TRASH Rejected by audiences. Panned by critics. Beloved by a loyal cadre of alternative comedy fans.
Wet Hot American Summer may not have found success when it premiered in 2001, but the offbeat comedy has since become — like so many underrated flops — a cult classic.
“I’m always amazed that some critics didn’t just dislike it, they were outright hostile to it,” says David Wain, who directed the film and co-wrote it with Michael Showalter. “But those who keyed into it, whether the first time or second or third, seemed to really key into it. And for that I’m grateful.”
Those diehard Wet Hot devotees came out in droves when SF Sketchfest announced a live radio play version of the movie: tickets to the event quickly sold out. At the event, Wain will join Showalter and other cast members, including Paul Rudd, Amy Poehler, and Michael Ian Black.
Black remembers when he first realized Wet Hot had achieved cult status.
“About two or three years after the film came out, people started hosting midnight screenings at various theaters around the country,” he says. “It’s very gratifying, particularly because its popularity has remained pretty consistent over the last decade, and has found new fans among people who are unaware of our work — The State, Stella — beyond that movie.”
Those who missed the sketch comedy of The State and Stella were likely the same audience members baffled by Wet Hot, a film that is gleefully strange and — past the simple premise of “last day at summer camp” — difficult to explain.
“Wet Hot does not fit into neat categorizations,” Black reflects. “It’s not a parody, it’s not a romantic comedy, it’s not a comedic homage. It has its own thing, its own sensibility.”
Part of that sensibility includes a talking can of mixed vegetables (voiced by H. Jon Benjamin), a cameo by falling Russian space station Skylab, and Black having steamy storage shed sex with future Sexiest Man Alive Bradley Cooper.
“It was kind of awkward because neither of us had ever been with another man before, but once we got into it, it was fine,” Black recalls. “I thought, ‘Oh, this is pretty much just like making out with a girl, only with a dick.'”
Because Wet Hot is the kind of movie fans watch and rewatch endlessly —something I can attest to from personal experience — those attending the live show probably have a pretty good idea of what to expect. Still, Wain promises a unique theatrical experience.
“We’ve gathered much of the original cast and many other awesome comedy folks, and we’ll have a live band and we’ll do an audio version of the movie,” he says. “Should be a blast!”
Jan. 19-Feb. 4, $10–$75 (Wet Hot event SOLD OUT as of 1/18, alas — but there’s plenty more Sketchfest fun to be had!)
FRAMELINE The eponymous character in Ash Christian’s Mangus! has a simple ambition: to be Jesus. That is, to play Jesus in the local production of Jesus Christ Spectacular. Mangus does get the part, but his dreams are crushed when a freak limo accident lands him in a wheelchair and his neighbors decide he’s no longer cut out to play their Lord and Savior.
“When you’re in a small town and you want to be an actor and you don’t get the lead, it’s the most devastating thing in the whole world,” says Christian (2006’s Fat Girls), who was inspired by his own history in community theater.
Mangus! is an interesting but wise choice for Frameline: while it features queer characters (including Mangus’ sister Jessica Simpson, played by Heather Matarazzo), the film as a whole is subtler than other festival picks. It has what Christian calls a “queer sensibility,” but much of that is subtextual.
“I don’t look at it as a queer film,” offers Matarazzo. “I just look at it as a really great dark comedy.”
Christian’s cast is full of actors who might be considered queer icons — among them Matarazzo, Jennifer Coolidge, and Leslie Jordan. But Matarazzo, who is openly gay, doesn’t want to restrict herself.
“When I’m playing to a specific audience because I want this to be a gay and lesbian film, that’s fine for any filmmaker who desires to do that,” she reflects. “But for me, film is really about unifying on all fronts.”
And Christian has his own ambitions. Mangus! is a dark comedy in the tradition of Christian’s cinematic idols John Waters and Todd Solondz. (It’s worth noting that Waters has a cameo in the film, and Matarazzo made her breakthrough in Solondz’s 1995 Welcome to the Dollhouse.) With this work, Christian tackles the topic of discrimination apart from sexuality.
“I’d never really seen a movie with a young disabled kid who had a dream,” he says. “It deals with discrimination in a small town, which I’ve definitely been a part of — not with a disability, but because of the gay thing.”
Mangus! is both hilarious and poignant because its filmmaker is unafraid to hold anything back. It somehow manages to walk the line between over-the-top and honest, presenting a portrayal of disability and sexuality that will only shock those not in on the joke.
“Ash is the perfect master of getting to bring absolute balance in terms of letting an audience pity a character, but then also cheer for him and go along with the ride,” Matarazzo notes. “There was never any kind of mentality of trying to manipulate the audience.”
For a while, Christian did worry about audiences taking his films the wrong way, but he admits that it’s no longer a concern. Indeed, he takes pleasure in making movies edgy enough to unnerve people.
“It’s just something that’s going to keep happening because I don’t want to tell boring stories for Lifetime,” he says. “It’s not really what I want to do. So it kind of turns me on now to have people actually have a problem with what I’m trying to say.”
Those who take Christian’s film in the intended tone will appreciate that it’s not meant to be mean-spirited. In the tradition of the great queer films that came before it, Mangus! lives outside the box: it’s unconventional, subversive, and yes, not even a little bit PC.
“In my heart, I’m not trying to say anything offensive at all,” Christian explains. “They’re just taking it that way.”
FILM The central figures in Mike Mills’ Beginners — a grown son and his elderly, newly out father — share a relationship rarely featured on screen. But however unique the story seems, it’s based on real events in the writer-director’s life.
“I thought my dad coming out was the most awesome thing that ever happened in my life,” Mills (2005’s Thumbsucker) reflects. “What happened between us after he came out — it was the biggest story I had to tell. I like it when filmmakers make really personal stories.”
Even though Beginners is based on his life, Mills made sure the film would have a broader appeal. When he appealed to Ewan McGregor — eventually cast as Oliver, the son — Mills stressed the importance of expanding on the personal.
“The first thing I said to Ewan when I wrote a letter, I was like, ‘This has to be more than personal. It has to reach out to people. You can’t feel like you have to mimic or anything like that.'<0x2009>”
For McGregor, the truth behind the script was part of what attracted him to the project. Although he was committed to playing Oliver and not Mills himself, the actor also wanted to connect with the reality of the film.
“I thought it was a wonderful story,” McGregor says. “I wanted to know more and more about the real story. I think that’s always really important. That’s what makes you identify and commit to something wholeheartedly — believing in the story you’re telling.”
Veteran actor Christopher Plummer stars opposite McGregor as Hal, who comes out at 75 and proceeds to make the best of his twilight years. Again, Mills wanted the character of Hal to be distinct from his actual father, though he was charmed by the similarities between the two men.
“It was a real natural fit, I’ve got to say,” Mills admits. “Christopher got so many of the key points, like the humor.”
Indeed, all the actors — including costars Mélanie Laurent and Goran Visnjic — brought humor to their roles, helping Beginners achieve the bittersweet tone Mills intended. The film maintains a whimsical style, alternating between moments of joy and tragedy throughout. But on either end of the spectrum, it feels organic, something McGregor credits to the positive energy of the set.
“It was absolutely the best environment to create good acting, to create good work for us,” he notes. “It very much felt like we had this space — and the peace and quiet and the time — to live those scenes and to make them feel very, very real.”
Although McGregor says he doesn’t pick films based on their budgets, he does acknowledge the benefits of working on a smaller, independent movie.
“On a big film, there are maybe 500 people on the set — you don’t know who anyone is,” he explains. “All the direction is given through earpieces to everybody, and you can feel very lonely. But on a film like this, you’re just part of the process. It’s lovely, and it really feels wonderful.”
Mills is pleased with the finished product, which is one of the all-too-infrequent depictions of a happy older gay man. He believes that his father and the film-loving friends he met with weekly would have appreciated the portrayal. But he also notes the need for more.
“I’m very honored to get to treat a gay character in a movie hopefully with respect and curiosity,” Mills says. “The thing that would be more interesting would be a movie not just with an older gay man, but by an older gay man. We need more stories obviously through gay eyes, not just a straight guy telling a story about a gay guy.” *
FILM It’s been more than 15 years since Jodie Foster sat in the director’s chair, but for a project like The Beaver, she was up to the challenge. As with her past directorial projects, Little Man Tate (1991) and Home for the Holidays (1994), Foster felt a connection to the material that inspired her to take on a larger role.
“The films that I do direct are personal films,” she reflects. “Their goals are very different from the things that I act in, and they really are about an expression of who I am and what I’ve lived.”
In this case, Foster can relate to the larger issues at hand if not the specifics. The Beaver tells the unique story of Walter Black (Mel Gibson), a clinically depressed man who struggles through his suicidal desires with the help of a beaver puppet. Walter uses the puppet — which he also voices — as a way of connecting with his family and the outside world.
“What I’ve seen as the years have gone on is that there’s a pattern of what I’m attracted to and what I take on,” Foster explains. “And it’s very much about people who are having a spiritual crisis. They have to delve through that spiritual crisis head on and hopefully emerge out on the other side as changed people.”
The Beaver requires its audience to take the journey with Walter, an occasionally unsettling experience that mimics Walter’s psyche. For Foster, it was important to stay true to the story, which meant both the comedic aspects and the devastating reality of mental illness.
“It’s a strange tone, and it’s a challenge for an audience,” she admits. “They’re either up for the challenge or they’re not, and we know that. We know the film is not for everybody … As an audience member, you have to be able to go through all those tones — start out light and then little by little, kind of discover the darkness underneath.”
The script itself walks the line between dark and light — it’s the first feature from Kyle Killen, who created the critically adored but short-lived TV series Lone Star. But Foster had her work cut out for her as she strived to maintain her vision for a film that’s an undeniably tough sell.
“That was something that we really talked about,” she recalls. “How do you make this movie entertaining in any way instead of having it just be grim and boring? That’s why there’s a fable quality to this film.”
For the same reason, Foster believes Gibson was the ideal choice for the role. As Walter, he must play both the depressed man at his wit’s end and the cheeky puppet who gets Walter through it.
“I think Mel struck just the right balance between his lightness of touch and a gruffness,” Foster says. “The Beaver is not Russell Brand in Hop. He’s got a deep, dark voice. He’s lewd. He’s tough. [Mel] can be witty and light, and he can also go to an incredibly dark place.”
But can audiences, who lack Foster’s personal relationship with Gibson, look past the man’s public troubles? In the past year alone, Gibson has faced accusations of racism and domestic violence.
Foster believes Gibson’s performance transcends any negative press he has endured. And since she has little control over what audiences will ultimately think, she chooses to focus on the positive.
“At this point I’ve kind of thrown up my hands,” Foster says. “The really good news is I got to make a movie I love. I am so genuinely grateful, and it does have its own reward.”
It’s not exactly the oldest story in the book, but with an 1847 publication date and dozens of adaptations, Jane Eyre has been done before. That presented director Cary Fukunaga, an Oakland native, with a unique challenge — making his 2011 film version of Jane Eyre (out Fri/18) different from what had been done in the past. But after his last movie, 2009’s critically acclaimed Sin Nombre, it was a project he was eager to take on.
“[Jane Eyre] was a story I knew as a kid,” he said in a recent roundtable interview. “The ’44 version Bob Stevens directed was one of my favorites. After spending six years on my last film, I really wanted to do something different in terms of scenery and style and location and even time period.”
But despite Jane Eyre’s status as 19th Century Gothic romance, Fukunaga felt it worked for a modern audience. Mia Wasikowska, who stars in the titular role, was inclined to agree.
“It kind of doesn’t need reinterpreting,” she reflected. “The popularity, as a character and a story, it hasn’t died down — it’s continued to grow, and people continue to connect to her story. If you took away all the costumes and the setting, at the heart of it is a story about a young girl trying to find love and a family, and that’s so, so much a part of what happens every day here.”
For Fukunaga, it was important to adhere closely to the novel, whose tone he believed had often been muddled in film adaptations. His Jane Eyre is consistently dark, with elements of mystery and suspense that remain even for those who know the story well.
“I wasn’t trying to make it more gothic than the novel,” he explained. “It was more that other adaptations had stayed more in the period drama sort of realm, and whenever you had elements of the story that seemed gothic or suspenseful, they seemed tonally out of the film you were watching.”
Fukunaga also split the story up in a non-linear fashion, a more modern conceit that adds to Jane Eyre’s tension and helps speed the classic romance along. With flashbacks throughout, the film reveals itself over time while engaging its viewers in a complex mystery.
“The structure was a way to turn the story into a modern tale,” Fukunaga said. “Typically these days you want to lure an audience into a story with just bits of information. Especially with our attention spans the way they are now, you don’t want to … start with just a chronological tale.”
Of course, it helps that Jane is such a timeless, relatable character. She’s more assertive than some of her literary counterparts, making independent choices that were uncommon among her contemporary women. Wasikowska fell in love with Jane when she was reading the novel for the first time, to the extent that she asked her agent to look for any upcoming Jane Eyre projects before Fukunaga’s adaptation was announced.
