It forced me into an accelerated evolution. I literally had to make a choice at that point and it was clearly demarcated for me.
In 2005, at the age of 31, Broderick Fox was found unconscious on the tracks of a Berlin subway station with his head split open and a lethal blood alcohol level of 0.47. As it turns out, Fox had destroyed an entire bottle of vodka and later proceeded to fall onto the tracks—a walking blackout. The Skin I’m In concerns a human work-in-progress chronicling decades of bodily shame, addiction and suppressed sexual identity, which led to what Fox refers to as “the bottom”.
In this oft-solemn, yet earnest autobiographical documentary, Fox narrates his own story as he peels back layers upon layers of himself, many long-repressed. Incorporating photographs of his younger self, reflecting on the exploration of his sexual identity during the AIDS crisis, and the many personas he compartmentalized—including Rick, an “erotic haircutter” and Dina Brown, a drag queen—it’s an achingly honest exposé about growing up different that proves universal. On his gradual climb toward mental and emotional health, Fox finds solidarity in Rande Cook, a First Nations artist who designs his full back tattoo and Zulu, who inks and transforms his body into a living canvas and embodiment of a long-awaited spiritual awakening.
The Skin I’m In will be available for stream and download on October 1st.
The Berlin incident is still quite recent, isn’t it?
The train track incident happened on July 23rd, 2005.
At what point did you start thinking about making a documentary?
In a way, the first time I really decided that I would film something for The Skin I’m In was in March 2006, so it was about 8 months apart. I was going up to Canada to speak at the Society of Cinema and Media Studies conference, which happened to take place there that year. In those intervening 8 months, I sort of got into recovery and the program was telling me that I needed to find a higher power, which all sounded very religious. As I was trying to figure out what that meant for me personally, I found the art of Rande Cook. When I was getting ready for the conference, I decided that I would go meet this guy and ask him to design a tattoo for me. As a filmmaker, I knew I would only get to document this once, so I asked my friend Sarah Levy, a great DP who was in USC’s graduate program, to come up with me. After my presentation at the conference, we got in a car and then a ferry to Victoria to meet Rande for the first time.
I would imagine it took quite a while to put the film together.
The editorial process of this movie took almost 6 years and that’s for a variety of reasons. Obviously, I wasn’t sitting in front of the computer every day. Life gets in the way. I wouldn’t say teaching gets in the way, but sometimes it feels like it does. I think teaching also informs what I do in a way that I could never imagine. So the edit came together in spurts and in pockets.
Could you talk a little bit about your background in photography and video?
Even before I started making work professionally, I had always photographed and collected images. I think a lot of people have that impulse. Maybe because I moved around so much, capturing images and having something tangible was somehow important to me. It was fun to go and find all of this old stuff. Even as an adult, I’ve moved apartments and stuff like that since coming out to L.A. 16 years ago. I have these boxes that I keep lugging around with me, boxes of actual photographic prints and antiquated forms of video going back to when I was 6 or 7 years old. In a way, the project became this technological history of video since the 80s—Super 8, Hi8 video, Half-inch video, MiniDV, SD video, HDV, HDCAM. The still photos cover a wide range of formats from 35mm prints to digital. It’s a huge mix of formats, which was somewhat of a headache at times, but also gives a collage effect to the film that I like.
Your personal archive is absolutely staggering. I really appreciate that you can see and feel the maker’s touch in the film.
I like making small work because it allows me to keep the crew intimate and maintain a sense of creative control. Also, I’m a little shy, so being able to test things out, and shoot and edit myself was very helpful in the process. Going back to your point about having this range of footage, there were times during those 6 years when I felt like just handing everything over to somebody else to edit. But I think it would’ve been a lot harder for an outside editor to mine that footage and make certain associations. It was actually really great to do it myself.
It’s surprising to hear you say that you’re shy because you expose some intensely personal wounds with The Skin I’m In. You really put yourself out there.
It feeds into the idea of amassing an archive too because the idea of documenting and exposing yourself to the world became incredibly common in our age of digital photography and social media. These inclinations on my part were very much before that. I even say at one point in the movie that the impulse to constantly photograph myself as an adolescent, as a young gay male, was really shameful. I didn’t want to show these pictures to anybody, but it was my way of working through stuff. In terms of disclosing, it seems like a funny contradiction. Even when I teach, I think my students think of me as being accessible and available, but also quite professional, as someone wanting to keep certain boundaries. Since the work took so long to make, I had the opportunity to work and re-work material to decide when it got, hopefully, past the point of catharsis vomiting out into the world. I hope it’s information where the specificity of my experiences can serve as a springboard for other people to think about their own life’s questions.
