An Interview With “Kink Crusaders” Director Mike Skiff!

Just released on DVD, the smart and sexy film “Kink Crusaders” profiles The 30th International Mr. Leather (IML) Contest in Chicago in 2009. The documentary gives us both a front-seat view of highlights from the competition, as well as a behind-the-scenes, insider’s look at the lives of many of the men and women in town for that emblematic weekend. With “Kink Crusaders”, the viewers not only get a VIP ticket to the festivities, but also an introduction to a particularly vibrant segment of the queer community. The movie is the first full-length documentary by Mike Skiff, one of the City of Angel’s most energetic (and no doubt, busiest…) photojournalists. The response to his film has been overwhelmingly positive. “Kink Crusaders“ has been the Official Selection for no less than ten film festivals, and won three awards in three different countries: “Best Documentary” at Cinekink in New York City in 2011, “The Bronze Palm Award” at The Mexico International Film Festival 2011, and “Best Documentary” at The UK’s Gay Film Festival 2011. With its finger clearly on the pulse of the Leather, BDSM, and Kink communities, “Kink Crusaders” is truly mandatory viewing for anyone who wants to learn more about this worldwide fraternity that comes alive after midnight. It’s a film which sincerely deserves to become a classic in the annals of LGBT cinematic history.

Already hard at work at his next project, Mr. Skiff spoke with Jed Ryan about the making of “Kink Crusaders”, the Leather community, IML Founder Chuck Renslow, and what he’s got in store for us for the future (Hint: It involves “Bruno“!)…

JR: Hi Mike.  Thanks for speaking with me!  So, how did the idea of creating “Kink Crusaders” come about?

MS: Thank you for your coverage – I must commend you on your own smarts on the Leather ABCs!

JR: (Laughs) I do my best!

MS: I’ve participated in various way with the Leather contest scene since the late 80’s. My hometown Leather bar in Phoenix was the Bumsteer. One year, I was a fourth place contestant for Mr. Bumsteer, a feeder contest at that time for IML. I figured out quick that my resistance to learning protocol and joining clubs would impede me, and came to serve the community in my own way: as a cameraman, video archivist, and documentarian at Leather events for about two decades.

I shot my first IML as part of an official crew in ’97 when I worked with Catalina Video (the Disney of gay porn). Over the years, I continued filming with different crews including Reel Gay TV, and I came to know Chuck Renslow and his family.

There have been different attempts in the past of making an IML documentary without much success. One director in the late nineties had to sell his doc to porn maven Chi Chi LaRue. Sex scenes were added, which infuriated Chuck. Chuck actually bought every copy there was and had them destroyed.

JR: Wow! I did not know that…

MS: So, when I got the opportunity to bring Third Rail Media’s production crew in to shoot the 30th Anniversary Contest, there was a big responsibility for me to not malign IML or my Leather brothers and sisters.

Documentaries that I looked to for inspiration were “Say Amen, Somebody” from 1982, a loving look at the roots of gospel. It gave me the courage to celebrate a community and not trash it apart in the storytelling. And then there was “Spellbound”, the 2002 doc about children competing at an annual spelling bee– which taught me what a challenge I faced having an audience riding shotgun inside a hotel environment of lighting and audio for over an hour… and that we might not have coverage of the competitor who eventually wins.

JR: Where does your affinity for the Leather community come from? 

MS: For me as a teenager in the late 70’s, the gay role models presented to me seemed like either hyper-feminized culture with drag queens and being called “she”, “her” and “Mary”; or, the hyper-masculine world of Leather and non-missionary sex. (I got my hands on “Drummer” mags early!) Call me a snob, but I also thought a lot of Leather people had these outrageously bright minds because playing with rules, boundaries, and power in the fashion of pleasure spoke to me.

I remember being 23 years old, visiting my parents in Phoenix, and wearing my black leather motorcycle jacket and boots–sans motorcycle– out for the first time as I left for a night out at the Bumsteer. I felt the jacket’s weight and I had to change the way I stood from the boots. And I had to hold my head up tall as I walked past my folks, because the image they were seeing before them was so opposite to the clean-cut, good boy I’d been all my life. Still, they would have to get used to me like that, as I’d found the gay family that I wanted to hang with.

JR: Very cool! Now, a lot of people– even some of our fellow GLBT brothers– may view the Leather community as “vintage”, “stuck in the past”, “scary”, etc… What would you say to these idiots?

MS: IML founder Chuck Renslow says in our documentary – “Leather is only a symbol.”