“What I love about her is that she has such a strong sense of self and a strong sense of who she is and what’s right and what’s wrong by her,” Wasikowska offered. “She’s not going to compromise herself for somebody else, and that’s the best thing. She’s going to make sure that before she commits herself to somebody, she’s a fulfilled individual and that she’s done everything she could to be that.”
While Fukunaga and Wasikowska reflected positively on the filming experience, it had its share of ups and downs. The tight schedule forced a lot of work in a short period of time. Meanwhile, Wasikowska had to contend with a different kind of tightness, squeezing into a corset for period realism.
“Painful. Awful. Everyone says corsets are hell, and I understand that, but until you’re really in there, it’s like a whole other thing,” she said. “They’re really helpful physically for the character. You really get a sense of the repression and the restriction.”
Fukunaga elaborated. “It basically takes your guts and squeezes them in half, and some of the guts go down and some of the guts go up,” he explained. “It’s really unhealthy.”
But the pain was worthwhile — Wasikowska’s portrayal of Jane Eyre is certain to be celebrated. Fukunaga’s interpretation as a whole is one of the story’s best cinematic adaptations. Perhaps some of the success comes from the deep understanding the director and actor had for the original novel.
When Fukunaga was asked about his interest in Jane Eyre, he rejected the common perception and offered his own analysis instead.
“For me, it’s not the bodice-ripping,” he said. “It’s more, I think, probably this kid’s journey and the person she became … Love can be all-consuming, and too often people compromise what they are in order to achieve it. And it’s the rare individual who can not do that.”
For most filmmakers, that goes without saying, but Xavier Dolan is careful to acknowledge both his talents and limitations. The 21-year-old French Canadian auteur, who wrote, directed, and starred in 2009’s I Killed My Mother, returns with the romantic farce Heartbeats. “I honestly did the film knowing that I would obviously not invent anything,” Dolan admits. “This is not revolutionary directing or writing.”
He is not, as he maintains, stupid: Dolan insists that only an ignorant filmmaker would write a story of unrequited love and label it unique. While the style of Heartbeats is very much Dolan’s creation, the film and its director are conscious of their influences.
“Everything in cinema, for me, has been done before the ’30s,” Dolan says. “And everything since has been repeated or recycled or renewed in some way. I’m not going to pretend to invent anything.”
Rather than run from the comparisons, Dolan embraces them, peppering Heartbeats with homages to the films, art, and literature that have inspired him. While the story is simple — friends Francis (Dolan) and Marie (Monia Chokri) both fall for stunning stranger Nicolas (Niels Schneider) — Dolan’s visual references give his film weight. As with his first movie, he draws from personal experience. But Heartbeats is more an amalgamation of stories than Dolan’s singular experience.
“I Killed My Mother is, like, 97 percent autobiographical,” he notes. “The three percent is just to please my mother, because she doesn’t want me to say it’s 100 percent true. Heartbeats is not as autobiographical in the sense that it’s inspired from various love stories that I have recycled for the film.”
In some ways, Heartbeats is familiar territory — and not only because Dolan once again takes on writing, directing, and acting duties. The filmmaker made sure it was different enough to show his progress but still within his sensibilities.
“I didn’t want to go over this mother-and-son-bond-thing again, so that people would say I was repeating myself,” Dolan explains. “But I still had the feeling that I had to stay close to my skin in order to interest people and not look like I was talking about shit I didn’t know.”
As for taking on multiple roles, Dolan concedes a love of creative control, but he also notes that Canadian cinema is more open to a singular vision than America’s collaborative model. Though he is quick to commend those who helped him on Heartbeats, the end result is the film he wanted to make.
Sometimes, multitasking is a matter of necessity. “It’s a pleasure for me to act,” Dolan says. “It’s my first job and my first passion, but I’m not acting anymore. People won’t employ me. I’m the only person who will give myself a job as an actor.”
In talking to Dolan, one finds a fascinating blend of humility and ego, both linked by his sincerity. The filmmaker speaks with a rare openness, an honesty that infuses his films and elevates them past typical reflections of 20-something angst. I’d argue that the success of Dolan’s efforts is thanks, in part, to his persistent self-awareness.
“People are saying that any other student could do as well with an HD cam, and yeah, sure, I guess they could,” he says. “What can I do? My goal in life is not to convince and seduce and be loved by everyone — I’m not a fascist. I just want to do my films, and if people follow, I will be pleased.”
Which is not to say Dolan suffers from a lack of pride or ambition. “I’m a very narcissistic person,” he continues, “and I think that even if everybody hated my films, I would keep doing them.” * HEARTBEATS opens Fri/18 in Bay Area theaters.
THEATER Despite widespread critical acclaim, three Tony Awards, and a Pulitzer Prize, Next to Normal is something of a tough sell.
"It’s a story about a bipolar mother and how her family deals with her disease," Curt Hansen explains, "and how it affects the kids, and how they also contribute to the disease."
Hansen plays Gabe, the seemingly perfect son of afflicted mother Diana. As one of Next to Normal‘s seven characters performed by only six actors Hansen has a pivotal role in the show.
"I can’t give everything away, but [Gabe’s] just this golden boy," Hansen offers. "Everything [his mother] wanted him to be, he became."
Meanwhile, Diana’s other child is neglected. Emma Hunton plays Natalie, the gifted, underappreciated, and frequently frustrated daughter.
"It’s such a great role for a young girl," she says. "There’s not a whole lot of that going on right now in New York, at least not currently running on Broadway."
Hunton embraces the challenges of portraying such a complex character in a multilayered piece. "I think everybody in their teens goes through that phase of ‘I’m angry at you, but I don’t have a reason to be, so I’m just going to be pissy,’ *" she says. "[Natalie’s] is actually warranted, so it’s hard to flesh out when she’s just being an annoying teenager and when she’s actually hurting."
Hansen and Hunton are relatively new additions to the cast: they join the national tour alongside Alice Ripley, who won a Tony for her portrayal of Diana on Broadway. Both actors faced a daunting challenge in taking over for the actors who originated their roles. Aaron Tveit and Jennifer Damiano received adulation and awards in their respective parts as Gabe and Natalie.
The trick, Hansen says, is to bring something unique to the role instead of trying to replicate the original.
"I was able to make it my own, and I think not having any contact with [Tveit] and finding it on my own has been a great thing," he relates. "That’s ultimately what actors want to be doing doing their own thing rather than just kind of copying."
Hunton faced an even odder challenge as an offstage friend of Damiano’s. In order to provide her own interpretation of Natalie, she made sure to audition with a blank slate. "I hadn’t seen Next to Normal before I booked the role," she says. "Once I had finally gotten the audition, I didn’t want to go in and do exactly what Jen had done."
Both actors credit Ripley with helping them ease into the show. Although the Tony winner spent months working and bonding with the original Broadway cast, she has had no trouble adapting to her current costars. Hansen and Hunton explain that her dynamic performance gives them more freedom to explore.
"She is so amazing just to watch every night on stage," Hansen says. "She’s so open and receptive of new things. Every show is different in some way, and I think she creates such a great atmosphere because she is so receptive."
He elaborates, "I feel more confident because if I do a little something different, I know that she’ll take it and go with it, rather than putting up a wall."
Devoted Next to Normal fans have also responded well to the touring cast. Hunton, who maintains an active Twitter account, hears from enthusiastic theatergoers on a regular basis.
"Sometimes it’s very overwhelming and I won’t look at what’s been [tweeted] at me," she admits. "Because they’re so, so nice, and you never want it to go to your head. If I read those every day, I’d think I was the cat’s pajamas."
She also jokes about the effect Hansen has on audiences. He’s accrued his fair share of fanboys and girls for his theater work, as well as his appearance on Nickelodeon’s Big Time Rush.
"It’s so funny," Hunton continues. "[Curt’s] applause at the end of the night is so well deserved because he’s fantastic in the show. But you always hear two or three girls who are just screaming because he’s so cute."
But it’s not just the talent (and undeniable hotness) of the cast that makes Next to Normal must-see theater. This is a stunning, unique musical the kind of show that should be appreciated for its courage to tackle heavy themes, and the success with which it does so.
It’s also a welcome departure from the revivals and film-to-theater adaptations that dominate the current Broadway scene.
"Ultimately because it is different, people are just excited that there’s a piece of theater out there that’s original," Hansen reflects. "Art in itself is something that you need to take a risk with. I know it’s scary, but because they took such a risk with Next to Normal, and because it’s such a great show, I think that people are kind of reinvigorated."
Hunton shares her cast mate’s high hopes for the future of theater, even amid the cries of "Broadway is dying!" and the incessant gossip surrounding Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark.
"I think you’ll see a lot of strong young actors. We’re already sort of going that way," Hunton says, name-checking the Green Day musical American Idiot and the increasingly popular Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson.
"Just some things that I’ve been a part of," she continues, "if it’s any indication of how the future of Broadway is going to be, it’s going to be incredible."
YEAR IN FILM Despite being a sharp, compelling look at the founding of Facebook, The Social Network paints an unrealistic picture of Mark Zuckerberg. No, really. Just ask Mark Zuckerberg.
OK, maybe he’s not the most reliable source. In the film, Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg) is an awkward, snotty outcast. By the end, he may be a billionaire, but he’s also kind of a friendless loser. Screenwriter Aaron Sorkin has made a point of saying that The Social Network‘s protagonist is not the real Zuckerberg as much as a fictional interpretation of him. But when the names, places, and events are taken from an allegedly factual account of Facebook’s development, how do you separate the truth from the cinematic flourishes?
The easy answer: you don’t. The actual Zuckerberg can contest the version of history that The Social Network presents, with Zuckerberg borrowing his idea from the Winklevoss twins (Armie Hammer) and eventually screwing over his best friend and cofounder Eduardo Saverin (Andrew Garfield). But Zuckerberg can’t change our viewing experience. He can’t — no matter how many billions he has — erase The Social Network from existence. With conflicting versions of reality, it’s up to us to pick and choose what we believe.
For those of us who have spent the last several years of our lives on Facebook — we millennials who came of age along with the Internet — separating fact from fiction is nothing new. Online social networking has long been associated with deceit. We create profiles that reflect the best version of ourselves. Sometimes we create profiles that have very little bearing on reality at all. It seems appropriate that a film about Facebook would generate a controversy over truth. Because sure, there’s a good chance the buxom blonde you’re chatting with is who she says she is — but it’s just as likely that you’ve been Catfish-ed.
Not familiar with the term? Fair enough; it’s relatively recent. Catfish refers to the film of the same name, a documentary in which filmmakers Henry Joost and Rel Schulman follow Schulman’s brother Nev through an online relationship. “Don’t let anyone tell you what it is,” the film’s poster warned. At this point, you either know or you don’t care, so I’ll throw caution to the wind (in other words, spoiler warning): Megan, the girl Nev falls for, turns out to be a complete fantasy. The mastermind behind this complex Facebook deception is Angela, a lonely less-than-knockout with a vivid imagination and access to the Internet.
The Social Network may be “the Facebook movie,” but Catfish is perhaps the best reflection of social networking that any film has yet to offer. The Social Network speaks in broad strokes and metaphors. Zukerberg can’t connect with the real people around him, so he invents a new method of interaction. Software that should, ideally, bring us all together actually pulls us apart. But Catfish pushes past the theoretical to the kind of real-life Facebook experience a fictional feature like The Social Network can’t replicate.
That is, if you believe Catfish itself to be true. As soon as the documentary was screened at the Sundance Film Festival, disbelieving critics and audience members loudly proclaimed it to be fake. I can understand the impulse to dismiss it; the story progresses with all-too-convenient twists and turns. The characters’ reactions often feel unbelievable. And the fact that the filmmakers were already documenting Nev’s life — isn’t that a little too good to be true?
I actually choose to take Catfish at face value. I’ve encountered enough Facebook trickery on my own to know that people with too much time on their hands will go to great lengths to deceive. Stranger things have happened than one underappreciated mom creating an elaborate fantasy world. But as is the case with The Social Network, I’d argue that the reality is somewhat beside the point. Our viewing experience is what counts. Our perception of these films — our interpretation of the truth — is something no one can contest.
Then what of the documentary we know to be fake? I’m Still Here, Casey Affleck’s look at Joaquin Phoenix’s foray into hip-hop, was revealed to be a hoax long after most people had already reached that conclusion. Why should we have ever believed that Phoenix had essentially lost it and given up on acting? We saw the viral video of his disastrous appearance on The Late Show With David Letterman. We read all the gossip blogs attempting to dissect Phoenix’s bizarro behavior. (“What is he on?”) But we know better than to take anything at face value. We’ve been Catfish-ed before.
“But wait!” you protest. “I thought truth wasn’t the point.” I did say that, and thanks for paying attention! Here’s the thing: fact or fiction, The Social Network and Catfish succeed as films. I’m Still Here, not so much. The Affleck-Phoenix collaboration is a failed experiment that does inspire some discussion but certainly not the kind it was aiming for. It’s a half-baked satire on Hollywood, born from the misguided notion that acting like an asshole is inherently funny. Critics and audiences didn’t reject I’m Still Here because it wasn’t true, they rejected it because it’s really, really shitty.
