For the past 28 years, Paris Is Burning filmmaker Jennie Livingston has watched her seminal documentary help clear a path for the next generation of queer projects — from RuPaul’s Drag Race to Pose — to follow into the mainstream spotlight.
Now, as the nonfiction masterpiece — which follows a group of black and Latinx drag performers and trans women as they explore their art on the Harlem ballroom scene in late 1980s New York City — resurges with a special theatrical restoration cut, Livingston is revealing a colleague’s idea for a spinoff she says is too painful to put in motion.
“A good friend of mine was always like, ‘I think we should make a film about the murder of Venus and try and solve it,'” Livingston tells EW, referencing the death of Paris subject Venus Xtravaganza, an eccentric trans woman and performance artist who was found strangled to death in a hotel room in 1988, three years before the film hit theaters. Her killer was never found, but, in the film, Xtravaganza discussed a sexual encounter in which a man became violent with her upon discovering her transgender identity, and it is widely suspected that she died under similar circumstances.
“I like that idea of solving that, [because] trans people and particularly trans women get murdered, and those cases don’t get solved,” Livingston continues, but she admits “true crime is not my genre,” and thinks the decision to delve deeper into the case “would have to come from the Xtravaganzas and from Venus’ family.”
“I’d feel weird initiating that, and it would also feel like I’d be trying to make entertainment out of someone I know being murdered. I can’t go there,” she continues. “I knew her and her murder was shocking, and I’d feel very strange about that.”
Paris Is Burning’s restoration cut (remastered by the UCLA Television Archive in conjunction with the Sundance Institute and Outfest UCLA) is now playing at New York City’s Film Forum on a special two-week run in theaters, with a nationwide rollout to follow. Read on for EW’s full Q&A with Livingston.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: This movie has endured for so long. There’s something so timeless about it. But, why was this year the right year to restore this film and bring it to audiences in theaters again?
JENNIE LIVINGSTON: Miramax had the film for 25 years, and their contract was up [two years ago]. Sundance, UCLA, and Outfest wanted to show it as a Sundance Collection screening, because they do a screening every year of a film that was part of the festival’s history. Those three entities sprung for [a new version]… now that it’s 27 years old, it’s Paris Is Burning‘s Saturn return!
We had the print at Sundance in 2015, but there wasn’t quite enough time to do the color balancing, so I was able to do the rest of the color work at Criterion. What’s exciting about this restoration is that, back in the day in 1986 when I started shooting, documentaries were 16mm, and there weren’t digital formats…. there was no such thing as distribution in 16mm because most theaters didn’t have 16mm projectors, so you had to do a blow-up and when you make a blow-up, you turn a 16mm film into a 35mm to make the shape right. You had to cut off either the top, the bottom, or the top and the bottom on a per-shot basis. It was an intensive process [and] you’re then able to have a print that could go into theaters, but you were missing part of the frame that the DP shot. Now, as a digital asset, in this print, you’ll be able to see the whole frame we shot in the ballrooms or people’s homes or on the piers! You’re seeing more than what you saw back in the theater in 1991!
So, there are no new scenes, but people are seeing things they’ve never seen before because the frame is expanded?
There’s new information! It’s obviously a geeky thing to get excited about, but a lot of people who love films are a little geeky. There are actually new images that will appear!
What has been the most satisfying thing to you since the original release, as you watched this film make an impact on pop culture? What are you most proud of?
The first thing is, people have told me over the years — more over the years than right when the film happened — what the film means to them, from “I really loved it and I’ve watched it 100 times!” to “This film saved my life. I was really down and I watched this film and it saved my life” or “I’m trans, and this film helped me.”
I was at Sundance a few years ago at their queer brunch, and there was a young man who came up to me and said, “I was an African-American boy in a small Texas town, and seeing your film meant the world to me. It meant there was a world outside that town.”
Secondly, our political life has shifted many times in this country since Paris Is Burning was made. Now, we’re in another political moment where trans people are specifically being attacked for political reasons. We finally get to a point where trans people are safe in the military, but, guess what? They’re being targeted, though we presumably need all skilled people to serve! Our film has had several rounds of being sustaining and useful to political groups or social groups…. who find it useful in terms of discussions, self-definition, and getting inspired as humans or as activists.
I’m providing a conduit! You can’t go meet Dorian Corey because she’s gone. So is Pepper LaBeija, and so is Venus Xtravaganza, but you can meet them and know what they offer [in this film]. The ball community goes on, but this is a particular moment in the ball community that’s no longer there.
That’s so important for the community to experience their history, because this film is constantly referenced on mainstream LGBTQ projects like RuPaul’s Drag Race, and laid the foundation for Pose. What do you think the stars of this film would say about those projects, because this film paved the way for those projects and a world of stardom that many of them dreamed about.
I think they’d be very pleased! I think there’s more openness, there’s more opportunity, but obviously, we’re still in a world that’s very violent towards queer and trans people. The violence doesn’t seem to have decreased, while healthcare doesn’t seem to have appropriately increased. Obviously, we wouldn’t have thought a president of the United States would be attacking or using trans people serving in the military to ferment hate… Just because there are more images on Drag Race and Pose…. that doesn’t mean the need for more understanding, advocacy, civil rights, and consciousness about things like street violence doesn’t need to persist.
I think [the stars would] be really happy. I can’t really speak for them, but I knew them well enough to know that they’d be excited to know that they were a part of something that has impacted the culture and laid the groundwork for other projects conversations to take off!
I recently saw HBO’s new movie Wig, and to me, it felt like a continuation of what Paris Is Burning did back in the day by examining the state of this community in New York today. Have you considered doing a sequel to Paris Is Burning and examining the drag scene and remnants of the ball scene?
Obviously, there are beautiful outtakes of all the people in the film and of the balls, but I feel like we did a really good job. I don’t think we could do better. I find sequels almost universally disappointing. So, no…. I’m developing stuff for TV and I’m about to direct an episode of Pose. My focus is on what I’m doing right now…. It just doesn’t interest me. It took seven years to make. It’s a good, solid film, I just don’t think it would be good and I don’t think it would live up. A good friend of mine was always like, “I think we should make a film about the murder of Venus and try and solve it.” I like that idea of solving that, [because] trans people and particularly trans women get murdered, and those cases don’t get solved. But, true crime is not my genre. I feel like that would have to come from the Xtravaganzas and from Venus’ family. I’d feel weird initiating that, and it would also feel like I’d be trying to make entertainment out of someone I know being murdered. I can’t go there, because I knew her and her murder was shocking, and I’d feel very strange about that. But, the Criterion Collection will put out their version, and all the outtakes are at the UCLA Film & Television Archive, so it might be cool to find some new outtakes to share. If I had a really amazing, high-concept idea for a sequel, then yes, but to just do one? Meh!