As marriage equality continues to spread from state to state, as gay and lesbian are allowed to serve openly in the US military, and when the Leather bar Eagle LA is filled for the viewing of “RuPaul’s Drag Race” on LOGO, our queer lives keep feeling more and more comfortable; each is another step away from our status as second-class citizens.

The Leather community is now the “adult pervert” wing of the LGBT community and the powers that be don’t seem to understand why we exist or what we add to the rainbow flag. They forget that at one time, we were all perverts in society’s eyes. Our perversions are what we do with our bodies. Taking a cue from feminist theory, society seeks to control what we do with our bodies. Most often, society has sought to control our bodies in a way that leads to procreation. It is the act of doing something different that is perverse. Take hormones and live as a gender different than society assigned you: perverse. Shoot a load in an ass and not a vagina: perverse.

Certainly we are more than these actions. We have loves, we have aspirations.

What the Leather community does is keep our collective pervert soul alive and shining against the control society seeks to maintain over our bodies with shame. Ultimately, this benefits the LGBT community. Whether you like porn or not, it is a “‘freedom of expression” bulwark. If society takes porn away, what’s next to be censored or banned? The same is true for criminalizing acts of “personal sexual freedom“, which can be a whipping with a master and slave or a simple blowjob between boyfriends. Leather politics stands up for us all– as sexual beings– and helps promote a positive ethics for sexual expression.

I hope that the LGBT community can come to understand the common concerns that they share with Leather folks.

It was also a revelation to me finding out that much of the het (straight) Kink/Fetish community now looks to gay Leather history to better understand their own scene. They are very involved with the Leather Archives and Museum in Chicago.

JR: Well said! So, how long was the process of making “Kink Crusaders“?  Put another way, how long did it take from the movie’s conception to actually seeing the finished project?

MS: Ninety percent of the shooting took place in the space of two weeks surrounding Memorial Day weekend 2008. Being based in Los Angeles, we shot two interviews during Long Beach Pride then headed to Chicago for the rest. In Chicago, I had 4 camera crews shooting in the Hyatt and for the contest. The Guy Baldwin interview was done that October.

Then I was on hand filming at IML 2010 for Tyler McCormick’s historic win, which ends gave me the ending to “Kink Crusaders“.

In all, there was around 70 hours of footage, reduced down to a 74 minute story.

JR: Seventy-four very captivating minutes, I might add! As an independent filmmaker, what was the most difficult part about making the movie?

MS: I’d say it was how the process of making my first feature-length documentary changed me. I’ve never thought of myself as a leader, and I was very concerned about my people skills working with my crew as a director. Then there is the “vision” thing behind structuring the story to make something coherent and engaging. The film festival circuit took it to a whole different level, because now you’ve sent your baby out into the world and facing possible rejection or harsh review.

JR: How has reaction been to “Kink Crusaders” so far?

MS: We really hit the lottery by documentary filmmaking standards. “Kink Crusaders” has played at over 50 film festivals around the world, including mostly US LGBT film fests in 2011. It won several ‘best doc’ awards. And we got DVD distribution with Breaking Glass Pictures. My fingers are crossed that it will be shown on TV some day as well as international distribution.

Most of the reviews have been very positive, appreciating the compassionate, non-exploitive tone towards Leather folks. Some felt there wasn’t enough sex. One took me to task for not looking at the horrible realities of making leather clothes. On the day of “Kink Crusaders”’ world premiere in NYC, I was greeted with reviewer saying “Skiff deserves a spanking for terrible ‘Kink Crusaders’”.

JR: Damn!
MS: … but many found it shattered stereotypes about the Leather community and was accessible even to the vanilla crowd.

What I’m most happy about is how well it has been received within the Leather community. There is so little out there that reflects accurately the lives of Leather people, and “Kink Crusaders” allows them to celebrate with a sense of pride. I like that it “preaches to the choir” and I hope it remains a favorite in our community far into the future.

I know there are areas of the Leather world that “Kink Crusaders” doesn’t touch. Before me was Jason Garrett’s “Mr. Leather” giving very intimate coverage of the regional competition scene. There is also an International Ms. Leather doc, “Sisterhood of the Sash”, that premiered at CineKink NYC last February. I hope “Kink Crusaders”’ success will encourage other filmmakers to tell more stories about this rich and complex tribe.

When it came time for us to submit “Kink Crusaders” for festival consideration, “The Rocky Horror Picture Show” came to mind as the best model we could hope for: a film that took awhile to find its legs, developed a core of fan-base, and with time became a cult classic.

JR: I hope so! Now, in the film, the viewer learns a lot about Chuck Renslow, creator of International Mr. Leather.  I had the great pleasure of meeting him at Cleveland Leather Awareness Weekend a few years ago. What about Mr. Renslow inspired you the most?

