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Exclusive: British Filmmaker Campbell X Talks 'Stud Life', Making Of Feature Debut & More

Features
by Vanessa Martinez
July 16, 2012 9:00 AM
8 Comments
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Stud Life Poster

'Studs', as defined by popular LGBT culture, especially Black culture, are lesbian women who possess and exude a certain masculine swagger, and are perhaps more dominant and aggressive in nature. As per the candid and enlightening conversation with British filmmaker Campbell X, who identifies as a ‘stud’ herself, in the queer community, there are many labels around desire and self-identification – studs, femmes, soft-studs, touch-me-not studs, etc. However, it’s a complex and intricate culture that many have not been exposed to, especially in cinema.

'Stud Life' Filmmaker Campbell X
'Stud Life' Filmmaker Campbell X

For her feature film debut Stud Life, described as a "homage to Spike Lee's She's Gotta Have It and Steven Soderbergh's Sex, Lies And Videotape," Campbell X wanted to share with the world a very real and urban, yet underground black queer culture in London, where she grew up in.  “London is very integrated, so there’s a queer subculture that people of all colors participate in,” says Campbell, “You’ll have white queer people using Patois because they grew up with Black people and they’re not strangers to them. So I wanted to show that world as well.”

Campbell X admits however, that London isn’t necessarily less segregated in the matters of race when compared to America. “It’s kind of a false dichotomy because there are some friendship patterns that are segregated,” says the filmmaker, adding,“There’s some that are not. Even in the UK there are people that don’t know about that underground culture.”

Stud Life, screening next at New York's NewFest - a Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Film Festival from July 27-31, stars British actress T’Nia Miller who completely transforms for an amazing performance as JJ, a black British stud who lives with her gay best gay best friend Seb (Kyle Treslove). JJ and Seb run the London LGBT nightlife scene. At their regular hot spot, a nightclub infused with hip hop and reggae beats, JJ meets the sexy and electrifying  femme Elle (Robyn Kerr), and the two dive in head first into a love affair.

But at the core of the film are the friendship between JJ and Seb; both who confront daily queer bashing in the London streets. Their close bond is threatened by JJ’s capricious new girlfriend, who refuses to be the third wheel in the trio and causes a rift between JJ and Seb. Meanwhile Seb, who is the apple of the eye of a drug dealer (Simon Savory), has been engaging in online hook-ups with closeted men.

Campbell X says she’s always been interested in female masculinity and gender, which are the main inspirations for her film, I wanted to have a friendship between a masculine woman and a feminine gay man. I was at a film festival and there was an effeminate gay man in his mid twenties; he was saying there was a fear of femininity amongst gay men now as opposed to back in the day. It was kind of an intergenerational discussion.”

Seb (Kyle Treslove) & JJ (T'Nia Miller) in 'Stud Life'
Seb (Kyle Treslove) & JJ (T'Nia Miller) in 'Stud Life'

When it comes to the female stud, the director says that even certain feminists and lesbians problematize its figure, “They don’t like the image, the look and the ideal. There are a lot of negative connotations."

And It’s a fascinating underground culture, especially when it comes to many lesbian relationships, which adopt many similarities from heterosexual relationships, yet simultaneously are distinctively very unique.

And interesting to note in our conversation is the assumption that, “Two women, oh my god, they know what to do!” says Campbell, adding, “People don’t have those conversations. I didn’t want to have a lesbian sex scene that shows that they know what to do.”

There’s a popular misconception that when it comes to terms of self-identification and desires, the stud is trying to be like a man – which is, however, the case in transgender persons. In the case of Stud Life’s protagonist, JJ embodies masculine energy, which femmes respond to. “You don’t have to look a certain way. Femmes like different kinds of studs,” reiterates Campbell, explaining that, Lesbian sexuality is quite hidden. We tend to use a template of heterosexual sex because that’s not hidden and you have to enter into a different headspace. A lot of the sex is based on a male/female paradigm.”

Casting for the roles of the stud JJ and the femme Elle was challenging for Campbell, who saw many studs who weren’t actors and were self-conscious about presenting a stud persona unlike themselves. But British actress T’Nia Miller, a femme in real life, blew Campbell away at the audition. “She’s amazing. She had done her research. We rehearsed for two weeks, in which I made her live as a stud. She experienced a lot of the prejudices and desires studs experience on the street,” says Campbell of Miller, pointing out that, “She had to live it [life as a stud] as well, which was a challenge for her being a femme. People reacted to her very differently and were very hostile towards her.”

Casting the role of JJ’s girlfriend Elle, played with sexual assertiveness by Robyn Kerr, was trying as well. Campbell wanted someone to express strong, active desire as a femme. “She blew me away because nobody would do it except her. All these women coming in they couldn’t show desire. It’s almost like they can only be the receptacles of desire,” says Campbell of Kerr’s audition.

