In 2012, Point Park University student Dominic Rodriguez and his team launched an Indiegogo campaign for what would become Fursonas, a documentary exploring the often misunderstood world of furries, a group broadly characterized by its love of anthropomorphic animals. After four years in production, the film – which was was produced by Danny Yourd (Blood Brother) and his Pittsburgh-based company, Animal Films – premiered at the 2016 Slamdance Film Festival, where it won the Spirit of Slamdance award and was scooped up for distribution by Gravitas Ventures.
On March 10th, Fursonas will make its Pittsburgh premiere at the Regent Square Theater. Steel Cinema spoke with Rodriguez about directing his first documentary, his big Slamdance win, and his own connection with the furry community.
What inspired you to pursue this documentary in the first place?
It started out as my senior thesis film at Point Park. So I was working with Olivia [Vaughn], who was the producer. We worked together before, and she had wanted to do a documentary, and she asked me if I would direct a documentary with her. I’d never done one before, but it sounded interesting. We were going to do a different project at first, something to do with mental health or something, but that didn’t really go anywhere, and then when we were trying to find a new idea for a project, this was right around the time that Anthrocon was going on in July. I’ve been interested in this stuff for a long time, and I’ve identified as a furry for about 10 years, but it was something that I looked at from a distance. And so I used it as an excuse to get closer to that world and learn more about it. And then over the course of making this film, I’ve gotten way more involved in that scene.
So this became a personal journey for you as well?
That was something that, early on, I didn’t tell my crew for two years. I was a total liar about it, because I wanted to be a filmmaker first and I wanted to approach it as a filmmaker from the outside and to not have any of my biases get in the way. But that was obviously impossible to do. And so, the more we worked on it, the more comfortable I became, and I thought, well, if I’m going to do something that’s real, I can’t ignore the fact that I’m a part of this. And so I’m in the movie as well. I don’t want people to think that this is my story in the fandom because it’s really not, it’s really their story. But I’m certainly a part of it.
How is Pittsburgh’s relationship with Anthrocon portrayed in the film? I’m sure a lot of people outside the city don’t know that it’s a big deal here.
They definitely bring a lot of money into Pittsburgh. Pittsburgh has been very receptive to the furries. I think that it’s one of the friendlier cities. Some conventions that I’ve been to, they stay more in the convention space, whereas in Pittsburgh, you’ll see fursuiters out on the street and they’ll kind of invade Pittsburgh for the weekend. I know that this year they did the parade outside, and they hadn’t done that in previous years, so it’s becoming more integrated in Pittsburgh culture. But usually anybody in Pittsburgh has heard of it.
I understand that you interviewed people from all over the country. I’m just wondering how you managed to get so many different perspectives in the film.
In the beginning, we didn’t have a ton of resources, and so I started out interviewing people within driving distance. Most of them were in the Pennsylvania, Ohio area. There are lists of fursuiters online, so that’s an easy way to start just doing research. And I messaged hundreds of people, and it really was just about who would get back to me. We were also trying to get some kind of diversity. We have a mother, there’s a kid who’s in school, there’s a guy who’s retired. And then it sort of branched out from there. One of [the subjects] moved a year later, and when we got a grant from the Sprout Fund, we had enough money that we could go to Arizona and actually see what his life was like a year later. And then we went to Seattle because there were known furries I really wanted to talk to who were in the media. There was somebody that had been on The Tyra Banks Show who was in Seattle, and I really wanted to talk to her.
And then the criteria was just… you don’t have to have a suit to be a furry, and that’s probably something I’m going to get some flak for, because I only talk to people who have the costumes, usually. But to me, it was just a good visual element that showed somebody’s dedication to this community. To me, it shows that you’re going that extra mile and that it’s a part of your life. That was really fascinating to me.
Did you experience people being hesitant to talk to you for the film?
Absolutely. That was a huge challenge, because furries feel that the way they’ve been portrayed in the media is usually negatively. Everybody who was in the film, I’m super appreciative that they opened up their lives to me. It takes a lot to open up your life for several years to a stranger. But on the whole, I think there’s a lot of defensiveness, there’s a lot of skepticism of the media, so it took time to break through and get people’s trust.
That’s interesting, because there is definitely a stigma connected with the community. The way I was introduced to it years ago was as a sexual perversion – I of course found out later that is not the case. But how do you think the film will inform or re-inform people about this community as a whole?
