Last month marked the slow burning crescendo of two very popular awards shows: MTV’s Video Music Awards and the 66th Annual Primetime Emmy Awards. Lost inside the imagination of every sought-after fashion designer, the red carpets shimmered. The stars aligned and realigned with cameras flashing, and words from the victorious seemed just a little more relevant as they each collected their prize. But what’s often missing from those words is an advocacy for the acceptance of one’s humanity, which- despite what shows up at the microphone, includes fear and self-doubt. It’s the thread that connects every artist, yet so few are brave enough to discuss such things publicly.
In fact, it wasn’t until after I came face to face with John Sobrack, the award-winning director, on the edge of ascension, that I discovered how powerful a willingness to be unguarded really is.
When I met the Minnesota-born, theater-trained actor/director, he was right in the middle of employing a guerilla-marketing tactic for his latest project titled Sex Date. And with a disposition that rivaled the partly cloudy day, I jumped at the chance to learn more about his film and his journey thus far.
An unconventionally urban romance, Sex Date tells the story of Randall as he searches for shelter from the police, running into Kenton who mistakes him for his online hook-up. “The inspiration behind Sex Date came from living in a neighborhood that had a lot of helicopter noise,” he said. “And I started picturing what it would be like if an unsuspecting someone hooked-up with a guy on the run while helicopters searched the neighborhood for him.” Committed to diversity, but disenchanted by stereotypes, Sobrack steered clear of typecasting a black actor to play the Randall character- instead- bestowing the role to Elio Mardini.
“The intention was really to display a connection between two people in a random situation where people can connect in the most unexpected of places,” he said. “And this type of storytelling is really important because people long for connection, and there’s a need for it in the world in general. That’s why I don’t classify stories like Sex Date as gay stories; they’re stories about human connection.”
And connection has been a theme in all of Sobrack’s films, and it will be very much alive in his newest project, a web-series titled The New Thirty. Based on his friend Walter Bost’s vision, The New Thirty centers on a group of gay men in their 40’s, all going through transitions and maneuvering through the trenches of relationships, both platonic and beyond. “Elliot, the main character, is re-entering the single life with a past attachment,” he said. “And with The New Thirty, this is the first time I actually have a structure in place in regards to the writing process as apposed to just writing whatever comes out whenever I’m inspired because staring at that blank, white page and having the confidence to write, that’s where I struggle.”
Yes, Sobrack may struggle, but he’s not disempowered by the struggle. He’s doesn’t dissolve at the sight of cracks in his self-confidence, for it’s his unwillingness to do what’s comfortable that brought him here to L.A. in the first place.
With a BFA from the University of Minnesota in Theatre, Acting, Sobrack starred in, produced and directed numerous plays for a plethora of community theaters in Minneapolis- including the Beth El Synagogue Youth Group- where he directed several musicals, before relocating here to Los Angeles in 2005. He immediately tackled the unfamiliar waters of improv, taking classes at The Groundlings School. And he did instantly well despite his fear, quickly moving up the ranks and being invited to enroll in their intermediate course. “That was the course that terrified me,” he admitted. “I had to do some writing and develop more specific characters. We even had to find a magazine that we would normally never read and create a character based on that magazine. So I picked out a Goth magazine, and I wrote a monologue based on that. And that’s where I left off with the Groundlings.”
Sobrack decided to turn his attention to filmmaking once he got word of a UCLA Extension program called the Portable Auteur, which trained and developed students around the filmmaking process, beginning with the initial pitch and completing the course with a finished short film over two quarters. And it was in this course that he created his debut film Nearlife. “Nearlife was really about completing the past,” he commented. “And maybe it was my way of telling myself that I needed to move on with my life and welcome a new chapter. I needed to say ‘goodbye’ to Minnesota.”
