Welcome to Creator Corner! A series of interviews with independent content creators focusing on women, LGBTQ+ folks, and other marginalized communities. This week, Gretchen chatted with businesswoman, gay rights activist, actor, and independent short film creator Liz Baxter. Liz broke ground as the first lesbian contestant on Love Connection, then went on to write and star in her own short film, “Female Connection,” which will premiere at the Florence Queer Film Festival in October, 2018. In this interview, Liz shared her thoughts on filmmaking, representation, and the complexities of women’s sexuality in a heteronormative society.
Gretchen: You were the first openly lesbian contestant on FOX’s Love Connection, what was that like and how did you decide you wanted to go on the show?
Liz Baxter: I didn’t seek it out. I was in a place in my life where I was single, and while I wasn’t actively searching, I was open to it. I have a friend who is a casting director who called me up and asked I wanted to go on TV for a dating show. I asked her which one, and she told me it was Love Connection and that they were redoing it with Andy Cohen. I told her I wasn’t sure. I wanted to go back and watch the old version because I couldn’t remember what they made people do, and I didn’t want to go on TV and act a fool or get drunk and go home with someone; it’s not me to do those kinds of things. Plus, you never know when you sign up for reality TV how they’re going to portray you, so I was really reluctant at first. She told me they wanted me to be myself, that they were looking for femme lesbians to have on the show.
I originally said no, then six weeks later she called me back and said they still needed someone and if I knew anyone who would be interested. So I gave her some names, then I started to second guess saying no. It seemed like the universe had brought the opportunity back around for a reason. Plus, I knew they could only edit around what I gave them and I wasn’t going to misrepresent myself. So I had her triple check that I was allowed to be myself, and when she reassured me, I agreed and got cast. Though, when they cast you they don’t tell you if you’re going to be one of the people going on the three dates or one of the datees, so I had to agree to be whatever.
So yeah, I ended up doing it. I felt like I needed to put myself out there. If not me, who else? I feel like I’m pretty relatable. I wanted to do it for myself and for visibility for people who are like me. I never thought that I would end up here, but sometimes things just kind of fall into your lap for a reason!
G: Did your experience on the show inspire you to make your short film “Female Connection” or did you already have the idea in mind?
LB: Kind of. Being on the show inspired me to be more visible in general. I’d never really thought about it before, but I kind of am the girl-next-door, but also not. I feel like it’s important to have everybody represent themselves, but particularly for straight people who have never been exposed to any gay individuals to be able to see me and think, “That could be my daughter, that could be my friend, that could be anybody I know. Maybe what I thought about gay people isn’t true.”
So after being on the show, it was well received and I got a lot of messages saying, ‘thank you.’ So I made some recap videos and started making YouTube content, putting my stuff out there. It’s really time consuming to do all of that, because I have a full-time job, but really fun. When coming up with new content ideas, what’s best what you’re familiar with. I’d had a couple of interesting personal experiences and one of them was more recent and fresh at the time, so I thought about doing a YouTube video about it. At the time I was also exploring more LGBT content, like Ruby Rose’s short film. I thought it would be really cool to make something that’s more a work of art like a short film rather than a YouTube video of just myself talking.
The thought was stuck in my head for a while, but I didn’t know anything about making a short film. One of my friends at the gym is a director, so I met with her for coffee and asked what it would take to make a short film. At the time I was like, “Just a short film, you know, like ten minutes.” But she told me that ten minutes was actually really long! My film ended up being four minutes and it took two days to film it with a twelve person cast and crew. And a lot of money. I had no idea what went into a full scale, legit, production. It was such a fun experience.
But yeah, my friend said let’s do it and do a music video. She has a music video for Andy Allo, a lesbian musician who was in the band in Pitch Perfect 3: Last Call Pitches. So my friend, the director who had just made the music video for Andy Allo, and I sat down together and looked at that music video as well as other content out there and decided what I liked and what I was going for and went from there.
It took us several months to put it all together. We filmed it last fall and then submitted it to a bunch of film festivals, which is why I didn’t release it online. We’re in six film festivals so far, which is really fun.
G: You’ve already kind of touched on this a bit but tell me what the biggest challenges and rewards were in this process.
