I had the opportunity to chat with Emmy nominated writer, editor, and producer Kathryn Robson. Nominated for her work on the documentary Circus of Books, which showcases the adult bookstore of the same name and the double life of the owners Karen and Barry Mason. I really enjoyed this documentary and was delighted to be able to discuss it with Kathryn Robson. Thank you to her for answering all of my questions.
Could you tell our readers a little about yourself?
I’m a documentary editor, writer and producer originally from Toronto and based out of Los Angeles. I came to documentary from more of an academic background. I love researching and writing, but I felt like academia can be a bit siloed. I saw documentary as a space to reach a wider audience with big ideas and also to flex some creative muscle. I came to LA while I was in grad school to intern at a production company for four months, but at the end of the internship they offered me the opportunity to stay on, so I never left! I spent many years working in indie film and documentary as an editor, producer and creative executive, which was an amazing learning experience. Then a friend introduced me to Rachel Mason. She was looking for an editor for Circus of Books and she told me this incredible story about her family and I really wanted to be a part of it. So I quit my job and came on board first as the editor and later as a producer as well. It was all really fortuitous and so humbling to see how it’s unfolded.
How would you describe Circus of Books?
Circus of Books is the story about these iconic gay porn stores in Los Angeles that served as a safe haven for the LGBTQ community for decades, but the film is really about the stores’ owners, Karen and Barry Mason. They are a straight, religious couple, who were the most unlikely people to be owning and operating a gay porn store, but they were really good at it and eventually became the biggest distributors of gay porn in the United States. But they were also keeping their work a secret from friends, family and even their own children. The documentary is directed by their daughter, Rachel Mason, so it’s really her journey unearthing this hidden history of the store and her parents’ lives.
As the writer, editor, and producer of ‘Circus of Books’ what was it like being involved in so many levels of the project?
In terms of writing, editing documentaries is a writing process. With fiction films you have a script to follow, but with documentaries you’re often figuring out what the story is in the editing process. So in many ways writing and editing documentaries is one and the same.
Producing can be a very different role. There’s a logistical side to it, but there’s also a really involved creative element. For me, producing and editing documentaries are roles that reinforce each other. I like to be on set because I can see through the lens of an editor and know whether we’ve really captured what we need to be able to tell the story. And it also gives me so much perspective on the story. So when I move into editing, I’m not starting from scratch. I’m coming to the table with so much knowledge and having already done a lot of thought-work on what this story is about.
And then working as an editor, I’m always cognizant of the concerns of a producer. There’s the things you want to do, and there’s the things that are possible. So I’m always asking myself those questions; how do we maintain the integrity of the project, how do we tell the best story within the framework of the resources available. I actually love working within boundaries and limitations because I think that’s where some of the most interesting and creative solutions emerge. But there are major challenges. When I came on board Circus of Books, we were a very lean production. We had an incredibly dedicated team in our producer Cynthia Childs, and our Executive Producers Rhianon Jones and Gerald Herman, but we were all working in a little corner making this thing we believed in so much, without any guarantee that we’d be able to get it into the world. We all had to wear many hats. It can be exhausting, but knowing that you’re working on something important and contributory allows you to keep going. We were incredibly lucky to get on the radar of our Executive Producers Josh Braun and Ryan Murphy, and they gave us so much support to be able to make the film the best version of what it could be, and ultimately, getting it out on Netflix where it could reach the audience we always hoped it would.
Could you speak about the importance of editing in the documentary process?
Yeah, editing in documentary film is writing. I think that’s hard to understand from the outside, because we’re telling factual stories. But we’re also distilling real life down to its salient parts, and molding it into a cohesive narrative that fits into a specified timeframe. In the case of Circus of Books, we were working with 40+ years of Karen and Barry’s life- and they have both lived incredibly rich, interesting, multifaceted lives- so it’s a tall order to whittle that down to 90 minutes. I think in a lot of ways I approach editing the same way I approached writing an academic paper- I need to know what my thesis is- what is the central thing I’m trying to say? And then the scenes I select are built around that message. But it’s not an academic exercise- it’s storytelling. Sometimes that means generating a sense of mystery, leaving the audience to feel that they want to know more. Sometimes it’s about letting the audience connect with the film’s subjects and their experience on an emotional level. What I love about documentaries is that it can be both emotionally engaging and educational. I want people to walk away feeling like they’ve learned something or have a different perspective on something, and I think the best way to do that is through emotional connection and empathy. The technical side of editing is laborious and requires a lot of patience and focus, but I find it really meditative too in some ways. When I’m cutting I’m really immersed in the world, it’s like I’m living these experiences myself. It can almost feel like time-travelling. I really love it.
You were nominated for an Emmy in connection to Circus of Books, what does this mean for you?
The Emmy nomination was a huge surprise and I’m so grateful for it. Like I said, there were times we didn’t know if this film would even make it into the world, so to have this kind of acknowledgement from peers that I respect so much is truly mind-blowing. When I saw my Rachel and my name on the same list as Spike Jonze that was just the wildest thing. It’s exciting and affirming and humbling.
Did having Rachel Mason, the daughter of Karen and Barry Mason, impact the tone or information presented in the documentary?
Of course, there’s no way that it couldn’t have. This is a deeply personal story and Rachel was really the only person who could tell it. Practically speaking, I don’t think Karen and Barry would’ve agreed to have anyone else make a documentary about them. You can see in the film Karen in particular didn’t love the process and was pretty tough on Rachel, but ultimately she went along with it because she loves Rachel and wants to support her work. But yeah, she did not understand what Rachel was trying to make until she actually saw the finished film. We actually had to do a fair amount of work to figure out how to get the tone right and how to situate Rachel in the film. At first we had a sit down interview with Rachel where she was treated as a subject of the film, but that really didn’t make sense. It just felt like it distanced her too much from the role of story-teller. We tried having her narrate and that also somehow felt impersonal. So in the end we decided to do another round of interviews where we would film Rachel directing, so we could really get the sense that this was a personal documentary. And I think those turned into some of the most powerful scenes. The scenes with her and Josh in particular, where he’s telling her what it was like for him to come out, Rachel has a very emotional reaction. And it’s really just a brother and sister sharing this intimate moment together. I think those were the things that made the movie so special and it just couldn’t have been accomplished by anyone but Rachel.
Where can our readers see Circus of Books?
Circus of Books is available of Netflix and I encourage everyone to watch!
Where can we keep up with you and any projects you are working on?
I try to keep my website reasonably up-to-date with my latest projects (krobsobworks.com), but my Instagram is probably the best place to see what I’m working on in real time (@krobsob).