AUSTIN, Texas—Impulse is a weird thing. Some people are compelled to spend all their time and energy manicuring their lawns. Others follow their hearts and learn baseball stats. For some reason, I’ve spent the last 6 years making a documentary about a strip joint in Oklahoma. I called it Red Dog, because that’s what Ray Mackey named his strip club almost 60 years ago when he opened it. If Ray Mackey never opened that strip club, I never would have existed.
The Red Dog Saloon was one of the rowdiest strip clubs in Oklahoma during the oil boom and is somewhat of a notorious rite of passage to this day, though some of the luster has worn a bit. Ask any Oklahoman, and they’ll likely have a story about it. It has sat on 10th Street in Oklahoma City amongst pawnshops and run-down apartments for almost a human eternity, collecting empty beer bottles, jukebox quarters, and people. One of those people was my mother. Another was my biological father. And yet another was my stepfather. It collected a lot of other people too, and some of them were a part of the village that helped raise me when I was a little guy.
My movie is about all those people, whom I love. I tracked them down, because long ago they brought me boxes of cereal. I called them because they made me and my mother feel loved at a precious time in our lives. I filmed them because they are interesting people without filters. Sometimes filters are good, but something in me loves the unvarnished truth and expression. After thousands of hours of not knowing exactly what I was doing or exactly why I was doing it, the real reason came to me when I was scoring the film. Alone at night in my studio, seeing my mom on a screen, pouring out her joy, her heartbreak, her love for even the grimiest of circumstances—it was the first time that I really understood what this whole thing was about: I made the film because I love my mother.
Mothers are the most important parts of the human story. They’re the ones who are stuck with nine months of baking babies, and the rest of their lives raising them. They’re on the hook more than anyone to foster the world. I happen to have an objectively interesting and beautiful mother. She can tell a story, make anybody laugh, cuss and smoke, and love very, very well. She can adopt you as her own in one second. She has a purity that transcends social graces. For me, Red Dog is ultimately her arc, from teen fast-living stripper to 60-year-old grandmother and citizen. Reality TV likes the glamour and chaos of youth, but it’s only a very small part of the ultimate story. I was interested in the richness of my mother’s entire lifetime.
She came to Oklahoma City in roughly 1975, as a 15-year-old newlywed. After a brief stint with a husband, henceforth known as “some dude named ‘Greg,’” she won a dance contest and began working in the Red Dog with a fake ID. Freshly divorced, she became what one bartender called “the Queen of the Red Dog.” Something about one’s teens-to-early-twenties seems to elongate years into eons, but my mother’s equation packs even more lifetimes into those years—while winning dance contests, narrowly avoiding overdoses, and marrying twice. Her second marriage was to my biological father, a Red Dog patron. Not long after I was born, they split, and she was back to dancing.
My actual memories start around the age of 2 or 3, when we lived with the manager of the Red Dog, Ron Hollis. I can still remember her picking me up late from the babysitter’s sometimes. We had a ritual where she would hug me, give me a kiss and pass her gum to me. Strangely charming. Queen’s “Another One Bite’s the Dust” was a hit around that time. I remember it playing in Hollis’ Chevy Blazer. My young life was kinda like any other life, except when my mom took me to work to pick up her check after hours, it was a carnival of lights, and I got to play video games for free. I of course had no idea about sexuality or the nature of my mom’s work. Only later did I start asking questions. One of my mom’s greatest gifts to me is that she answered every question I ever had with utter candor.
We don’t ever really get to know what our parents were like in the fun dumbness of their youth. I wanted to know those stories—like the time mom knocked a Red Dog patron’s teeth out with a pool stick for disrespecting a dancer, or when she glued sequins to her crotch as a dancing schtick. Rarely do you get the ins and outs of your mother’s loves and heartbreaks, marriages and divorces—like my mom’s marriage to her current husband of 25 years.
Their relationship started as a random meet on a camping trip, after they were dared to leg wrestle each other. She won. Then she took him to her tent and never let him go. To see your parents opening up about their own ignorance and shortcomings is poignant. Experiencing my mom opening up about never really wanting kids and winding up having me, and then her path of parenthood guiding the rest of her life, kept bringing me back to Oklahoma with a camera and was worth capturing.
So, here I sit in Austin at SXSW with my mother, having shown the film a few times. I’ve watched people react to her and the film. I see strangers hugging her, kissing her, laughing with her, crying with her. It almost feels like she’s their mother too—someone who accepts them for who they are, like she accepts herself. Mom has always validated me, and now I’m watching her validate strangers, warts and all, with an outsider’s take on happiness. Our last screening was March 13, and who knows if anyone will buy the film. It doesn’t matter. We’ve captured a unique human experience on film. We’ve won. There’s an outsider’s legacy with joy and laughter and tears on display. My kids will always get to know their grandmother and know about the beautiful and honest human she was. They’ll know where I came from and essentially where they came from. And so will the rest of the world, when they peek into Red Dog.