In a Facebook era, we are all uniquely able to choose how best to represent ourselves. These films rest on how they’ve been received, not on the questionable truth behind them. It’s about putting your best foot forward, whether that’s as whiz kid Mark Zuckerberg or Catfish’s impossible princess Megan Faccio. And let’s face it: no one wants to get poked by bearded freak show Joaquin Phoenix.
Beninese actor Djimon Hounsou has had an impressive career, appearing in a diverse range of projects and earning two Academy Award nominations (for 2002’s In America and 2006’s Blood Diamond). His latest film is Julie Taymor’s adaptation of William Shakespeare’s The Tempest, in which he plays “freckled monster” Caliban, the rightful heir to the island. I spoke to Hounsou about reinventing Shakespeare, finding sympathy for an antagonist, and sparring with Helen Mirren.
San Francisco Bay Guardian: What was your familiarity with The Tempest before you took on this role?
Djimon Hounsou: None. I had very little knowledge about Shakespeare — I’ve known about his work but to dive into his work, it’s a different story. I have tested for Julie Taymor for[her 1999 film version of] Titus Andronicus before, so that was my first recollection of working on Shakespeare. And that was it. So this time around, I was a little bit intimidated and certainly didn’t want to go the distance with it. But with a bit of trust and encouragement from my wife, I ended up going.
SFBG: What in particular attracted you to the character of Caliban?
DH: Probably his raw nature, his very primal nature of the island, his very passionate desire to get rid of Helen Mirren’s character, Prospera. And obviously the text, the layers of text.
SFBG: Do you see the character as a villain? How did you find sympathy for him?
DH: He’s definitely not a villain. He’s enduring everyone else’s dictatorship approach to the land that belonged to him. That land belonged to his mother and he was born on the island, so having Helen Mirren’s character, Prospera, come take possession and enslave me, was absolutely not acceptable. His rage was absolutely justified. His means and his desires are all absolutely humane and natural.
SFBG: There was obviously a lot of makeup involved in your portrayal of Caliban. How does that affect your performance?
DH: It affects it in a good way. Again, that’s part of the persona of the character. That is the character. So the makeup and the prosthetics and all of that, which again, was very difficult to stand in for four hours just to get the makeup applied. It was a test of your mood or your personality. But other than that, I think it enhanced the role.
SFBG: There’s also a lot of physicality involved. How physically demanding was it to play Caliban and what did you hope to capture with that physicality?
DH: It was physically difficult but I took some butoh lessons that really had more to do with the study of nature’s drama — I call it nature’s drama, life and death and all of the above. So I mean, the connection was quite vivid.
SFBG: Julie Taymor is known for these huge, spectacular productions. But what is it like working with her as an actor?
DH: She’s a director that’s hands-on and obviously lets you run with your imagination, and then she’s able to steer you to the right direction, certainly according to her vision. She has such a great understanding of Shakespeare’s world, and obviously that’s what we’re working on, so it’s a tremendous help.
SFBG: I also wanted to ask about working with Helen Mirren, because you have these dynamic scenes playing against one another.
DH: Yeah, it was wonderful. She’s extremely available as an actor. She’s very there, very giving and supportive as well. It was a beautiful experience.
SFBG: Julie Taymor is also known for putting a modern spin on the classics, and this is a reinvention of the story in some way. How do you think The Tempest will appeal to contemporary viewers who may not be familiar with the source material?
DH: I find Shakespeare to resonate through time, through generations. In that essence and having somebody with such a great passion for the work, Shakespeare’s work, like Julie Taymor. I hope people value it. It’s a human story.
SFBG: What was your tactic for approaching the Shakespearean language? Did you have to adapt to a certain way of speaking?
DH: Not for me. Not for Caliban. I hear people have a certain rhythm of speaking Shakespeare. I didn’t want to be concerned with the language necessarily. I wasn’t sold on a formatted way of approaching Shakespeare. I just went straight and it kind of works for Caliban. He only learned language not long ago. I don’t think that that applies to a character like that.
SFBG: Are there any particular Shakespearean roles you’d love to take on in the future?
DH: Maybe. Definitely it is a language in itself that has so much to offer. I think Othello is a great piece to do. There’s so many great pieces that Shakespeare has done, but as far as a colored person is concerned, to be doing Shakespeare, that’s probably the best Shakespeare to do. We’ll see.
Walt Disney was right all along: dreams do come true. That is, if you’re Zachary Levi and Mandy Moore, and your dream is to be in an animated Disney movie. Levi and Moore star as Flynn and Rapunzel in Tangled, a fresh adaptation of the fairy tale about the princess with way too much hair. While Levi admits an affinity for Aladdin, Moore was always an Ariel fan.
“For our generation, I feel like that’s what every girl wanted to be,” Moore says. “What little girl doesn’t dream of being a Disney princess?” Both actors were also thrilled to be working with noted (and Academy Award-winning) Disney composer Alan Menken. Levi expressed a lifelong devotion to 1992’s Newsies, though he’s a fan of Menken’s other work as well.
“[Working with Alan Menken] is bucket list,” Levi says. “It’s crazy, crazy bucket list. We both grew up knowing and singing all the songs to Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin.”
Moore continues, “I just found out he did Little Shop of Horrors last night, and I about lost it.”
According to the actors, one of the strangest aspects of the voiceover experience was not working directly with co-stars. While Levi and Moore did collaborate on their duet, most of their acting was done separately and pieced together after they were finished.
“We never worked with each other at all on the movie, except for the duet,” Moore notes. “That is a total testament to the directors for cobbling these performances and creating the chemistry.” In some ways, that made things easier — especially for Moore, who admits to being shy.
“There was a whole session when it was like, ‘And now you’re running from the water that’s chasing you, and now you have to jump and leap and cry and eek,’” she recalls. “I was definitely sort of like, ‘Phew, I’m glad no one’s here to see me make a fool of myself.’”
Because Levi and Moore were somewhat removed from the filmmaking process, neither was sure what Tangled would look like as a finished product. Once they did get to see it in its entirety, they were pleased by how it all came together.
“I’m a dude,” Levi says. “I really liked all the action and the comedy. I loved [the supporting characters] Maximus and Pascal — they steal the movie.”
Moore enjoys the unique perspective voiceover work affords. “It was a treat to kind of feel like a real audience member and get to participate in watching the film unfold,” she explains.
These actors are genuinely excited about their work—and who can blame them as Disney fans? They’re also two people with vivid, Mouseketeer-approved imaginations, as evidenced when they were asked where Rapunzel and Flynn would be now.
“I feel like perhaps she would be doing something involved in the beauty world, since she has so much experience with hair,” Moore suggests. “Princess is sort of the ultimate job, but perhaps that’s just something she does on the side as a hobby.”
For reformed thief Flynn, Levi has something different in mind. “I think Flynn would be in security,” he says. “He would be helping companies learn how to safeguard their goods. He’d be that guy who goes and intentionally breaks into a place and says, ‘This is what your problems are.’”
FILM Boy meets girl. Boy marries girl. Boy cheats on girl. They yell. A lot. If the story sounds familiar, it might be because you’ve seen it in any number of contemporary Italian films. That’s not to discount modern Italian cinema as a whole — for every rehashed infidelity plot, there’s a subtler treasure.
Ferzan Ozpetek is one of those original voices. With his Turkish background and queer identity, he brings a unique perspective to the table. And his best films showcase aspects of Italian culture that might otherwise go unexplored.
The San Francisco Film Society honors Ozpetek as part of its “New Italian Cinema” festival — screening his most recent movie, Loose Cannons, along with some of his past work. For those unfamiliar with Ozpetek, this is a primo opportunity to get acquainted. And if you need added incentive, he has a knack for procuring plenty of Italian eye candy.
Ozpetek’s first film, Steam: The Turkish Bath (1997), is likely his most amateur effort — and that’s to be expected. But there’s still plenty to enjoy about this surprisingly restrained drama. The porny title is a tad misleading, though Steam does establish Ozpetek as a filmmaker who can make a film sensual without baring it all. It also introduces his recurring themes of sexual awakening and culture clash. The film’s protagonist, Franceso (Alessandro Gassman), is an Italian living in Turkey — a reversal of Ozpetek’s status as a Turkish immigrant.
Ozpetek really hit his stride with 2001’s His Secret Life. While it’s not screening as part of “New Italian Cinema,” it’s certainly worth checking out. The film has a charmingly unpolished feel, with great performances from Margherita Buy and Stefano Accorsi. You might recognize them from about a dozen other recent Italian movies.
Thankfully, the festival is screening Ozpetek’s best film, Facing Windows, a drama that manages to integrate the Holocaust, forbidden gay love, and voyeurism without becoming overwrought. The script, which Ozpetek cowrote with Gianni Romoli, is tightly woven. Much credit is also due to Giovanna Mezzogiorno, a welcome presence in all her films. Yes, there are extramarital shenanigans, but the story feels fresh. And who wouldn’t concede to a dalliance with Raoul Bova?
It’s regrettably tricky to find a balanced, thoughtful queer film — much less when it’s an Italian import. That’s why it’s important to honor filmmakers, like Ozpetek, who challenge their viewers and subvert the norm.
Whether he’s all dolled up as Peaches Christ or wearing his everyday attire, Joshua Grannell is a cinematic force to be reckoned with. He turned a love of cult film into a modest empire, with a memorable drag character, a popular midnight movie series, and All About Evil, his first full-length feature film.
But back in 1998 when Grannell was working for Landmark Theatres, Midnight Mass was a tough sell. “Midnight movies had really died in San Francisco,” he recalls. “It was sort of a thing that was considered passé and relegated to the suburbs.”
To Landmark’s credit, Grannell did get the go-ahead to create Midnight Mass, which he hosted as his alter ego Peaches Christ. He screened camp classics like Showgirls (1995), Female Trouble (1974), and Beyond the Valley of the Dolls (1970). The stage show was led by Peaches, who Grannell describes as “a character born out of the world of cult movies.”
“I’m not just programming a movie,” he explains. “I’m also creating an entire environment and a whole show to go along with it.”
While Grannell still produces Midnight Mass sporadically, he no longer maintains it as a regular series. And who can blame him? He has plenty on his plate as a filmmaker, the role he’s wanted to play since childhood.
“I went through a period where I started to freak out and think, oh my God, what have I done?” he admits. “I’m best known for being a clown named after Jesus. And I was proud of that … but I really did start to think that no one was ever going to invest any money in me or my filmmaking.”
But it was his Peaches Christ fame and the popularity of Midnight Mass that gave Grannell an audience who understood and appreciated his vision. He was able to use that when he wrote and directed All About Evil, in which he also cameos — as Peaches, natch.
The film is Grannell’s ode to his idols, an homage to the schlocky gore of Herschell Gordon Lewis and the charming perversity of John Waters. It’s also an impressive achievement, the work of a filmmaker who is accomplished in his own right.
But he hasn’t let the success go to his head. As Peaches, Grannell remains a snarky fan, noting that part of her appeal is her unwavering silliness.
“Peaches is a bit of a goofball, and I certainly don’t take Peaches too seriously,” he notes. “The minute I do, go ahead and put a bullet in my head, because that would ruin everything.”
To Grannell, the fannish aspect is essential to the Peaches Christ brand. In a way, it mirrors his own passion — he’s just as excited to share the stage with his cult heroes as we are to see them.
“I’ve built a whole career centered around worshiping my idols,” Grannell says. “I’ve gotten to meet them and I’ve gotten to work with them. But even though I would say that I consider John Waters to be a friend, I don’t know that he’s a friend to me without my obsession still being there and being a fan.”
Grannell’s humility isn’t an affectation. Despite his considerable successes, he’s still driven by simple goals.
“I make crowd-pleasers,” he says. “I’m an entertainer. There’s a sort of art to what we do, certainly, and an aesthetic, but first and foremost, I get off on making people laugh or puke or scream. That’s always been the thing I’m most interested in.”
The San Francisco Film Society’s “French Cinema Now” kicks off Thurs/28 with a week of spankin’ new Gallic films. Not sure which flick to choose, budding Cahiers du Cinéma contributor? Read on for a batch of brief reviews.
Copacabana (dir. Marc Fitoussi) It feels strange to call Copacabana subtle, especially when the film’s main character Babou (Isabelle Huppert) is consistently over-the-top. But this is a slight comedy, a character study to showcase Huppert’s considerable talent. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. Copacabana depends on its strong lead, and there are few stronger than Huppert, one of the most dynamic and adaptive French actors working today. Babou is aloof and frustrating but also warm and well-intentioned. The film follows her struggle to start a new career and prove herself to her daughter Esmeralda, played by Huppert’s real-life offspring Lolita Chammah. The plot is a bit unfocused, as Babou ventures off to Belgium to sell timeshares for a suspect company. But Huppert keeps Copacabana grounded, creating an experience that’s richly rewarding albeit unconventional. While the film doesn’t delve deeply into her fraught relationship with Esmeralda, we know enough to care. Babou may be one of Huppert’s lighter characters, but that doesn’t make her any less captivating. Thurs/28, 6:45 p.m.; Fri/29, 9:30 p.m.
