Katherine Fairfax Wright didn’t know who Todrick Hall was. So when a friend at Awesomeness Films called her about directing a documentary about him, she was initially hesitant until she looked him up and checked out his wildly popular YouTube channel.
“I very quickly realized what creative energy he has and what a following he has and how genuinely they seem to adore his work and his spirit and his messaging,” Wright explains to Gay Essential via Skype. “It just seemed like a fun thing spending nine months following, but also an important one.”
Behind the Curtain: Todrick Hall, which is screening at this year’s Outfest Film Festival in Los Angeles, closely follows Hall and his team as they put together “Straight Outta Oz” – a personal history set to music and dance — and embark on a corresponding tour.
In a separate phone conversation, the man himself explained how Behind the Curtain came about in the first place. “I decided I was writing this album. I told Awesomeness Films because I had a deal with them and said, ‘I’m sorry, I have to postpone the project that you want me to do because artistically…I really need to write this album.’ They said, ‘why don’t we follow it with a documentary and then that would be fulfilling your commitment.’”
Once Hall and Wright met for breakfast, he didn’t need to see any more directors. “It just felt right,” Hall remembers. “It was everything – her passion, attention to detail and the fact that she had done her research. She was already passionate about the subject matter that I was writing the album about. I just couldn’t find a better match.”
Wright was ever-present with Hall and his team for four months of filming. “That’s the best way of capturing the nuances of every story – being there for every waking second,” she explains about her approach to documentary filmmaking. “There’s so much happening in the hours you’re not there to capture. So it’s hard to show the complexities of a situation unless you’re there.”
“That Katherine went on tour with us changed the entire dynamic,” Hall states. “Not only was she physically there, but she became part of the family. There’s nothing like someone telling your story than someone who’s experienced your story or lived it. And she did.”
Wright goes on to explain how being with the subject all the time helps them open up to you as the documentarian. “They see you in the grind with them as opposed to some crew that’s occasionally an addendum to their group. You become a part of them.”
“There are lot of moments that are super candid,” Hall admits. “But I never felt like I was on camera with her. I didn’t feel like I needed to perform for the camera. I felt like she was just there as my friend that happened to be filming me.”
“He never asked me to stop filming,” Wright recalls. “He was always happy for me to be around. I felt very much included even though I was stuck in the back of the bus or sleeping on his couch.”
“I felt like if this is going to be a documentary and really candid, then they should see how I really am,” Hall reflects. “It’s the first thing I’ve ever put out where it’s truly 100% me if you were my friend and hanging out with me.”
Throughout the filming, Wright became taken with Hall’s willingness to engage with his fans so thoroughly. “He doesn’t just rush them through a photo; he takes the time to get to know them,” she observed then. “And they respond to him in a way I found heartwarming. It wasn’t just a product of celebrity culture. It was something much deeper.”
That something deeper can be seen in how one of his fans arranged a marriage proposal to his boyfriend at one of Hall’s shows. The proposing fan had a specific song in mind that he wanted to propose to – which Hall actually learned and performed during the proposal. “It was such a beautiful moment,” Wright recalls. “That room was so full of love and support and sheer happiness for this couple having found each other and taking it to the next chapter of their lives.”
It turned out to be one of Wright’s favorite moments from the film (and mine too). “It was just so magical,” Wright adds. “I just loved how engaged the audience was with this proposal happening in front of them.”
From the comments on his videos, Wright could see that Hall was a pivotal person in a lot of these people’s lives, but actually seeing it in person at the shows night after night was quite a surprise for her.
“In every city, there are people in their 10s, 20s, 30s, 40s and 50s — black, white, Indian and Middle Eastern who are grateful to Todrick for being such a rock in their children’s lives [or theirs],” Wright remembers. “They’re so appreciative of the support that he offers them and a sense of confidence. It was just an extraordinary thing.”
It’s pretty unreal for Hall himself. “It’s really insane, honestly. Sometimes I feel like I’m not worthy of those types of experiences. I am me so I don’t think there’s anything impressive about meeting me or talking to me. But to other people, that experience is a life-changing moment and I just try my hardest to make sure that each and every person has a memorable, unique experience when they’re meeting me. But it’s a mind-boggling thing [for me] to experience.”
Behind the Curtain premiered at South by Southwest in March and has screened at several film festivals since then with many more to come. And people on the festival circuit are taking a liking to the film despite not having gone in knowing who Todrick is.
“You don’t have to know who he is to enjoy the film,” Wright assures. “[Because] it’s not just about the music. You really feel Todrick in this film. You understand where he came from and where he’s going and the players around him that helped him be the person he is today.”