Interview: Scott P. Harris

Being Ginger

Sitting outside a hotel in Tampa, I’m sure first time filmmaker Scott P. Harris didn’t anticipate being a redhead as a full time job. For the better part of the past couple of years since the completion of his debut documentary out of university, he’s been making the rounds with the personal and humorous Being Ginger (opening in Toronto this Friday at The Kingsway, and screening at The Bloor Hot Docs Cinema as a special Ginger Appreciation Screening on June 10th where redheads get in for free).

What started as a silly, potentially only five minute long thesis project for his Masters program at Scotland’s University of Edinburgh, Harris initially focused inward to look at how he’s unlucky in love and why people aren’t necessarily attracted to redheaded men. From awkward, unsuccessful first dates, to hanging out with men and women on the street while looking for answers, and to some really sketch “ginger-centric” online dating sites, Harris comes across as a hopeless romantic by design, with emphasis on the hopeless.

But moreso than just being a woe-is-me tale of searching for acceptance, Harris realized he had more of a film than his own admittedly superficial initial point of view would suggest. It becomes a film about identity and how the scars of childhood bullying can be long lasting on someone’s self esteem. It’s a funny and off kilter romantic comedy combined with a story of one man trying to figure out how his past has informed his presence.

Before he comes up to participate in Q&A for the film next week, Harris chatted with us about how the film came about, redhead stereotypes, his interactions with his cinematographer and editor as characters in the film, why he decided to come forward with his own tales of being teased, and the unrealistic ideals set by romantic comedies.

Dork Shelf: What was the exact moment when you realized there was a difference between how gingers were looked at in a romantic sense and when was it that you decided to make this film, since you’ve obviously thought quite a bit on the subject and lived with it?

Being Ginger - Scott Harris - F2Scott P. Harris: I think that has two different answers. I think I always knew there was a difference. I remember thinking in college that there are plenty of women who would dye their head red, but I knew zero men who did that. (laughs) Clearly there’s a difference in that one is desirable and the other not so much.

The other thing that led to making the film now, was that despite wanting to make a film about my hair for a long time, I didn’t and I couldn’t see a way to make the film before now where I wouldn’t come across as if I felt like I was complaining or whining. I never wanted anyone to think that I was whining about being a redhead, or even just whining about being teased.

One of the things that’s been one of the most frustrating things about this process is that I’ll read articles or reviews about the film, and there was one actually here this week in Tampa, that say that I was talking about how redheads are an oppressed minority. I’ve never said that, and it bothers me that’s how it was taken. I don’t think that we’re repressed, but I think our experience is unique.

So, yeah, I’ve wanted to do it for a long time, but it was really about figuring out how not to do it and how to not complain about it or whine. I was in Scotland and these weird things kept happening and saying things to me on the street, and it was on a pretty regular basis; at least once a month, but often once every couple of weeks something would happen. I would tell my friends these stories, and there was one night during the last year of grad school where we were sitting in a pub and having a pint. While we were there, someone made a joke about my hair, which is no big deal. Never bothers me when my friends say stuff, but it made me tell a couple of stories to these two girls that were sitting next to me. When I told those stories, those girls pretty much begged me to make a film about it, and they had no idea that redheads really have to put up with a lot of this kind of random stuff that I talked about.

Again, I didn’t want to do it, but that night it occurred to me that I had a few friends in Scotland who were adult women that told me they had this friend who loved guys who had red hair. So I told myself that if I just found one of those women, then maybe I wouldn’t be complaining, but instead the film would be about me looking for someone and we’d see what happens.

I thought it would be about a five minute film, because that was all I needed to graduate was a short. So I thought it would be a few minutes long because this was so close to graduation, and it ended up being 24 minutes long in the version that I cut for school. Even then I thought there was more that I could do with this, so I kept working on it for another two years.

DS: It is strange to kind of describe what someone with red hair goes through and I think we all see it and never really think too much of it. I remember back in high school I went to try and dye my hair blonde, and since it was already pretty light to begin with, my hair went from blonde to red and no one really knew what to make of it. No one really teased me or anything like that, but they also never really complimented it, either. I think the consensus was that I looked “interesting.”