Rapt (dir. Lucas Belvaux) At first glance, Rapt is your traditional kidnapping drama, with wealthy industrialist Stanislas Graff (Yvan Attal) held captive for a hefty ransom — 50 million euro, to be precise. The relationship between Stan and his brutal kidnappers is interesting, but Rapt’s most engaging scenes focus on the way Stan’s family and business partners respond to his plight. This isn’t the average high-stakes crime thriller, in which the loyal wife will go to any means necessary to get her husband back. Instead, the family argues over how much to pay — they haggle for Stan’s life. And in his absence, he’s revealed to be a philanderer, a gambler, and kind of a jerk. Attal is well cast as Stan — at times, he is both sympathetic and reprehensible. But those left behind command more attention: his all-too-understanding wife Francoise (Anne Consigny) and his ambitious assistant Andre (Andre Marcon). Rapt is an impressive addition to the genre, using kidnapping to tell a story more original than what one might expect. Thurs/28, 9:30 p.m.; Mon/1, 9:15 p.m.
Irene (dir. Alain Cavalier)Irene is the definition of passion project, an incredibly personal film about director Alain Cavalier’s deceased wife. It’s a tough movie to criticize, in that Cavalier clearly poured his heart and soul into it. But Irene is, frankly, a self-indulgent mess, the kind of movie no filmmaker should be allowed to make. Cavalier talks incessantly, adopting a throaty whisper that might be intended to give him gravitas but mostly ends up grating. His love for his subject is apparent throughout, but the navel-gazing is completely unbearable. For over 80 minutes, Cavalier reads through excerpts from his diary, relives the day his wife died (nearly 40 years in the past), and obsesses over peculiar minutiae. In one of Irene’s strangest scenes, Cavalier reenacts his birth using an egg and a watermelon. The whole enterprise plays out like a French art film cliché. It’s masturbatory, yes, but far worse than that — it’s boring. Fri/29, 5 p.m.; Sat/30, 1:45 p.m.
Director Davis Guggenheim won an Academy Award for 2006’s An Inconvenient Truth. His latest film, Waiting for “Superman”, takes on the United States’ failing public education system. In some ways, the documentary represents a return to Guggenheim’s first subject. “The very first documentary I made followed first-year teachers, because I believed that teachers were the answer to our schools,” he says. “And I still believe that. Now I wanted to talk about the kids and their families, and what’s at stake for them.”
The kids and families in question are the subjects of Waiting for “Superman”, which follows five young people in search of a better education. While the scope of the film is large — covering the history and bureaucracy that has created this national epidemic — Guggenheim is careful never to stray far from the victims of the crisis.
“The really hard part about it is how complicated this issue is, and it’s hard to simplify it,” he explains. “And I wanted it to be understandable to everybody. Whenever I got lost, I would always bring it back to the kids. It’s a very simple story: five kids, all they want is to go to a great school.”
In the film, Guggenheim looks at the complex situation from several different angles. Some of his targets are predictable — budget cuts and lack of accountability. But he also focuses on areas that might be less familiar to audiences, such as the detrimental effect teacher’s unions can have on schools. While Guggenheim asserts that he is a pro-union liberal, he suggests that teacher’s unions create contracts that make it difficult to deal with many of the problems public schools face today.
“I’m a member of the Directors Guild of America,” he says. “They make sure I get paid properly. They make sure my rights are taken care of. But they don’t tell Hollywood how to make movies, and they don’t protect bad directors.” Guggenheim’s analogy is apt. These unions push for tenure, which most teachers receive automatically after two years. Once they have tenure, it’s very hard for them to be let go — even if they are performing poorly at their jobs.
“I think teachers should get even stronger and demand more pay,” Guggenheim continues. “But they should not have these contracts that keep reform from happening.” Some of the fixes Guggenheim proposes seem like no-brainers. As he points out, the drive behind Waiting for “Superman” is one most people can relate to, whether they’re parents of students directly affected by the situation, or simply compassionate people.
“What’s amazing about public education is that everyone wants great schools,” Guggenheim notes. “It’s not like you’re going to argue that. With global warming, maybe you could argue about whether it’s real or not. But in America, everyone believes in great schools.” On the other hand, we’ve become cynical. We see president after president enter the White House with the promise of education reform. And yet, as Waiting for “Superman” documents, for the most part we’re no better off than we were before. In some areas, we’re worse.
“The problem is, people over time, they give up, because they feel like it’s too complicated, or it’s impossible to fix,” Guggenheim reflects. “And I tried to make a movie to get people to start to care again, and to believe that it’s possible, and to fight so that every kid can get a great education.” Guggenheim sincerely believes in his cause — he sees the documentary as just a jumping-off point for a larger movement. And while it’s easy to feel daunted by the magnitude of the problems our nation faces, he’s confident that things can get better, provided we have the motivation.
“Change can happen really fast,” Guggenheim says. “Before World War II, we could only make a couple planes a year. When we all got excited and committed, we made a thousand planes a year.” He hopes that Waiting for “Superman” will inspire that desire for change. Guggenheim believes that it’s something we all feel, and that education may simply be something we’ve ignored for too long.
“We’ve been not wanting to deal with our schools,” he says, “and I think we could jump right in. The solutions are there.” But he’s also clear about what it takes: “We’re not gonna fix our schools unless everyone is outraged, and everyone demands that all of our schools work.”
Based on the founding of Facebook and Ben Mezrich’s book The Accidental Billionaires, The Social Network has already received rave reviews from critics. I offer no dissent: the film is unquestionably one of the year’s best. I recently spoke to three of its lead actors — Jesse Eisenberg, Andrew Garfield, and Armie Hammer — and screenwriter Aaron Sorkin.
We’re all Facebook friends now. (Lie.)
Being Mark Zuckerberg
Mark Zuckerberg may not be the villain he’s often made out to be.
“I don’t think he necessarily neglects social interaction,” Jesse Eisenberg, who plays Zuckerberg, explained. “I just think he feels alienated by it … He feels kind of uncomfortable interacting in the way he sees everyone else interacting.” But then, that’s not Zuckerberg the person: it’s Zuckerberg the character in The Social Network. In order to play the world’s youngest billionaire, Eisenberg put himself into the mindset of Sorkin’s creation. But he also did his fair share of research on the real Zuckerberg — not to imitate him, but to get a better handle on who he is.
“I read everything I could find about Mark,” Eisenberg said. “I took fencing lessons, because he’s a fencer. I had every video of him converted to mp3, so I could have him on my iPod. This was all to help me focus.”
It also helped that Eisenberg could relate to Zuckerberg, a notoriously awkward public speaker: there’s video of the Facebook founder stammering, sweating bullets, generally not making a great case for himself. For Eisenberg, a character’s neuroses are what make him worth playing.
“I assume that everybody is neurotic in some way, or everybody interesting is neurotic,” he reflected. “It seems to me, why would you want to play anyone else? What other layers would there be besides neuroses?”
In writing his version of the real-life person, Sorkin grew to care about Zuckerberg. The end result is a character who isn’t always pleasant or charming, but who does inspire sympathy. In a way, that’s how Sorkin feels about his non-fictional counterpart.
“[Zuckerberg] is awkward in public,” Sorkin said. “He knows it, because he’s been told it so many times. He doesn’t care that much about money, so I don’t think that his billions of dollars are making things that much easier for him. So I actually feel affection and respect and empathy for him.”
The Mark-Eduardo bromance The Social Network may be about the founding of Facebook, but at its heart, it’s also the story of a friendship betrayed. As in real life, Mark Zuckerberg turns his back on his best friend and co-founder Eduardo Saverin (Andrew Garfield).
“Obviously, there’s a massive betrayal, and within that betrayal [Eduardo] loses his innocence and realizes that you never know someone,” Garfield said. “You never fully know someone. The only person you’ll ever know is yourself and even then, you won’t really know yourself.”
There’s no hint that Zuckerberg and Saverin were ever more than friends — though that would make for an interesting movie, too. At the same time, Garfield likened the betrayal his character experiences to a break-up. During the interview, he reflected on a time he’d been dumped out of the blue — and the pain that followed. “You know that confusion you have when you’re broken up with, and you have no idea why?” he asked. “You haven’t been told clearly why, because that person’s protecting you.”
Garfield was reluctant to identify his character as “too trusting,” because he views trust as a positive quality. But Eduardo does have an honor system and moral code that make Mark’s betrayal all the more hurtful. “To me, it wasn’t about the money,” Garfield said, referring to Saverin’s $600 million lawsuit against Zuckerberg. “It was about teaching Mark a lesson.”
In fact, the desired outcome Garfield imagines his character wanted is a bromantic ideal. If Mark were to realize the error of ways, perhaps he’d apologize to Eduardo, and they could repair their friendship. It might not make for a gripping ending to the film, but it would be a happier conclusion for Saverin. “I think with Mark, up until the end, [Eduardo]’s hoping at some point Mark’s going to go, ‘Look, I’m really, really sorry, man. I really messed up. I love you so much, and I just was jealous of you for this. And I acted out like this. Can we be friends again? I’ll give you back as much money as you want. Let’s move in together and we’ll play basketball every day, and we’ll cuddle at night and watch reality TV.’ Part of Eduardo in those depositions is just waiting for that moment.”
Isn’t it bromantic?
Taking sides It was important for Sorkin that his script not take a side. Instead, it presents the story of Facebook’s founding from three different perspectives: those of Zuckerberg, Saverin, and the also-involved-at-square-one Winklevoss twins. Meanwhile, director David Fincher made sure that all the actors believed their characters: they all tell what they believe to be the truth. “Every time we did a scene, even if it was part of Eduardo’s telling of the story, David Fincher would come up to me between each take and say, ‘You know you’re right in this scene. You’re the right one,’” Eisenberg reflected. “And then he’d go up to Andrew Garfield, and say, ‘You’re right in this scene.’ So we all thought we were right.”
Playing twins Cameron and Tyler Winklevoss (with help from body double Josh Pence), Armie Hammer had to maintain sympathy for both and project that to the audience. “With these twins, when you look at them on paper, they’re tall, athletic, good-looking guys who go to Harvard,” he noted. “They have a lot of things going for them that would make a lot of people in the audience go, ‘I don’t like these guys. They suck.’”
But Hammer planted himself firmly in their mindset. As is the case with Saverin, the Winklevosses aren’t necessarily interested in the money they’d receive from their lawsuit against Zuckerberg — it’s really about principle. These are characters of honor, and they were wronged. No matter how wealthy or dashing they are, Hammer insisted to himself that they deserved justice. “When we shot this, I had to side completely with them, just to bring truth to it,” he explained. “I had to say, yes, these guys did invent Facebook, and yes, Mark Zuckerberg stole it from them.”
Sorkin’s script is purposely ambiguous. While he was researching the story behind Facebook’s founding — along with The Accidental Billionaires author Mezrich — he discovered conflicting versions of the truth. His solution? Show it all, and let the audience decide for themselves.
“What we came away with was three very different versions of a story,” Sorkin said. “So instead of picking one and deciding, ‘Well, I think that’s the truth. That’s the story I’ll tell.’ Or picking one and deciding, ‘I think that’s the juiciest. That’s the story I’ll tell.’ What I liked was that there were three different versions of the story.”
In Hammer’s mind, the authorial choice to leave it up in the air creates more of a challenge for the audience. “You are responsible for siding with the people that you recognize the most, or recognize yourself in the most,” he said.
Sorkinspeak Those familiar with Sorkin’s work (The West Wing, Sports Night) know that his dialogue has a distinct sound. He considers himself a playwright, which might explain the fast-paced back-and-forth that dominates his scripts. The Social Network had a Sorkin sound that Eisenberg immediately clung to.
“When I had the audition for the movie, I made a little tape to send to them in Los Angeles,” he recalled. “They said, ‘This scene is ten pages but please try to do it in five.’ ‘Cause I guess what they were getting were these kind of indulgent moments that people are used to doing in movies, whereas it was immediately evident to me how it should be read.”
All the actors I interviewed gushed over Sorkin’s novel-length script. For Garfield, it was essential to treat the script as the Bible — though that’s not the case for every film. He worked hard to get into character as Eduardo, adopting characteristics that were foreign to him. That it was a matter of letting the script work its magic. “The rhythm of Sorkinian language — you just don’t get in the way of it,” he noted. “An actor wants to put his own mark on something, but that’s your ego and you don’t need that. So you just try to not get in the way of these beautiful sequences of thoughts that have been expressed so deftly and seeped with subtext.”
Sorkin wasn’t quite so effusive about his own work, but he was willing to talk about his process. As he said, creating a fictional version of Mark Zuckerberg helped Sorkin find affection for the real person. But even before that, he knew it was important not to make him too black-and-white.
