Directing three gorgeous drag queens as they change the lives of complete strangers is a task in of itself. Directing Bob the Drag Queen, Shangela, and Eureka O’Hara is an entirely different experience all together, but Peter LoGreco was up for the challenge.
We’re Here is like Priscilla Queen of the Desert meets Queer Eye, an irresistible documentary series where self-assured queens invade towns in need of a fresh perspective. Each queen gets someone to mentor and they all perform a drag show that calls for unity and acceptance.
LoGreco was not only interested making the people come alive on camera, but the cities they visited needed to have a personality all their own. These aren’t sleepy hollows; they are large, vibrant places that just need a little more sparkle. Even though this was unscripted television, LoGreco was aware that they might run into some trouble due to talent involved, but there wasn’t as much pushback as you may expect.
Maybe the world is ready to step into a pair of high heels? Bring on season two!
Awards Daily: We’re Here is seemingly lighter than some of your other projects. Were you looking to do something different?
Peter LoGreo: You know, it’s interesting. Absolutely not—not at the beginning anyway. It was one of those stories where you often hear that the project came across my plate and I didn’t think it was my thing. It was one of those things where you find your perfect mate when you’re not looking. I went into the meeting admitting that it wasn’t really my cup of tea. If there was a real illicit a response to the purpose of drag and the motivations and not necessarily make a historical documentary but keep it in the back of our minds. The idea of what drag grew out of and how it was a form of celebratory protest. I had watched and loved Paris Is Burning back in the day. That meeting was a real articulation, and not just on my part, of what Johnny and Steve should be the goal of the project. The idea to me was to do something topical that was serious in the sense of being important, but it doesn’t have to be dreary. It can be joyful and silly and irreverent.
AD: How are the cities selected? You guys play location pinball throughout this season.
PL: For anything, and I think this goes for narrative, scripted television, casting and outreach is such a huge part of the process. You want to start with people whose stories were interesting to us. It was a relatively intensive process with some outreach producers where we are trolling social media, talking to friends of friends, dipping into different places because we worked on other things there. Ultimately, it started with Gettysburg because we found Hunter and we found the leader of the community theater there. Not only that, but this place has a really interesting personality of its own as a community. We thought that was an interesting place to start because, ultimately, being able to pinpoint the ethos of each community is important as well.
AD: That makes sense, yeah.
PL: It started there and we used that as our criteria. We wanted a place that had interesting people that had stories that if they were if not explicitly about themselves as an LGBTQ person but at least were adjacent to those issues of marginalization or division. How their experiences intercepted with the show. On top of that, then how can we represent the identity of this town. How can we pinball around this country and create a variety of experiences across the season. It would’ve been easy to just pick on the Bible Belt, and we didn’t want to do that. On a craft level, visually, it creates variety to be in the southwest and then the Pacific Northwest. It’s very purposeful decision to keep people interested. Yes, we are leaning something new. Yes, it’s different on the surface. But there is this thread of commonality to see people in these places to see how they are perceived from the outside and what it is like living there.
AD: One of my favorite things is when the queens first land in a new city. It’s always fun to see everyone looking at them and the townspeople now knowing that’s happening. By the end, everyone is cheering them on and it’s a celebration.
PL: Mine too. With unscripted stuff, this has a real hybrid component in the sense that there are situations that we are creating in order to see what happens. We were really thinking about the character of the place, what’s the costume idea, what’s the character that the queen is going to inhabit when they walk into this place? How can we play on the perception of this place going in. That was fun for us. Even in the shooting there was more structure. We’d land in a town in drag, and you could see the combination of shock and disbelief all the way up to this joyous acceptance and almost elated relief that this force had found their was into their town. That was actually a really wonderful surprise. You don’t know what’s going to happen. In Branson, we knew that was the place that we’d probably receive some trouble.
AD: What apprehensions did you have in Branson? That was the episode where I was unsure of the most—even when that one woman doesn’t even talk to the queens. That freaked me out.
