Joshua Grannell on Christ, Evil, and Being a Cult Leader October 25 2015
Photography credits: Jose A Guzman Colon, Amanda Rebholz, Nicole-Fraser Herron, Brian Benson
In the world of cult cinema, Joshua Grannell may very well be the Queen of Cult. Based in San Francisco, his day job is really more of a night job—entertaining followers of his “Midnight Mass” screenings of cult classics. Their priest: Joshua's alter ego drag queen Peaches Christ. Along with showing fan-obsessed films like Showgirls and Welcome To The Dollhouse, Peaches and her team put on theatrical performances filled with audience participation and often-times feature guest appearances from cult icons like John Waters and Elvira: Mistress of the Dark.
Over the decade of performing and idolizing these movies, Mr. Grannell decided to put his love of cinema and theatre into a film of his own. He wrote and directed the indie horror comedy All About Evil, which we're helping to commemorate the 5 year anniversary of with a limited edition artist print. Below Strange Ways talks with Joshua Grannell about being a cult leader, why the “others” of the world inspire him, and why the cinema is his church.
First things first, I want to talk about how most people know you: your alter ago Peaches Christ. For anyone who has never heard of her, how would you describe Peaches to them?
Peaches, the character, was born in my senior thesis film, Jizmopper: A Love Story. I was studying film production at Penn State University and the actor we’d hired to play the drag queen in the movie I was directing didn’t pull through for us—so Peaches was born and stepped in to play the part. My advice to first-time drag performers is always: “Try not to put your first-time drag in a movie, so that people can't discover it forever”. I would say that Peaches is the outgoing, outrageous, glamorous, comedic extension of the cult movie loving nerd that Joshua is. There’s plenty of overlap, but I tend to be more introverted and shy out of drag; whereas Peaches is all about putting on a show, leading a cult movie audience through their celebration, and celebrating the underdog.
A large part of what has made Peaches Christ (in)famous is hosting your popular Midnight Mass screenings. Where did the idea for these shows come from, and what happens on a typical night? They seem to facilitate an almost Rocky Horror type of fandom.
Midnight Mass started in the summer of 1998 and the first ever show we did was with a screening of Faster Pussycat! Kill! Kill! I came out as Peaches and held a “Mass” that concluded with a Tura Satana look-a-like contest. I was terrified nobody would show up—or worse nobody would enter the contest. But we had a great turnout, and some great contestants. Drag star Putanesca won when she cart-wheeled across the stage and karate chopped me. I couldn’t have imagined then that some years later I’d be doing shows with the actual Tura Satana. The shows have evolved to become elaborate theatrical stage-shows celebrating cult films, sometimes with cult icons and stars playing onstage with us as well.
A look at the behind-the-scenes of creating a Peaches Christ stage show.
Were you always drawn to being a performer—and if so, why did you decide on drag? Tell me about the humble beginnings of Peaches Christ. I can't picture you just performing in night clubs for tips...
I’ve always been a performer and have always been super inspired by movies and so much of what I do with drag is informed by my love affair with cinema. Most of my drag career was built in cinemas and on the stages of underground nightclubs like Trannyshack back in the late 90's and early 00's. I’m also inspired by underdogs—the “others” of the world. I like to think that Peaches Christ leads a cult of devoted followers who worship the cult movies we all love. It’s my job to create events that celebrate these movies, and I borrow lots of ideas from other cults like the Catholic Church. I think for us, the cinema is our church and we earnestly believe in these characters. We are the nerds, the freaks, and weirdos with a wicked fierce sense of humor. We’re the Dawn Weiners who grew up to become the Dawn Davenports. Both Dawns are Saints to us.
For many of your stage shows recently you've brought in a popular drag queens who became famous on RuPaul's Drag Race. Was this a conscious decision? Why do you think drag is having a resurgence in popular culture? (By the way, when is Ru going to invite you on the show as a guest judge?!)
I don't think Ru will ever invite another queen as a guest judge, unfortunately. Seven seasons in and it hasn't happened yet. The conscious decisions to work with girls who've been on TV was about celebrating their own cult of fans in our shows, and bringing performers I'd personally felt inspired by somehow. I really enjoy Drag Race; and some of the girls go on the show and I know I want to work with them.
You call yourself a “cult leader”. Obviously, you're a lover of cult cinema and fandom, but what draws you to it? The movies? The audience? What makes it special?
For me, as a young queer-do growing up in a conservative Catholic School, the discovery of early John Waters movies, Divine, and The Rocky Horror Picture Show really, truly changed my life. They were my own It Gets Better videos. These sorts of cult, outsider films became my religion. So while I say that I'm a cult leader in a somewhat tongue-in-cheek way, I'm also kinda serious. We come together in movie theatre to worship what we love. The cinema is our church, and I am comfortable saying Mass.
Much of your influences come from horror. What is it about the genre that inspires you? I find that often queer people relate to the themes in the horror genre, and often-times cult films tend to be in horror. I imagine you must find connecting threads between some of your more obvious inspirations.
I think I'm a sensitive person. Maybe one of those people that others describe as “too sensitive”. I sometimes have trouble with real world horrors, like war, crime, poverty, and abuse. I think that the fantasy world of the horror genre really allows me to exercise feelings and fears in a safe, fun way. I'm also just attracted to darker, wicked subject matter. I'm not totally sure why, but I've always loved it and continue to.