SPH: (laughs) I`m so sorry about that. People have no idea really what to say to redheads at all, and I think that`s part of it. I think it`s totally innocent, too, which is why I don`t want people to think that I’m complaining. It’s still uncommon even in Scotland. It almost feels like people with blonde and dark hair just start blending together, and red and orange is this whole different thing. People just have nothing creative to say. People at their best can usually only say “Wow! You are REALLY ginger.” (laughs) “Yeah, I know. I can look in the mirror. I know what I look like.” Everyone always kind of acts like they’re the first person to ever tell me this. That’s a pretty common experience, and every time I get together with red heads, people always assume that we’re Irish, they always ask if “the carpet matches the drapes,” people ask if I’ve seen the episode of South Park. (laughs) It’s really that last one in particular where people act like they’re the first person to tell me about it. Usually, now I get to a point because I’m sarcastic and a little bit of an asshole, where I usually just say [sarcastically]: “Oh! South Park did an episode about redheads? Tell me about it. Oh, that’s interesting.”

DS: I could imagine that being in Scotland you would really get the Irish thing thrown around a lot.

SPH: Well, ironically, there are more redheads in Scotland than there are in Ireland, percentage-wise. People just automatically assume redheads are Irish. My father’s Scottish, not Irish, but Celtic is Celtic and the Scots and the Irish are still pretty closely related. But yeah, people always make that assumption.

DS: I wanted to ask you about the relationship that you have to your cameraperson because she’s a pretty great character just outside the frame. She constantly seems amused and confused that you’re even taking this on as a project.

SPH: Yeah! Lou (McLoughlan) was a friend of mine from before, and she was in the same Masters program that I was doing.

Initially, and I don’t know if this is too much detail for you, when I first started to do the film, naturally all of the grad students that I could have used were all really, really busy. I was going to work with an undergraduate student to be my cameraperson, and I just grabbed the first person I found who was available. It was someone that I didn’t know and that I didn’t have a relationship with, and we went out one day on the street and we were filming one of those parts where I would interview people. I think we stopped three women, and one of the women I stopped – after we did the interview – he turned the camera off and we stopped filming, and she was there for another three minutes just talking to me after we stopped. I can’t even remember the exchange, but after she left, the camera guy turned to me and said, “She was waiting for you to ask her out.” And I was, oblivious as always, like, “What?” (laughs) And he said, “Yeah, she liked you. Why didn’t you ask her out?” So he starts pointing out things that she was doing like how she was playing with her hair and the way she sort of touched me on the shoulder, and she said she was really into me. As he was saying this, I asked him if he was still recording because THIS would have been the film! Not even the interview itself, but just five minutes of me being a total idiot after talking to this girl and someone else objectively sees it from another point of view and calls me out on it. That would have been so good. I actually got really upset that he had stopped filming.

Then the next weekend I was going to film again, and instead of taking him, I asked Lou, who I am really good friends with. She teases me A LOT, and that’s perfectly fine because you can take that from really good friends. So I didn’t tell her that my idea for the film was to go to the park and seek people out. I just told her to film everything. I told her to start filming and never hit the stop button, and I could have a five minute film out of just my interaction with her. Maybe if I stopped someone else again, she could make the same observation that the other guy had made the previous week.

That was how it really started, and then on the first day of editing, her stuff was so great that every time we went to film I told her to feel free to talk. For me, the way that I look back on it now, and this was unintentional at the time, I realized that I hate talking head interviews in films and documentaries. There’s a scene in the film where I’m on a park bench and I’m just talking to Lou, and I don’t think of that scene as an interview. That’s a scene that’s a conversation between two friends like in any other kind of film, and it just so happens that one of those people are behind the camera. To me, that’s not really an interview. That would be the same thing as if we had a third person filming the two of us having the same conversation. It was like a scene in a fictional film where two friends are just catching up on things. There’s something about that dynamic that I liked, and in making the cameraperson a part of the film and not hiding the fact that someone is behind the camera filming this, I think was really effective. I liked to make it know that other people were a huge part of this.

DS: There’s a lot of self-deprecating humour in the film, and I can imagine the assembly of the film was probably a little cringe-worthy and hard to get through, especially something like filming going on a first date and still kind of screwing up how you filmed it. So when you have a scene like that or a scene like when you’re hanging out in a park and literally wearing a sign to look for attention, how is that reflected in your look back while you’re putting the final product together?

