Posted 04 October 2019
Interview by Marianne Hanoun

Welcome to the family: Director Jack Whiteley’s 90s-inspired trailer for RuPaul’s Drag Race UK

As the inaugural series of RuPaul’s Drag Race UK hit BBC Three screens earlier this week, it’s fair to say there was much anticipation in the lead-up. Not least because of its fantastical, excitement-inducing trailer directed by Jack Whiteley. Teasing this season’s cast of 10 queens for the British incarnation of the American series, viewers watch as RuPaul lays down the gauntlet in this 60-second, sitcom-inspired film. Here, Jack talks us through the incredibly intensive process involved – from the Friends and Studio 54-inspired set design and fitted disco floors to creating custom wigs and shooting it all over a 19-hour day.

Project Background

The project came about back in May. The BBC were looking to create a trailer for the UK launch of RuPaul’s Drag Race. They wanted to create this self-contained world, which didn’t directly relate to the actual show itself, but which created intrigue and excitement for the show, and gave a sense of who the contestants were, and what their personalities were like.

I’d never done a BBC job before, in this case it was specifically BBC Three, but I’d always wanted to. If I’m completely honest, I also didn’t know that much about the show beforehand, but I knew enough to know how popular it was, how much of a legend RuPaul is and how incredible the artistry of the drag queens were. It felt like this was one of those dream job moments, so I leapt at the chance to pitch on it.

The finished trailer

Pitch, bitch!

The brief was fairly well-defined. There was a script already included, which proposed the initial idea of a drag sitcom, where you’d see a household of 10 drag queens getting ready for a party. Then RuPaul would suddenly appear on the wall behind them to lay down the gauntlet, and announce the competition to become the first UK Drag Queen Champion. That’s when things step up a gear, the party kicks off, and all the queens start fronting, showing off, and trying to out-do each other.

“The script proposed the idea of a drag sitcom, where you’d see a household of drag queens getting ready for a party.”

I was one of three directors pitching on the project, but I got a sense that they really liked my treatment early on. After a bit of back-and-forth to fine-tune the details, I took it as a good sign that they were asking me to make amends, because it showed they were really invested in my ideas and making my treatment the best it could be.

Normally, most commercial jobs take about two months in total to go from the pitch to final delivery. The pitching process alone for this project went on for about three weeks, finally getting green-lit at the end of May. We then delivered the project in September, so it took almost twice as long as normal.

Defining the Two Drag Worlds

I wanted to push this idea of a drag sitcom harder and really emphasise the retro-vintage, 90s style of it all – almost to the point where it would feel like a throwback-parody of a British sitcom. [US sitcom] Friends was a big reference for the first half of the trailer, in terms of the design and layout of the set.

The production design was the biggest element on this project, headed up by the brilliant Lucie Red; and we designed the set to be big and in that open-plan style with the living room, kitchen and so on all on one stage. But it was also important that it still felt very British; as this was the UK version of an American show, so one of the biggest challenges was making sure that it had its own identity.

“We designed the set to be big and in that open-plan style; ‘Friends’ was a big reference for this.”

It was important that the two worlds of the trailer (the sitcom and party worlds) felt different and very defined. In the initial script, the way the room transformed into a disco in the second half wasn’t initially that big of a change, in fact there wasn’t even any mention of the word disco, it was always referred to as a house party. So it didn’t ramp up as much, but I knew it needed to go bigger.

I pushed for a more significant moment where the set turns into a Studio 54-inspired disco; parts of the set start to rotate, a dance floor appears, smoke comes out of taps, and the fireplace spins round, revealing a DJ booth. I think that’s kind of what I brought to the project – a desire to basically heighten everything, make it bigger and more impactful.

On set at Duke Island Studios, London
A still from the party transformation

Assembling a Crew

Once you’ve won the job, then you go into pre-production. That’s when you start to assemble your crew, which I always really enjoy; the director of photography, production designer, hair and make-up and so on. On this occasion I’d already started talking to our production designer Lucie during the pitch process as it was such an integral part of the idea, so once we got the green light, we were able to hit the ground running.

During the pitching process, you pair up with a producer. Producers – like directors – are technically freelance, but tend to work fairly exclusively with one company and so are often referred to as ‘permalancers’. There’s a number of producers at Rattling Stick I work with. You tend to go through phases of working with different producers, a lot of it is simply to do with availability. On this job I worked with a producer called Kelly Spacey.

“We got to watch the first two episodes. It was very top-secret; that was the first time I got to see who the drag queens were.”

The producer then puts together a budget based on your treatment. However, on this occasion because Kelly was initially busy on another job, Johnnie Frankel – the head of Rattling Stick – stepped in to do it. He also served as the executive producer. As the director, you’re never too privy to the finances of it all, but I know our budget on this was actually pretty tight for what we were trying to achieve.

We then met with the BBC team – Olga and Charlotte the creatives, Susan the creative director, and Vicky the BBC producer. The show itself was actually all shot over a period of two to three weeks back in March and April. So we got together and watched the first two episodes, which they had just finished editing. It was very top-secret; that was the first time I got to see who the drag queens were.

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The set in development

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The set in development

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The set in development

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The set in development

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The set in development

Research Insights

I tried to immerse myself in that world as much as I could and that obviously meant watching a lot of the US episodes on Netflix, reading up on the history of it, finding out more about RuPaul, and also talking to friends that really love it – it’s amazing how many people tell you they’re fans of the show when you mention it to them.

That certainly helped when it came to coming up with little Easter egg ideas to put in the trailer; references to things that fans would see and get, such as the Tic Tac platter. Ted Rogers, who was the assistant choreographer, was also a fantastic help – he had done a fair amount of drag himself and actually knew one of the queens, so it was great to get that extra bit of personal insight from him.

