Toronto native Malcolm Ingram has been in the movie biz since 1996, when independent film was riding the wave of its hard-earned and long-overdue respect… and thoroughly enjoying it. In the true spirit of old school DIY filmmaking, Ingram served as writer, producer, and director of two feature-length movies before finding critical success with “Small Town Gay Bar“ in 2006. That documentary, which profiled two gay bars in rural Mississippi, won two Grand Jury Awards on the film festival circuit and was nominated for a third; was the 2006 Official Selection at the Sundance Film Festival; and was a Nominee for the 2008 GLAAD Media Award for Best Documentary. The filmmaker chose a subject close to home for his next documentary: In “Bear Nation”, Ingram goes inside the world of big, hairy gay guys and the men who love them– or at least chase them. One of the goals at the beginning of the film seems to be finding the answer the question, “What makes a man a Bear?” The director finds a lot of guys willing to help him find the answer… as well as willing to share their, shall we say, “unique“ stories. In the case of a lot of the subjects, there‘s a double “coming out“: coming out as gay and then coming out again as a Bear. One guy reminisces that he first suspected he was gay at age three (!) when he wanted a Hoover vacuum as a toy. Another remembers how his first homoerotic feelings arose when watching “Smokey and the Bandit”. (Sigmund Freud, analyze THAT!). Later on, another cutely geeky guy tells the story about how he wound up lusting after the beary “counselor” who his parents recruited after he revealed to them that he was gay. The film isn‘t just a bunch of talking heads with beards, however. Viewers are also treated to an insider’s view of a Bear run at a hotel (where one woman thinks the gathering is a truckers’ union meeting) and a Bear circuit party, as well as a visit to the set of “Bear City“— the other Bear movie which hit theaters in 2010. “Bear Nation” also features appearances by director Kevin Smith (“Clerks“, “Chasing Amy“, “Red State“), who delivers his hilariously one-of-a-kind, no-holes barred cultural observations about Bears while the Mooby’s cow from “Clerks 2” goofily stares at us in the background. It’s too funny. Musician Bob Mould, creator of the popular Blowoff parties, also shows up to describe his first experience at a Bear happy hour: “I walked in… I was like, ‘Wow! These guys are all really nice and this is really fun.’ It was guys behaving like guys: just drinking beer, listening to music, and just being really nice to each other.” By the end of ”Bear Nation”, who cares what makes a Bear a Bear? Even the skinniest, smoothest straight guy will want to join in this woofy party…
Although the 42-year old Ingram tells me that he does not think of himself as a Bear icon, the filmmaker has indeed planted his paw print on Bear culture in a big way. His friend Kevin Smith told me at a recent speaking engagement, “I usually send my messages to the Bears by way of Malcolm.“ Smith and Ingram appeared together on the cover for the 2007 “A Bear’s Life” magazine, which has also featured such ursine cover models as football player Esera Tuaolo, New York State Assemblyman Danny O’Donnell, and Johnny Scruff, the creator of the hugely popular Scruff app. Ingram and Smith teamed up again for a live “gay Bear/straight Bear” podcast for a ballroom full of heavy dudes and their admirers at International Bear Rendezvous (IBR) in San Francisco in 2010. This, sadly, would wind up being the last IBR.
While “Bear Nation” treated us to lots of big, hairy guys, Ingram’s next project is destined to be no less titillating. Named “Continental”, it‘s a documentary about New York City’s famous and sometimes infamous Continental Baths, which existed in an explosively liberated time in gay culture which was post-Stonewall and pre-AIDS. Most of us know about The Baths from its association with gay icon Bette Midler; That‘s how she earned the nickname “Bathhouse Betty”. There‘s much more, however, about the Continental Baths– as well as about that particular moment in New York City queer history– that’s ripe for rediscovery. People, get ready!
The filmmaker spoke to Jed Ryan about “Bear Nation”, life as an indie filmmaker, and more…
JR: Hi Malcolm. Thanks for speaking with me! So, in “Bear Nation”, a lot of guys opine on the definition of a “Bear”. But as an expert on the subject, what makes a Bear a Bear in your opinion?
MI: I am no way an expert in that, nor any, subject. I do, however, have enough smarts that nothing good could come from answering that question.