How does your sobriety play into all of this?
While getting sober, I realized one of the big things that almost killed me was keeping secrets from other people—compartmentalizing my personas—as well as myself. It was an incredibly liberating feeling about a year into sobriety when I woke up one day and felt that something was strange. I didn’t wake up with an immediate feeling of dread or fear that I had carried around for all of my adult life. Coming to terms with the things I had not come clean about and knowing I had tried to be this or that to please various people in my life has been a real gift. With that, I was able to get to some truths in the movie and if someone wants to judge me for that, so be it.
Although your parents make appearances throughout the film, they admit to not knowing what you’re actually making. How did they receive the film in the end?
Out of the entire process, that was the scariest thing for me. I knew I had to show it to them before I showed it to the world. It was the longest 90 minutes of my life, but it was also a truly transformative experience. They cried. They were really saddened, you know? It’s heartbreaking for a parent to not know all of the things that their kid went through. My hope with the movie is that parents realize, even if they’re great and do everything for them, their kid still needs to go on their own journey. We haven’t talked about the movie a lot since, but my parents show different ways in which they’re supportive. My father is very practical so he asks about the process of film festivals and distribution. If nothing else, to be able to reach a new adult relationship with my parents in my late 30s has been a tremendous gift. There aren’t resentments or secrets and you wipe the slate clean, going forward with the inevitability that something could happen to any one of us at any moment. I don’t know if that many people ever get to a point of that kind of freedom.
The film addresses a wide range of physical harm that you inflicted upon yourself growing up such as anorexia, cutting, and alcoholism. Did you spend a lot of time meditating on and working through those dark chapters of your life while assembling the film?
The curse is that I’m intensely intellectual and love to rationalize and psychoanalyze things to create threads and trajectories. I think it became very clear after I got sober. I realized that the program I was in—the steps and the tools they were giving me—showed me that terms like alcoholism, alcohol, and alcoholic could be replaced by any number of terms in my life. It became pretty obvious that all of the things I’d been doing were just a way of, on some level, self-medicating due to my dissatisfaction with or unwillingness to deal with something inside. The day when I blacked out from drinking, fell onto the train tracks, and got saved is a pretty dramatic bottom. It forced me into an accelerated evolution. I literally had to make a choice at that point and it was clearly demarcated for me. I have a friend now who I know is an alcoholic with anger issues. He hasn’t hit that bottom, that dramatic bottom. This might sound silly, but I feel lucky to have had that. It did force my hand and accelerated my recovery.
Hopefully that bottom doesn’t mean death. You told close friends about hitting the bottle at 7 am and generally feeling like you were out of control, which they sort of passively acknowledged. Were you befuddled or angry by that?
The big picture answer is, I think we’re all constantly performing. We perform the roles that we think we need to perform in certain social contexts or within some idea of self-preservation even though it might be misguided. I don’t consider myself an actor by any means. If I were to memorize lines in a script and go stand in front of a camera, I would be terrible and feel self-conscious. In my daily life, I’ve mastered some forms of performance and one of those is to keep a composed exterior with clear means of articulating things. For better or worse, to poke people along and convince them I have a handle on things. Sometimes I have to stop with the people closest to me and get honest. We all have those people in our lives who are just messy and constantly expounding on their problems, generally over-burdening everybody with drama. There’s a difference between that and just being able to be vulnerable with the people close to you. Every time you do that, it ends up being this really special thing for both parties involved. It establishes trust and a sense of security. It also dissolves some of the imagined magnitude of what a person might be going through, just to know that someone else has heard it, sees you and gets it.
How old were you when you first realized that something wasn’t quite right?
I mention and sort of act out some of my obsessive compulsive nighttime behaviors in the movie like going to bed and having these rituals. That stuff started really early when I was 5 or 6 years old. Even as a 5 or 6-year-old, you know that it’s not normal. I think it was probably more around middle school, in the 7th grade, when I came back to America after having lived in Japan. You’re almost a teenager and all the physicality stuff really starts kicking in. Everybody else was going through puberty and I still hadn’t. I was really short. I’m sort of dating myself, but it was really popular to go shop at the Gap. I couldn’t shop at the Gap because the clothes were too big for me, so I was desperately trying to find clothes that looked “hip”. Already then, the sense of not being able to fit in physically was there. Also, it was realizing that I was gay that made my time in high school so challenging. There’s a real difference between knowing intuitively that you’re gay and knowing in your body, actually admitting it in a clear intellectual way.