How did your love of horror and niche cinema influence your debut film All About Evil? Where did the idea for it come about? Were there any specific movies you looked to for inspiration?
I was running a single-screen theatre when I wrote the movie, and I had anxiety around the fact that all the great neighborhood cinemas were closing down across the country. Multiplexes were popping up everywhere, and I started thinking about what length we should go to in order to save our old movie houses. I guess that led me to the idea for the plot. I was also really inspired by the only female exploitation filmmaker from the 60's and 70's, Doris Wishman. I kept thinking about how she built a career making disgusting, rude, exploitative films just like her male contemporaries and how unique she was.
The movie is outrageous, funny, gory—and also a bit nostalgic. That can be a bit hard to balance. Was there a certain tone you were going for with the movie? I imagine setting it in a struggling cinema house was a very purposeful choice for you.Yes to all of this, and the tone was a very fine line to walk. I wanted the movie to be outrageous and comedic, but I also wanted it to have real darkness; the characters to have a real pathology to them. I'm glad it came out the way it did, but there were times on-set where I'd ask myself “What the hell is this?!”
The cast is all-around pretty stellar, especially for a low-budget indie horror film. The film hinges a lot on Natasha Lyonne and Thomas Dekker, who both have solid careers. How did you go about casting them? Natasha, particularly, puts in an enthusiastic turn as “De-BOR-ah”.
I had been a fan of Natasha's for years and years. She was always on my wish list of actresses. I just never thought we'd actually get her. It was a great coincidence that our talented director of photography, Tom Richmond, had also shot The Slums Of Beverly Hills starring Natasha. He was able to call her and put us in direct contact. She read the script, we had some phone conversations, and she agreed to do it. I can't picture anyone else in the role now. Thomas was on TV when I met him. He was shooting Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles and was playing John Connor. I went to the set and we met in his trailer and when I saw his personal DVD collection I knew he'd get the movie. I told him he couldn't say no. He didn't say yes right away, but eventually he did and now we've worked on loads of projects together. I adore him.
You've also managed to attract special film guests to your live shows, and with All About Evil you convinced some to continue that relationship onscreen. How was not only working with, but directing, icons like John Waters' veteran Mink Stole and Cassandra Peterson aka: Elvira?
By the time I'd asked both of them to be in the movie we'd become friends and I felt comfortable asking them to do it, but even though we're friends I never stop being a fan. I remember they were both so totally professional and easy-going and comforting to me on the set. It was a really stressful time, and I can remember them being so supportive and helpful to me personally.
I just have to ask about the “titty chopper” scene—whose idea was it?! Where did it come from? All the deaths are creative, but I'm not sure something like that had been put to film before.
That whole guillotine scene was my idea and I really wanted to do something that suggested the character was betraying her gender. She was no longer an ally, and she was willing to do whatever it takes to put butts in movie theatre seats. This, again, was where I was watching old Doris Wishman movies like Bad Girls Go To Hell and thinking “Wow, you'd never know a woman came up with this awful stuff.”
When All About Evil first premiered, you screened it across the United States in pure Midnight Mass style with live performances and audience participation. You seem to be taking your shows to other cities more and more, having just recently finished a month-long residency in Provincetown, MA. Are you finding there to be a pull for you to be seen more and more outside of San Francisco?
With the internet and social media, more people around the world are discovering our weird little world of theatre and movies; so there has been an increasing amount of opportunities for us to travel and do shows in other cities. I really enjoy it and am just thrilled I have a job where I get to travel. I loved doing the run in Provincetown especially because I got to be there long enough to really enjoy it.
A couple years after filming All About Evil, you (as Peaches Christ) also teamed up with Elvira for a film festival sponsored by HorrorHound Magazine. I imagine that must have been a sort of full-circle moment from admiring horror movies, creating one, and then judging them.
It was incredible! I remember when we were shooting the ads for it and I was sitting on a set with her. We were both in drag I just had to keep pinching myself. It was like a wonderful dream.
Aren't you also teaching a class at the San Francisco Art Institute? Tell us about it.
I teach a class there called “Creating Character” where students learn about artists who develop alternative personas to create artwork through. All of the students then workshop their own new character, and create work through them that they wouldn't have otherwise made. Next semester we'll be doing more with the “digital persona”, so you should be able to meet these characters online soon.
How does it feel that 5 years have passed since completing All About Evil? Have you watched it recently? Looking back, is there anything you're particularly proud of about the film?
I can't really believe it has been five years, probably because I still get asked to go places to screen it and perform the pre-show. Two weeks ago I screened it in Pittsburgh and then my alma-mater Penn State. Both shows were really special “full-circle” type experiences, because I hadn't been back to Pennsylvania since I went to school there. I haven't watched the movie in a while, but I could hear it from my dressing room at Penn State and it was fun listening to the students laugh and scream.
You seem to be very busy lately, but are there any plans for another movie in the works? Where do you think your career is headed in the next 5 or 10 years? Any goals you have yet to hit?
I'm working on a movie right now, still developing it. The film is really different from All About Evil, but still pretty outrageous. I have loads and loads of goals still. I'd love to write a book someday, and I'd love to make a movie that then becomes its own fully realized stage-show. I'm hoping that's what happens with this new one I'm working on.
5 Year Anniversary