Stud Life 2

Kyle Treslove, who plays JJ’s gay best friend Seb, slipped into the role naturally and convincingly. “Kyle is incredible. He’s familiar with that culture and that generation of gay men that is comfortable with black culture and he’s part of it,” says Campbell.

After a two-week rehearsal, it was a tough, rousing 10-day shoot, in which, according to Campbell, the actors were intensely submerged in their roles, “Crying was real, deep into the roles man,” says Campbell, who admitted that after one of the climactic scenes, “We had to break. It was intense for us as well.”

Although the filmmaker didn’t experience physical violence at the hand of queer bashers, it’s a reality for many in the LGBT community. “A lot of my friends have been queer bashed because they’re masculine females and my gay men friends have also been queer bashed. I had to put it there because it does exist. That’s a cold harsh reality.” 

When it came to developing the narrative of the relationship between JJ and Elle, Campbell didn’t shy from illustrating its volatile highs and lows – the rapid courtship and commitment to the crash and burn. “It is an issue,” says Campbell of the love dynamics in many real life relationships between two women.

We joked about the saying in the lesbian community, “What happens after the second date? She brings the U-Haul.”  Joking aside, “It showed in the relationship because they don’t really know each other, but they go really fast and they start finding out well, who is this person I’m in love with?,” said Campbell of JJ and Elle, the latter who reveals her trade secret to an enraged and heartbroken JJ later in the film.

Despite their downfalls, we discussed how many of these relationships seem more passionate and intimate than their heterosexual counterparts, hence the unique quality and bond between women, women who engage fully and love freely.

Campbell wanted to present a slice of this life, often filled with misnomers and ill pre-conceived notions, through the eyes of JJ, who despite of her masculine swagger and pretense, can also be vulnerable and insecure, just like the rest of us, regardless of sexual orientation. Campbell elaborated on her inspiration for Stud Life:

“I identify as a stud. A lot of my friends identify as stud or butch. I think there’s a swagger that people have, there’s a performance that’s a front, but when people are faced with their own vulnerabilities around sex, their bodies, desire and all sorts of things, it’s always private. I wanted to turn it inside out in film.”

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8 Comments

  • B | July 18, 2012 6:15 PMReply

    I saw this film here in Philly last weekend, and I'm sorry but it was awful, imo. I don't know if some of the humor got lost in the cultural transfer. I don't know if I'm just too old (28yrs old) for this type of film. I don't know if I'm just not queer enough. But I left it not feeling or liking any of the characters, and feeling particularly grossed out by one male-male oral sex moment that was more than a little porn-ish. There just wasn't much of a story to this film and the characters were so underdeveloped. I was expecting so much more. I'm tired of LGBT films centering on sex and drug use. Can't we get a lesbian film about folks whose lives are not full of sluttiness, cocaine use, and uber melodrama? (I can only think of two at the moment - THE KIDS ARE ALL RIGHT and PARIAH). I'm just saying. Nice try, though, I guess.

  • CareyCarey | July 20, 2012 12:29 AM

    @ B, you said: "The key to success is universality (with a dose of specificity mixed in), and that's not a sell out move, because at the end of the day many of the things we go through are quite universal and transcend categories of sexuality and race". I completely understand. And yes, you're on point because that's exactly the appeal (to me) of THE KIDS ARE ALL RIGHT and PARIAH. Take out the gay references and then we're left with a "story" (queer or not). But of course the specificities of said stories, in each case, makes them both unique in their own way. So what I gather from your/our conversation, I am now wondering what Campbell X was going for? Was the film strictly for the "stud" crowd as a source of entertainment? Obviously (based on your words) it wasn't to enlighten the general audience to the fact that all gays are not stereotypes (as you said, "are quite universal and transcend categories of sexuality and race). But again, as you said, the film played right into the stereotypes of queer people (e.g. drug use, rampant sex in outdoor settings, uber lesbian drama. Hmmmmm, was the director or any cast members in the theater (Q&A?). I am left with the following words (taken from the post) "Campbell wanted to present a slice of this life, often filled with misnomers and ill pre-conceived notions, through the eyes of JJ, who despite of her masculine swagger and pretense, can also be vulnerable and insecure, just like the rest of us, regardless of sexual orientation". Now B, did she miss the mark or even come close? And what do YOU believe was the overall purpose of the film? Money maker? Entertainment for a select audience. Expose/enlighten the LGBT/Stud lifestyle to a general audience?

