OUT-laws No More
A Profile on the Beautifully OUTrageous Filmmakers of OUTFEST 2012
Imagine growing up in a world where the only visible images of people like you in the mainstream media were portrayals of degraded abnormals and tragic victims. Who would want to identify with a group where mass perception of your most essential truths are determined by an ill-equipped, culturally misinformed and downright ignorant bottom line? Well, many people didn’t have to imagine because this was the climate in as recent as thirty years ago for the lesbian, gay and transgender community.
Frustrated with these misrepresentations in large part due to the lack of visibility surrounding films focused on realistic gay and lesbian characters, UCLA graduate students Clair Aguilar, Chris Berry, Don Diers and John Ramirez- led by Larry Horne- got together and decided to do something a little out there, a little dangerous and a lot brave. With the promise and optimism of youth, they approached then UCLA Film & Archives Director Robert Rosen and Programmer Geoff Gilmore about starting what they called the Gay and Lesbian Media Festival and Conference.
It was 1982, and slated with just three films: Queen of Sheba Meets the Atom Man, Making Love, and Taxi Zum Klo, the festival proved to be another huge proponent for change, aiding in the work Frameline (San Francisco’s Gay and Lesbian Film Festival) had started five years earlier by portraying themselves as the complex, multi-dimensional individuals they really are – as apposed to the sick deviants they had often been depicted as in many mainstream movies of yesteryear.
Quickly rising in popularity, the festival eventually outgrew the college campus, and became Outfest as it is known today – currently spearheaded by Executive Director Kirsten Schaffer who in her Overview Statement in the film guide wrote, “We are expanding our reach by focusing on mentorship and education, and through our strategic partnership with NewFest in New York, beginning the process of becoming a national organization.” Kirsten and her staff have already made a significant leap in the process towards expansion with Outfest programs like Fusion: The Los Angeles LGBT People of Color Film Festival, Outfest Legacy Project for LGBT Film Preservation, and Access LA: Mentoring and Networking for Emerging Filmmakers.
I wasted no time in taking extreme measures to ensure my attendance to Outfest 2012 where some of the most notorious gay champions and straight allies in California were present during the eminent Opening Night Gala at the Orpheum Theater in Downtown Los Angeles. It was my first time inside the legendary theater where gay-icon Judy Garland performed in 1933. And I imagined how proud she would’ve been to have so many of her surrogate children under one roof, where Ricki Lake presented the 16th Annual Outfest Achievement Award to filmmaker and gay activist John Waters of Hairspray fame.
The night was truly enchanted with a mix of music from DJ Paul V, a silent auction with deals on spas and destination packages, delicious treats from some of Los Angeles’ top eateries- and, of course, drinks from Absolut, Barefoot Wine and Stella Artois flowing freely during the after party. But aside from all the networking and relationship building, the real genius of the festival came from the motion pictures, and the camaraderie shared by the filmmakers and lovers of cinema alike. One of the more central pieces in the festival being the much-anticipated Opening Night Film Vito, a powerful, informative, and touching documentary, directed by Jeffrey Schwarz for HBO Films.
I had the pleasure of sitting down and chatting with several of the filmmakers during the twelve days of story-telling mania, included Jeffrey Schwarz of Vito, Silas Howard & Ernesto Foronda of Sunset Stories, and Glenn Gaylord and David W. Ross of I Do.
Jeffrey Schwarz, Director of VITO
“We are living Vito’s vision for the world right now,” said Jeffrey Schwarz during our telephone interview. And I couldn’t have said it better myself. If you know anything about Vito Russo, you know this vision encompassed acceptance of the LGBT community, along with truthful depictions in the media- which is exactly the point, and has been the success of film festivals like OutFest. And what you don’t know about Vito Russo, you will certainly learn in Jeffrey’s wonderfully-crafted documentary film. A biopic accounting of an awkward gay teen growing up in the early 60’s who, in 1969, after witnessing a police raid of a Greenwich Village gay bar called The Stonewall- where one gay man lost his life- went on to become one of the world’s most immovable civil rights leaders to date until he died of AIDS in 1990.
