Circus of Books was a bookstore and gay pornography shop, opened in the 1960s by an unlikely and unassuming straight couple who kept their business from their personal lives a secret. The documentary explores the challenges they faced, edited, written and produced by Kathryn Robson who was nominated for an Emmy (Outstanding Writing in a Nonfiction Program) for her work on the film. Find out more below!
Congratulations on your Emmy nomination for Circus of Books, Kathryn! How are you feeling? Did you know while working on this documentary as editor, producer and writer that you had something special in your hands?
Thank you so much! I’m feeling all the things– thrilled, surprised, excited, and really humbled. I knew Circus of Books was a really special story, and while I was working on it, I definitely felt if we could get the film out, we would find an audience who loved the story as much as we did. But getting an Emmy nomination is really beyond what I imagined. Just getting a documentary made and into the world feels like a minor miracle, so this is really rewarding.
How did you become involved with this documentary? Can you tell our readers what Circus of Books is about and the filmmaker and director, Rachel Mason?
The Circus of Books stores are these iconic gay porn stores in Los Angeles that served as a safe haven for the LGBTQ community for decades, but the film is really about the very unlikely owners of the stores– Karen and Barry Mason, a straight, religious couple. The Masons were hugely successful in gay porn distribution– for a time they were the biggest distributors of gay porn in the United States– but they kept their work a secret from friends, family, even their own kids. The documentary is directed by their daughter, Rachel Mason, so it’s really her journey unearthing this hidden history of the store and her parents’ lives.
I was introduced to Rachel by a mutual producer friend of ours, Vanessa Meyer. Vanessa knew Rachel was looking for an editor for the documentary and I mentioned that I’d done my MA thesis on a porn-related topic (The Hetero Female Use of Online Porn), so she thought it could be a good fit. So Rachel and I met, and I think she saw I understood the nuances around the topic. For my thesis research, I’d done a deep dive into Queer Studies and really examining how porn had been this unique cultural space for the LGBTQ community. For many years it was the only space where the gay community could see themselves represented and could build a sense that they weren’t alone. So I came on board to edit and then later came on as a producer as well.
Did you guys face any challenges while working on this project? Did you have a favorite part?
We faced new and unique challenges every single day! When we first started, we were a pretty lean outfit– for much of the time it was Rachel and I working on my laptop in my dining room– so we all had to wear many hats. It was a real marathon– very long days, sometimes upwards of 16 hours, 7 days a week. We had to make a lot of sacrifices in terms of time with friends and family. There was just no ability to have any semblance of life balance. But we believed in what we were making so much, we were just laser focused on the film.
My favorite parts of the film are all somewhat tied-up in the making of it. I love the scene where Rachel’s brother, Josh, tells her the story of what it was like for him to come out. That was a very emotional day to shoot, because it was so personal, and honest. Josh was willing to be so vulnerable and generous in telling his story. And despite the fact that he and Rachel are very close, it was the first time she’d heard a lot of these things and she was so heart-broken for him. She has a very emotional response that you see in the film and I just love it because it’s so real and intimate. It really feels like this moment of sharing between a brother and a sister and I’m just so happy we captured that and were able to include it in the film.
For you personally, what makes Circus of Books an important film and why do you think people should watch it?
I think there’s so many layers to the importance of the film. In many ways, it’s this vital piece of LGBTQ history and we wanted to document that. It’s so easy for these stories to just drift away as time passes, but they’re so important and relevant to much of what we’re dealing with today– what LGBTQ people and other vulnerable communities still face. So that was a big part of it. For me, I really wanted to engender a sense of discovery and empathy in the audience, and not just for people who identify as LGBTQ, but even more so for people who maybe come in thinking this story has nothing to do with them. There’s obviously this very funny, entertaining element to the film and Karen and Barry are so charming and hilarious. But they were also incredible allies and everyday heroes- they took these meaningful steps to provide safe spaces for vulnerable people, to care for their employees and customers who were HIV-positive during the AIDS crisis. They’ve gone on to become majorly involved in PFLAG (Parents, Friends and Family of Lesbians and Gays). To me it was really a story about community and ally-ship- we are all part of communities that we may not realize and we all have a role to play in stepping up to protect those communities. My hope is that the film can inspire others to do the same.
