In November 2019 actress and director Karen Knox and collaborator J Stevens wanted to shoot a short honouring the high-femme con artists that had recently bombarded their social media. The goal was to create a “queer couture” heist film, with fashionable women committing crimes as a response to late-stage capitalism. The major problem with this idea was that pulling off that aesthetic required money the artists didn’t have.
“The idea of doing yet another low budget indie short where people talked about their feelings while Bon Iver played in the background? That wasn’t going to cut it,” said Knox. “Our taste was expensive, our budget was low, so we looked to the tales of Anna Delvey and Caroline Calloway for inspiration.”
Knox and Stevens recruited actress Gwenlyn Cumyn—who had previously played Knox’s romantic partner in the viral webseries Barbelle—and started brainstorming. They realized to pull off their scam film, they would need to execute a scam of their own. Over the next two days they would figure out how to shoot a film they say would have cost $36,356 for virtually no cash. The crux of the con? Faking a lesbian engagement.
First, they needed a place to shoot, and decided on a luxury hotel in downtown Toronto. The location permit for the hotel costs just over $20,000 plus insurance. But the artists came up with a creative solution to sidestep the cost. Knox phoned the hotel concierge, explaining that she had met her girlfriend at the location five years ago. That weekend she intended to propose then stay the night at their establishment. Would it be OK if her engagement videographer was there to film it?
The concierge granted Knox permission to shoot in the hotel during the proposal. The hotel also pulled multiple discounts for the artist, who booked a deluxe gold room suite worth $1,250 for $675. There was a note on her file that assured VIP status.
With a location secured the artists started sourcing costumes. The film needed outfits that felt as luxurious as their shooting location. Rather than spend their own cash they decided to “rent” designer clothes.
“Last year during TIFF I went to a dozen different parties and premieres. Each event required a new look,” said Knox. “Since Zara is a hellscape, I got in the habit of ‘renting’ designer outfits. I’d put a Gucci splurge on credit, wear the clothes for a night, and promptly return them the next day.”
Knox and Cumyn went shopping at a high-end department store, and spent hours looking for the finest outfits with hideable tags. They ended up renting $2546.87 worth of wardrobe.
Then came the makeup. “What most people don’t know is that you can book a free 15-minute make up session at Sephora,” said Knox. “It isn’t enough time to get a full look done but most stores are so big you can book two sessions back to back without anyone noticing, as long as you use two different names.”
Looking gorgeous and feeling invincible they made their way to the hotel to get ready. The nature of the proposal meant Knox, Cumyn, and Stevens only had one chance to get their shot. Knox set up at the lobby bar. She chatted with the staff and let them know that later in the evening, at this very spot, she’d ask her girlfriend to marry her. Knox explained that her videographer would also be on hand to capture the moment. Like the concierge, the bartender was overjoyed at the news. They supplied appropriate amounts of liquid courage for the occasion.
While Knox had been acting her entire life, playing this role felt different. The circumstances—both real and imagined—made the stakes incredibly high. Luckily that kind of nervous energy was thematically appropriate for her character.
“Most of the time what’s on the line for an actor is just a bad review. But if this performance wasn’t pitch perfect best-case scenario I’m a fraud, worse case, a criminal,” said Knox. “It was amazing. Everything felt like a scene out of a movie, which is probably because in some ways it was a scene out of a movie.”
Before Cumyn made her way to the bar, a handsome couple started making small talk with Knox. They had overheard the conversation with the bartender and congratulated Knox on her big news. They couple playfully teased Knox about the size of the ring and casually dropped that they owned a well-known champagne bar in the financial district. The three chatted for some time before the big moment.
On cue Cumyn made her way to the lobby and things got started.
“Gwenlyn emerged from the hotel revolving doors and looked absolutely incredible, like some fashion remix of Ariana Grande with a PhD. She walked over to my bar stool. I pulled her in tight for a kiss. It was game on,” said Knox.
“The moment I got down on one knee the whole bar went quiet. Everyone turned and looked in our direction. She says yes and the bar erupts into applause...Everyone got caught up in the fantasy, including us.”
For the next hour or so Cumyn and Knox basked in the glory of their fake engagement, high off the adrenaline of the scene and drunk on the free drinks from the patrons at the bar. Stevens, who had shot the proposal on the balcony before coming down to the ground level, captured the party vibe of the room. No one suspected a thing. Looking around the room Knox clocked all of the people in the scene. That many extras would have ran the artists at least $10,000.
After some time the trio went to settle their cheque before heading upstairs to shoot the rest of their short. They had intended to buy a bottle of the bar’s cheapest champagne as a sort of “thank you for being unknown participants in our scheme” kind of vibe, but when they went to pay they found a surprise.
“The couple I chatted with had bought us a bottle of Dom Perignon Prestige cuvee 2008, listed on the menu at a cool $800. When I called for the bill that was taken care of too. A bottle of Moet and two vodka martinis—$115—on the house. The bartender also slyly lets us know that he’d asked the concierge to send up champagne and macarons to the room, ” said Knox. “Who knew getting engaged was such a lucrative endeavour?”
With the proposal finished and the bill taken care of the artists retreated to their suite and filmed through the night, only stopping briefly at 3 a.m. for McDonald’s UberEats—$47.63 paid out of pocket.
The resulting short, Cons & Pros, is some of the trio’s favourite work they’ve ever been a part of, an evening spent scamming made for art that looked far more expensive than they could have done if everything had gone through the proper channels. In the end they say they spent $1,597.63 for a shoot worth more than 20 times as much. Reflecting back on the experience Knox is convinced that she’s hit on something truly unique and has already been scheming her next caper, possibly at Cannes.
“We pulled off a serious cinematic sting, maybe even a whole new genre,” said Knox. “Heist cinema. Glam guerrilla filmmaking. This was just the beginning.”
Follow Graham Isador on Twitter.