The Night Cleaner
Originally published during Scottish Queer International Film Festival 2017
For LGBTQ Month The New Current is launching our new series of features with LGBTQ creatives from across the arts and from around the world. TNC interviewed Blair ahead of SQIFF 2017.
Hey Blair, thanks for talking to The New Current, how's things been?
Busy! I’m nose to the grindstone animating my next film, so it’s nice to take a breather to chat to you.
Congratulations on having The Night Cleaner screened at this years SQIFF, what does it mean for your to show your film in Scotland?
I’m very happy to be back at SQIFF. I screened at their first festival in 2014 with my documentary short film Bedding Andrew, so it’s wonderful being included in this amazing festival again. Like many Canadians, I have Scottish roots, so it a feels like a bit of a return home if that doesn’t sound too corny.
The response to the film has already been great, has it surprised you to see your film get so well received?
I’m amazed actually - 32 festival screenings this year, and invitations for 2018 are starting to arrive. It’s unbelievable. I thought the subject matter might have been a bit too controversial for most tastes, but even my mother was fascinated, so there you go.
Do you still get nerves ahead of a festival screening?
I feel queasy and usually view my film with my hands in front of my face. It’s a bit like watching a relative performing on stage, you want the audience to love them as much as you do, and you worry about the reaction.
Tell me a little bit about The Night Cleaner, how did the film come about?
I met Travis Shannon, the subject of the film, when I did a short stint at the bathhouse he worked at. I had been working on another film that had fallen through, and I needed to make some quick cash to pay back my Kickstarter donors. Travis was a housekeeper, and I worked behind the front desk, so It was my job to radio him to ask him to clean up some of the more heinous clogs and spills.
What was the inspiration behind the film?
I was working one night at the bathhouse, and as I did my rounds I caught this surreal view of Travis and his cleaning cart illuminated in the gloom. He was nonchalantly arranging his supply of bed sheets on his cart and behind him there was a full blown orgy in progress. I just thought that combination of busy domesticity and crazy sex was hilarious.
Had you had much knowledge of the Canadian Bathhouse Scene before you made the film?
Oh I’ve been to my share of establishments. They’re wonderful equalisers. You see men from different backgrounds, and different generations interacting, and it’s nice to see the artifice that people wrap themselves in drop away. When you wander around in a towel you have nowhere to hide, and that shared vulnerability and naked chumminess is wonderful to be a part of.
Any interesting stories you might want to share?
There’s a scene in The Night Cleaner where Travis is in the hot tub, and an unfurled condom floats by. That was inspired by one of my visits. I think I screamed. I’ve also interacted with men dressed in full hockey gear in their rooms, so yes, lots of interesting stories.
What would you say was the most challenging part of making this film been for you?
Animation has a very long gestation period, and it requires a lot of stamina and belief in the film, because you’re hunched over your computer for months and months slaving away at the thing. I’m self taught, and this was my first foray into 2D animation, so teaching myself as I went along was a challenge as well.
Had you always intended for this film to be animated?
Yes, I knew from the graphic nature of Travis’ interview that this had to be animated, and it had to be animated in a non-photorealistic way. It took me a long time to get the look of the film right, to achieve a cartoony sweetness that balanced the gruesome anecdotes. There’s also privacy issues in bathhouses, so you can’t just swing a camera around in those spaces - they’re sacred places in a way.
Looking back would there be anything you'd do differently?
I might have tried interviewing some of the patrons, weaving their stories in and out of Travis’ interview, but not everyone likes to admit they frequent those places.
Have you always wanted to be a filmmaker?
Well I’ve always been interested in performing, and I studied music and sang in choirs and opera chorus, that sort of thing, but I was acutely aware that due to my mixed race heritage, the likelihood of my being cast by other people in productions would always be limited - so I decided to tell my own stories.
What was the first film you saw that made you think 'yeah I want to do this?’
There’s a Canadian animated short film called The Big Snit, which was made in my home town of Winnipeg, and went on to be nominated for an Oscar - it was my first inkling that someone and something could escape a place that I found really confining - that art could transcend geographical isolation.
"Not everyone who works in a bathhouse will admit to their profession, so I hope people recognise Travis’ openness..."
How much has your filmmaking style changed since your debut?
My filmmaking style evolves as I learn new techniques. My first film was a sort of Power Point slide presentation because I only had a lap top, and only knew how to work a scanner - but the film got into a few Oscar qualifying festivals, so there you go. Technique can be forgiven if the story is compelling.
Are you working on anything at the moment that you can tell me about?
Yes, I’m mid way through my next animated film, which is set in Vancouver’s Japantown during the Second World War. I’ve rebuilt the entire neighbourhood in 3D computer animation using archival photographs. It’s a very quiet, and atmospheric piece about the destruction of the community due to war time fear mongering and racism. My father’s family were part of the ethnic cleansing, so it’s a very personal story.
What five words best describe The Night Cleaner?
Funny, Sweet, Grotesque, Shocking, Poignant.
And finally, what do you hope people will take away from your film?
Not everyone who works in a bathhouse will admit to their profession, so I hope people recognise Travis’ openness, and his pride in doing good work despite the stigma of his surroundings. Where Travis worked didn’t define who he was, and he felt no shame performing his less than glamorous duties. A few months after this film was completed Travis landed his ideal job working in a hotel, so dreams do come true after a lot of hard work - but you have to scrub a few metaphorical toilets along the way.