SPH: I cringed a lot, that’s for sure. There was a lot of cringing. I did most of the editing myself. I did the assembly cut first, and then after the assembly, I brought in my friend Ben (McKinstrie), who you see in the film as the guy with the crazy hair, who’s quite a character himself, and he’s a better editor than I am. He was perfect. He would come in and look over the cut that I had made and would pull out stuff, and then he would go back and look at my raw footage and find some stuff where he would say “Oh, yeah, this needs to go in.” There were some scenes in the film now that I had previously cut precisely because to me they were too cringe-worthy. Every time I see the film with an audience and they laugh at something, I’m really glad that Ben was there to say “No, that line belongs in and it’s going to be okay.” It was hard, but it was great to have him, and Lou would also come in and look at it and I had a few other consultants who would give me advice, so it was really great that I wasn’t totally alone. But you’re absolutely right because that’s not easy.

DS: I really wanted to talk to you about the one woman that you interviewed in the park while you were wearing that sign, because it’s a huge point in the film where you shift your topic to something bigger about identity and bullying. It’s kind of shocking because a lot of the things that she’s saying sounds oddly and backhandedly racist where you watch her and you wonder that if she’s willing to say these kind of cruel and terrible things about teasing redheads in school and thinking nothing of it, what she might think of actual minorities that she probably has an even worse understanding of. She’s really potent. What was it like talking to someone like that and trying get through that when you ostensibly set out to make this kind of cute and funny project?

SPH: I realized during that interview with her specifically that there was the potential to now go a lot deeper. People are really critical of her because she is saying these awful things, but the film wouldn’t have transitioned into what it is now without that interview. It woke something up in me.

Have you ever see the film Sherman’s March? Sherman’s March is a big influence on me. That was maybe the first feature length documentary that I had seen that wasn’t a History Channel kind of thing or an Afterschool Special, and that was one of the films that made me want to make documentaries. There’s a scene in that film where he talks to a woman and this woman is talking about the American Civil War, and she says something along the lines of, “I don’t think that we were wrong. Slavery shouldn’t be enforced, but it should be a right. If they want to be slaves, let them be slaves.” I was watching that scene, and it’s such a weird and wrong thing for someone to say, and people think it’s okay to say something like that. I got my roommate to come in and watch it with me, and told him he wouldn’t believe what was in that movie. I always loved that scene, and I think as a filmmaker wanting to make documentaries, I always longed to have that scene in one of my films. It’s the kind of thing that’s so crazy that if you put it in a fictional film, they wouldn’t accept it. They wouldn’t think someone could actually say that black people wanted to be slaves and that the evil North wanted them to be free. Now, I’m definitely not drawing a parallel there, but when you see it in a documentary, you accept it. When I was in the park with her, as bad as everything as she’s saying is, the director’s voice inside my head was just really excited. I knew this was my version of that kind of a scene.

The problem was that when I tried to pitch the film to friends or to broadcasters that they would say: “Oh, but redheads don’t have any real problems. Nothing happens to them. This is ridiculous.” I needed proof, and this was proof that for some people there was something there. I was smiling to myself, and you can kind of see me trying not to smile in the actual film, but I was so happy to have this. It’s like how Errol Morris says: when you do an interview, you don’t have to always ask “gotcha” questions. Just give people enough rope and they will hang themselves. So I just kept giving her questions to see where she would go with it.

That interview lasted 25 minutes, and the whole thing is just insane. Trying to cut that down to even three minutes for the film was one of the hardest things to do because there was just so much. There was so much good stuff. There’s actually a longer clip online. There’s another three minutes of her that I had to take out. The worst stuff that she says is in the online thing. There just wasn’t enough room in the film to include even another minute of her talking.

It was really important to realize at that point that I could go deeper and make the film also be about bullying, and not just redheaded bullying, but bullying in general. The thing that blew me away in the interview with her was when I asked her about the kid she was talking about that was getting bullied and she laughed at, and I asked what she thinks that kid is doing now. I don’t know what I was expecting her to say, but I wasn’t expecting her to say something boring like that he was an accountant or something because there was absolutely NO rationalization or understanding on her part to realize that everyone laughing at someone could really impact them at a small age. But that’s universal, and that’s the problem with bullying. People don’t realize the impact that kind of thing can have on someone’s self-confidence for the rest of their lives.

