A Conversation with Silas Howard

Last fall, filmmakers Silas Howard and Antonia Crane won $35K from us to support their project The Lusty. This film tells the true story of the first exotic dancers' union, which was formed in San Francisco in the late 90s at a club called the Lusty Lady.

Apart from The Lusty, Howard has had an immensely busy few years. He has stepped in to television to direct episodes of Amazon’s Emmy award-winning Transparent, Freeform’s The Fosters and MTV’s Faking It. He's had films premiere at Sundance and SXSW, winning awards and traveling further on the international festival circuit. He's made music videos for Peaches and directed the first few seasons of Paula Pell's web series Hudson Valley Ballers all while pursuing grants and prizes to support his unconventional work. (In 2015, in addition to winning our San Francisco Film Society / Kenneth Rainin Foundation Filmmaking Grant, he was also named a Guggenheim Fellow.)

We caught up with him—and stole a few words from Crane, too—about The Lusty and indie filmmaking on the whole.

Let's start with your film. What was the inspiration for The Lusty?
The Lusty is based on a specific moment within a fast-disappearing and true story: It's 1996, pre-tech, luminous, perma-fog, pre-gentrified, activist-horny San Francisco; home of beat poets, non-conformists and LGBTQ community that was reeling from the ravages of the AIDS pandemic. The women who danced nude at The Lusty Lady were startlingly intelligent activists—the wrong group of women to say "no" to. 

20 years after the Lusty Lady unionized, it seems clear that this came out of a community and culture (one Antonia and I grew up in), influenced by the devastation of AIDS, a time of Gulf war protests, third wave feminism and riots over the Rodney King verdict. As queers and punks we were labeled sexual deviants, criminalized in many states just for waking up in the morning, so it was not a far step to become sex workers and dancers. It bonded us as a minority. The overt hatred from the mainstream freed many of us to take risks and cause trouble; with success nowhere on the horizon we couldn’t fail.

What always appealed to me about the Lusty Lady story is how the union not only busted bad labor practices—it busted the hypocrisy of a society that supported businesses to make millions off exotic dancers but shamed the women who generated that income. It tells a story of how the dancers, by refusing to hold that shame, become a powerful force of change.

The consistent challenge, AKA creative fuel, for me has been transforming limitations into a stylistic strategies; one part faking it ‘til you make it, one part mad science.

What do you see as the greatest challenges for filmmakers today?
Finding the means to sustain oneself as an independent filmmaker has always been brutal, let’s be real. However, as exciting as I personally find the new formats evolving in the digital era of filmmaking, the income options are even more brutal, damn brutaler. The decreased funding opportunities are especially real if you want to take some risks, push the format, show lives less represented and do the important work that is vital to the evolution of cinematic storytelling. The increased volume of independently made films is vast and overwhelming and harder to find a way to stand out once you manage to make your film. One way I’ve dealt with this added challenge is through making friends with the new formats; exploring web series, VR, anthology series. Learning to love now have love exploring the 5-minute, 10-minute, 20 minute time frame along with exploring the 5 hour film created through binge release. The consistent challenge, AKA creative fuel, for me as a filmmaker has been transforming limitations into a stylistic strategies; one part faking it 'til you make it, one part mad science.

What new opportunities are making the biggest difference to your filmmaking process?
The new format options in the digital era for both narrative and episodic storytelling has impacted structure and opened up in a really exciting way. Once I realized the possibilities of short format, i.e. web series, it freed me up to continue making work, often with a super high quality cast and crew in spite of the low budget, such as the series I directed, Hudson Valley Ballers, with Paula Pell and huge cast of SNL veterans.

We’re not late bloomers—the mainstream is.

Breaking into TV directing on the heels of committing to make work of any length, especially when funding for features can take years, and at a time where my decade plus of queer indie filmmaking seems to be an asset has been a huge break for me. As I’ve been fond of saying lately, we’re not late bloomers—the mainstream is. We (underground independent filmmakers) have been telling authentic, innovative stories forever and now after a decade plus of online access to the masses, it seems the dig this style of nuanced storytelling as well. However the risk with television turning toward a more traditional indie style of storytelling is even less funding or outlets for narrative feature, to me the necessity for a cultural conversation between independent, studio system free alternative sis crucial to keep the evolution of cinematic storytelling alive, risky and weird.

Describe what impact the San Francisco Film Society has had on your film.
Howard: As a filmmaker when I fall in love with a story, I know I’m screwed. You work endless hours regardless of support, financial or otherwise. I grew up working class/poverty class so being broke is familiar however even with a high tolerance for being broke, I cannot sustain years from juggling work to keep the projects alive until they can get made. This story has been with Antonia and I for years and we’d carve out the time, travel to each others city to work and keep going in spite of the huge breaks work dictated from us. That said the vote of support from the Kenneth Rainin Foundation grant gave us a make or break—a big YES to continue discovering the story and do it justice. And of course the time that the funding bought us is everything! To have time to focus, to be asked to focus on your work is everything in terms of saying this is important, this voice and story are of value. This is such a powerful thing for writers and filmmakers. In addition, time in San Francisco, (in fact right around the corner from what used to be the Lusty Lady), allowed Antonia and I to revisit and ponder the city of our youth, a place with a long history of encouraging the audacity to do the thing you we’re told you can’t, make the thing that’s missing, even if all you have is a hefty amount of denial and sheer urgent desire.

To have time to focus, to be asked to focus on your work is everything in terms of saying this is important, this voice and story are of value.

Crane: As a writer who has a habit of juggling several gigs in order to make ends meet, the luxury of time and a rested mind are rare treats. For years, writing happens before my restaurant shift or after teaching; or the day after I’ve stripped in the desert; often in a groggy and worn out state. The San Francisco Film Society has given me the simple, extravagant gift of extended time to dig deep into the characters that Silas and I have been creating. The Kenneth Rainin Foundation grant allowed me to slip off my scuffed lucite shoes and dive in—permission to allow the story to shake loose in more quiet moments of intimacy and raw emotion. For months, I wrote in San Francisco two blocks away from the peepshow where our story happened and I explored the true-to-the-street needs and desires of our characters while they fought their labor war in mid-90’s San Francisco. While SFFS allowed me to return to San Francisco, the site of our film, I felt liberation to develop our project more fully—a liberation that bleeds into our characters and our movie as we slide into our next phase of development.

The San Francisco Film Society champions the world's finest films and filmmakers through programs anchored in and inspired by the spirit and values of the San Francisco Bay Area.

Our SFFS / KRF Filmmaking Grant supports feature narrative films that through plot, character, theme or setting explore human and civil rights, antidiscrimination, gender and sexual identity and other social issues of our time. This grant, which was established in 2009, is awarded to multiple projects in the spring and fall of each year.