PL: That was probably the most dramatic on camera perspective we received and I think partially because people have become very savvy that if you do something on camera it could bite you in the butt later on.
PL: Branson had enough of a character, and we always go into places ahead of time to suss them out. That place where we had the drag show was literally the only place that said it was okay.
PL: Yeah. We kind of knew because we had these really cool locations and our producer was reporting back. When we got into the discussion of what the show really was, they would tell us that the theater was booked that day. I don’t think anyone was worried about true danger, but from the perspective of filming it, we had to be prepared. We just made sure we understood what we were capable of shooting. There was other instances that occurred here and there, but we didn’t necessarily have time to shoot or people weren’t going to sign a release. It just wasn’t footage that we could use. We were in their space. We kind of were, in a way, relieved that some of these situations where someone would come out onto the street and express their dissatisfaction or horror. We expected that to happen, unfortunately, but ultimately I think the revelation of the show is, for me, how these towns are more diverse than people would think. How much more accepting and celebratory people think these cities are regardless of their cultural association.
AD: When we get to those drag shows, I was always surprised by the size of the audiences. There’s a legitimate interest in the show they are about to watch and they are giving back to the performers. That’s one of the most satisfying things about every single episode.
PL: We tried to design to accommodate that and document what happened instead of, ‘We’re going to put on a show that will be perfectly rendered on camera!’ We shoot as it happens. It creates more of a loosey-goosey feel but I feel really strongly that it allows us to illicit that very response that you’re talking about. To be honest, we had plans for if only 10 people show up or what do we do if protesters show up outside? We thought that could really potentially happen. I am actually pleasantly surprised even as a nonfiction producer and we all love conflict because it makes people keep watching. I am much happier with the way things turned out. There was never enough push back or conflict to ever really derail or create a different sense of the process. It’s such a hopeful message for all of us frankly. It’s a comfort, especially at this time.
AD: That is very comforting to know that there wasn’t a lot of unaired drama. It makes me so happy.
AD: What did you lean about the art of drag through directing all of We’re Here?
PL: I guess I would say that the biggest thing is a whole new level of respect and admiration for me, and I might say this is a unique power of Bob, Eureka, and Shangela. Their tremendous skill as improvisational performers—in or out of drag to be perfectly honest. When I realized the raw material of each of them and what they brought to the table both in terms of their personal investment and their ability to stem a situation into something interesting or funny or moving…how developed that ability is was really amazing to see. It is such an important part of being a drag performer, and it’s not like I’m aware of that. I think I thought of it more as they were heavily schooled and trained to be super shady. They can throw insults and barbs so well with each other so much that I would never want to get involved. This went beyond that as far as I’m concerned. They were able to share warmth and loveliness and their own experiences. On some level you have to be aware that anyone who is a powerful artist and performer has probably been through a lot.
PL: The degree in which they are able to turn the sum total of their experience into this fuel for their art was very powerful and inspiring. I have tremendous respect for that. On a craft level, I had an appreciation for how much is going into it, but until you are part of the process you don’t really know. Especially with what we drove them to do with the speed of the design of the shows and the costumes. The interaction between the costume designer and the drag queen was really sophisticated. They are all incredible artists because it’s not only just thinking about working for the story, but does it work for the movement? Does it work for the camera? Does it work with the choreography? It’s not just about looking pretty (laughs).
AD: It’s part of their character and performance.
PL: I had thought about it for two minutes, I’d realize that makes sense. Unless you’ve spent 8 hours with a drag queen that has been in a corset the whole time and deal with the physical endurance that they have. That was a new appreciation I have. For the three of them, we were taking drag “into the wild.” We are in drag for a few hours in a theater and that’s the normal way that it’s done. It was a new experience for all of us, including the designers. We were working with them on how to evolve how they put stuff together. Maybe we should let Bob be a tiny bit more comfortable and let that corset be a little less tight and maybe a little lower. The respect that I have for drag was definitely amplified.
We’re Here is available to stream on all HBO platforms.