“When you’re writing an antihero, what I try to do with a character like that, is write it as if they are making their case to God why they should be allowed into heaven,” Sorkin said. He made the comparison to Jack Nicholson’s iconic “you can’t handle the truth!” speech from the Sorkin-penned A Few Good Men (1992).
“You can’t have them twirl their mustache,” he continued. “You can’t think they’re a bad guy — you just have to put obstacles in front of them.”
As for the rhythm of the dialogue — “Sorkinian language,” as Garfield calls it, or “Sorkinspeak” — the writer admits a heavy theatrical influence. He said it began at a young age when his parents took him to plays that were above his age level, like Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? “I wouldn’t understand the story that was going on, but I loved the sound of the dialogue,” Sorkin remembered. “It sounded like music to me, and I really wanted to imitate that sound — just words crashing into each other, and speeches. It follows the same patterns as the movements of a symphony.”
In replicating that sound, Sorkin’s script carried the actors where they needed to go. “It’s all there in the script,” Garfield said. “All you have to do is be truthful in that situation and allow the thoughts to turn into words, and the words to turn into an action.”
The Facebook The Social Network has been widely referred to as “the Facebook movie,” but its cast and crew insist that such a designation is misleading. “Sports Night wasn’t about sports,” Sorkin said. “[The Social Network]isn’t about people friending and poking people and falling in love on the internet. Maybe I just give things the wrong title.”
We did speak about Facebook extensively during our interviews. How could we not? With 500 million users, the site has become a part of daily life. It’s hard to know how we functioned before it. Even Eisenberg, who is not on Facebook himself, understands the sentiment. “In the movie, [Mark] kind of sees this void online,” he noted. “We look at Facebook now in retrospect, like, ‘How could this not have existed?’ That’s how Mark viewed it.”
Sorkin isn’t on Facebook either, though he and Eisenberg both set up accounts while they were filming. While he acknowledged that part of his hesitation comes from a generational divide, Sorkin was upfront about his negative perception of the site. And no, it has nothing to do with Zuckerberg himself. “For a device that’s supposed to make us better connected and bring us closer together, I feel like it’s doing the opposite,” Sorkin opined. “I feel like social networking is to socializing what reality TV is to reality. In a way we’re performing for each other.”
Hammer shared a similar point of view. He mentioned negative experiences on Facebook in the past, though he was smart enough not to elaborate. “The dark side of Facebook is it turns these people into voyeurs,” he said. “And if not voyeurs, then even worse, it turns them into narcissists, where they think that they’ve put themselves on the cover of their own Rolling Stone.”
When one door closes another opens: as summer comes to an end, Good Vibrations gives us something to ensure that warm sensation continues — porn.
Yes, it’s that time of year again. On Sept. 23, the Castro Theatre opens its doors to the Good Vibrations Indie Erotic Film Festival’s short film festival competition, after a lead-up week of diverse, sex-positive programming at various venues. The annual contest, now in its fifth year, offers filmmakers the chance to share their unique erotic visions on the big screen.
“As heavily censored as film and TV are today, it’s important to have a safe outlet,” says Steffan Schulz, who is screening his film Lorelei. “More importantly, and specifically to an erotic festival, the Puritan mentality that dominates American society today is really kind of hypocritical.”
The short films vary wildly in terms of gender, sexuality, and explicitness. While Schulz’s Lorelei is more sensual than hardcore, Maxine Holloway and Lex Sloan’s Outlaw is a bit more raw: the titular character is a nine-and-three-quarters-inch dildo.
“When casting, it was important for us to represent the queer community and show a diverse selection of sexualities and bodies,” Holloway and Sloan explain in a jointly-written e-mail. “Which mostly entailed Maxine making a list of people she really wanted to fuck or make-out with and then asking nicely.”
For most of the filmmakers, who range from local to international, these movies are a response to the limited scope of the mainstream porn industry. That means looking at groups who are too often sidelined and approaching erotica from a different perspective.
Spanish filmmaker Erika Lust is screening her fetish film Handcuffs, which she hopes will help open minds.
“Primarily I thought that practice of dominance and submission might still be kind of a taboo for most women,” she says. “In general, I would like to see more of a female view … until it seeps into the mainstream that women are not only there to provide something for the male gaze.”
It’s significant that so many of the films shown at the IXFF delve into realistic portrayals of female sexuality. After all, the porn industry has long been derided as degrading to women — or at least a dangerous perpetuator of the fake female orgasm. Humor is another area several of the filmmakers identified as sorely lacking from mainstream porn. Allegra Hirschman, who also competed last year, is showing T4-2, a film inspired by 1960s and ’70s sitcoms. Naturally, there’s a sexual twist, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t funny.
“Sometimes erotica is so serious it can become somber,” Hirschman notes. “We think adding some hilarity can help erotica remain relatable. It can be playful and still retain its erotic power.”
On a broader scale, the festival speaks to Good Vibes’ sex-positive vision. It’s all part of an exciting effort to celebrate and redefine erotica. Those who have attended in the past know that the films step into uncharted territory more often than not — sometimes even rendering co-MCs Dr. Carol Queen and Peaches Christ temporarily speechless.
“It is always riveting to see people getting sexy outside the lines and being turned on by something you didn’t know moved you,” Holloway and Sloan point out. “And to be really specific, we also would like to see more sex in cars, vajazzling, sex scenes with food, 1960s hairdos, ponytail butt plugs, and humor in our erotica.”
Seems like a lot to cram into one film. But hey, there’s always next year. (Louis Peitzman)
Do not read this interview before seeing Catfish. I say that for a few reasons: 1. It’s mildly spoilery. 2. Some of it doesn’t make sense out of context. 3. I really want you to see Catfish. The documentary — or reality thriller, as it’s been called — follows filmmakers Rel Schulman and Henry Joost as they film Rel’s brother Nev’s online relationship. It’s a unique and contentious experience that I was still mulling over when I sat down with the documentarians and their subject. Here’s a transcript of our interview, minus some digressions about Saturday Night Live in the 80s and my attempts at Facebook stalkage.
San Francisco Bay Guardian: When did you realize you were making the movie that you made?
Henry Joost: When we discovered the songs — that scene. We just turned to each other and were like, “OK, we should probably not stop rolling for the next however long this takes.” Rel Schulman: Yeah, we sort of just were swimming in the story very innocently up until that point, just trusting the fact that Nev was somehow engaging, and that he’d always been, and that we’d always filmed him and we film each other all the time. Something was happening and it felt like it might go somewhere, but we had no idea where. Nev Schulman: And also, I have a history in my own life of — to a fault, sort of — pursuing things headstrong, without much consideration, just sort of going for it. And Rel’s observed those many situations where I’ve ended up getting hurt or in trouble or whatever it is, and I think always just sort of regretted not filming them. So he was like, “Henry, if it’s Nev, it’s probably going to get interesting. Let’s film it.”
SFBG: There’s a lot of secrecy surrounding Catfish, particularly with the ad campaign. Why do you feel like that’s important to how people view the film?
HJ: We feel like we want the audience to have the same experience we had, and we didn’t know what we were getting into, so it’s important that the audience doesn’t know what they’re getting into either in order to have the same reactions we had. RS: It’s a really unusual movie. It doesn’t fit into any typical categories. We can’t compare it to anything we’ve ever seen before. And I think, when people start boxing movies and categorizing them into genres, you start expecting something. And this movie is not what you expect. The experience is not what we expected.
SFBG: The film has been called a “reality thriller.” What’s your response to that? Would you agree with it?
RS: Sure. I also agree with the word “documentary,” but apparently that’s a poisonous word at the box office. HJ: I’ve never been aware of any other reality thrillers, so if we’re starting a new genre, then, sure. NS: People are drawing the connection a lot to other documentary thrillers that aren’t real. And there have been a lot of those. Blair Watch sort of started the whole thing. Paranormal Activity. District 9, to some extent. That is certainly a very popular style now. The only difference is this is actually a real reality thriller. HJ: And I would say the studio wants those comparisons. And we trust them.
SFBG: There’s already debate about authenticity. Does it matter to you if people understand Catfish to be truth?
HJ: It’s funny, because at screenings, it doesn’t come up that often. But it comes up in almost every interview. I’m not really sure why that is. But at Sundance, it kind of caught us off-guard. Someone asked a question at a Q&A. They said, “I thought this was a great movie, but I think it’s a fake documentary.” And the wind was taken out of our sails. We got kind of upset and a little defensive. You know, it’s strange to know how to react to that, when you have a real experience, and then someone says, “I don’t believe you.” NS: I think also something to consider, now that we’ve sort of joking about it to some extent, for them to have written this movie would have been an unbelievably amazing accomplishment. To get into the details of this family and where we were in Michigan and even down to the snaggletooth on the pet dog they have at their house, you can’t write that. How do you possibly come up with something like that? Truth is just stranger than fiction. And we understand that the coincidence involved and the pieces of the puzzle that had to sort of fall into place, is crazy. That I had this experience, share an office with these guys, we’re filmmakers, Rel always sort of tends to film me — it’s crazy that it happened, and it’s hard to believe. But it’s real.
SFBG: What was the process in terms of getting permission to use everything you filmed of this family? Were they aware of the movie you were making while you were filming?
RS: Well, we didn’t know either. At the point where we knew what we were doing, which was basically when we got there, we very clearly — we came out to Angela, and just asked her: “We’ve been filming all along on Nev’s side of the story, not knowing where it’s going to go. Turns out it went here. We’d like to hear your side of the story.” HJ: We wouldn’t have made the movie if we didn’t have her consent, or their consent. RS: We wouldn’t have wanted to, or been able to. And now they’re all supporters of the film.
SFBG: Catfish did really well at Sundance, and it’s continuing to build up a lot of buzz. How have your lives changed since it first premiered?
NS: Well, for me, I feel like in a weird way I’m kind of right back where I started. Except now the stakes are a little higher and the opportunities are better. I’ve got a lot of great choices to make, and I’m very excited about where this will lead. I’ve just got a whole new sort of fresh start on what I’d like to do in my strange quarter-life crisis of not knowing what to do. RS: That’s what started the movie in the first place, is that he was wookin’ pa nub. And she was wookin’ pa him. We’re all still together pretty much every day. We have the same office, similar lifestyle, but now we’ve got a couple new friends in H-Wood. I think maybe making our next movie might be — not necessarily easier. Opportunity is really the only thing that’s changed so far.
SFBG: What about your opinion of social networking?
RS: Because of time, I think it’s changed. Besides the fact that we made this movie and had this experience, over the last two years, everyone’s opinion of social networking has changed. From 2008 to 2010, the Facebook monster has gotten bigger and bigger and more powerful and more scary and more controlling, with or without Catfish. HJ: Although I feel like you can’t blame Facebook for it. That’s like blaming the city of San Francisco for what people do in it. It’s just an infrastructure. It’s really the people who use it and how they use it that you should get upset about. NS: Yeah. I mean, if people didn’t want a feature in Facebook, it just wouldn’t be there.
SFBG: What was interesting to me is that when the internet started, it was way more anonymous — you didn’t know whom you were chatting with. And now people have this idea that if you can see their picture, and you can see their friends and family, you know exactly who they are.
RS: Yeah, I see what you’re getting at, and you’re dead right. The three of us have become more suspicious of social networking and certainly less naïve. But at the same time, we try really hard to remain open-minded about meeting new people, meeting strangers and new experiences online. Because it’s such a huge democratic playground that anything could happen. For that reason, you’ve gotta be careful, but for the very same reason, anything could happen and might be the next best thing.
SFBG: What about changes to how you approach filmmaking? Just because Catfish is such a unique documentary.
RS: We had immediate access to our subject in this movie. He was right under our noses the whole time and willing to be filmed from close quarters at any moment in the day. I don’t know how we’re going to find that again, so we’re not going to force it. So we might just let the next doc find us, and in the meantime, tackle a narrative script.
SFBG: Nev, what is it like for you to watch Catfish now? Has enough time passed that you don’t feel awkward or uncomfortable viewing it?
NS: I’ve always kind of enjoyed it, because the experience was sort of such a blur for me, I kind of get to relive it every time I watch it. It was really hard at first, because when we came back from Michigan, I kind of got back together with my ex-girlfriend, and ended up becoming very seriously involved with her. She obviously didn’t really like watching the movie, because it was about the girl I kind of fell in love with in-between our relationship. So that was a huge hurdle to get over. I don’t know — that doesn’t really have any pertinence to the article. But yeah, there have been times when I’ve hated watching it and I’m just sick of it, but right now, I’m kind of into it. I’m excited. They had to kind of drag me out of a screening the other day. I was like, “I want to watch! What happens?”
SFBG: I mean, you say it’s not pertinent, but it’s a really personal film. You’re all very actively involved with it, and you’re all on screen the entire time. I think it’s different in that way.
