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Mars Roberge and The Little Film That Could

Mars Roberge and The Little Film That Could

It’s often said that the road less travelled takes you on the most rewarding journey. Director and DJ Mars Roberge is living testament to that saying. And that fact that he is living is a small miracle in and of itself. In 2000, Mars was Djing in the Toronto Queen West club district and wrestling with a mess of personal demons that were leading him down the road of total destruction.

“I got carried away with the ecstasy and I got carried away with the drinking and Djing in these miserable Goth clubs for about 10 years,” he tells me on a West Hollywood diner patio as the sun sets. “I got really suicidal and was watching Welcome Back Kotter and decided I was going to kill myself in the schoolyard where Welcome Back Kotter was filmed. I got on a bus with $150 and a bag of records and went to New York. I knocked on my sister’s door and she wanted nothing to do with me. She’d heard about me in Toronto,” he laughs of that terrible time. “So I got to stay on a drug dealer’s couch who had a dominatrix girlfriend who beat famous politicians.”

Luckily he never made it to the schoolyard of the Kotter kids. Through a blend of brashness and serendipity, he found himself working for one of the most famous fashion designers and stylists in the world, Patricia Field, a job that lead to the making of his new documentary called ‘The Little House That Could‘. Again, the road he took to get from there to here was, to paraphrase a Beatles lyric, a long and winding one.

I’d get up and Amanda LePore would be vacuuming naked in the store with her dog.”

amanda-lepore-scent“I got thrown into Djing and there really wasn’t much money to begin with,” Roberge recalls of his early days in New York. “I needed a day job, so I brought five fake resumés with me. I was told I was going to work at Trash and Vaudeville but they never heard of me and my friends were away. So I handed out resumés walking along 8th Street, and down to my last resumé I was sitting in front of Patricia Field’s shop, which I kind of knew about. At the time she lived above her store. I said, ‘what the hell, I’m going to walk in and apply. I’ll hand my last resumé and that’s it’. I came across this really bitchy queen who acted like he was too cool to let me work there and a friend of my sister’s, the Electroclash Godfather, Larry Tee, said, ‘Oh Mars is a sweet boy, he’s a friend of mine.” And they said, ‘any friend of his is not going to work here.’”

Turns out it was a joke and Roberge landed his first job in New York City. As the ‘token straight guy’ he was immersed in a culture of club kids, queens, transexuals, and a coterie of people who inhabited gotham’s thriving and glittering nightlife. “I’m a straight guy but at the time [I wore] glitter eye makeup, they assumed I was a gay hustler and they gave me a job. All my telemarketing experience told me how to sell clothes. I was their best sales person. I actually cared about selling. That was all I knew, I didn’t even know fashion at the time, really. All I knew was Siren Clothing [Queen Street West, Toronto]. It was like I got schooled by the best and I got along with everybody because I was the first token straight guy to ever work in the store.”

Being the token straight guy presented Roberge with some unique opportunities as he hustled clothing to the A-List. “They always sent me all the female clients; all the Britney Spears all the Paris Hiltons and stuff and all they wanted was to get laid, so I dressed them in ways straight guys would want to see. I think I was responsible for low-cut jeans, that awful fad, I think I was the guy who was responsible for that at the time,” he says with a laugh.

Patricia Field, in more ways than one was like the Harvey Milk of New York.”

Patricia-Field-1It was during this time he worked with and developed relationships with some of the people who would inspire his film. “It was kind of like Forrest Gump,” Roberge says with a chuckle. “They’d be like, ‘Forrest, you’ve got to go to that vogueing ball up in Harlem! Now walk, Forrest, walk!’ And I had to take all of this stuff and I didn’t have a clue. But I did it to keep my job and it was cool. It was like, ‘does anybody have a clue as to what’s going on?’ That’s part of why I made the film. I couldn’t explain this. My day was, I’d get up and Amanda LePore would be vacuuming naked in the store with her dog as her miserable stalking Russian boyfriend comes around and tries on g-strings all day. That’s my life. Instead of going to therapy one day, I just make films about my lives.”

