SF's iconic drag horror director: the man behind the makeup
In the center of the SF State soundstage, a distressed drag queen whirls around a soiled set, clutching her stomach. A putrid mixture of oatmeal, corn syrup, and cherries covers nearly every surface of the mock dressing room, dripping from the walls and pooling on the floor.
Drag actress Peggy L'eggs fights back another fake vomit attack, catching herself on the counter of a vanity where a handful of large drag hairpieces are displayed.
“No! Not the wigs! Not the wigs!” she says turning herself away to shield them from her uncontrollable spewing. Doubling over she looks panicked toward the camera.
“Uh oh,” she says.
With a violent squirt from a repurposed water canon pool toy off-camera, the wigs are blasted with a steady stream of faux diarrhea.
“And cut!” says director Joshua Grannell. The cast and crew erupts into a buzz of laugher and one-liners they've been saving for this shot. Grannell remains focused.
“Peggy honey, I think you need to bend over more. Remember, your hole has to line up to spray the wigs,” Grannell says matter-of-factly.
Directing the splatter patterns of fake vomit and diarrhea may be an unusual shoot for many directors, but for Grannell, it's just another day at the office.
Grannell has made a career of his passions: drag, horror, and film. After studying film at Penn State, Grannell moved to San Francisco in 1996 and began performing as his drag character Peaches Christ on stage at the Trannyshack. Peaches fostered a devoted cult following by hosting her Midnight Mass movie event series at the Landmark Bridge Theater, and after 19 years of performing, has become a San Francisco icon. Over the years, Grannell has never stopped directing and producing, and stars in many of his productions on stage and on film as Peaches Christ.
Grannell got to take a reprieve from the spotlight and stay back behind the camera though for the puke-soaked short film entitled “Cherry Bomb.” The short was an essential part of the a live drag parody pre-show performance of the “Witches of Eastwick,” which Grannell wrote, produced, and starred in as Peaches Christ at the Castro Theatre mid-March. The parody, dubbed the “Witches of East Bay,” needed to include an iconic scene from the movie where the devil makes Veronica Cartwright's character vomit cherry juice all over a hospital room.
“Because it's a drag show, we have to take it to the next level and make it even more disgusting. So, we added the diarrhea.” Grannell said.
Grannell and the rest his Peaches Christ Productions crew knew they couldn't perform the scene live on stage because of the historic venue.
“We can't use any liquids, or powders, or sequins, or glitter, or anything on stage- which for a drag queen can be challenging,” Grannell said, “but we're performing over a really expensive Wurlitzer organ, so that's a responsibility we take super seriously.”
The crew for the shoot was primarily comprised of past and present SF State cinema students assembled by producer and SF State alumna Ariel Sinelnikoff.
“It was definitely messier than other shoots I've done,” Sinelnikoff said. “It was a lot of fun. Joshua is a true professional and was an absolute pleasure working with.”
The day after filming “Cherry Bomb,” Grannell found himself directing another short, this time with a very different role and very different footwear. In front of the Castro Theatre, Grannell arrived on set as Peaches Christ, donning Dorothy's platform ruby heels for a drag interpretation of “The Wizard of Oz.” The short was a trailer for Frameline's 39th annual San Francisco International LGBT Film Festival.
“It was playing on the festival theme of 'there's no place like home,' with this sort of idea of chosen family, since for a lot of queer folks San Francisco is the place that we've come to create our own version of home,” Grannell said.
Grannell speaks from experience. As a film student at Penn State, Grannell said he never felt like he fit in. His subversive films, like his senior thesis, “Jizzmopper: A Love Story,” where Peaches Christ graced the screen for the first time, weren't the typical work his professors and peers were used to.
“I would say the administration at the school tolerated me, but I don't think they embraced me. I think I was the kind of film student that made them nervous quite frankly. A lot of my peers wanted to be Martin Scorsese. It was a very straight, white male dominated program and I was the only openly queer film student at the time,” Grannell said.
During his time at Penn State, Grannell convinced one of his idols, John Waters, to come out and speak on the campus.
I brought him there to show the school this kind of outrageous filmmaking, this kind of comedy, transgressive, offensive humor has a place in the world of cinema,” Grannell said. “He was doing everything that I dreamed I would do some day, and of course, Divine and all the people he worked with were incredibly influential for me. So, John was the one that told me, 'You should go to San Francisco. You need go to San Francisco.'”
While he bears the title “director” on both short films, Grannell says directing in and out of drag are very different processes.