Vito was a key player in the development of several civil rights organizations: GAA (Gay Activists Alliance), tasked with protecting the basic rights of all gay people, using peaceful confrontations with officials to draw media attention; GLAAD (Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation), developed to advance fair and accurate representation of gays and lesbians in the media; and ACT UP (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power), the guerilla advocacy group who fought to positively impact the lives of people living with AIDS. But he is arguably most widely known for his influential book The Celluloid Closet, which scrutinized the history behind Hollywood’s negative images of LGBT characters in film, and how these skewed depictions contributed to the injustice gay people faced on a daily basis.
It was The Celluloid Closet, in fact, that first inspired a young and impressionable Jeffrey Schwarz- combining homosexuality and film, two of his most fundamental passions. So when he heard that filmmakers Jeffrey Freidman and Rob Epstein of Common Threads: Stories from the Quilt were directing the film adaptation of The Celluloid Closet, he immediately contacted the directors and landed his first job in the film business as an assistant editor on the adapted work. “I had access to all of Vito’s original research materials, and also access to extensive interviews that Rob and Jeffrey had conducted with him when he was alive,” Jeffrey says. “So even though he was gone, I felt like I got to know him a little bit, and learn about his entire history from what it was like growing up gay in the late 50’s and early 60’s to his ten-year struggle to research and write The Celluloid Closet.”
It was 1996, and The Celluloid Closet documentary film continued to prompt the need for positive images of homosexuals in the media, even earning an Emmy Award nomination for Outstanding Informational Special, and winning the Freedom of Expression Award at Sundance. But in spite of the accolades and recognition, Jeffrey still wasn’t done with Vito’s personal story. During the next four years, he’d make significant leaps in his career, starting his entertainment production company Automat Pictures in 2000, and directing two of his own films: Spine Tingler: The William Castle Story in 2007 and Wrangler: Anatomy of an Icon in 2008, but the man he had come to know during the making of The Celluloid Closet still continued to enthrall him. “About five years ago, I started thinking about Vito again, and how this next generation isn’t familiar with him,” he says, “and I wanted to try and correct that by making a film about him that would restore him to his proper place in the pantheon of gay and lesbian heroes.”
Vito, the moving documentary film, did just that and more- challenging, educating and gripping the Outfest Opening Night Gala audience with the same passion that undoubtedly struck Jeffrey years ago when he first discovered Vito Russo’s story for himself. “Screening at Outfest was such a huge thrill for me because I’ve attended for a number of years, and it’s only the third time in history that they’ve shown a documentary,” Jeffrey says. “So a lot of people who might not normally watch a documentary got to see Vito, and they learned so much about our history without even noticing. And the best thing was the younger people coming up to me after the film saying things like, ‘I can’t believe I’ve never heard of Vito; this history is all new to me.’ That’s really why we made this film because it seems like in the younger generation’s minds, this history doesn’t necessarily affect them, and that’s the farthest thing from the truth.”
The New York native’s time as a film student at the SUNY Purchase Film Department undoubtedly inspired his proclivity towards iconic individuals, as he confides, “It was seeing Rob Epstein’s The Times of Harvey Milk that really turned me on to telling stories about larger-than-life personalities, and it set me in the direction of the kind of stories I wanted to tell.”
The story he’ll be telling next is a documentary titled I Am Divine, an intimate examination of the colorful, bright, neon-pink life of the infamous drag diva Divine, formerly known as Harris Glenn Milstead. “Harris was an overweight, gay, effeminate kid growing up in suburban Baltimore who got the crap kicked out of him everyday in high school,” Jeffrey shares, “but he found a way through working and making films with John Waters to channel all that rage into the Divine character- who was a larger-than-life, almost drag terrorist. And especially today with all the talk about bullying in school, and the It Gets Better campaign, I can’t think of a better poster child for misfit youth than Divine.”
Jeffrey’s working on setting up a fund-raising campaign for I Am Divine in the fall, and he’s anticipating having the film done by the end of the year, but make no mistake- the legacy of Vito Russo will continue to influence Jeffrey no matter where his career takes him. “Vito’s life showed that each individual can make a difference; he was somebody who stood up when he saw injustice in the world and threw his hat into the ring and said, ‘I’m going to do what I can to make the world better.’ And he did make the world better.”
For more information on the I Am Divine fundraising campaign, please visit: http://www.indiegogo.com/I-AM-DIVINE-Fan-Fundraising-Campaign
Vito airs on HBO on the following play date: Aug. 8th (9:15 a.m.)