Living and working with some of the most unusual and unique personalities in New York was a very enlightening experience—and it also gave Roberge some insight into the real Patricia Field. “I’d like to say me and Pat were really close but the truth is I’d see her maybe once a month for like, ten years,” he says of the elusive icon. “I was really close with all the people who worked there, I knew how big a deal it was, especially in the gay community and the outsiders. Patricia Field, in more ways than one was like the Harvey Milk of New York,” he explains. “People would come from across the country to get saved. Long before club kids, in fact when that whole club kids explosion ended they all got jobs for Pat or managed her store. It was home to me.”

“I was kind of terrified of her for a while because she didn’t get me and I didn’t get her,” Roberge recalls of his early days with Field. “I’d be protected by the trannies. I remember the first time I met her, I thought, ‘Oh, sweet old lady.’ I said [putting on a sweet happy voice], ‘Hi Patricia Field!’ And she was like [puts on a gravely smoker’s voice], ‘What’s your name? What do you want?’. In the very end, I’m the closest to Pat these days than I ever have been. We text each other in the daytime because she wants you to be yourself, she doesn’t care what you are. I worked there and I’ve watched who her favourites are. One of her favourites was a girl who got nailed for shoplifting. So she gave her a job in the store.”

Field gave Keith Haring and Basquiat their starts in their art careers by letting them sell their art and designs in the store.”

kenny kennyWhile Field gave new life to the people she took under her wing, the very same people revitalized her life, passion and art. “They kept Pat young,” Roberge explains of the symbiotic relationship between the designer and her ‘family’. “In fact, she turns that store over with a new staff all the time. She loves the new freak in town, the person full of energy and new ideas, she’s always been beside those people. In New York it’s very easy to get burnt out and become miserable after two years and do nothing and say you had your moment,” he observes. “She always has that moment. She stays fresh. I think anybody else would have a heart attack keeping up with her, especially at that age.”

Eventually, Roberge got to know Field and put forth the idea of making a documentary about life in The House of Field. And while the film may look at first blush like a documentary about the woman behind the House, it’s more about the people who fill the house, the misfits, the freaks, the outsiders who found each other and came together under the watchful eye of Housemother Field.

‘The Little House That Could’ follows members of the House over the span of six years. It tells the tales of Field form their perspectives and their stories from hers. The cast of characters could not be imagined by any Hollywood filmmaker. This is real life. These are real people. There’s the tranny hooker who tells people off while bragging to anyone who would listen about making more money hustling than working in Field’s shop.

“[Pat] likes personality. She likes people with big personalities,” Roberge says about Field. Those are the people who are Pat’s favourite people because they are real. Her love for realness also informed how the film was made and edited. As Roberge explains, it’s got a gritty, under-produced look and feel because he shot it on home movie cameras, giving the feeling that you are part of the party, not just gazing through the looking glass. Having that perspective irked some of the more traditional film types who pressured Roberge to make changes, to which he—and Field—balked. “I was having editors—especially out here in Hollywood—tell me, ‘You’ve got to change this so it explains everything.’ And Pat said, ‘Fuck that! That’s what everybody does!” Everybody wants to do a thing on Sex & the City and explain the background. She said to me, ‘You’re the first person who just doesn’t care. You’re with us. You’re at the party and that’s what I like about your movie, Mars.’ Cool, she got it! I didn’t show her the movie until a year after it was made and I wanted to be in the same room and she was freaked out. She was like, ‘What the fuck is this movie about?’ I had her release form and everything, but I don’t think she realized I was really going through with this. When she saw it she was really happy.”

