Leslie Cochran has long been at the epicenter of “Keep Austin Weird” folklore, an affable homeless man who lived on the city’s downtown streets beginning in the mid-1990s sporting leopard print thongs, crop tops, feather boas and high heels. He was known for protesting the Austin Police Department’s treatment of homelessness (painting “A.P.D Kiss This” on his buttocks) and running multiple campaigns for mayor. Leslie personified the city’s independent, far out spirit.
But as the soul of Austin arguably got lost to urbanization and commodification, Leslie seemed to follow along with it, deteriorating in his later years and taking what was original about Austin with him when he passed in 2012 at age 60.
“Becoming Leslie,” a documentary by Tracy Frazier which first premiered at SXSW 2019, is an intimate look at this iconoclast that strips off the veneer of nostalgia for kooky, old Austin and gives audiences a rare peek into the real life of Leslie — his background, traumas, friends, impacts, successes, addictions, and his ultimate deterioration after he suffered a seizure.
Now in feature presentation, the film screens at the Austin Film Society Feb. 7 to 12. The filmmakers will be on hand for a Q-and-A after the Feb. 8 screening.
I spoke with the film’s editor, Sandra Guardado, someone who has spent hundreds of hours with Leslie — via a computer monitor, that is. Guardado speaks about the long-in-the-making documentary as a collage that pieces together archival footage by producer Ruby Martin, family photographs, footage and photos of Leslie crowdsourced using Facebook, recreations of Leslie’s time as a fellow named “Trapper” in Colorado, and more.
Mary K. Cantrell: Can you tell me about how you got involved with editing “Becoming Leslie” ?
Sandra Guardado: Producer Lauren Barker and I were working closely together and she and Tracy had done a Kickstarter campaign, and they finally had some funds to pay someone to edit the film, or at least start it. At that time I was in between jobs. I’m like, you know what, this is really interesting. I made it clear to Tracy, that though I saw Leslie a couple of times around the time when he was in his heyday, I did not get anything about Leslie. I didn’t like him. She said, “That’s okay. In fact, that might be even better,” because she didn’t want a hagiography. She really wanted it to feel real and it was okay that I wasn’t a fan. And maybe I’d be slightly more critical, more honest about the kind of person he was.
MKC: Can you tell me a little bit about how this editing process might have been different from other films you’ve worked on?
SG: Ultimately the film was a portrait, a character study, but it made it doubly difficult that he was homeless and a wanderer. So the question became, “How do we get across who he really was?” The thing that sold me was the core of the footage producer Ruby Martin had, the treasure trove which were essentially home movies. She filmed Leslie from either 2003 or 2005 until he died. Tracy Frazier, the director, joined her a few years into the project but by then Leslie was older.
When I saw the stash of home movies Ruby had it was like, wow, you don’t often get this, this little treasure of someone who’s just hanging out with him and getting him to talk about himself. Leslie was very well documented because people were always seeking him out to get photos. He was very much a performer out on the streets. So people would take their little movies, but he always had that same personality he presented to the public and what Ruby was able to do was just hang out with him, where he would kind of drop that façade. You could get a peek into the kind of person he really was underneath. So that was really going to be the core of the film.
But we also recognized if we were going to tell the story of what made this guy tick and how he ended up in Austin there was certainly plenty that wasn’t available for us in terms of what happened when he wandered over to Seattle or what was his growing up like, how was it when he lived in Miami? What happened in Colorado? So Tracy and her other collaborators did a lot of work trying to figure out how we’re going to represent these aspects of Leslie’s life that we were not privy to, and no one had any documentation of, so it did end up having to become a collage.
MKC: What was it like sifting through the hours and hours of footage from Ruby Martin? When did you know you had something that needed to make it into the film?
SG: In terms of looking through Ruby’s footage, the thing that started making me wonder like “There’s a lot more going on with this guy.” It’s the first moment where she asks him “Where did you come from?” when he goes up on the tree and settles down. He’s sitting there trying to figure out how to dive in and it’s the longest time. “Where did you come from? Where’d you grow up?” And he just can’t answer that question. I thought, “Wow, this guy is having a really hard time diving in and saying anything,” because he really didn’t talk a lot other than he had his patter down in terms of what he’d say. You hear it in the film, “I grew up in Miami. I left home, I went to the University of Florida…” I mean, he would say that to many people with very much the same delivery. But really in that interview I thought, “Oh, there’s a lot more here than meets the eye.”
