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“Drag Race is one of the greatest things to happen to the world” — Director Luke Willis Talks Lady Like

5 min read
A still from Lady Like

For any seasoned fan of RuPaul's Drag Race, glimpsing at what became of the stars behind the scenes is the tastiest morsel that any creative could offer. Documentaries, podcasts, and YouTube channels have been and gone, but a key few have made a groundbreaking cultural impact. The next in line is Lady Like, an eclectic documentary exploring life before, during, and after the show for Season 14 runner-up Lady Camden, a.k.a Rex Wheeler.

FILMHOUNDS spoke to director Luke Willis about working with a close friend and the reigning power that Drag Race has.

 

I've seen a lot of Drag Race-related documentaries now — we're very lucky to have had a lot — this is definitely one of the strongest ones that I've seen. I was reading your director statement and I know you and Rex have known each other for a while, but how did that meeting actually happen?

I met Rex and Lady Camden separately. It was at a local bar, which has since become Lady Camden's home bar. My partner and I went out for the night. I had recently retired from the San Francisco Ballet, but we're still very much involved in the dance community in San Francisco. I had known of Rex because he had just joined the Ballet and we ran into him. We were walking

downstairs and I ran into Rex I was like, “Oh, you're that new boy.” He did not say a word to me, it was so hilarious. Just pantomimed dance. He was the most joyful, sweet, endearing cute thing I'd ever seen. Such a cute introduction. So immediately, I was like, “I like this guy.” Then it was a couple of years later that I met Camden.  I went to this show that I had a small part in organising. Some friends of friends were drag queens who were the stars of this show at this local theatre. Halfway through the show, the Wicked Witch [from The Wizard of Oz] shows up and comes on stage and does a knockout number. Me and my partner looked at each other and were like “That is not normal drag. That is exceptional.” Of course was like “Who is this person?” and it turned out it was Rex. I was like “I want to do things with this person and make stuff with them because because I love what they're doing.”

 

Talking about going from one area of queer culture to another, you're experiencing Drag Race fans in real-time. From the interactions that I've had with them and what I've seen, it's very intense. People have a lot of opinions. What was that experience like being in that environment week after week?

Drag Race is, at the end of the day, a reality TV show. Competition is part of the reality TV show, but the primary thing is not the competition. We are not trying to find the most talented drag queen, we are trying to they are trying to create entertaining TV for 14 episodes that get people out to the bars to watch it in person. They're trying to create event TV. And I think what happens is that you get all of these incredible entertainers, who are like they are all incredible comedians, they all have a dark side. That is the driving force — for them to create so much joy and beauty. I think that that gets used to make entertainment TV very effectively. We all love Drag Race so much. Those characters of the people that have gotten villain edits (or less than savoury edits) on the show that I have met personally… it changes everything. Every single one of them is a delightful, joyful, wonderful human being, and that character that was built for reality TV. That's been like one of the cool surprises on this journey for me is to see some people in a new light.

 

A lot of the stuff that the documentary touches on is incredibly personal — there's a lot of different stylistic ways you approach that. How do you build up trust to share what you have?

That's a really complicated question. I've worked on scripted narrative with an actor that I've hired, and there's this professional relationship and understood set of rules about how me and this actor are going to interact and talk about the character. When we are talking about wildly intimate, deep, complicated things, we actually have a third party there, which is this character. When it's me and one of my close friends — Rex in a room alone, and my camera is rolling — it's complicated. I am working to get Rex to forget that I have the camera with me and treat me like his friend and to say things candidly, in a way that he wouldn't say or do somewhere like Drag Race, where there's a set and there are five cameras and a story producer.

I also was always reminding Rex that our friendship is key here. We're going to have a conversation about this you're going to see this edit, we're going to talk about it and I'm going to have get it to a place that you're comfortable with because I'm not trying to do a hit job. That's not what this is. This is about joy and celebration. So I think knowing that it was about joy and celebration from the get-go, helped both of us understand and feel safe. Talking about his family was really tough and difficult. In the first scene where he talks about his father, I think he didn't realise I was recording. He was talking to Luke the friend, not Luke the filmmaker. You can hear in the camera audio track my heavy breathing. I don't know if there's any clear answer to that question. It's about being honest and open with yourself, serving your core purpose as a filmmaker.

 

We go on this journey watching Lady Camden go through this week-on-week process. The levels of fame of building, there are all of these new challenges to deal with on a personal and professional level. In terms of both the drag community and the queer community, do you think a process like Drag Race has changed things for better or for worse? 

I think it's fucking great. I am so grateful to live right now and to see this era. To see what RuPaul has built is unbelievable. We can make a pro and con list about anything that happens in the history of the world. But I grew up gay in the South in the 90s. And to say that what we are experiencing now is anything but phenomenal is so naive. I think there have been some ups and downs in different seasons, maybe they've made mistakes — but we all make mistakes. RuPaul's Drag Race is one of the greatest things to happen to the queer community and to the world in the past 40 years. I could not be more proud to have made a documentary about one small little corner of that incredible beast of visibility and progress and celebration of queer culture that exists now in 2024.

 

Lady Like screened as part of this year's Festival.