HBO2 play dates: Aug. 12th (11:45 a.m.), and 17th (2:30 p.m.)
Anyone who’s ever experienced regret, fear, insecurity, or any other human emotion will likely see themselves in Sunset Stories. A tale complete with a princess, but no fairy (although, that’s debatable), Sunset Stories examines the complicated relationships between a diverse array of characters on one eventful Los Angeles night, after May (Monique Curnen) loses the bone marrow she’s responsible for transporting due to an unexpected run-in with her ex JP (Sung Kang), and must get it back within 24 hours. The tension between Monique and Sung leapt from the screen during the entire movie, and while the other characters each brought their own unique dilemmas into the larger equation, the plot never felt cluttered, but rather enhanced by the queerness of the eclectic ensemble.
I meet with both Silas and Ernesto at the Directors Guild of America where Ernesto shares, “One of the inspirations for this story came from my sister who was a nurse in the children’s oncology ward. She took part in the transporting of bone marrow from all over the world, and it would come in this cooler- and I remember looking at photos of her at these famous European landmarks holding the cooler because she couldn’t let it go.” That’s where the inspiration for the bone marrow came from, but May’s strained relationship with JP was inspired by a past strained relationship Ernesto had of his own. “I had this relationship that fell to pieces, and I associated it with a location. And to this day, I can’t bring myself to step foot into Berlin because I know once I get there, I’m going to bump into this person.”
After teaming up Silas to direct, and working on the script with co-writer Valerie Stadler, Ernesto harnessed his personal experiences and created the fresh, dramatic work that Sunset Stories is today. “This film is definitely a character study, and the ticking clock was just a great metaphor,” Silas says. “And I really loved the idea of interconnectivity and the way we influence each other without knowing it.”
Well, whether or not they knew it at the time, both Ernesto and Silas influenced one another during their collaboration process, as Silas shares, “I thought Ernesto and I worked really well together in terms of divide and conquer; we would talk, and one of us would give notes- so there was consistency. And it was really great having the screenwriter catch things that I might have missed because my script analysis isn’t as complete as the writer’s script analysis.” Ernesto piggybacks on Silas’ comment, saying, “This was my first directing attempt on a feature level, so I looked to Silas, who is really great at getting amazing performances from the actors.”
When you watch Sunset Stories, one of the things you’ll notice- in addition to the beautifully-shot streets of Los Angeles, the stellar performances, and the cameo appearance from Kevin Bacon- is the diverse casting that reflects the true and accurate atmosphere of most big cities. May is a Latina who had an interracial relationship with JP, a Korean-American. And on their hunt to reclaim the bone marrow, they encounter every type of individual (gay, straight, young and old) you can imagine. “And that’s often missing from Hollywood films unless there’s a specific point to it, or unless it’s central to the main conflict of the story,” Silas says. “It’s a transgender story, or an interracial relationship story. Those things are all important in a story, but it’s nice to have stories where we all get to exist and deal with things beyond that in our own lives.” In fact, by the time Silas and Ernesto are done, diversity in film will be so prevalent that it will fly right by wholly unnoticed. What’s certain not to go unnoticed, however, are the upcoming projects both Silas and Ernesto are currently working on. But in order to understand their futures, you need to understand their pasts.
Born in the Philippines, Ernesto immigrated to this country at a young age with his family, ultimately settling in Orange County where his love of film first began. “My parents couldn’t afford childcare, so they used a multiplex as childcare,” Ernesto says. “They would drop me off in the morning and pick me up at night, and I would watch movies all day, so I had this trajectory that was very clear from early on.” Ernesto’s earliest education in film started with very mature movies like Jaws and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, eventually graduating to working at movie theaters and Blockbuster Video, even writing movie reviews for the Orange County Register as a teen in the early 90’s. But his big induction into the industry, following graduate school at Columbia University, came when he wrote the festival hit Better Luck Tomorrow in 2002 for director Justin Lin. Better Luck Tomorrow proved to be a huge turning point in Ernesto’s career, winning the San Diego Asian Film Festival Visionary Award, and receiving a Sundance nomination for the Grand Jury Prize, but it wasn’t exactly the life-altering experience he was hoping for. “It took me another three years to establish myself as a writer where I was actually selling scripts,” Ernesto says, “but it came to a point where that big break felt like the biggest soul-draining experience. There were times where I wasn’t even allowed on set; I had to be hidden due to set politics. And it was actually the impetus of going back and talking to Silas and other friends about wanting to make our own films.”