I had been interested in the community, but I didn’t know furries personally. I didn’t know much about the social scene, I had never been to conventions and stuff. So when I started out thinking about it, I assumed we’re probably going to subvert some stereotypes. But then also probably confirm some stereotypes, too. Originally, I didn’t care what ended up being proven, I just wanted it to be real. So I didn’t purposely choose subjects that I thought were going to portray the fandom in a good light or a bad light, I just wanted them to be furries.
And then I thought if I talked to enough of them, it would be more on the side of this is a story about people, and it’s supportive of their rights to do what they want to do with their lives. But I think people will be surprised by the fact that, when they get into the film, especially if you’re not a furry – which is sort of the perspective I try to take when I’m watching it – it might seem kind of strange and hard to relate to at first, but then the more you spend time with these people, the more universal the views are.
A description of the film states that it “begins as a series of humanistic portraits”
and “evolves into an exploration of the complicated question concerning community representation in the fandom.” Could you expand on that a bit?
Other furry documentaries, or any other thing I’ve seen on this group, makes a big effort to explain it away. I mean, if you go to Anthrocon’s website, what it’ll say is “a furry is someone who’s interested in anthropomorphic animals, so anybody can be a furry,” which I think is true, but I also think there’s more to it than that, and I think that for some people it’s a huge part of their lives.
The issue is you have so many different people who feel this thing is really important to them, but it’s important to them in different ways. You have Boomer the Dog in the movie who wanted to legally change his name to Boomer the Dog. To me, that’s the most dedicated furry you can be. But then you also have people who would say that Boomer the Dog is not even a furry because he takes it so far to the point where they don’t want him associated with them. So that’s where it starts to get complicated. And the fact that there are all these different perspectives, I just wanted to embrace that complexity as opposed to ignore it, and I think other pieces I’ve seen ignore that complexity. And I think it’s extraordinarily complicated because you have people where this is their identities, but then it’s also a community. And you see this in religions, you see this in lots of different communities, of people trying to share the same space and call themselves the same word, but in reality, it means something different to all of them.
You premiered at Slamdance, where you won the Spirit of Slamdance award. Were you anticipating that you would win anything or that you would get any kind of recognition?
I was hoping we would get in somewhere and that people would watch the film, but, at least with me, having worked on this for so long, you have to be ready for people not to like it. But really, you just want everybody to like it. When we got in there, that was huge and really exciting. And then the fact that we got that award, everybody in the crew was gobsmacked. We did not expect it at all. It was cool, because looking at it now and what the award is about, not just the movie itself, but how you promoted the film, and stuff like that. I was in my fursuit walking around, so definitely everybody knew who we were, so it makes sense.
You were also acquired by Gravitas Ventures. Do have any timeline for when the film will be released?
What I know is that they’re doing a video-on-demand release. That would be this summer. I don’t know the exact month, but it’s pretty soon, actually.
That’s what’s really cool is there’s momentum being established, especially on the furry side of things. Furries will want to see this movie because it’s about something that they care about, and every piece of furry media that comes out is hotly debated within the community. So this is going to be a great platform for everybody to see it, but I think especially for furries to see it.
You’re having a premiere at Regent Square Theater on March 10th, and I’m wondering what kind of reception or reaction are you hoping for at the premiere if any?
There’s going to be a Q&A after, so I’m hoping for some thoughtful discussion afterward. Obviously, I want people to enjoy it and be able to relate to it. I think it depends on whether you’re a furry or not. People who aren’t furries, the vibe that I generally get is that the film is relatable and that they feel like they learned something, and that they felt something, and that they see the subjects as people and not just as fursuiters without personalities.
But then from the furry side of things, I think the movie asks some challenging questions to the community, and so I think that will be kind of different. That is something I would get more nervous about because I don’t want furries to think that I’m out to get them or anything. The film, I think, is very pro-furries. But it’s not like a PR piece. So that’s why I think it might be a bit more controversial. But so far, when we were in Slamdance, five furries saw it there that I never met before. One traveled 300 miles to see it. They were there in their fursuits and they all loved it.
The Fursonas Pittsburgh premiere will begin at 7 p.m. A Q&A with Rodriguez and the entire filmmaking team – as well as a few possible special guests – will follow the screening. Guests are also encouraged to join the team for an afterparty at Brew Gentleman. Tickets cost $10 and are available for purchase at Eventbrite.