Ingram: I wanted to have an interesting mix and I wanted to have a lot of faces you didn’t necessarily see before. I thought Michael Musto (from The Village Voice) was great because he represents a part of New York that I love. Rich Wandel was a really important person because of his connection to activism and running the The National Archive of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, & Transgender History, so that’s obviously an important voice. Patrick Pacheco has a very interesting past through After Dark magazine. Edmund White was a voice I was unfamiliar with until my co-producer Matt Thomas introduced me to him. Edmund was amazing. That’s the great thing about talking to all these people. Ostrow openly talked about the mob. He’s got nothing to lose. He’s going tell it how it was. And Edmund talks about fisting! I loved Edmund’s honesty. And Frankie Knuckles is an incredible part of music history. To think that history begins in a place like the Continental. It gave us house music. Things like Studio 54 would never have existed.
THR: Continental's entertainment history is the story of legend. It's the subject most associated with it, which always leads to talk of Bette Midler who launched her career on the Continental stage. You never got to speak to her on camera for the film, but you tell her story. Why didn't she participate?
Ingram: I reached out to Bette Midler through several different outlets. Ultimately, I just decided to respect her wishes. I could have kept pushing, but ultimately she let it be known through her people that she wanted to sit this one out. And I was totally fine with that. I’m very grateful to Bette Midler, because if it wasn’t for her, I never would have heard about the Continental Baths. I also think that Bette Midler realizes that it’s ultimately not her story. She's an important part of the Continental story, but she is not the story of the Continental. And I think that as a filmmaker, if I had got Bette Midler involved, she would have been a much bigger part of the story than she needed to be. Because she wasn’t involved, I got to focus on Steve more. Steve Ostrow and the Continental are one and the same. That place would absolutely not exist without him.
THR: One topic that seems to be overlooked is the impact the bathhouse had on the Upper Westside neighborhood or the other residents of the Ansonia hotel. Why did you avoid that topic?
Ingram: You have to understand the history of that time. New York in the ‘70s was on the verge of bankruptcy. That area was not what it's like now. But at that time, that building was a big dinosaur. That’s not where the rich people were living, you know what I mean? That’s where you’d have artists and squatters. The interesting thing is nobody asks that question about CBGB’s. Like, what did the neighbors say about that? You know what I mean? And that’s a dicier clientele at CBGB’s than at the Continental. New York's Upper Westside in the '70s was not like it is today.
THR: Lastly, you launched your filmmaking career as part of Kevin Smith's View Askew Productions. Smith executive produced all of your films prior to Continental, your interviews with members of the Westboro Baptist Church in Small Town Gay Bar inspired Smith to make Red State and you had a podcast show on his SModcast network. Since then, the two of you seemed to have parted ways. What happened?
Ingram: (long pause) Kevin, that’s a complicated one. Well, we’re very close. Kevin’s like a brother. But right now we haven’t talked. I guess essentially, relationships run their course. I have so much love and respect for Kevin. Kevin taught me how to fish, you know what I mean? It’s that whole thing of "Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime." Kevin really taught me how to do this. I have Kevin to thank for my entire career. But relationships run their course. And Kevin has gone in a direction now… (long pause) I want to keep making movies and he’s kind of doing his thing. The last thing that we worked on together was Red State. I got to have a really wonderful connective last experience with him. I love him like you’d love a brother. And I hate him like you could only hate a brother. And that’s family, right? He’ll always be my brother, but you don’t always have to be surrounded by your family, thankfully.
Continental will have its final screening at SXSW on Saturday, March 16.