MS: Chuck and I share a birth date – August 26th – so I wonder what traits, if any, we may share as well. He inspires me in the way that he holds his head up as a Leatherman, without the stigma of shame, in his civic and political activities. He has directly shaped aspects of gay civil rights in Chicago during his lifetime. He is no saint, but he is a brave man.

Chuck has been heavily involved with the Free Masons. Usually he sports a big belt buckle with their symbol. I wouldn’t be surprised if Leather culture studies identify that much of the ethics that guide our community found their roots in the traditions of the Free Masons.

JR: Were there any IML Contestants who refused to befilmed and/or interviewed?

MS: No contestants refused to be on camera. Chuck Renslow and the IML staff were incredibly supportive of a documentary being filmed during the weekend.

That said, I was VERY concerned about losing the trust of the contestants, fearing some could think the documentary production had some kind of inside track on who the winner would be. I did not want our filming of the doc to interfere with the contestants’ ability to be the best they could be in the competition.

There is no footage of any contestants in their private hotel room having a meltdown, venting or scheming. I didn’t go for exploitation in my approach to directing. In the end, that decision enhanced the positive humanity of the Leather community.

JR: Sadly, I would imagine that many of the movers and shakers of the Leather community from a couple of decades ago are no longer with us; We lost a lot of a generation of our brothers due to AIDS.  I imagine that must have been bittersweet for you while making the movie.

MS: Working on “Kink Crusaders” brought stirred up many personal memories and insights for me from the 80’s and early 90’s as we struggle with the AIDS epidemic. I lost two lovers. But it was the Leather community that didn’t see sex as shameful and developed an ethics of compassion with “safe, sane and consensual“.

“Kink Crusaders” complimented the AIDS documentary “We Were Here” on the 2011 LGBT film festival circuit, I thought. Many of the historic images used from the Castro in “We Were Here” included Leather brothers we lost. “Kink Crusaders” showed festival audiences how the Leather community responded to AIDS.

“Kink Crusaders” remains bittersweet to me and my crew as faces in the documentary continue to pass, like journalist Mr. Marcus and LA Leather brother George Wong. I’m so grateful we got to preserve so many pioneering voices in the Leather world for future generations.

JR: How true! Now, on a lighter note, it must have been fun watching all the footage of all these hot Leathermen, especially during the “Pecs and Personality” segment.  But what personally do you find sexy in a guy? 

MS: A masculine man who still has a little boy inside of him – playful, curious, and hasn’t seen it all. Someone who can give good brain.

JR: (Laughs) I agree! What do you like to do in your spare time?

MS: First, let me say that I’ve been a LAPD-credentialed news cameraman for over a decade working with Manmade Multimedia, producers of Reel Gay TV. I’m incredibly blessed to have this career. It’s a mixture of celebs at Hollywood red-carpets, Lakers championship riots, and gay and lesbian marriages… along with Prop 8 protests. An uniquely LA workload!

Beyond that, I’ve got a wonderful relationship with my man for nearly fourteen years. We’ve anthropomorphized our two dogs into our children. Weekends, we can be found at the movie theaters. He’s the Ebert, liking popular blockbusters; and I’m Siskel, following indie flix and docs.

JR: I’m partial to both! Now, what is going to be your next project?

MS: It is radically different documentary than “Kink Crusaders”. It is called “The Bruno Project” and it looks at the making of Sacha Baron Cohen’s comedy movie at the time of Prop 8’s passage in California. Consider that Universal Studios issued a statement defending “Bruno” from GLAAD, implying the movie would ultimately help the struggle of gay people.

This will be a much darker, more investigative project– addressing the relationship of the LAPD with film production in Hollywood, the history of civil rights in America, and even bullying. Appearing – in my own source footage – are Sacha Baron Cohen, the film’s director Larry Charles, Bruce Vilanch, Ken Davitian (“Borat”), Bill Maher, the gay community, and more.

Filming will wrap in June with a 2013 film festival release.

JR: That sounds right up my alley! So, finally, where can people meet you in person?  Any upcoming public appearances?

MS: Things are shaping up such that you may well find me in Chicago this Memorial Day Weekend behind one of the cameras on the official IML crew – Reel Gay TV. Each year I shoot the contest hunched over a tripod, getting my own hard-on knowing I’m getting to serve the Leather community in my own unique way by helping document our history and our humanity. Call the camera my fetish at that point.

JR: (Laughs) Thanks, Mike!

“Kink Crusaders” is now available on DVD. Visit http://www.kinkcrusaders-themovie.com for much more.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s