RS: I’m pretty nervous about the whole country seeing it, and not just judging it as a movie — because it feels like less of a movie than it is just our lives and our experience. There’s no shield. There’s no protection that like, this is a script we wrote and actors we hired to portray our thoughts. It’s just us. And mostly him [Nev]. I just kind of have my fingers crossed that people like us. NS: It hurts when I see blogs or message boards with people who have negative comments. It’s hard. It sucks. I can imagine making a film as a director and then saying, “Well, they don’t get it,” or, “OK, sure, they don’t like it, but whatever.” But when someone says they think that we exploited them, or they think that we’re frauds and liars, that’s them calling me a liar. That’s like, yikes. HJ: Yeah, and saying that we made it up is implying the worst about us.
SFBG: But also flattering!
HJ: Also flattering in a strange way. But it’s just not our style. NS: We’re nice guys. RS: [laughs] You can’t say that. That’s going to make people think you’re not a nice guy.
Let me tell you what I think about when I think about Carol Channing: “Jam tomorrow, jam yesterday, but never, ever, ever jam today.” And then she turns herself into a sheep.
That’s not a fever dream: it’s one of the more absurd scenes from the 1985 TV movie Through the Looking Glass, featuring Channing as the batty White Queen. Channing’s 60-year career spans film, television, and theater — she’s probably best known for her iconic roles in Broadway shows Hello, Dolly! and Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. And yet, in my mind, she’s waving her arms wildly and ranting nonsense at poor Alice.
In a way, that’s fair. It’s difficult to get a handle on Channing. I don’t think she could do it herself.
“I haven’t the slightest idea,” she said when I asked about the longevity and diversity of her career. “We’re all surprised at everything that happens to us.”
At nearly 90, Channing continues to perform. She’ll be in San Francisco for the Richmond/Ermet AIDS Foundation’s 16th annual Help is On the Way benefit concert. AIDS relief is one of Channing’s longest-running causes, inspired by a longtime friendship with the queer community.
“Way back in 1950, I don’t know what, we opened in San Francisco with Gentlemen Prefer Blondes,” she recalled. “They tell me there wasn’t a blonde wig left in San Francisco. They all came dressed as me.”
And because of her pioneering work, the gay community has continued to support her. Well, that and her status as Broadway legend: it kind of goes with the territory. Until talking to her, however, I had no idea about the politics of being a gay icon.
“They made me their queen, for life,” Channing explained. “The empress is only for three years — but they made me their queen.”
I didn’t have the nerve to ask where Liza Minnelli and Barbra Streisand fit into this hierarchy for fear I’d stir up tension and incite a coup. But Channing is more concerned with her current cause, the Carol Channing and Harry Kullijian Foundation for the Arts, which seeks to preserve arts education to keep kids in school.
“This is a crisis now in our country,” Channing lamented. “Not everybody gets it.”
Luckily, she laid it out for me: “Each of us sees the world differently. All the artist does is recreate what was already created, but as they see it. And once you start expressing how you see the world, it opens up the brain.”
Writer-director Lisa Cholodenko earned attention with critically acclaimed features like High Art (1998) and Laurel Canyon (2002). Her latest movie, The Kids Are All Right, is a “personal film” about a lesbian couple raising teenagers. I spoke to Cholodenko about queer politics, explicit content, and keeping things lighthearted.
San Francisco Bay Guardian: Recently, there was a lot of controversy surrounding a Newsweek article, in which the author wrote about the difficulty of queer actors playing straight roles. I was wondering about your take on that, and on the opposite — straight actors playing queer roles. Is that something you even considered when casting?
Lisa Cholodenko: I’ll be honest, I was just told about this article and I didn’t read it. You know, I think it’s kind of weird thing to even discuss in a way, to me. Chiefly because I think actors’ personal lives — I just think people should have a private life, not that they should be in the closet, but that there should be a separation between professional life and personal life. And if a director feels like so-and-so, whether they’re gay or straight, would be good for a role, give them the role. What does it matter? As it turns out, I think gay people have more of an affect, whether they’re lesbians or gay men, that’s harder to camouflage in straight roles. Why that is, I mean, you could talk about that. I think it’s easier to go the other way. That’s just what it is. I say that without a value judgment. It is what it is.
SFBG: The Kids Are All Right has a same-sex relationship, of course, but it also has a fair amount of graphic sex and even a snippet of hardcore gay porn. Do you think it will shock a mainstream audience? Are they ready for it, and does that matter?
LC: I think it’s shocking in a sense that it’s portrayed in such a real way, that it’s not super arch, or it’s not like The L Word. This stuff has been on TV and in films. In a way, I’m not inventing the wheel at all. But I think the package that it’s coming in is going to be disarming to people. I think we tried and I think we were somewhat successful in making it so that you don’t realize exactly what you’re watching, the subversiveness of what you’re seeing. You can settle into watching it without that kind of discomfort of being super aware of, “This is something I’m not. I’m other and this is not my thing.” I think we figured out a way for people to enter it, and that was really important for us.
SFBG: I ask because I do feel like this shouldn’t be a big deal, that people should be able to handle it. And yet, the night before I saw your movie, I saw Sex and the City 2, in which there was a gay wedding. And as soon as the two men kissed, the camera cut away. There’s a lot of intimacy between Nic and Jules in the movie, so I was wondering particularly about that. Are people outside of San Francisco going to be apprehensive?
LC: Yeah. You know, I think we didn’t really know. I think we tried to write it and I tried to direct it in a way that the humor would be disarming enough, and the images themselves, if you really deconstruct it, would be tame enough. So it was more the suggestion of it. That would be the kind of twist. The people in the know would get it more than the people that were not in the know, maybe. I think we hoped that it would have a mainstream appeal to it, and that we could get beyond the people who would be apprehensive. There were questions about the gay porn and about how much sexuality we were showing, but we felt like, this is the fun of the film. It’s not going to be Spider-man 12 or something. It’s not going to be a multiplex film. But we hope it’s not going to be super rarefied art house film. So in terms of the Sex and the City thing, I think that they’re looking to go as wide as humanly possible, to every grandmother to every neck of whatever, so you can only take it so far.
SFBG: I want to touch on the humor that you mentioned, because I think it’s one of the movie’s real strong points. It’s so funny. What was your approach when you were co-writing to keeping the drama of the story but still making it fun?
LC: It was like a process, it was a real evolution. We had sort of a plot, a conceit for how the plot comes together, which was this thing about the kind of doofus friend wanting to watch the DVDs, and finding the porn, and blah, blah, blah, blah. So that all was funny, and then the kind of awkward conversation about trying to tiptoe around trying to figure out if their kid was gay, and that they would even care that the kid is gay, and how ironic that two gay moms are going to care that there kid is gay. And all that stuff. So it made us laugh, but there was a lot of other stuff in there that we took a lot more seriously and played a lot more seriously. I think as we went deeper into the drafts and moved along in the evolution of getting the film done, I really, really, really pushed for us to take whatever was potentially funny in there and just kick it up a notch. Stuart [Blumberg, who co-wrote the film] is a really funny guy — we have a similar sensibility. The same kind of stuff makes us laugh. So we knew if we were sitting there writing it and laughing, it was good. We had kind of gotten there.
SFBG: I think a lot of the humor comes from the fact that the film is so real and grounded. You have Laser, a 15-year-old boy, who talks like a 15-year-old boy, and that’s something we don’t always see in movies. And so it’s not stereotypical or preachy—it feels more organic than that.
LC: Yeah, we were really passionate about making it not politically correct and not sanctimonious and not super earnest and just hoping that there would be heart in it, simply because these were sympathetic and three-dimensional characters in a difficult situation.
SFBG: I wanted to ask about the character of Nic [played by Annette Bening], who could have been played very typically butch, because she has a masculine name and short hair and these traditionally “male” qualities. In terms of the writing and the directing, how did you make sure there was more complexity there?
LC: You know, I think that wasn’t super overdetermined. It’s really just kind of my worldview. I don’t live in a world where people are super stratified. I don’t feel like my partner and I are super — I kind of see the butch and femme in every lesbian I know. I know that there are lesbians who really kind of identify with that, and that’s there thing in the world, and that’s good. But it’s a personal film, so it’s written from my worldview. So there’s that, and then there’s also, you get Annette Bening and you get Julianne Moore, and they come with their own essence and personality. Julianne Moore has some butch in her and Annette Bening has some femme in her. They are who they are.
SFBG: There’s a great conversation early on in the film about the spectrum of sexuality and how it’s not so easily defined, which ties into Jules sleeping with a man. Were you concerned about an audience’s reaction to a lesbian having sex with a straight guy?
LC: I mean, it was a concern for me, but I felt like, you know what, oh well. I might be nailing the coffin. It might just be a bad choice. But in essence, the whole plot of the film revolves around that, so it was either, ditch the film or run with it and try to make it feel earned and interesting and viable and what not. In the early drafts I would show people — and when I started getting feedback in the early drafts, and “This is good,” I stopped being so uptight about that and just let myself kind of take it to the next place.
SFBG: It wasn’t an issue for me, but I think for a lot of people, they expect more rigid definitions. We don’t see a lot of queer characters on screen, and so when we do, many want them to be perfect: the queer voice, the lesbian, the gay man. And when they step outside those boundaries, suddenly it becomes an issue, politically.
LC: The calculated thing was that, I thought, a) I identify with this. This is something that I feel like, that makes sense to me. That makes sense to people I know. That makes sense to whatever. So it didn’t feel like some weird kind of conceit that I came up with that was like, that never happens. All lesbians are rigidly this and don’t go over that boundary. Because we know that’s not true. So there was that, and then I thought, I like this set-up and I like this plot, and also I feel like, it’s kind of an interesting intermingling of straight and gay. I felt like, if I really want this to be a mainstream film, that’s good. This is really inclusive of gay and straight, and I like that. I like that personally and I like that for this film. I was much more interested in reaching out to the male population than I was concerned about alienating a sector of the lesbian population.
SFBG: I wanted to talk about the title, The Kids Are All Right, and that focus on the children. How did the title come about? How do you feel about the role the kids play, and why is that central to the film?
LC: The film is about, you know, these women and their experience making a family. The family. The man who comes in and wants to be part of the family. Really when you’re talking about the family, it’s about the life of the kids. So it’s sort of an ironic title, in the sense that the kids are kind of doing better than the moms, in a way. And it’s also a kind of a wink to the notion that gay people can’t raise healthy, psychologically healthy children. Like, the kids are fine. Don’t worry about them. They’re just right.
SFBG: You talked a bit about what Annette Bening and Julianne Moore brought to the film, but I was wondering if you could elaborate on casting.
LC: Julianne was someone I had probably 10 years ago, just at some function somewhere. We had spoken about wanting to work together at some point. She was a fan of the first film that I made, High Art, and I was always a fan of hers, particularly in Boogie Nights (1997). So when Stuart and I wrote this, we asked ourselves several times, could Julianne play this part or that part? We were sort of on the fence. We thought she could play either part. So I sent it to her and I said, “Which part would you like to play?” And she picked Jules. Which, we weren’t surprised. We knew she’d want to play that part, but I thought I’d offer her the other one if she wanted it. And that was great.
Then finding her counterpart, the Nic character, was more difficult. It was kind of vexing. I just didn’t know what actor in that age group who had great acting chops, who was funny and dramatic and sexy, could be a good match for her. But when I stumbled on the idea of Annette Bening, I kind of got rabid about it. OK, this is it, this is the only person who can do it. So come hell or high water, she’s gonna do it.
SFBG: And then in terms of the younger actors — you don’t always see teenagers who actually look like teenagers.
LC: Well, they’re pretty close to the ages they’re supposed to play. Mia [Wasikowska] was like 19 at the time, and Josh [Hutcherson] was maybe 16, going on 17. So they were pretty close. Mia was someone that I had seen on an HBO series called In Treatment and thought she was interesting. I liked that she was Australian, not a typical American young actor, from LA or New York and wouldn’t have that baggage or affect that you might find in a lot of young actors from here. And he — I didn’t know his work, but I knew that he had done a lot of work. I was told he was an up-and-coming actor, so I was open to meeting him as well as other people, but when he came in and did the scene, it was just one of those things where you go like, “Oh, yeah.” I thought maybe Laser would be more of a Paul Dano-type kid, a little bit more twee, but when I saw him, I thought, oh, that’s good. He should be more boyish and more kind of robust, and just like a dude. I like that.
SFBG: There’s a lot of subtlety in The Kids Are All Right. I liked Nic’s drinking, which was fairly underplayed but came up several times. What was the thought process behind that? Does she have a drinking problem, or is that just the manifestation of the turmoil going on in her family?
LC: I think we felt like, oh, you know what? She’s kind of borderline. She’s a little bit of a lush. She’s kind of leaning on the wine too much, and this has become a thing and the other partner is now noticing. She’s drinking too much and she’s a stress case and she’s not dealing with it very well. She doesn’t have a good off valve. I think we tried to design it in a way that it felt like, this is something that’s coming to a head in their relationship. One partner’s seeing a behavior that’s making her concerned and the other one doesn’t want to deal with it yet, and she’s boozing it up.