“The light-up pattern above the DJ on the back wall came from a classic Studio 54 lighting design.”

It was incredible seeing all of the artistry behind it. From the queens’ costumes, hair, make-up and coming up with their alter egos. The notion of having a dual personality, or different sides to your character, is something that I’ve explored in some of my other work, so personally it was fascinating to get to explore that further in this project.

I also re-watched a really great documentary about Studio 54 that came out last year, which inspired some ideas for the lighting. We had these four columns of light in the corners of the dance floor, which were very much inspired by the style of lighting you got in Studio 54, as well as the light-up pattern above the DJ on the back wall, which came from a classic Studio 54 lighting design.

And finally, I watched some classic drag films, such as The Adventures of Priscilla Queen of the Desert, Paris Is Burning and John Waters’ Pink Flamingos and Hairspray, to really get me in the zone.

On set
Jack on set
Assistant choreographer Ted on set

Camera, Lights, Hair, Action

There was no costume designer on this because all the queens do their own costumes. But we did have Natasha Lawes as our special hair and make-up effects artist, because there were a few bespoke wigs that needed to be made which were specific to the script. Like Sum Ting Wong’s vol-au-vent fruit hat, Crystal’s facekini, and of course Vinegar Strokes’ instant classic, the squirrel wig.

From a camera perspective, the trailer was shot in a fairly straightforward way; either on tripod or Steadicam. There were no big cranes or elaborate camera moves as the idea simply didn’t require that but a lot of work went into getting the two very different lighting setups right. For example, for the Studio 54 world we had a lot of practical, in-camera lighting effects that were very cleverly and seamlessly integrated into the set build. We shot on the new Sony Venice digital cinema camera with Ultra Panatar 70 anamorphic lenses – apparently, they were the same set of lenses that they used to shoot Rogue One: A Star Wars Story with, which my DOP was very excited about.

“We shot on Ultra Panatar 70 anamorphic lenses – apparently, the same set of lenses they used to shoot ‘Rogue One: A Star Wars Story’ with.”

There was a lot of discussion about how to incorporate RuPaul herself, how and where she appears. We couldn’t have her in person because she was in America, so we were sent a video. Originally, I imagined her in this regal Renaissance oil painting, sat above the fireplace that came to life. But when they sent over the file, it was a video of her delivering her message against a white studio background. And they told us we weren’t allowed to change this or alter her image in any way, so we had to re-think; at one point she was going to be a fridge magnet, but she needed to be front and centre, so we landed on a big photograph of her on the wall in a gold frame.

For the BBC marketing team it was also really important that people watching the trailer would know that this was a BBC Three show, but we didn’t want to be too heavy handed about it. The pink lighting is a deliberate nod to their branding, for example. And on the front of the DJ booth, you’ll notice the BBC Three ‘Tricon’ logo. Originally, we wanted this to say W-E-R-K, but ultimately we decided that if we had to feature the logo somewhere on set, this was a fairly non-obtrusive and seamless place to put it.

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Vinegar Strokes’ now-famous squirrel wig

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Sum Ting Wong’s vol-au-vent fruit hat, made by Natasha Lawes

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Crystal’s Facekini, made by Natasha Lawes

Collaborating and Overcoming Challenges

One of the things I really enjoyed about this was how collaborative the project was. We were constantly in communication with the BBC. Production was based at Rattling Stick in Soho and the BBC is in White City, so although most of the time we weren’t in person with them, we were regularly on phone calls and emails and would aim to meet up once a week. Production is a bit like slalom skiing where you’re constantly weaving in and out of obstacles and going over bumps, working through problems, steering the ship, balancing things.

But the biggest challenges, as ever, were time and money. Money buys you time and in this case, although we had a studio for five days, we only had time to shoot for one of those (three days were for set build and pre-light, one day to shoot and the final day was for a photo shoot and to strike – or take down – the set). Ideally, it would have been a two-day shoot; one day for the sitcom world and the other for the disco party world.

“It was a 19-hour day from the time people arrived on set to me shouting, ‘And that's a wrap!’ at the end.”

But we were against the clock and had to shoot both in one day, so it ended up being a very long day. Call time was seven in the morning and we didn’t wrap until about 2.00am the following morning. So it was a 19-hour day from the time people arrived on set to me shouting, “And that’s a wrap!” at the end. Exhausting.

After the shoot, we went straight into the offline edit for a few weeks in July and then in August we went into the online post realm where a bunch of magicians worked their magic doing things such as grading, clean-up and beauty work, adding titles and so on to make everything pop and shine. For example, one of the things they had to do in post was paint out the wires that lifted up Cheryl Hole at the end when she performs her gravity-defying death drop.

Final stills from the trailer
Final stills from the trailer: Cheryl Hole's 'death drop'

Final Response and Result

The final result was a 60-second trailer for RuPaul’s Drag Race UK. It premiered on BBC One, straight after EastEnders, which was an amazing prime-time TV slot to get. Hundreds of thousands, if not millions of people might have seen it, which is incredibly exciting.

It was then shared on social media the next day and the response online was overwhelmingly positive – it seemed like everyone was really buzzing about it. I definitely felt a certain amount of responsibility taking on this job and so one of the most rewarding things has been seeing it receive so much love from everyone; from the Drag Race fans and, more broadly, the LGBT+ community, to everyone at the BBC.

It’s not everyday you get to create your own 90s drag sitcom that transforms into a Studio 54-style disco party. This was a dream job and dream jobs like this don’t come around very often. I’m incredibly grateful to everyone involved, a huge amount of talent and hard work went into bringing this idea to life. I feel like we created something really special that both fans and non-fans alike can enjoy – and I’ve heard we even made Ru herself proud. Job done.

Mention Jack Whiteley
Interview by Marianne Hanoun
Mention BBC Creative