If you’ve been following social media lately, you’ll notice a lot of Drag Race squirrel friends – including Willam, Bianca Del Rio, Brooklyn Hytes, BenDeLaCreme, Detox, and Thorgy Thor — excited about the new HD re-release of an essential drag queen comedy classic, Girls Will Be Girls.
In writer-director Richard Day’s outrageous 2003 film, a narcissistic, venomous has-been actress best known for a disaster film titled Asteroid, Evie Harris (Jack Plotnick), and her roommate/slave Coco Peru (Clinton Leupp) welcome in a new roommate, Varla Jean (Jeffery Roberson), who happens to be the daughter of an actress Evie betrayed decades earlier… and may have vengeance in mind.
Filled with as many bitchy, quotable lines as a John Waters flick and the same intentional, edgy bad taste (e.g. an abortion doctor who rapes his patients, including Coco’s character), GWBG became a cult favorite on DVD and spawned webisode follow-ups on YouTube, and even a feature length sequel which still hasn’t been completed (we’ll get into that soon, henny!).
Thanks to Strand Releasing, GWBG has been restored and upgraded to HD on digital platforms, along with Day’s 2004 retro Hollywood comedy Straight-Jacket, 1995 seminal American teen lesbian romcom The Incredibly True Adventures of Two Girls In Love, and 2009 bisexual high school love triangle dramedy Dare.
Via Zoom, the stars and Day reunited to spill all sorts of tea with Logo about the film’s making, reception, and sequel for our oral history.
The first seed for GWBG was planted when Leupp and Plotnick were brought together by Dennis Hensley to host a benefit show for AID for AIDS in 2000.
Clinton Leupp: Jack kept telling me how to say my lines, so I called Dennis to quit. He answered the phone, and [I found out] his brother had just passed away, so I thought, oh shit I can’t quit now! I stayed on, fortunately, because we were a big hit and I fell in love with Jack and became such a fan that I asked him to give me line readings. Richard Day saw us and thought there’s something here and decided to pull Varla into the mix.
Jeffery Roberson: I was friends with Coco in New York, and Seth Rudetsky went to college with Jack, so we all sort of knew each other.
Day, who worked as a writer/producer on major network shows including Roseanne, Ellen, and Mad About You during the 1990s, initially pitched GWBG as a series.
Richard Day: First I pitched it to [Ron Howard and Brian Grazer’s] Imagine Entertainment because I had a deal there. The president at the time said, ‘if we go out with that we’ll lose all credibility as suppliers.’ It showed that drag was not universal. Then we pitched it to Showtime and they bought two scripts. I knew the people there, and they were really receptive, but they had to show the scripts to their management and we really wanted to go in, in drag, and do a read. I understood this would be straight people in New York who are not familiar with drag, and if they read it they will picture actresses and it’ll seem like a clown show. But they said ‘we can read the script ourselves,’ and passed. There was nowhere to go after Showtime. Then I wanted to do a play, and Coco would say, “I’m not putting on that wig and dress for $15 a night – do it as a movie.”
Once they committed to the indie movie route, it took Leupp in particular a little time to separate the sassy Coco Peru drag stage persona from the downtrodden cisgender female character portrayed in the movie.
Leupp: It totally tripped my brain out, because in my one-person shows I don’t even pretend to be a woman, and now I’m playing a real woman. But then I understood what Richard was doing and it took me that first week of filming to get my footing. And then there was the day Richard famously said to me, “Isn’t Varla hilarious? Isn’t she just doing the best job!?” I thought, oh my god, because I had fears I wasn’t funny in the movie.
Day: I read that in a directing book. You’re supposed to compliment your cast.
Leupp: When we filmed I’d notice the crew holding back laughter with Jack and Varla, and yawning during anything I was doing, and I was getting very insecure but then I decided I would commit to this character and play it as real as I could and the funniness was in what was being done to her rather than me having to be this drag queen funny thing. That was a really wonderful learning experience for me: committing to a character rather than being funny.
Jack Plotnick: What you’d been doing until then as Coco Peru was all about empowerment, and then Richard stuck you in this character with zero power! [laughs]
Day: I have a comment about that. When you first read the script, I remember Coco saying, “This isn’t the character I play, I’m very fabulous and have a lot of zingers and I’m in charge on stage.” I realized that’s true, but I took something different from her show – the undercurrent, and for me what gives it heft is you have that external layer but all of your stories are ones in which you’re humiliated! And the character that doesn’t get the big laughs, like Mary Tyler Moore in her show, she’s the emotional anchor. Varla and Evie are great characters and you care about them to a point but they’re self-involved and arch and Coco is just a real person with real problems and things aren’t going her way, and that’s the glue that holds the movie together and you get most of the audience’s sympathy, so it’s a more central role that way.
Plotnick: Real problems like trying to marry your abortion doctor!