This is kind of like me paying back because ‘The Little House That Could’
saved my life.”

mars‘The Little House That Could’ has some amazing moments and stories about how artistically elastic the shop is—and how in-the-moment many of the people who work in the shop can be. “What people would be surprised by is that she [Field] gave Keith Haring and Basquiat their starts in their art careers by letting them sell their art and designs in the store,” says Roberge of some of the more eye-raising stories in the film. “Basquiat was homeless, Keith Haring did all the displays and repainted the store. At one point when I worked there, they had painted over it and I was like, ‘Wow! That was Keith Haring’s stuff!? You don’t even care?’ That’s how much she’s surrounded by artists.”

There are lots of great stories that those outside the House may never have heard about. “Cody Ravioli, the mom, the main transexual who had been there for a while, threw John Kennedy Jr. out of the store for calling them freaks,” recall Roberge. “She didn’t care who he was, she wanted him to get the hell out of the store. She said, ‘Your mom had class but you don’t have any, get out of my store. And yes I know who the fuck you are.’ She also put Madonna down and tells you who the real Madonna is,” he continues. “I’m sure that might disappoint some people but I was there from the start, to hearing it, to know what the real truths are. I like seeing people get ahead who were really supporting the gay people, not people who were against it originally. That’s something you’ll learn in this movie. I wanted to put Britney Spears down but she was really nice. I wanted to put Lady Gaga down but she hired all my friends to work for her.”

Another takeaway from the film is just how caring and nurturing Field is when it comes to her friends and adopted family. “She’s down to earth,” says Roberge of his subject. “She sits in her backyard and barbeques and has picnics for people and has everybody over for Thanksgiving and she actually makes you food and gives you gifts and makes you feel like you are special. When you have no family and you’re there, that’s what’s cool about her. That’s beyond getting free drinks and looking fabulous standing next to her in a club waiting for paparazzi to come by. She loves to talk about cars and her dogs and Greece. She loves Greece, she gotten re-affiliated with her home country—she’s half Greek, half Armenian—that side of her is the real thing.”

“All the people who I’ve met who have made it in New York, people like Mistress Formika who throws great parties, it’s because in the end what you don’t see is Mistress Formika is like Bill Murray in Meatballs,” Roberge continues. “The gym coach who takes everybody camping and fishing and you’re in New York and it’s like the diehard drag queens taking us camping. It’s that home thing. It’s so easy to get homesick and be trapped there. These people break out of that, Patricia Field being one of them, make that possible. We all take care of each other and there’s a big moral support.”

That support and sense of community has launched a lot of careers and saved a lot of lives—in particular the life of Mars Roberge. He left Toronto for New York and planned never to return. Instead, he found a new family and a new career. “And I got a new life,” says Roberge of landing in The House of Field. He offers some sage advice for those feeling on the outside and at the end of their rope. “If you’re ever thinking of killing yourself, move somewhere else, start a new life, because you’re going to have so many lives. I’ve had about three lives since the movie. This is kind of like me paying back because ‘The Little House That Could’ saved my life.”

 

The Little House That Could is screening at festivals around North America, including:

• NYC – Aug.29th at The Marquee Nightclub for a party called Catwalk hosted by Patricia Field herself

• Indianapolis – LGBT Film Festival – Nov.9th, 2013 (might be Nov.10th)

• Sao Paulo – Cinema Mostra Aids (Sao Paulo–HIV Festival) – late November (probably Nov.29th)

• Harlem, NY – April 2014 (35th Anniversary of The House of Omni – A ball house and put on by the gay filmmaker who made “How Do I Look?”

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AndyAndrew Vail’s writing career began in Halifax when he was but a child. In Grade 4, he wrote and produced his own series of comic books entitled “Freaky The Frog”, the on-going tale of a little misfit frog and his pals of the pond. Marvel Comics never came knocking but Andrew knew he loved to create and tell stories. Since then, Andrew has worked in advertising, PR and publicity; has interviewed politicians, rock stars and very interesting yet not-so-famous movers and shakers. He has published articles in a variety of local and national magazines and websites.


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