SFBG: It’s also interesting because it’s easy to label Nic the control freak. But here’s Nic, who can’t control her drinking, and Jules, the free spirit, trying to get her to keep it in line.
LC: Right, right, right. Well, I felt like everybody has their ironies and contradictions and stuff. It’s endemic, I think, in all long-term relationships.
SFBG: There was another relationship that interested me, which was the relationship between Paul [Mark Ruffalo] and Tanya [Yaya DaCosta]. I was wondering if it was significant that it was an interracial relationship. In the sense that, 40 years ago, audiences might have been shocked by an interracial relationship, but now it plays naturally — and hopefully, the same will be true of same-sex relationships. Was that intentional, or am I reading into things too much?
LC: You know, I think it wasn’t totally consciously mediated, but at a certain point when I was thinking about casting, I had Erykah Badu in my mind for that role. I felt like, who’s the kind of person who Paul would be with? It seems like he’s the kind of guy who would be running after the most exotic person. That character to me was sort of gorgeous and exotic and whatever. And then, to go from that to Jules, who is totally exotic in her own way, because she’s who she is and she’s older and she’s beautiful and she’s a lesbian. It was this kind of motif of like, what’s exotic? The Tanya character, the black character, is clearly in love with him and would be devoted to him in a heartbeat. And the white character, who’s a lesbian and completely inaccessible, is not available at all.
I guess the second part to that question is, at a certain point when we were putting this together was, it’s not only that, in terms of the psychology of the character, but I think this is good to mix it up. You know, he’s screwing this black woman, and OK, compare that to the lesbians watching gay male porn. This is what people do in life. It’s not just white people and straight people. It’s mixed up.
FILM In many ways, The Kids Are All Right is a straightforward family dramedy: it’s about parents trying to do what’s best for their children and struggling to keep their relationship together. But it’s also a film in which Jules (Julianne Moore) goes down on Nic (Annette Bening) while they’re watching gay porn.
“I think we tried and I think we were somewhat successful in making it so that you don’t realize exactly what you’re watching, the subversiveness of what you’re seeing,” says writer-director Lisa Cholodenko (1998’s High Art). “I think we figured out a way for people to enter it, and that was really important for us.”
That blend between mainstream and queer is part of what makes The Kids Are All Right such an important — not to mention enjoyable — film. Despite presenting issues that might be contentious to large portions of the country, the movie maintains an approachability that’s often lacking in queer cinema.
“I thought it was a very classic story,” Bening says, “other than that the women are gay.”
Cholodenko and Bening were both on hand in San Francisco to promote and speak about the film. Of course, being in the gay mecca of the Bay Area skews things significantly — most locals wouldn’t bat an eye at The Kids Are All Right, which has Nic and Jules’ children inviting their biological father (“the sperm donor”) into their lives. But for those outside the liberal bubble, the idea of a nontraditional family might be more problematic. Combine that with the film’s semiexplicit sexual content and a darkly comic, matter-of-fact script, and you’ve got a tougher sell.
“There were questions about the gay porn and about how much sexuality we were showing, but we felt like this is the fun of the film,” Cholodenko reflects. “It’s not going to be a multiplex film. But we hope it’s not going to be super-rarefied art house film.”
The fun Cholodenko mentions is the real strength of The Kids Are All Right, a movie that refuses to take itself too seriously. At its best, the film is laugh-out-loud funny, handling the heaviest of issues with grace and humor.
“To me, [the humor] is so important — and it’s harder,” Bening says. “That’s why more movies don’t have it. It’s because it’s harder. It’s much easier to write in an earnest way.”
That’s not to say that the film is insincere. Much of the humor is derived from the fact that it’s grounded in reality. The characters respond to their situation as real people do — and that’s far funnier than the broad, over-the-top reactions that often plague more mainstream comedies.
“We were really passionate about making it not politically correct and not sanctimonious,” Cholodenko explains. “As we went deeper into the drafts and moved along in the evolution of getting the film done, I really, really, really pushed for us to take whatever was potentially funny in there and just kick it up a notch.”
Besides — as Bening puts it — “I think if you’re trying to make an earnest movie about a lesbian couple with teenagers, whoa, what a nightmare that would be.” It’s not a message movie, but The Kids Are All Right may still change minds. And even if it doesn’t, the film is a success that works chiefly because it isn’t heavy-handed.
“It doesn’t ever have to go out and carry the banner, which is what great movies and great stories can do,” Bening notes. “You take an individual group of people, a specific little pod of people, and you try to tell their own personal stories as specifically as possible. Hopefully you get at something true and universal by doing that.”
THE KIDS ARE ALL RIGHT opens Fri/9 in San Francisco.
“Who do you think you are, the queen of fucking England?”
That’s Joe Pesci to Helen Mirren in Love Ranch, a film that takes Mirren about as far as possible from her titular role in 2006’s The Queen. She stars as Grace Botempo, co-owner of Nevada’s first legal brothel alongside her husband, Pesci’s Charlie. The fact that the regal British dame is entirely convincing as an American madam speaks to her impressive versatility.
In fact, Love Ranch is more of a showcase for Mirren than anything else. While the movie as a whole is engaging — insofar as it’s a 1970s period piece about legalized prostitution — the plot is mostly predictable. Grace finds herself drawn to the Argentinean prize fighter her husband forces her to manage. In Bruza (Sergio Peris-Mencheta), she gets the attention and appreciation Charlie can no longer offer. In Grace, Bruza gets a woman who looks damn good at 64.
The unlikely relationship between the two is actually Love Ranch‘s weakest element. It’s clear why they’re drawn to each other, despite the age and cultural gaps between them, but the affair plays out like an indie flick cliché. From the moment Grace and Bruza meet, you sense where things are going — and that takes away most of the excitement from the eventual consummation.
Still, there’s a lot to like about Love Ranch, which should be taken as more of a character piece anyway. Aside from Mirren, who carries most of the weight, Pesci returns to form as the violent and volatile Charlie. Then there are the prostitutes, a veritable who’s who of sexy, seedy actors: Bai Ling, Taryn Manning, and Gina Gershon, who turns in her finest work since 1995’s Showgirls.
Obviously Love Ranch is in a different class than Showgirls, but there is something charmingly trashy about it regardless. Part of what makes it so enjoyable is seeing Mirren in this context, watching her get ravaged by a much younger man, break up girl-on-girl fights, and say things like, “I’ve got 25 psychotic whores to manage. That’s a full dance card.” It’s doubtful the film would be worthwhile without Mirren’s efforts. We care about Grace because of her sympathetic portrayal, but also because she’s Helen effing Mirren. And though there’s something disingenuous, perhaps even gimmicky about that, it works despite itself. We’re drawn to Grace, even when Love Ranch‘s third act proves disappointing, and that’s enough to keep watching.
While Twihards know Jackson Rathbone from his portrayal of Jasper Hale in the first three Twilights films, Nicola Peltz is a relative newcomer. But both are sure to get a burst of fame with their starring roles in M. Night Shyamalan’s The Last Airbender, an epic live-action adaptation (out Fri/2) of the animated Nickelodeon series. Rathbone and Peltz play siblings Sokka and Katara, refugees of the water tribe who join forces with Aang (that’d be the last airbender) to save the world. In talking to the actors about their filming experiences, it’s clear they’ve got the sibling rivalry thing down pat: their snarky back-and-forth dominated the conversation.
San Francisco Bay Guardian: I’ve got to start by asking you guys the obvious question, which is if you were familiar with the series Avatar: The Last Airbender before you signed on to the movie.
Nicola Peltz: Yes, I was. I actually have six brothers and a sister, and two of my younger brothers that are seven, we watch the cartoon all the time together. And when I got the role, they literally didn’t believe me. They were like, “You’re lying!” “No, I’m really not!” They’re really excited for me.
Jackson Rathbone: I knew of it, too. I hadn’t seen the entire series, but a lot of my really good friends had, so I told them I was going out for the role, and they were extremely impressed. It was nice to have my friends behind me on this one.
SFBG: How would you say the movie is different from the series, and do you think it’ll still appeal to those fans?
JR: I think it definitely will still appeal to all the hardcore fans, because the filmmakers were fans of the series themselves. [M.] Night [Shyamalan] really wanted to make the film for his daughters, who loved the series.
NP: Yeah, it was actually his daughter’s idea to make the film, because she fell in love with the series so much, and she loved the characters. And I think this movie’s so interesting because it is for all ages. It’s not like just a kids’ movie. A lot of grown-ups were into the cartoon as well.
SFBG: How are Last Airbender fans different from, say, Twilight fans?
JR: [laughs] I think with Twilight fans, there’s definitely a larger female fanbase, just based off the first two films. I think Eclipse is going to probably bring a lot more guys in. But for The Last Airbender, I find that it’s across the board. I mean, like Nikki’s just said, it’s kind of an all ages thing.
NP: It’s a family movie. You know, like some Friday nights, people go to them. It’s like the perfect movie, because everyone’s gonna love it. It’s not like the parents are going to be bored watching a kids’ movie.
JR: Yeah, it’s like the first Shrek. It’s a family film, except this is an action film so it’s going to be a lot more entertaining for everyone, because it’s really exciting. There’s all this martial arts, there’s all this special bending. It’s gorgeous.
SFBG: As a fan of the series myself, my main concern was if Appa [a “sky bison”] and Momo [a “winged lemur”] were involved in the movie. [Both appear in CG form.]
NP: Yes! Of course. It wouldn’t be a movie without Appa and Momo.
JR: You’ve gotta have those characters. They’re so much fun. My only regret is that I didn’t get to work with Momo as much.
NP: Yeah, same here. Actually, one of those scenes, I got to feed him a little peach. That was the only thing, but it was really cute.
SFBG: You’ve talked about how it’s a pretty intense action movie. How much stuntwork was involved?
NP: Yeah, there was a lot. I learned kung-fu and tai chi. I started in October last year, and then we went through the end of the movie, but we all went in February, moved to Philly and we did boot camp. We did hours and hours and hours a day, and it was so much fun. We got to do — did you do wire work? You did, right?
JR: I didn’t do wire work, because I don’t have special bending abilities. No, I just did mainly kung-fu, like hand-to-hand kind of kung-fu, and then they taught me wrestling and grappling moves. Because they wanted Sokka to be more like a young warrior, who doesn’t necessarily have the technical ability but he definitely has the heart. And a boomerang. And a really sharp wit.
NP: Oh, do you want to tell him what happened when you first tried to use your boomerang?
SFBG: Well, now I have to hear.
JR: OK, well, the boomerang’s a little bit different than the boomerang that you think of from Australia or whatever. But the shape is actually of a common, real boomerang. And so when I went to go throw it—
NP: He hit the only rock in Greenland! The only big stone in Greenland.
JR: Greenland is all rocks and ice! It’s everywhere. But I was throwing it up in an incline, it went straight up, and—
NP: It never came back.
JR: It went straight. It broke.
SFBG: But I assume your skills improved?
JR: Yeah, definitely, definitely. However, I did break like four boomerangs and three spears.
NP: Yeah, he had like six boomerangs throughout the movie.
JR: Well, that’s because I was learning to do tricks with them. I would like flip it behind my back and catch it and try to just make it as cool as possible.
NP: He would attempt, but…
SFBG: You guys definitely have this rapport down — you do seem like siblings. How did you develop that on set?
JR: Well, basically, the first day of filming, I picked Nicola up and I dunked her in a snowbank, to really get the brother and sister thing going. That’s the only reason.
NP: Oh, yeah, he was getting into character, as he tells everybody. But at the Kids’ Choice Awards, I got to slime him.
JR: Yeah, that’s called payback.
SFBG: That’s awesome. Although getting slimed is kind of a good thing. I would love to get slimed.
NP: Actually, it was fun. I tasted it.
SFBG: How was that?
NP: It was slimy.
JR: I had no choice but to taste it. So thank you.
SFBG: With all this back-and-forth, I feel like a fight is inevitable. If Sokka and Katara threw down, who would win?
NP: Come on!
JR: There’s no way Sokka would ever raise a fist to his little sister.
NP: OK, well, even if he did, I would win. Obviously. I’m a water bender! Please. He has a boomerang.
SFBG: Can you talk about what it was like working with M. Night Shyamalan?
JR: It was incredible. Being young actors, it’s one of those things, you get to work with somebody that you’ve respected and admired. He’s just an incredible artist and a really awesome, down-to-earth family guy.
NP: Yeah, he’s a really great guy. When I saw The Sixth Sense, I was like — it’s one of my favorite movies ever. And now I get to work with him, which is so much fun. Family and morals and values are really important to him, and it definitely shines in the movie. You can definitely tell. But he was so much fun to work with.
SFBG: He’s known for having a very particular mark. Does that carry over to The Last Airbender? Because this does seem very different from his past projects.
NP: Yeah, it is different. He did a lot of scary movies and this is a movie for all ages.
JR: It’s a family film. He did thrillers. With The Happening, he did his first R-rated film. And here with The Last Airbender, he’s doing his first family film. It’s an action, epic, fantasy adventure — there’s a lot of CGI. ILM did the CGI.
