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‘The Cockettes’ keep turning people on and tripping ‘em out

By Kamala Appel, Special to the Daily Planet
Saturday May 11, 2002

Travel back in time and land in the front row of a Cockettes performance with David Weissman (co-director/producer) and Bill Weber's (co-director/editor) documentary, “The Cockettes,” about the revolutionary drag troupe of the 1960s and ‘70s. 

First-time feature documentary filmmakers, Weissman and Weber combine interviews with live performances to produce a work that will inform and entertain audiences of all stripes and genders. 

Weissman has worked on a number of independent short films that have made their way through the film festival circuit, including “Complaints” and “Song from an Angel”. Weber has spent most of his career as an editor, working on commercials, music videos, and other independent films. Some of his former clients include: Sting, Alanis Morissette, The Grateful Dead, Industrial Light & Magic, Coca Cola, and AT&T. 

Although the two only met in the early ‘90s, they share an affinity through their mutual admiration for The Cockettes that began in the late 1960s, when they were teenagers. Weissman describes this homage as “really good — the movie is told from an experiential point of view from people who were in it.” Weber believes that “it's such a great story that captures so much of a time and place that I liked a lot. And that is a lot of the impetus for me to tell this story. And not so much being a huge influence on other people.” He readily admits that The Cockettes had a major impact on his life. 

Weber and Weissman were not the only ones who were intrigued by The Cockettes phenomenon, Weissman recalls a certain glam rocker who took an interest: 

“One Cockette remembered hearing (David) Bowie on the radio, the first time Bowie came to San Francisco (1970). And the interviewer said to Bowie, 'well, what do you really want to do while you are in San Francisco?' And he said 'well, I want to go see The Cockettes'. 

Weissman wouldn’t mind inspiring new generations with The Cockettes’ story: “We really hope that the movie can reclaim San Francisco's place as being a really vital cultural center of the twentieth century. That's part of San Francisco's history because it was at that time (late 1960s and early 1970s). I mean, the world looked to San Francisco for the newest, the wildest, the freakiest, the most idealistic aspects of youth culture.” 

On a more earthly note, Weissman faced the same challenges many other documentary filmmakers confront, starting with fundraising. 

“Raising money for a doc is just really, really hard.” 

Weissman and Weber started their fundraising efforts with an eight-minute promotional trailer. They were able to raise about half of their money from foundation and corporate grants and the other half from individuals. One San Francisco man who was moved by The Cockettes when he was 15 donated $100,000, a gift that Weissman says made this project possible and earned the donor a producer credit. Other individual grants ranged from $5 to $10,000 and came from a diverse group of donors. The Wells Fargo Foundation gave $50,000 due to a bold internal champion, Tim Hanlen, who recognized the value of the project. They also received a lot of equipment support from a couple of local Bay Area companies: Western Images and Varitel Video. 

Once the money was gathered, a film still had to be made: 

“There is the creative challenge of how do you tell a story. You are not working from a script. You are not working from something that pre-exists as a story. You are taking disparate material and trying to make it into a story. And the lucky thing for us was that we sort of knew very early on what the story was that we wanted to tell. And I don't think that changed very much and with many documentaries that is not the case. I think this is very much thanks to the work that Martin Worman had done (a number of audio tapes) because Martin really gave us a history in a very compelling way. It was incomplete, but it was a very compelling contextualization of The Cockettes story that really served as a template for us.” 

Weissman clearly loves his craft, yet his advice for new filmmakers isn’t entirely upbeat: “It's very hard to be an independent filmmaker. I think you need to have passion, particularly if you are a documentarian. You need to have passion and incredible perseverance and good friends, and a sense of humor.” 

Weissman hopes “The Cockettes” inspires people to think about how they can find more creativity and joy in their own lives. “We hope that it gives people a richer appreciation of that period of time. I think that the Media has really reduced that era to some really wimpy clichés and our hope is that this movie captures some of the richness of the counter culture in San Francisco.” 

He does not want this film to be solely a nostalgic trip. He hopes that viewing this film will relay the message that “this is what happened once, see what you can come up with” today. 

The filmmakers admit they are uncertain what the future holds in store for them, once the two recover from the promotion and distribution of “The Cockettes.” Weber expressed interest in telling the story of a San Francisco hospice founder with a colorful past. Weissman joked that he dreams about snorkeling — but what filmmaker doesn't during the recent aftermath of completing a film? 

And who wouldn’t want to spend a wild night out with The Cockettes? 


“The Cockettes” opened May 10 at the Castro Theater in San Francisco, the Rafael Film Center in San Rafael, and the Camera in San Jose. It film opens May 17 at the Shattuck Cinemas in Berkeley; and at the Nickelodeon and the Rialto in Santa Cruz.