Interview: Greg Loser, director of The Last Leatherman of the Vale of Cashmere

The Last Leatherman of the Vale of Cashmere tells the story of an aging leatherman who takes a profane trip down memory lane as he visits this cruising destination of his youth. Now, amidst the thickets where secrecy once reigned, he contemplates a new world. GSFF Festival Director, Matt Lloyd, spoke with the film’s director, Greg Loser to find out more. 

Description of image

The Last Leatherman of the Vale of Cashmere highlights changing times and spaces. What was once a place for men to meet men, has become an area for birdwatchers, and this seems as much a film about gentrification as it is an elegy to lost youth and lost love. What drove you to make this film?

A now-ex girlfriend (my secret’s out!) and I were walking through Prospect Park in Brooklyn and she wanted to show me the Vale of Cashmere, which I’d never seen before. She remembered once seeing a solitary man clad entirely in leather sitting on a bench in the Vale. The image was so striking that it seemed to demand a story.

I see it first and foremost as a film about an old man. And I love stories about old men! Every story about an old man, whether it references it explicitly or not, has as backstory a life lived – experiences, regrets, successes – that’s more complete than my own. And this ended up somehow being a response to my own questions about what I’ll see in the rear view mirror in 30 years. I see Leatherman as a film about a man who lived without regret, who’s been the person he wanted to be for as long as he wanted to, and who takes great comfort in that despite deep, even mournful, nostalgia for his past.

Do you think the loss of such shadowed spaces is an inevitable by-product of greater mainstream acceptance – appropriation, even – of LGBTQ culture?

Well into the process of making the film I realised it was, in a way, about nostalgia for a far less inclusive time. Which is a mind fuck. This character, living in a oppressively progressive part of Brooklyn, is mostly surrounded by people who make a point of tolerance. And yet he’s nostalgic for a time when he slinked around the woods in secret. I’d humbly suggest that cruising was borne in part of necessity and in part of the desire to simply have some fun in the woods. And no matter the root of it, what came from it was the sense of belonging to a club. Today that club is a lot bigger and the rest of us are asking for membership applications because the parties are better. And I can understand wishing the club would stay more exclusive because when it was it was yours.

What’s interesting is that today the Vale of Cashmere is frequented by mostly non-white men. (Or it was before the city began a renovation of it). So while there’s broader mainstream acceptance of different identities it may be moving through different communities at different paces. So if you’re 70 or 40 and Dominican you may value the secrecy of a Vale more. Nothing like a straight white dude projecting ideas onto gay minority cultures….

Why did you choose to make an explicit critical reference to Steve McQueen’s SHAME in the narration?

I’d seen Shame a bit before writing this script but a conversation I’d had about it with my gay younger brother stuck with me. We shared some trivial artistic sniping about it but he’d been annoyed by the suggestion, at the end of the film, that a straight man would have completely sunk to the depths by having sex with other men. His life was falling apart but dear god he gets blown by a man! The horror! I could picture one of two responses from our character, the Leatherman. Either he’d quietly stew while watching the film or he’d tell his girlfriends ‘Honey, do you know how many straight guys I blew in the 80s? Most of Merrill Lynch, to start!’ Look, I loved Hunger, but Shame is a bit silly and takes itself perhaps 2 notches too seriously. And me casting a barb in its direction is like a Lilliputian shooting tiny arrows at Gulliver. So no harm done I don’t think.

This is your second collaboration with actor Bern Cohen. Can you tell us about working with him – was the part written with him in mind?

Bern was a high school principal for 25 years and returned to his first love acting about 10 years ago. He plays a lot of Rabbis. A LOT. But when he’s offered something different he’s great in it. He’s fascinating to me because he’s in his early 70’s (I think, forgive me Bern), he’s not famous, but he’s very good and he’s game for absolutely anything. When I sent him the script he said ‘sign me up!’ without hesitation. He has no fear. And he’s great looking.

There’s a moment early in the film when he’s in his apartment with some lady friends and he reacts to something one of them says with a very slight head roll and a lilt in his voice. It is, to be frank, a gay affectation. And, to my mind, fills out his character beyond the gruff leather-clad man we see later and adds a touch of the feminine to him. We shot that scene loose and improvised and only discovered that moment late in the editing process. And I thought, whoa, he’s doing far more than I knew he was. A thing I didn’t ask him to do but is entirely perfect and is going in the film.

Both your shorts have been fictional responses to real situations, and you work primarily as a documentary producer. Can you tell us your thoughts on the relationship between fiction and documentary, particularly in this time of ‘alternative facts’.

Ha! I’m an American. Please pray for us…

Barry Jenkins introduced the film at it’s first public screening in Telluride as a ‘demented documentary’ and I thought, ‘he’s half wrong, but I love it and I’ll take it!‘

Part of the feel of this film comes from the way we shot it. Cinematographer Ramsey Fendall and I had beats and shots we wanted to hit but much of it was improvised and shot handheld and later connected to the voice over. Including lovely, undirected moments between DP and actor. And I’ll say that nearly everyone in the film knew they were being filmed.

I think you get two interesting things from blurring the lines between fiction and non. First is backstory. To me the exciting thing about film is being in complete control of what your audience knows and when they know it. If you start with a set of circumstances your audience is already familiar with you get to then play with them differently. Like, you know this story already so I can dispense with the big plots points and introduce you to my version of the particulars.

The other exiting piece of line blurring comes from the buzzy vibration you feel when you connect a world you created with one that already exists. In Under the Skin when the Alien is walking through the streets of your fair city and falls and real people unaware of the camera help her up? Fuck. It’s perfection. Beauty of humanity meets beauty of creation and it’s like living on a plane between heaven and earth. Too much?

The Last Leatherman of the Vale of Cashmere is part of the International Competition 5: Team Player programme

Interview by Matt Lloyd, reported by Amelia Seely