When did the latter happen?
I remember going into New York with my parents and trying to get men to follow me. If you think about how young I looked, it’s this whole other category of men because they’re not just gay, they’re pedophiles. Getting some sort of reciprocated gaze from an adult man and realizing that it was something sexual gave me an incredible physical charge. That was when I was 12 or 13 years old. A lot of my closest friends were girls at the time, so it just seemed like you’re supposed to date them. I’ve had girlfriends that I made out with and things. There was a point in my sophomore year of high school where I realized, really clearly, I wasn’t sexually attracted to these women and I was attracted to men. I made a promise to myself that I wouldn’t go out with girls anymore because I felt that it was unfair to myself certainly, but very much so to them. I didn’t want to play with somebody’s mind like that.
This was obviously a very different, often scary, time in which to be gay. The AIDS crisis was happening and you even mention Jeffrey Dahmer in the film.
I used to run home, turn on the television, and watch Phil Donohue or Oprah whenever they had a gay guest on. I would stand there with my finger on the off switch, listening for whether or not the garage door was opening and my parents were coming home. I was hungering for information and not getting much access to it. The images you got on the 10 o’clock news were of the ACT UP protests on the steps of the FDA or these public funerals through rush hour traffic in Manhattan. I show these to my students now to historicize the men and women who really took to the streets in incredibly creative, performative, and socially destabilizing ways. They’re my heroes now, but at the time, it was terrifying. It also came from the fear of my parents that being gay meant AIDS, social persecution, and ultimately dying alone. On the flipside was the stereotype where gay men were either leather daddies in assless chaps or drag queens. So I think I had a lot of internalized homophobia all the way into college. Even when it comes to extreme performances of sexuality, it’s something that I can now love and appreciate as an adult, being comfortable with myself. I definitely had that sense of, “I don’t want you guys to be the dominant image because I need to somehow prove to my parents that there’s some normal version of being gay, so they can accept who I am” or something like that.
How do you think your journey as a young gay man might have been different today?
On some level, it’s probably much easier for young people? I don’t know how my adolescence might have been different if I had access to all we have now back then. It might be overwhelming. That’s one of the reasons why I’m hoping younger people will see the movie and there’s a conversation that happens. Almost towards the end of the film I say, “I don’t even know if I’m saying all these things that are already cliche or anachronistic.” Maybe the world has moved on. These issues are obviously still big ones. Everyone’s coming out journey or getting sober journey is a new one that has a lot of steps and one they have to take on their own.
What has the experience been like on the festival circuit?
The journey of this film has been an interesting one because, on some level, I thought the queer film festival circuit would be a home for this movie. Quite honestly, it hasn’t been with some exceptions. The New Zealand Queer Film Festival, two festivals in the United States, and one in Canada have screened it, but a lot of the festivals that have programmed the film have been for general audiences. It has been great to engage with a range of different audiences who all have different access points into the film. There are women who watch it and identify with questions about misogyny or gender, people who watch it and identify with the journey of an addict, and those connecting with the artistic journey, connecting with the world through art. People from all walks of life and backgrounds are somehow finding connections, which is heartening.
Rande was a huge part of your journey toward self-discovery. What was his reaction like upon seeing the finished film?
The film actually had its Canadian premiere at the Victoria Film Festival, which is Rande’s hometown in British Columbia. After the screening, we did a Q&A together. To be honest, I was kind of nervous to screen the film to this really strong First Nations Indigenous audience. Rande is the chief of his tribe now, so if he says there’s a movie that he’s in at the festival, people will go see it. I told Rande I was scared because I felt like they would think I’m just some white guy who appropriated cultural symbols on his body and whines for two hours. After the screening, this older gentleman stood up and started talking in Kwakwaka’wakw dialect. I thought he’s either saying, this is a piece of post-colonial appropriation disaster or something positive. He then started poetically speaking in English saying there was a lot of healing in the film, not just for him, but for audiences watching it. He saw Rande and I as two young guys blazing a trail. When they looked at my back and saw the design, they saw themselves and how their culture translated and mattered. By having it on my back, they metaphorically “have my back” too. That felt like when I showed it to my parents, a gift that I’ll remember forever. You can’t make this stuff up.