Shot on a shoestring budget, the film turned Day’s home into its primary shooting location (and crash pad for Roberson). One bedroom was dressed to serve as a hospital room, diner, and TV studio green room, while a neighbor’s housekeeper crafted hot meals for the production team.
Plotnick: It was very homemade, this film. I was trucking heavy wooden stuff from Home Depot to nail on his walls, and I was lifting a dresser and it fell and broke my pinky finger. If you look at the original DVD cover you can see the pinky is completely broken and they didn’t do anything to cover the huge, blotchy red bump. None of us had any costume help, we arrived with a big bag of costumes. It was a bunch of friends making something they loved with people they adored.
Leupp: I remember the day one of the dogs escaped and got lost and we were horrified because the owner was so attached to her dog and it had run off into the mountains.
Plotnick: I vaguely recall being concerned a coyote would get it.
Day: That was my friend’s dog. I thought it might try to go home. Did it come back?
Leupp: We were all out in the neighborhood looking for the dog. We found it!
Although regarded as potential triggers today, GWBG draws some of its most twisted laughs from topics including rape, suicide, and abortion.
Plotnick: I think the reason the movie gets away with it is Richard always comes from the true pain of the characters and redemption, so you don’t feel you’re watching a gross-out flick but dark as night black comedy with real heart. I wouldn’t change a thing, but I have a sick sense of humor and that’s why I love Richard.
Roberson: I remember reading the script in San Francisco at a coffee place and I loved it, but there was one line I thought they cannot say this about, it will ruin the movie. ’I’ve had more children pulled out of me than a burning orphanage!’ Abortion was the only thing I thought was really pushing it. Then it turns out that’s the one line everybody quotes, so I wasn’t a good judge!
GWBG made its world premiere at the 2003 Sundance Film Festival, but it took some time for the cast to realize it found its audience on DVD and was becoming a classic, often when cutting lines like “a little less binge, a little more purge,” would get quoted in sometimes unexpected settings.
Roberson: I was in Provincetown, just walking down the street in drag, and somebody drove by in a car and had candy and threw it at me, yelling: “Take these for the ride you huge cow!” And kept driving! I was so upset. I thought that was so mean! Then I realized it was from GWBG! It snowballed after that and I heard the lines quoted more and more often, but I definitely got upset when somebody threw candy at me!
Plotnick: I get so many people coming up to me with quotes, and I get so excited when it’s one I don’t hear that often.
In 2010, a Kickstarter campaign was launched for a sequel titled GWBG 2012, which was largely shot in 2011 in the same house – before Day sold it – and on greenscreen, so locations could be added to the backgrounds in post-production. Unfortunately, this strategy proved more complicated than initially thought, especially when Day was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s Lymphoma, which he revealed on a blog about the sequel’s making and progress. Thankfully showing no sign of the disease today, Day was able to spend much of the COVID-19 pandemic laboring on the sequel’s CGI effects and hopes it will be finished by the end of the year, while Plotnick revived Evie in YouTube videos last year.
Day: In a way it’s the only story you could do a GWBG sequel about: they’re remaking Asteroid and Varla gets Edie’s old part and Coco takes in a fourth girl and has a complicated relationship with her. It takes months for a scene, you have to build the set in the computer because photographs don’t work so well and I had to learn how to do that. I read somewhere that one-third of low-budget films are never completed and I can see why. You can get way in over your head accidentally. I wish I’d been smarter shooting it, or mainly had more money, but we’re digging our way out of it little by little.
Plotnick: I always want to be doing Evie, but I really put her on a shelf and can’t tell you why except I guess I was focused on other things. But I missed Coco, Varla, and that world and wish we were still making webisodes. When the quarantine hit, I told Richard, I think this is the moment to bring Evie back and try to make people happy, and it’ll make me happy to play with her again, and he kindly wrote those videos.
The original GWBG was never released on Blu-ray, although it did have a brief digital streaming period on Netflix. Strand’s HD remaster marks its HD home entertainment premiere, making it accessible to new generations of queers and camp lovers (and RuPaul queens).
Plotnick: My favorite thing people say to me is they show this to people to determine if they’ll be friends with them. Jerry O’Connell told me his wife Rebecca Romijn does that, and I guess I bring that up because if you love wicked humor see this and find your tribe.
Leupp: I remember Jinkx Monsoon saying she constantly had it checked out at Blockbuster. And now they’ll get the chance to experience it the same way I did the first time someone showed me a John Waters movie. It felt wrong on so many levels but I just wanted more of it.
The cast is also open to Ryan Murphy taking advantage of his Netflix deal to turn GWBG into a series as they always envisioned and hoped, with some new drag queen blood, Showtime be damned!
Plotnick: Give me that contract! I’ll sign anything!
Day: I think GWBG was always a TV show. So yes, the TV show would have more than three people and probably drag performers from the current generation, and since we’re in a fantasy world let’s bring Meryl Streep in there too to play someone’s mom!
The remastered Girls Will Be Girls is available now on digital platforms.