Silas’ background was a bit different. Growing up in a working class neighborhood in Vermont, Silas’ first inclination towards cinema came at an early age as well when his mother took him to see One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. “I remember watching Big Red throw the water fountain through the window, and, as a kid, that imagery was so powerful to me,” Silas remembers. “And I also loved acting; my dad would often drive me to auditions at any little community theater that would have me, and I loved it.” But Silas’ trajectory into the film industry would prove not to be the straight line that Ernesto’s was, as he strayed a bit in the beginning in order to join the punk-band Tribe8. Touring throughout the United States, Europe and Canada, as well as an honorable mention in Rolling Stone magazine, were certainly high points for members of Tribe8- but film was still in Silas’ blood. “I’m a late bloomer to filmmaking,” he shares. “I honestly got involved because I didn’t see a film that represented a world that I thought was very vibrant, and I felt like it was my responsibility to create that.”
And from that need came his highly-praised film By Hook Or By Crook, which went on to become the Official Selection at the South by Southwest Film Festival (where it won the coveted Audience Award for Best Feature); it screened at the Cleveland International Film Festival, and ultimately at Sundance where Silas first met Ernesto in 2002. Ernesto was there with Better Luck Tomorrow, and the two forged a powerful alliance that would at last bring us Sunset Stories.
Now, with their futures showing more promise than ever, Ernesto and Silas are diligently strategizing the next phases of their budding careers. Ernesto has just finished working on an adaptation of Scott Heim’s novel We Disappear, and he’s currently working on another adaptation of a classic Japanese manga artist called Dororo for his mentor Justin Lin. “Dororo is a big, action, sci-fi film- and I’m a kid of the 80’s, so I was on a constant diet of Indiana Jones, and Empire Strikes Back, and there’s a certain part of me that really loves that big, summer, tent-pole filmmaking,” Ernesto shares. “But the other spectrum is We Disappear, which is an ultra dark narrative in the vein of Mysterious Skin; I just love the simplicity of the characters in the story, and I think darkness is liberating when you watch it on film.”
Silas is busy with a project focusing on a transgender 1940’s jazz musician named Billy Tipton, as well as an adaptation of a novel by Michelle Tea’s called Chelsea Whistle- a coming-of-age story about a crass 13-year-old girl in search of a runaway who is rumored to be dead. “I love the dark humor of Chelsea Whistle,” Silas comments. “Michelle Tea’s comes from some really harsh places, but she has this buoyancy as a writer, and I love that contrast. Humor is a tool for survival.”
And survival is one thing that both Silas Howard and Ernesto Foronda know more than their share about, each hitting their own level of success with their previous works, and continuing on that road now with Sunset Stories. “I feel like with having no money, and feeding our crew with food from restaurants that, in exchange, would let us shoot on their property for free- and still being able to attract the level of people who came out to work with us on Sunset Stories, that has currency, and value,” Silas says. “And there lies the real success.”
A gripping story about the consequences that marriage inequality has for same sex couples raising families, I Do is an ensemble drama following Jack (David W. Ross, Quinceanera), a gay Brit who, after not being able to obtain U. S. citizenship on his own, convinces his lesbian best friend Ali (Jamie Lynn-Sigler, The Sopranos) to marry him in order to get his green card. But things spiral downward rather quickly when Ali has second thoughts about their union, and Jack must fight to stay in this country with the only family he knows. With such sensitive subject matter, subtext-laced dialogue and an anthology of conflicting emotions from the outstanding cast, I found this story to be honest, raw and necessary. As a result, I’m excited to meet with Director Glenn Gaylord and Writer/Actor David W. Ross for an intimate discussion here at the DGA about the film.