NP: We also went to Greenland, though. So a lot of it was real, which was really cool.
SFBG: Now you’ve probably been asked this before, but if you had to pick one bending power, what would you choose?
NP: Water! And I’m not just saying that because I’m a water bender in the movie. But water’s so interesting because it can harm you but it can also save you. It does heal people, but at the same time, there are tsunamis, which harm things. I think it’s the most interesting element.
JR: Oh, yeah, definitely. I’ve always been a big fan of Bruce Lee, and in his book, Artist of Life, he talks about how to be like water and what that means. You kind of go with the flow. Water can become strong and become like ice, and in it’s flowing form even, in hundreds of years, it’ll carve the Grand Canyon. Water’s a very powerful element. The Last Airbenderopens Fri/2 in Bay Area theaters.
Local filmmaker Scott Boswell may not have set out to make the film he ended up with, but he stands behind the finished product. The Stranger In Usstars Shortbus’ Raphael Barker as Anthony, a young man who moves from Virginia to San Francisco in order to live with his boyfriend Stephen (Scott Cox). When the relationship turns violent, Anthony finds solace in his friendship with Gavin (Adam Perez), an underage street huster. I spoke to Boswell and Barker about the film’s origins, its unique content, and what this year’s San Francisco International LGBT Film Festival says about the future of queer cinema.
San Francisco Bay Guardian: What was your inspiration for The Stranger In Us? Where did the story come from?
Scott Boswell: Ultimately the story ended up being fairly autobiographical. But it started in a different place. Originally — and Raphael knows this because we talked about it — originally, I had intended to do a much more experimental film, kind of a hybrid documentary-narrative, because of my fascination with the Polk Street, Tenderloin area, which I’ve always had since I moved here in the mid ‘90s. I had considered doing a bit of a portrait of the neighborhood, and kind of infusing actors into it, just shooting a lot of footage and seeing what we came up with. There’s a part of me that wishes I had still done that, but in all honesty, I can say that after Raphael expressed some interest in the project, I suddenly felt like it needed to be more narrative in its scope. He didn’t suggest that. It was just my intuition around the project. So I had been talking to him about doing it for months, without even having a complete script, and continued writing it and auditioning actors. Eventually it became much more traditional in terms of its narrative. It became what it is now.
SFBG: And Raphael, what brought you onto the project?
Raphael Barker: Scott. There wasn’t really a finished script and a lot of it was sort of up in the air, but I was just really comfortable with the process and how it evolved, because it was Scott. He and I just hit it off really well.
SFBG: Did you collaborate at all in terms of creating the character of Anthony or writing the script?
SB: Not so much on the script. I run a screenwriting group, here in the city. It’s a small group and we meet a couple times a month, and they had the most impact on the final script. However, there are quite a few places in the script where it suddenly says, “We’re gonna improv here.” And there are definitely scenes where the actors brought the dialog to the scene. Quite a few, actually, especially between his character and Gavin, the street kid. Largely because they had such wonderful chemistry, and I felt like I could trust them to pull it off.
SFBG: Raphael, can you talk about how the improv process was, as an actor?
RB: Scott would set up the scene and then let us go, and just see what happens. And then would make comments as necessary and readjustments. But I felt very free to just let the scene kind of take over and do its thing. I think Scott and I are just both very instinctual. Like, “That’s not how I planned it, but I kind of like it that way. Let’s play with that.” I think especially when you’re talking about Gavin, there was something almost unwritten about our relationship that was allowed to evolve through improv.
SB: Right, because there’s a piece that’s semi-autobiographical that has a place in history, and then there’s the piece that — I feel like Gavin’s character brings a newness, a sort of unfinished, still to be defined ending. There was something about the energy that really brought novelty to the script.
SFBG: You said originally you wanted to showcase this particular neighborhood in your film, and then it became more of a narrative. But it’s still a very San Francisco film. How did you go about capturing that?
SB: The main thing was choosing that location as his studio that he moves into after leaving Stephen, which actually wasn’t true to my experience. However, the person on which Stephen is most based actually lives there, so I kind of flipped it. And the character on whom Gavin is based actually hung out in the Castro, not the Tenderloin. So I flipped those around, and then because the character is so stuck and lost and wandering, he was able to go out into the street and that became the portrait of the neighborhood right there. We had spent a lot of time trying to work out just how we were going to portray that, and ultimately he’s always in the space. I actually did go out and shoot footage of the neighborhood without Raphael, and none of that is in the film.
SFBG: Anthony moves to San Francisco from Virginia, so he’s experiencing the city from an outsider’s perspective. Why did you decide to write him that way? And Raphael, how did that affect your performance?
SB: I think it’s a very common experience in San Francisco. It seems like the majority of people I meet here have migrated from somewhere else. And I think especially for gay men, when we arrive here, we don’t always quite find what we’re expecting, and especially for queer youth, which is an idea that Gavin embodies. I’m very interested in that sort of push-pull between the desire to be in the city of San Francisco and the challenges that you can face when you arrive. So I was interested in exploring that experience, and I’ve found subsequently that quite a few people — they’re almost always gay men — have come to me and said that they relate to that experience. Different generations of men, and different decades of coming here. It seems to be a continuing phenomenon in a way. In that sense, I think it’s very much a San Francisco story, even though it could probably happen in just about any urban area, especially when someone who doesn’t have experience in an urban environment suddenly arrives and is just thrown into it.
RB: I experienced something very similar coming out here to chase after someone I was pretty in love with, and then being dumped like a week and a half after moving here. And just feeling like I didn’t have that orientation anymore, and everything in the city was associated with this person. I’m sure I’ve one of millions of stories of people — with San Francisco being a kind of pilgrimage, then as soon as we get here we complain about it. But we wouldn’t want to be anywhere else, so there’s kind of that love-hate relationship with it. So I could definitely relate to coming out here to be with someone and having all that kind of expectation and hope, and then me kind of losing that central focus and orientation and realizing, “Now what?” I think that’s a theme that’s not just gay or even queer, but it seems like anyone I talk to who comes from a different place has that similar experience. They knew they needed to be out of wherever they were at, but they weren’t sure what they were exactly coming into.
SFBG: The film also deals with an abusive relationship, which is something we don’t see a lot of in queer cinema. I was wondering why you think that is, and also why you wanted to include it in your movie?
SB: I don’t know why it is, but because it is [not often seen] is one of the main reasons I wanted to include it. Hustlers and street kids appear in a lot of gay cinema — and just to go down that tangent for a second — which is why I chose to not make that character the protagonist but a supporting role. In terms of same sex domestic violence, it is an issue that permeates probably just about any community, but I have seen and heard very little about it among same sex couples. There are some things, some things written and there’s an organization in San Francisco called Community United Against Violence that works to combat and end violence. So there are resources out there, but I wanted to explore it because it’s an issue that’s personal for me, on several levels. It’s something that I’ve experienced and it’s also something that I just personally have always cared about. I volunteered to do work at battered women’s shelters in the past—this was actually in Madison, Wisconsin, long before I’d ever had any kind of experience with it. What I find really interesting is the degree to which people don’t really understand it. No one thinks they’re going to enter a relationship like that. I certainly didn’t think so. I thought I understood it.
RB: Much less something that’s so countercultural in some sense.
SB: Yes, exactly.
RB: Like, “Oh, if I can requite this kind of relationship, that’s kind of the end game.”
SB: The thing is you don’t necessarily recognize it when you’re there. People always say, many people say and have said about this film, “Why does he stay? Why doesn’t he leave?” It’s interesting that people continue to not understand that issue, because it’s clearly a very common human experience. So I guess in a sense, that question to me opens up a dialog on the issue that I find very important. I’ve been asked that a lot from people, and so far, that’s only come from the very limited number of people who have seen [the film].
SFBG: Well, without sounding like I’m trying to justify the abuse at all, these characters are complex enough that you get a sense of why they’re together. You can see how they got to that point. How did you go about creating that, and making sure they weren’t too clear cut or one-dimensional?
RB: I think to show just how much we loved each other is one way to do it.
SB: Yeah, that was important. I approached this very much as a character piece. I mean, that’s what interests me as a filmmaker and as a writer. In terms of the kind of genres I might be able to work in, I think it’s an area I probably have more of a knack for. But I think it’s true for any genre you’re working in, you have to rewrite. You have to be able to get down the ideas and the scenes on paper, and then take a look at them and be open to feedback. And assessing where it is that they’re black-and-white or flat and one-dimensional, and trying to create scenes that are more organic and layered. So that’s what we did. Once I knew what the story was, it still took me a good nine months to write the thing before we started shooting.
SFBG: One last, much broader question. How have you seen queer cinema change over the years, and what is the direction that you see it taking?
SB: In just the past few days, in the films that I’ve seen at Frameline this year, I’m very excited. I think queer cinema has gotten better and better. I have reaffirmed my understanding of the necessity of LGBT festivals, because it has definitely gone through phases. There was kind of an indie new queer cinema in the early ‘90s, when Gus Van Sant was coming on the scene, and Gregg Arraki and Todd Haynes. Then in the later ‘90s and maybe early 2000s, it kind of evolved into a lighter, more mainstream cinema, which I actually don’t relate to as much. But the best of them are actually quite good. What I’ve seen more recently, and I hope our film falls into that, is really kind of the ability to look more closely at ourselves and tell our own stories without any kind of concern about the broader mainstream appeal. I know that those kinds of films still exist. I think that independent cinema has gotten to a place where it’s not just simply seeing ourselves portrayed on screen anymore, but it has to be good cinema now.
RB: I saw a lot of films at the Frameline festival two or three years ago when the documentary about the making of Shortbus came out, and it just made me realize that the quality — instead of it being a kind of niche genre, I don’t want to say the opposite of what you’re saying, but I almost see Frameline as becoming redundant, because the films are good enough to stand on their own. They don’t have to be a genre film or a niche or a sexuality genre film. We have to keep working and working toward the specific, and then eventually the specific becomes universal. And I think that’s the beauty of the films that are starting to come out. In the Frameline context, it’s going to actually make it almost redundant because they’re just going to be good films, period. That’s what excites me, because everyone’s experience is so unique. And sure, we’re working within paradigms and categories, but I think it’s just getting better.
SB: It’s interesting looking at where these films fit in in terms of festivals and markets and things like that. I guess what I was trying to say is that I feel like Frameline still needs to be around in order for these films to get shown, because they’re not all going to fit into SF International, they’re not all going to fit into all of the big festivals. The sort of bigger queer films coming out may not need Frameline. There have been a quite a few in recent years: Bad Education, Mysterious Skin, Capote. They’re playing at the bigger festivals or getting distribution without festivals. There is sort of a distinction there. But when I see something like I Killed My Mother, which just kind of knocked me on my ass because I thought it was so brilliant, I don’t know where else I would have seen it.
IDOL WORSHIP I’m not going to say the Backstreet Boys made me gay, because no boy band — regardless of how late-1990s dreamy — can change one’s sexual orientation. But BSB did act as a barometer for gayness that helped usher me into a newfound understanding of my sexuality. When you’re 13 and you’d rather hang out with pretty boy Nick Carter than Catholic schoolgirl Britney Spears, you know something’s up.
Actually, Nick wasn’t really my favorite. I was all about sensitive older man Kevin Richardson, now exiled from the Backstreet Boys because he’s (wait for it) 38. As for the others, A.J. McLean and Howie Dorough were never on my radar, too “bad boy” and “boy next door,” respectively. Meanwhile, unofficial frontman Brian Littrell was super enthused by his born again status, which even at a young age I found less than thrilling.
But I digress. Boy bands were everywhere when I was in middle school, and your response to the invasion was key to your social standing. If you were a girl, you were required to pick a favorite and run with it. If you were a boy, you had to act disdainful and dismiss them all as homos. If you were, well, me, you secretly knew all the lyrics, did your best to act like you didn’t, and got called a “fag” anyway because a couple assholes totally heard you humming “As Long As You Love Me” during PE class.
I didn’t know I was gay when I was 13, but I knew I was different. I spent a good amount of time trying desperately to fit in, which meant denying my interest in bubblegum pop and focusing on more respectable pop punk, like Green Day and the Offspring. (Objectively, Green Day is far queerer than BSB. But who knew?) I distinctly remember a day in English class when my friends (who were girls) looked over a picture of the Backstreet Boys and picked out the cutest. I didn’t say anything, but my mind was blaring, “KEVIN, KEVIN, KEVIN” while I bit my tongue.
Times have changed. The boy band craze fizzled, I came out, and an ironic appreciation of kitsch became increasingly popular. I can now say that I’m excited to see the Backstreet Boys in concert without a hint of shame or fear. (“That is so gay.” Yes, exactly.) Fuck it — I can be proud. Isn’t that what this month is all about? When I hear “I Want It That Way” at the Warfield, I’ll be able to belt it, surrounded by a slew of former teenage outcasts doing the same. Sing out, Louise: “No matter the distance, I want you to know, that deep down inside of me … ”