Stay tells the story of a drag performer (played by Kenneth Wyse/Kendall Gender) and an introverted creator (Riley Davis) who have a romantic one-night stand following a chance encounter at a nightclub.
As their short-lived affair progresses, the excitement of their initial spark gives way to the burden of their separate worlds and an uncertain future with or without one another.
Vancouver-based Filipino-Canadian director King Louie Palomo says he was driven to make Stay by years of being a fan of drag art and a desire to tell a universal story that went beyond the make-up and the wigs.
“Given the current social climate and the unfortunate attacks and bans on drag performers, it is crucial to share their stories. Despite their prominent presence in pop culture, we rarely get to see the true depth of their experiences.” Palomo says. “Stay opens up the hearts of these characters not just as drag queens, but truly as people.”
In starting to work on the short, Palomo says he had his sights sets on directing a feature and that he envisions Stay as a major stepping stone to reaching that goal.
“I wanted to show that I’m able to create a story and make these characters come to life,” he says. “However, my goal wasn’t just to create a proof of concept for a feature. I also aimed to ensure that it could function as a complete standalone short story.”
Despite having an idea as early as 2016 and a working draft of the script (co-written with Stephanie Cardona) by early-2020, however, Palomo recalls struggling to find the perfect moment to take the next step. He says that “the universe was telling me it wasn’t the right time” to go all in on making the project.
“I wanted to make sure that the audience didn’t think, ‘Oh, this is just another story from a non-drag artist who hasn’t experienced this’.”
“On top of the COVID pandemic, there were a lot of social movements happening – like Black Lives Matter and Stop Asian Hate – so I wasn’t in the right mentality to do the film,” he says. “At that time, it wasn’t ideal to ask for help and support from people because there were many other pressing matters in the world that needed attention.”
Palomo adds that, although he is a big fan of drag art, it was important to acknowledge he was still an outsider to the world of drag and that he had a lot of work to do to better understand the reality and challenges of being a performer.
“I spoke to a lot of drag performers because, if I was going to tell this specific story about a drag performer having a relationship, I wanted to make sure that the audience didn’t think, ‘Oh, this is just another story from a non-drag artist who hasn’t experienced this.’ I wanted to make sure that the story was right,” he says.
When it came to casting the two leads, Palomo says they put out an open call knowing it would be crucial to the success of the project to find actors who could bring an element of authenticity to the roles.
“I believed that Kendall, as a drag queen, could bring the character to life more authentically than an actor who hadn’t had the same experience,” he says. “Riley auditioned, too, and he was very good. He’d also been in a few other queer shorts, so I’d seen his capability as a young actor.”
Self tapes and Zoom auditions are great, Palomo continues, but the level of intimacy the script called for meant he needed to see the actors together to really know if it was going to work. In a time of pandemic, this was not such an easy thing to arrange.
“I also didn’t want to fall in love just seeing them on Zoom or base it on the tapes. We needed to do a lot of in person tests.”
“There needed to be chemistry between these two characters. I couldn’t cast them just because they were good,” he says. “I also didn’t want to fall in love just seeing them on Zoom or base it on the tapes. We needed to do a lot of in person tests, but we couldn’t really do anything until the COVID protocol opened up.”
As it turned out, Palomo wasn’t able to stage offline tests until July or August of 2021, when restrictions finally began to ease. After that, he says they moved to kick-start the next phase of the project as soon as possible.
“We started pre-production right away, we did chemistry tests, rehearsals and all of that stuff and then we started filming in September 2021. The whole editing process took a year, so, we didn’t finish the film until 2022,” he says.
Stay has already been selected for several festivals and is still being presented, with additional screenings planned for this summer. While embracing the positive response the film has received, Palomo says he is already turning his attention to future projects and new challenges.
“Dating or being in a relationship as a drag queen within the LGBTQ+ community can be challenging. Despite our community’s continuous fight for acceptance and love, we often experience closed-mindedness and division. There is a specific mold, appearance, or behavior that is expected, and those who don’t fit are deemed un-dateable. This struggle is faced by many entertainers in the community, including myself, a queer person of color.” he says. “I understand that there are still more stories to be told about why the community is divided, and I’m eager to explore them.”
Looking back on the past few years, Palomo admits that there were at least some upsides to navigating the disruption; in particular, it gave him more time to reflect on his art, his roots and the importance of finding his own perspective.
“I was really just trying to figure out who I was as a filmmaker and why I’m making stories. It’s fun to shoot and collaborate with people, but there always has to be a reason behind it,” he says. “I want to tell stories from the point of view of a person of color, but also as someone who is part of the LGBTQ+ community. It’s kind of my goal is to show people that there is more to us to share.”