Later on when he gets older, in real time you start seeing him just devolve. All the drinking and the brain trauma catches up with him. It’s really compelling. In the end in the edit we felt like a little went a long way because that could have gone on for another two hours, there was so much of it. It’s like the long goodbye. Leslie really goes downhill over a period of time. But I found that really compelling because it was watching someone who rebelled so hard being an original and. His life catches up with him. That to me was really compelling stuff.
MKC: I think one part that was interesting to me was whenever you’d see like, this scene of him being taken in by his friend and they’re kind of joking and sitting outside and then flash forward to the moment where she’s fed up with him and kicked him out. Maybe you didn’t have an interview with him saying, “I’m an alcoholic and I have been hurting my friends,” but the absence of him saying anything said a lot, too. Just seeing how his actions affected other people helped fill in some of the gaps too.
SG: It’s interesting you say that because that was one of the things where he had really good friends, and they were reluctant to sometimes be critical of him because I think they really respected his tenaciousness of maintaining his independence. But on the side and not on the record they might say, “You know, he’s tough to deal with him sometimes.” So we felt like we had to pull whatever we could out of the material to at least hint that “Yes, even they would get fed up with this person.” He was a difficult person to deal with. During one of the test screenings we had, as we were trying to get to a lock cut, there was one very interesting observation. Someone said, “People keep saying he was such a good friend, but I don’t see how he was a good friend. It just seems that he took.” That kind of informed us having to at least put in a couple of bites in there, that people did really feel like he gave them friendship. There was something they got out of it. These are people who were his true friends not just kind of hanger-ons because he was somebody in Austin kind of thing.
MKC: Compared to today, it was interesting seeing a case like Leslie where he wasn’t cast out. He had friends that were of different income levels and you don’t see that very often in the larger homeless population.
SG: He wasn’t someone that you were going to ignore for sure. He grabbed the attention and he loved it. He was totally smart and all there, people who were actually engaged in the conversation with Leslie all say, “He’s really quite articulate, very smart. You can actually have a whole conversation with Leslie,” He was just such a performer and he wasn’t going to behave like your ideas of a homeless person.
In some ways the film is about Leslie, who happened to be a homeless person, and he was just this really interesting person and it was very much part of who he was. I think we made a point in the film like…he probably didn’t really see himself as a homeless person. He’s just kind of, you know, living his life.
MKC: In a way this documentary also serves as a story of the way Austin’s changed. The inclusion of the dated public access channel footage, Leslie running for mayor — I feel like that would never happen these days. How does Leslie personify the story of Austin? Was it difficult not to dive too far into Austin’s continual cultural transformation?
SG: I think in terms of the whole creative team, we all recognized that we definitely had to acknowledge Austin evolving and how that impacted Leslie and what he saw because he complained about it enough. We definitely had earlier cuts where we dove in a little more into where the whole “Austin is weird” vibe came from. We included some of the other characters that ran for mayor but we dove into it a little bit too much and realized that even though that was interesting, it was taking too much away from the story of Leslie. It really became more of a trick of like “how to wrap around things that were happening to Leslie that also reflected where we were in Austin’s evolution.” By the time Leslie’s life comes to an end, how different it is and how it looks, I mean, you really see him in some way feeling very alienated from the environment, other than the friends he has that he can still turn to.
At some point I think as Austin was becoming more sophisticated, Leslie was becoming a tourist attraction and a calling card for attracting people here going “Hey, this is the kind of spirit you’ll find here.” But then I think people today will lament that that spirit, is just really more of a t-shirt slogan than an actual thing.
MKC: Gender identity, sexual identity and equality are major topics in our culture right now. Was there a reason you and the producers chose not to dive too much into that aspect of Leslie’s life? Or was it simply a lack of information?
SG: In terms of what we were privy to and what Leslie was willing to share, he didn’t really ever talk about that aspect of himself. When we presented the film at aGLIFF [All Genders, Lifestyles, and Identities Film Fest] some of the feedback was like, “You could really talk about this aspect, especially with the times that we’re living in,” But Leslie just doesn’t really fit into any bucket of the current issues we’re talking about other than “feel free to be yourself.” He didn’t talk about (his identity) that much and he was just who he was going to be.
MKC: What were the main themes you wanted to make sure to convey? And how did you come up with those themes?
SG: I think for me in hindsight, looking at what the film kind of becomes, is that tenacious adherence to your independence and what it costs you to stick to that. I think throughout it all that is the thread of it — from running away and leaving home because he can’t conform within whatever structure of rules of a family his mom and dad imposed on him, he was just this free spirit. It’s that begrudging respect I have for Leslie just remaining as independent as he does come hell or high water. It’s just to me throughout almost all the scenes in there, of really sticking to that.
This interview edited for length and clarity.