DS: You sat on some footage of your own experiences with bullying for quite some time that you had shot prior to this that you end up using here to illustrate your point, but it seems like at first you weren’t really thinking of that correlation.

SPH: I was thinking about two different films. The ginger film was just supposed to be a fun and funny kind of romantic comedy. At the same time, I’ve been thinking about trying to make something about my experience being bullied for a long, long time. I never connected the bullying with the hair, but mostly because kids never stood up and said they hated me because of the colour or my hair. They just said they hated me. It took me making this film to make me realize that I had been internalizing that process. For me, the only thing in my classroom that made me different was the fact that I was a redhead. So that was the reason why I hated my hair all the time, because of that bullying.

I was very nervous about putting it into the film, because I’ve had experiences where I’ve shared that story with people, and some people just don’t get it. I’ll never forget a thing that I did when we were pitching ideas for screenplays while I was in film school, and I pitched a film about a kid who’s bullied a lot, and he’s in high school, and he snaps and he goes back as an adult to go back and find all the kids who bullied him as a little kid because he wants to know why. He doesn’t understand why he got teased so much. As I’m pitching this idea in class, the professor asked, “What happened to him when he was seven or eight years old that would still affect him when he was eighteen?” And so I told my story, but I said that it was a story about a friend of mine. I said it was my roommate’s story and that he gave me permission to use it in the film. When I finished telling that story, the professor said, “Well, is it a comedy?” I said, “What do you mean?” And he said, “That’s really pathetic. How big a loser is this guy that he still cares about getting teased when he was seven years old.” He asked the students in the class and they all agreed that “this friend of mine” must be a real loser to still be affected by it.

I didn’t say anything about it because I didn’t want them to know it was really about me, but it was a telling thing. I’ve experienced it before where people thought that I was some kind of pathetic loser, but the idea of putting that into the film was something that I had no idea how it would be taken. It was one of the last decisions that we made in the edit to determine if that really belonged. I was nervous about it, and I’m still nervous. Whenever I’m in a screening and that scene comes up, I still get really nervous about whether or not the audience will relate to it. So far I haven’t had a single moment at a screening where people say anything. I got a few emails from people who said that they didn’t get it. I mean, as a first time filmmaker it’s something that I’m still learning. It’s weird how one negative comment can have more power than ten positive comments.

DS: Early in the movie you touch upon how fictional romantic comedies colour what we think about our actual romantic lives, and while most of that is being sort of backhandedly being told from a perspective that seems to speak only for “women,” you actually show how it colours the male perception of what a romantic relationship should be like. As someone who loves films and has since you were a kid, what was it about romantic comedies that you think negatively impacted you growing up? Was there anything specific when you realized how idealized most films in that genre are?

SPH: (laughs) Well, to a degree I’m still fucked! I thought a lot about what my next film will be, and I have two ideas that I haven’t decided between yet, but one of them is all about romantic comedies and the impact that watching too many romantic comedies can have on a person, specifically on me. (laughs) I think there’s so much more to explore within that theme. Yeah, I still watch Serendipity, and You’re Got Mail, and Sleepless in Seattle, and Definitely, Maybe, and When Harry Met Sally. I love all of those films going all the way back to It Happened One Night. I still love them, but I realize on an intellectual level how ridiculous it all is. But I can’t separate that from the fact that I’m a very hopeful person. I think the fact that I still have this hope that something will happen – which is entirely unrealistic, but it’s still there – permeates not just romantic comedies, but everyday life.

I was just babysitting my nephew a few months ago, and he’s four years old, and he’s watching a Disney-made Three Musketeers film with Mickey in it. There’s a scene in it where Minnie is the princess and Mickey is one of the Musketeers, and when they meet and their eyes turn to hearts and they float together, and it looks perfect, but I’m sitting there watching this with my nephew and thinking, “This is terrible!” (laughs) Is that what I watched when I was four and five years old?

Maybe my problem goes back further than just liking romantic comedies, and to what I was watching when I was even younger. This overly romanticized vision of love that’s totally unrealistic is something that I have no idea where it starts with me, but it’s definitely there and I’m definitely someone who when I meet someone for the first time – even if there’s just a little bit of flirtation or spark or something – the world doesn’t exist for me outside of trying to figure out what’s going to happen there. No one else even exists to me until I find out if something’s there. I assume it has to do with romantic comedies.

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