LB: I had no idea what I was getting into! I respect the filmmaking process so much now. Everything is hard, locations and logistics, the writing. For example, you have a sentiment you want to get across, how are you going to do that, particularly with no words? Or you have logistics in mind, how are you going to make that happen? We had to rent a house for a whole day. If you want to film outside, you can’t do it in a public place like a park or a coffee shop unless you buy permits or rent the space out. It’s really hard in a low budget film to have characters meet on the street or in a coffee shop. So, you have this sentiment you want to get across, but the way you envision it may be difficult or impossible to do on your budget. That was the hardest part. The story that I wrote was not at all what we ended up doing, because the interactions that I’d written were impossible to make happen. But, we were able to change the location and some of the details while still keeping the sentiments.The reward was, you know, at the end of the day seeing a full cast and crew of twelve people still working after twelve days and excited about the project, wanting every detail to be perfect and not rushing to be done with the day. It was really, really fun to see it all happen.
And then, you have all these emotions you have to bring out as an actor too, so you’re a part of making it all happen. And you only have so many takes. You have two days, so there are never more than four takes or so per scene, so you have to really dig deep to bring what you need to bring as an actor to a scene. I give major props to Tennile, who was my costar; she made it very easy to elicit a lot of those emotions.
G: Wow, so was this your first acting role?
LB: Yeah, it was! After I was on Love Connection and I had started making YouTube content, I got a lot of feedback that I was really natural on camera, so I started acting classes in LA. Not necessarily because I ever wanted to pursue a full-time career in acting, but because I know I was making this short film, and I wanted to see how it was done. It’s like therapy, you learn a lot about yourself. It’s a challenge I would recommend everybody do, even if they don’t want to be a full-time actor. It’s such a raw experience and I have a lot of respect for actors who do this full-time. It’s mentally and emotionally exhausting but it’s really rewarding.
G: There’s been a push in a lot of current media aimed at queer women to focus on happy endings where the main love interests in the story get together. Why do you think it’s important to tell stories that don’t have that ending?
LB: I wanted to show that it’s not an unhappy ending for somebody to feel heartbreak and move on. I found somebody new in the film, and that’s okay. I’m honoring myself, I’m showing up, and that’s okay because I put myself out there.
I also wanted to show the other side. I think defining somebody’s sexuality is complicated. Obviously if you have a crush on somebody of the same gender and have a deep, intimate relationship with them, you’re probably not straight. But I do think that when it comes to the ‘straight girl’ stereotype, vilifying the person who is “doing the heartbreak” isn’t helpful. People have a lot of shame, and those people live with a lot of regret or pain longer term than the people who put it all out there. Maybe they shredded in the moment, but when you put yourself out there, do what you can, and are authentic to yourself, you’re able to recover better. You learn from the situation. For me at least, it was about not seeing the signs earlier and accepting something less than what I deserved. But I moved on, and I’m better for it. So when I see somebody in the place I used to be, it reminds me how far I’ve come. But, the other person might not be in the same place.
So for me at least, I don’t have any hard feelings. I actually feel bad for her because she was never able to really try or open herself up emotionally. She didn’t want that relationship. But I do think that she struggled with that for a long time, and we need to compassionate toward people who struggle with shame like that.
So really, it’s kind of a sad ending, but it also isn’t.
G: It’s a hopeful ending, but not necessarily ‘ride off into the sunset’ ending for the two main characters
LB: Yeah! That’s exactly it.
G: Tell me about your understanding of how female complicated sexuality can be in our society for women who are exploring their sexuality outside of straight norms. How did that influence the story you’re telling?
LB: I definitely think that nobody can define a person’s sexuality besides themselves, and even then you don’t have to define it. I think women tend to be more sexually fluid and so can have strong connections with other women and not necessarily define yourself a certain way. I think there are ‘straight women’ who have strong connections with other women and choose not to explore that. Or there are bisexual women who only have relationship with men or with people of multiple genders. It’s impossible to define somebody else. There’s a stereotype of ‘straight women’ who are ‘experimenting’ that gets a bad rap. I also think that many of those women are potentially bisexual but living in a heteronormative society makes it more complicated and possibly dangerous to explore those connections with women.