  • B | July 19, 2012 10:16 PM

    @CareyCarey: Unfortunately, I think a film like Stud Life, if played to general audiences, would confirm many stereotypes of queer people (e.g. drug use, rampant sex in outdoor settings, uber lesbian drama). But, honestly, I think if this film managed to get its trailers onto television screens, people would come to see it. I think people are actually very curious about very butch women. Maybe I'm naive. Being a Stud (and the girl who dates Studs) is certainly an identity I wouldn't wish on anyone, as I've seen what my very feme sister and her very butch wife endure consistently (while, I at least have the privilege of not appearing gay, so to speak). The problem with movies like Stud Life is not that general audiences would go to see them, but that the filmmakers lack the funding to pay for widespread advertisement. I'm almost positive that with widespread advertisement, people would go to see such a film just out of sheer curiosity. Now, how would general straight audiences who pay to see it receive this film? My guess would be, as I mentioned, not so well, in the sense that they'd probably leave thinking they were right all along about those confused, drug-abusing, whoring gay folks. (sarcasm) Not to be bougie, but that's my problem with this film: the stereotypical nature of it. All that stereotypical fluff takes away from what could be a compelling look at what it's like to be a Stud and the girl who dates a Stud. To appeal to general audiences, you have to keep it real but also understand the importance of universality. Films like Pariah and The Kids are All Right are successful because many people, queer or not, can relate to the characters and the story. Many folks (queer or not) grow up in homes where they feel no one understands them (e.g. Pariah). Many couples (queer or not) grow apart after years of marriage and struggle with the question of whether they should remain together for the sake of the children (e.g. The Kids are All Right). The key to success is universality (with a dose of specificity mixed in), and that's not a sell out move, because at the end of the day many of the things we go through are quite universal and transcend categories of sexuality and race. Stud Life lacks such universality, so while I think general audiences would pay to see it out of curiosity, I think it would play poorly to general audiences.

  • CareyCarey | July 19, 2012 9:52 PM

    Another interesting comment on your part. Reference you looking straight, my daughter is a stud chick and there's no confusing that. I mean, she's obviously a women (by the visual eye.. large chest and voice) but her whole persona is that of a dude, including her dress. She also dates feme women. But what's interesting is the women she dates, one would not know they were gay. Heck, I was surprised when she brought one by the house. I was damn, what's yo number baby. *lol* I'm kidding about that but she was attractive. What's more interesting is that she said she wouldn't wish the "lifestyle" on anyone b/c of the scorn they are forced to endure. So I hear you when you say the film is truly worth discussing because it brings many issues to the forefront. But a begging question is, how would the generally public be inspired or encouraged to see a film of this nature? As you mentioned, Pariah was a LGBT film and the subject matter was handled with a fairly light touch, although my lady looked at me with a side-eye when one of the actors put on her strap-on. She said, "okay, what do you have me watching and what's it about?". Essentially, if she had known it was a gay film she probably wouldn't have watched it (we viewed it at home). So how do you think a movie like Stud Life would play to a general audience?

  • B | July 19, 2012 8:09 PM

    Very interesting comment, Wow. There is definitely an idea of a monolithic gay/queer community that in reality simply doesn't exist. You pose a good question about the composition of the audience. Just off my basic visual assumptions, I'd say the theater was filled with mostly queer women, a scattering of queer men, and I saw many "stud" women. I saw a couple of folks who struck me as perhaps straight but LGBT-friendly, but who knows. I look straight to most folks, so...? Good question though. Overall, no matter how much I didn't like this film, I think it is one of a few films out there now that is truly worth discussing because it does bring many issues to the forefront.

  • WOW | July 18, 2012 9:00 PM

    @ B, I am glad you appreciated the sarcasm. And your last comment was very interesting. I had not read the post (before reading your comment) but when I did the following caught my eye. "When it comes to the female stud, the director says that even certain feminists and lesbians problematize its figure, "They don't like the image, the look and the ideal. There are a lot of negative connotations." And It's a fascinating underground culture, especially when it comes to many lesbian relationships, which adopt many similarities from heterosexual relationships, yet simultaneously are distinctively very unique". So Miss B, I read that along with your comment and realized even within the "LGBT" communities, there are those who do not understand and/or "ingratiate" all aspects of the gay lifestyle (I hope I am saying that right?). So the "homophobic" tag could be unjustly placed on them as well? Anyway, I am curious, in the Philly theater, what percentage of the audience would you say were gay? Of course that would be an assumption, but what do you think?

  • B | July 18, 2012 7:58 PM

    @Wow: Lol. I know. You got me: I guess this queer/bisexual (whatever label is appropriate) girl is the enemy. :) But, for reals, you had to see the scene I'm talking about. So gross. The whole theater (at Philly Queer Film Festival, no less) said, "Ewww," in sync. Sort of hilarious, actually.

  • WOW | July 18, 2012 7:35 PM

    Well B, I guess you've just signed your name on the wickedly evil homophobic list. You have to know that anyone who isn't queer enough and thus feels grossed out by male-male oral sex that's a little porn-ish, has to be one of the villians of the world. Tag, you're it.

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