“If I'm going to be directing as Joshua, for example the Cherry Bomb film, I know that I can show up and be really available for everyone. Whereas, with the Frameline trailer, where I was in drag and in every shot, I knew that the way that had to be done was everything had to be pre-produced,” Grannell said.
Preparation for the Frameline shoot included creating storyboards and meeting with the director of photography to plan out every shot beforehand. Grannell didn't need to mock up storyboards for Cherry Bomb because he knew he would be able to make changes on the fly.
“Honestly, I don't really enjoy directing in drag,” Grannell said, “but I also know that to get the product I want, sometimes means Peaches has to be in that product.”
Grannell understands acting in front of the camera as Peaches and releasing the directorial reigns on set requires a lot of trust in the crew.
“Once you're on the set and in every shot, you're kidding yourself if you think you're directing, because you're really not at that moment,” Grannell said. “Brian was the one I trusted the most to execute everything.”
Producer Brian Benson, who teaches a “Producing and Financing a Film” course at SF State, acted as Grannell's eyes while Peaches was in front of the camera for the trailer.
“We had to tell the Wizard of Oz in two minutes or less ... so it was crazy,” Benson said. “He ended up trusting me with a lot. He wrote it and it was his vision, and because we share a pretty common vision of stuff, we both very much understood what this needed to be.”
The Frameline shoot wasn't the first time Benson manned the monitor for Peaches. Benson, met Grannell on the set of Grannell's first feature length horror film, “All About Evil,” in 2010. As a producer and the assistant director, Benson noticed the difficult process Grannell had to go through to balance starring and directing the film.
“There were seven of our 23 shooting days that he had to be in drag,” Benson said. “Even if it was a scene that played later in the day, he still had to show up in makeup and be in drag the whole day. So, eventually the cast ended up calling him “Peach-ua” during the times he was half Peaches, half Joshua.”
Benson credits Grannell for taking his life in a completely different direction.
“I've probably done 30 movies, but doing that movie with her had a huge impact on my life,” Benson said. “I showed her my drag character Cousin Wonderlette and she really liked her. She took my character and put her on stage and now I have a whole part of my life has to do with performing that I wouldn't have otherwise. I credit it all to Joshua for bringing my drag character out. I'm super grateful to her for that.”
Grannell said that “All About Evil,” is probably the piece of work he is most proud of so far as it was a chance to combine his love of horror and drag. Despite becoming a drag horror icon in San Francisco, Grannell revealed that his relationship with blood and guts might not be comfortable as fans think.
“What I've realized over time is that my attraction to extreme behavior and horror is really because I can't deal with the horror of the real world,” Grannell said. “I think a lot of times the reason I created Peaches and why I love horror is because it's a safe place for me to exercise fears that I have psychologically. I can't deal with gore, I can't even watch the surgery channel, but I can write it and film it and some how knowing it's artificial and that I'm in this safe playground, I can actually kind of face my fears a little bit.”
Though most people don't recognize Grannell out of makeup, those who do are sometimes surprised at how different he is from his drag alter ego.
Sinelnikoff met Grannell as a guest speaker in Benson's class and ended up asking him for guidance for her senior thesis film, which was a horror movie. Since she mainly knew him as the over the top Peaches Christ, Sinelnikoff said she didn't know what to expect when she sat down with Grannell to go over the script. She was relieved he was “very sweet and down to earth.”
“Lot of people say "don't meet your heroes," because a lot of the time they end up being jerks or horrible people,” Sinelnikoff said, “but that's the exact opposite with Joshua. The more and more I get to work with him, the nicer a person I find he is.”
Playing Peaches for nearly two decades has not only been provided Grannell with a creative outlet and career, but has also helped him discover things about himself he might not have otherwise.
“I do think of Peaches as a separate character from myself, but there is of course overlap between Peaches and Joshua,” Grannell said. “Peaches is just sort of this channel for me to be outrageous, colorful, sassy, maybe mean, but also very loving and earnest in a way as Joshua I'm not very comfortable with a lot of the time. It's interesting how the character has actually pulled stuff out of me that without the character, I'm not sure if I would have been able to tap into. I'm kind of more introverted and shy than people imagine.”
Despite his bounty of work, Benson feels that Grannell and other creative forces in the drag world don't get the credit they deserve.
“I think people are really dismissive of drag in a way. They think drag is a gay guy putting on a dress and lip syncing to Judy Garland or whatever,” Benson said. “But Joshua's an impresario. He's a true artist. He puts so much work into these shows. I mean, he just got back from New York doing a show off broadway. His stuff started as pre-shows before movies and now, they are the show.”