Living in a society that makes it so much easier to exist as straight, I think many women might not explore intimate connections with women because of backlash. And I don’t think that’s something people should be judged for. Hopefully, as we grow as a society and there is more and more representation, people won’t feel like it’s easier to exist one way or the other. In an ideal world, love with anybody is easy and people would be free to explore connections with any gender. We are a huge percentage of the population. I think truly straight women who don’t have any connection with other women are few. Even if they don’t identify as bisexual, I think there are a lot of women who would say they’ve had connections with other women. I think less than 50% of women are truly ‘straight.’ So we have a long way to go before media finally catches up with those numbers, but I think it will. All we can do is our own part in individual content creation, supporting what’s out there, and asking for more.
G: Right. And in that sense there’s a feeling of tragedy about the love interest in your film because shame from our society prevents her from exploring something that could be beautiful. That’s really sad.
LB: Having compassion for her is important. I think that’s a side we don’t think about enough. I think we judge a lot of people and put pressure on them to identify a certain way. We’ll see someone in a relationship like this and ask, “oh, well does this mean you’re a lesbian?” And because some women might not want to deal with that question or that title, they would rather not explore it. Also when you have a connection with someone and you deny it, that’s hard. I have compassion for people who make that choices.
I mean, I’m a lesbian and I grew up in a state and area that wasn’t very supportive of the gay community. I have a lot of wonderful friends who are advocate and outspoken there now, but there wasn’t a lot of visibility when I grew up. And, it’s still really hard in a lot of areas, so if you are somebody who is bisexual in an area like that, it’s way easier to believe that you’re straight or exist as if you were. That sucks.
G: What’s your hope in writing this story when it comes to either changing people’s minds about the LGBTQ+ or broadening visibility?
LB: Changing people’s minds is never a goal of mine, but broadening their experience is. For the gay community at least, drawing attention and compassion was a goal of mine. Also, that the woman or person who has felt that connection with somebody else but wasn’t sure how to explore it, giving them space to say, “Hey, that’s me, that’s my story. I’m not alone, this has happened to me, and I’m glad I’m not being portrayed as the villain.” Or, you know, for the other side, the person who is out and proud, getting them to think about how hard it might be to be on the other side. In general, every story that you have that’s relatable and you can tell, somebody might learn something and have a takeaway. That’s the beauty of media, everybody has their own takeaways.
G: In a similar vein, what would you like to see more of when it comes to the representation of LGBTQ+ relationships and stories?
LB: More? More in general, more in mainstream media, more variety. More different types of lesbians and women-loving-women, more different types of long term relationships. Oh, and portraying singledom or portraying dating life but without oversexualizing it. That’s always what I’ve noticed is that whenever they’re portraying a single lesbian or bisexual woman, they’re always oversexualized. I would like to see less of that.
G: How do you balance being a business woman, an LGBTQ+ rights activist, and being a filmmaker?
LB: I don’t know…I’m not taking on any new projects right now, I’m not doing any more content creation. I don’t want to stress about putting things out there. I want it to come naturally, and I hope that when people have collaborations in mind they think of me, but I also don’t want to feel pressured to put out content. Because, what I can do when I’m not putting out my own content is support other people’s content. I can find what else is out there, which is what I’ve been doing.
I got a new position in the fall, and I work really long hours in my job now, so I don’t have time to dedicate to creating new content. But, I’m always seeing what’s out there, going to new premieres, watching webseries, and trying to support female and LGBT content creators as much as I can. If an opportunity comes up for me to create more, great. I’m all about it. But right now, I’m not actively making as much because I can’t.
Still, my film was accepted at six film festivals, two of which are in Europe. My girlfriend and I are going to the Florence Queer Film Festival to watch the premiere. We’re going in three weeks, and I’m really excited to go! I love film festival season.
G: Anything else you want to share with us before we go?
LB: I think everybody in the community agrees that we’d like more representation, so what I would say to that is: find what’s out there, support it, and build original content creators up. Those are the people who are going to be able to take their content to the next level eventually and be more visible. It’s easy to flip channels and say, “I’m not seeing what I want.” To that I say, there is stuff out there, we just have to dig a little bit deeper. Places like Tello films are putting stuff out there, we just need to do a little bit of extra work to find it. That’s what I recommend to people who are hoping and looking for representation. Go out there, find the people who represent you and you think are doing right by the community, and support them.
G: PREACH. That’s all I have, so thank you so much for your time!
LB: Of course!