Yes, saying “goodbye” became a theme in Nearlife as well, showing up on the page and in the finished product. The film centers on Jason as he grapples with the effects of a near death experience. And in the process of processing his life up to that point, he connects with an unexpected stranger who aids him in letting go of the past and moving forward. Nearlife premiered at the 2007 Indianapolis International Film Festival, and the Rainer Independent Film Festival, winning Best Student Short Film. And it screened at the Out In The Desert LGBT Film Festival in Tucson, AZ as well. And lit up by the receptive response, Sobrack went on to create his production company of the same name Nearlife Productions with producing partner Janice Walbrink.
As it turned out, 2007 was a good year for John Sobrack until it was eclipsed by 2008. During a fun day at the beach with an out-of-town friend, John and his companion came up with an idea for a short film with an Elvis/beach party theme. “I can’t even remember what the story we came up with was about; I think we were just being silly on the beach,” he recalled. “But it stuck with me. And when I actually sat down to write it, I didn’t know what it was about. But my partner Quincy said, ‘Just write what you know.’ So I started writing about my husband Quincy and I.”
The story eventually became the smash hit musical Boy Crazy, which centers on Corey (James May) as he walks a tight rope between two love interests, while in the inquiry of whether either suitor suits him, or if the single life is his preferred option. Enlivened by the idea of a musical, Sobrack didn’t necessarily know how to write lyrics. Instead, he opted to write what each character wanted to communicate first, then adding rhymes to the dialogue afterwards. He also worked with composer Trevor Cushman who spent time perfecting the chorus until, as a team, they created a theme. “If he had a tune that worked for me, I would jump on it and refine it, and that was our process,” he said. “Trevor’s a great composer, fresh out of college. And he sold me right away because I shared the script with him, and three days later, he wrote a song based on what I had given him- and we ended up using the song in the film.” The song called I Don’t Know a Thing About You, So This Must Be Love proved to be an ideal fit, a commentary on how quickly members of the gay community will jump full speed ahead into a relationship. “It’s the notion of ‘Oh, I’m attracted to you, so it must be love,’” Sobrack shared.
Boy Crazy went on to screen at over 30 film festivals, including the 2012 Out in the Dessert Film Festival, where it won Best Musical. And it was honored with the FilmOut Audience Award for Best Short Film at the FilmOut San Diego Festival. And in addition to that, the film was included and broadcast on Logo TV’s The Click List: Best in Short Film program, and distributed on DVD as part of a short film compilation. “I didn’t know what to expect, and what happened was way more than I could’ve ever expected,” he said. “We got to pitch to Logo and Here TV because of Boy Crazy. And it was really exciting, but a part of me didn’t really trust it, and I remember having fear that this might be the only story I could tell. And I still have a little bit of that fear even now just because it took me so long to get Sex Tape completed. So there is definitely still that ‘I-got-lucky’ conversation in the background.”
The good news is while the conversation may still be alive for him, it doesn’t distract Sobrack from creating more content. He simply sets the conversation aside and continues being in action, planning the shoot for The New Thirty. And he’s also still submitting and attending film festivals for Sex Date. In fact, Sex Date will be shown between September 10th-14th at the Austin Gay & Lesbian International Film Festival in Austin, Texas, and at the Long Beach QFilm Fest between September 12th-14th.
In the meantime, in between looking to start a family with his husband, John Sobrack is intent on empowering others through the authentic sharing of himself and his work, regardless of what conversation about he has going on in the background. And in doing so from the point of view of a successful artist, he’s creating an empowering context for so many who are just beginning their journey.
“My intention, through all of the work I do, is to have people be comfortable with themselves and to find their own truth and be open to sharing with others. And I know that the LGBT community has been getting a lot of exposure lately, which is awesome. And I feel like there are still so many opportunities to tell more stories and bring them to a mainstream audience, demonstrating that there’s nothing threatening about any of us. There might even be an element of humor where we can laugh at certain situations, and discover things about ourselves together.”
For more information on John Sobrack, please visit http://nearlifeproductions.com/.