What do you hope viewers will take away from watching the life and work of Karen and Barry Mason, the history that surrounds their store, and the impact they made in the LGBTQ+ community?
Just as I said, I hope that the film can provoke a sense of empathy, and of shared responsibility to the communities we live in. I think we’re pretty honest in the film about the fact that this wasn’t an easy place to land for Karen in particular. She kept her professional and her personal life separate for so many years because she could not resolve these conflicting identities. She’s an incredibly religious person– it is core to who she is– and so she really compartmentalized what her religion had to say about homosexuality and her love and affection first for her LGBTQ employees and then later for her son, Josh when he came out. It was Josh coming out that forced her to reconcile these worlds– because as she says in the film “I was not going to not be the best mother I could be.” She did the hard work of examining her beliefs, examining her religion as she had understood it, and she discovered through that spiritual work that it was not irreconcilable. That in fact, her religion is what fueled her to love and to extend compassion and empathy and support for the most vulnerable people. And since then she’s just become this champion of LGBTQ rights. I think there’s a really powerful lesson for everyone in there about how to be our best selves, and how to serve the people we love with humility and compassion.
As an editor and writer, what is your job like and what advice would you give people who are interested in getting involved as an editor on film projects? What has been the most challenging part and the most rewarding part of working on films for you?
Editing can be incredibly hard, meticulous, brain-twisting work, but it is also so creatively and intellectually fulfilling. I still have days where I pinch myself because I can’t believe I get to do this for a living, I really do love it that much. The challenging parts are just the rigor of it– it’s very long hours, exacting deadlines, lots of pressure to deliver. And it can be isolating at times– often it’s just me working alone in a room. But I also love the intimacy of that– getting to immerse myself in the footage, in these other worlds and really developing a sense of who these people are, uncovering the subtext. Documentary is a space where you can blend thought-provoking themes and ideas with image and sound in a creative way. The work itself is really the most rewarding part. In terms of advice for people wanting to work in film, I think the technical aspect can be intimidating to some people, but in many ways it’s the most accessible part. There’s a lot of affordable video editing programs now and infinite free online tutorials, so I would encourage anyone interested to just start filming things on their phone and creating their own projects.
The best way to learn is through experience, trial and error and you don’t need anyone to give you permission to start making things. But the technical aspects aside, the most important part of filmmaking is having something to say- ideally something that hasn’t been said before, at least not in exactly the way you can say it. So I encourage everyone to read actually. Read about the world, synthesize big ideas, develop a unique perspective and voice. Also, in terms of story structure, reading fiction is the best way to understand how to piece a story together. Reading exercises your imaginative brain because you’re constructing a visual story in your mind. That’s such an important part of editing- seeing the film in your mind before it actually exists.
What are you working on next?
Right now I’m working on a documentary that Joey Soloway is directing about their experience growing up in an experimental housing development in the south side of Chicago in the 1960s and 70s. It was this intentional community designed to be multi-racial, multi-socioeconomic, multi-religious, so a lot of progressive people moved there with these utopian ideals in mind. But we’re discovering that it was actually a lot more complicated in terms of how race and power and privilege functioned in the community. So again, it’s a lot of big social ideas seen through the lens of Joey looking back and reconsidering what this experience was. It’s a really exciting project and such a thrill to get to work with someone as talented as Joey. I’m learning a ton.
For our final question, if you could choose one super power, which one will it be and why?
I think at the moment, the super power I’d want the most would be teleportation. I’m in Los Angeles and my family is in Canada and it’s been really hard to be separated from them during the pandemic. It would make life a lot easier to be able to zap myself anywhere in the world and visit with the people I love. I think we’re all feeling that pang of wanting to be close to our loved ones, so yeah, teleportation would be pretty rad right now!
Circus of Books is now available to watch on Netflix.
Visit Kathryn’s website for more on her work at www.krobsobworks.com.