JR: In “Bear Nation”, one of the guys describes his perfect guy as six feet tall, 250 pounds, and hairy. Let’s say you have a guy who is kind of skinny and has a hard time growing some body hair, but he still relates to the Bear World: he loves to party, drink beer, and eat hot dogs and hamburgers with the big furry guys. Is he still a “Bear”?
MI: Bear is a state of mind. You are what you is.
JR: A lot of guys consider you a Bear icon: a mover and shaker in the Bear community. Do you have a Bear icon or role model of your own?
MI: Nobody thinks of me as any kind of icon. If they did, I’d get laid more. You know who is a Bear icon? Dean Deblois. That dude has made two of the greatest animated movies ever made– “Lilo and Stitch” and “How to Train a Dragon“; movies that teach kids such wonderful things about acceptance and being different. He also made a brilliant doc on Sigur Ros called “Heima”. He is also gorgeous AND he is one of the nicest guys I ever met. THAT’S an icon!
JR: Yeah, I’ve seen pictures. He’s pretty desirable. So, what stimulated your desire to start making movies? Was there a particular film director you inspired you?
MI: This is going to sound really pretentious… but I was drawn to Robert Altman from a really early age. I loved the rambling format of his storytelling. The more I learned about his process and how everything was so collaborative with him, the more impressed I got. Altman and Hal Ashby were my guys. These days, it’s all about Paul Thomas Anderson and Quentin Tarantino for me.
JR: Nice. So, your 2006 movie “Small Town Gay Bar” received a lot of praise and a lot of awards, and a lot of recognition… but it was actually you’re third film; You’ve been making movies for quite a while now. What was the most important thing you’ve learned through the years as an artist?
MI: Never pick up a camera unless you have got something to say.
JR: As an independent filmmaker, what’s the most challenging thing about making a movie? I think I know what it is, but I‘ll let you tell me!
MI: Finding the money to make it.
JR: I knew it! Now, judging by your affinity for filming a lot of scenery of the cities you visit in “Bear Nation”, you definitely seem to have a lot of fun traveling. Which city was the most fun to spend time in in yer travels?
MI: The best time I ever had making a movie was “Small Town Gay Bar“. Shooting that in the deep South was an incredibly eye opening and rewarding experience. Fell in love with the place. Would love to own a house in Mississippi one day. Other than that…..well…you can’t really beat London for beefy boys and good beer.
JR: A lot of guys are excited about “Continental”, the documentary about The Continental Baths in New York City. Like most people, I first think of Bette Midler… but the list of other acts who also performed there (Cab Calloway, Gladys Knight and the Pips, Peter Allen, etc…) is astonishing. (Where’s my time machine?!) What was the greatest thing you’ve learned in your research for the film?
MI: You’ll have to wait for the movie.
JR: Arrgghhh! So, in Kevin Smith’s new book “Tough Sh*t”, he writes about how during the Sundance debut of his movie “Red State” in Park City, you guys had a run-in with those crazy Westboro Baptist Church people, who “protested“ the event with their silly trademark signs. Your crew counteracted with signs of your own, “protesting their protest”! I’m not gonna say what yours said (Buy the book, people!), but it was pretty hilarious. Do you have another funny showbiz story you want to share?
MI: Being friends with Kevin has afforded me many incredibly surreal experiences. I’ve gone clubbing with Leonardo DiCaprio at the height of “Titanic“-mania and I’ve drank wine on Johnny Depp’s porch. None of this on my own heat. My all time favorite experience was going to a strip club in Vancouver, BC with Denise Richards on one arm and Elizabeth Berkley on the other. You want to see heads turn? The puzzled and envious expressions on those dudes’ faces…. What a great night that was. Have I fulfilled my name drop quotient?
JR: It’s cool. At Jed Central we love name-dropping. So, what do you like to do in your spare time?
MI: Masturbate while eating cheeseburgers and drinkin’ Miller Lights.
JR: White Castle or Wendy’s?! Lastly: Where can people stay informed of your upcoming endeavors?
MI: Follow me on Facebook I guess: “Malcolm Ingram“. Right now the Profile pic is of a woman at a typewriter. That woman is Grace Metalious…..she wrote “Peyton Place“. One day I want to tell her story.
JR: Thanks, Malcolm!
“Small Town Gay Bar“ is now available on DVD. “Bear Nation” is available as an online rental from Walmart.com, Play.Google.com, and other sites… and is coming to DVD from TLA Video on June 5, 2012.