“I wanted to tell a human story about a very inhuman law, which is DOMA (Defense of Marriage Act),” David says. “I had originally been working on a gay, green card script that was comedic because I had actually gone through a break-up with somebody who couldn’t get their paperwork myself. And my character Jack is a photographer’s assistant, so I decided to buy a camera and start shooting just to get in the head of Jack.” One of the things David decided to shoot was the Fresno-based, 2009 Meet in the Middle 4 Equality rally, a pro-gay marriage rally where gays and straights alike came together to protest the Supreme Court’s ruling on Proposition 8, which officially placed a ban on same sex marriages in California. “I was the official photographer for that,” David says. “And I was meeting all these families and bi-national couples, and I realized that this is not a funny story, and it shouldn’t be dealt with in a funny way. So I slowly started to develop the film as a serious piece.”
He later met Glenn at a party through their future producer, Stephen Israel, after having seen some of his short films, and asked him to sign on as director. “It was not a difficult yes,” Glenn says. And that comes as no surprise considering Glenn has experienced the effects of DOMA himself after his stepsister, who is a U.S. citizen, and her wife, who is Israeli-born, were both forced to leave the United States. “They have a son and both had careers here,” he says, “but my stepsister marrying her wife legally in California still did not grant her federal rights like citizenship. So they ended up having no choice but to move back to Israel. And it split up our family because my stepsister was someone I had known since I was born. So when I read David’s script, I was really touched and moved by it.”
And with David coming from the world of pop stardom, where he admits, “I was in a situation where I had no control,” the fact that he entrusted his creation into the hands of anyone else is a sincere compliment to Glenn.
Having grown up in a rural area of England, David moved to London at seventeen, just after his mother died of cancer, where he was soon spotted by a boy-band producer. Within a few months, David had become a sensation all over Europe and Asia as one of the members of English boy-band Bad Boys, Inc. “I used to joke with my friends that I never had an alarm clock, I had a limo driver,” David says. “So the doorbell would ring, and I’d jump up and get ready, and I had no idea where I was going for that day; I just got into the limo and off we went.” David eventually matured out of Bad Boy, Inc., moving to the States where he worked as an assistant to some very high level executives in the fashion industry before landing several films roles in movies like 200 American, The Receipt and Quinceanera, prior to ultimately writing and staring in I Do. “I had an artistic breakdown around twenty seven when I realized I didn’t want to do music,” he shares, “so the pop songs started becoming scenes, and then shorts, and then turned into feature films. So I Do has given me so much on so many levels.”
Meanwhile, Glenn’s initiation into the film business started with a trip to the movies. “My mother was a writer, and she really instilled in me this love of film and writing from a very young age,” Glenn comments. “She would take me to the most adult films when I was little; I saw Taxi Driver and The Exorcist and Midnight Cowboy, films that a little kid wouldn’t normally see, but my mother saw great merit in showing me great films.” Glenn’s love for film and writing carried him all the way to UCLA where he got his first taste of the high that comes with directing. “I was lucky enough to have gone to UCLA Film School where we were forced to be actors to the theater student’s direction,” he says. “So we saw how the other half lived, and I never forgot that. And with I Do, I was there for the actor’s wardrobe fittings where they really found their characters, and we would go through every scene and really break down the script while they were in their costumes because that changes everything. Also, I like to keep the camera running instead of yelling ‘cut’ just to see what people will do, and some of the real gems in the film came from that.”
And with I Do being his 6th film to have screened here at Outfest, Glenn’s career has truly come, once again, full-circle. He’s already had major success as a television producer on shows like Tori & Dean: Inn Love and Queer Eye for the Straight Girl, and with writing his feature musical Leave It On The Floor in 2011, but Outfest holds a special place in his heart as he’s been here from the beginning. “I was in film school at UCLA when Outfest first started; two of my classmates programmed it when it was just the three films,” he says. “So to see it grow from three films to what it is today: a world-class festival that’s one of the largest film festivals in Los Angeles- that’s amazing, and it’s a tremendous honor to have our world-premier here.”
Glenn is currently hard at work on the stage adaptation of Leave It On The Floor, a story following an outsider who, after having been thrown out of his own dysfunctional family, stumbles into the world of Ball competitions. He’s also set to write lyrics for another musical he’s working on with Beyonce’s musical director Kimberly Burse. Meanwhile, David is writing a feature script that he’d like to direct about his time in the band. “My time in the boy-band was an interesting experience for me because my mother had just died of cancer, and I was dealing with fame, and just trying to get through life and grieving, and all that stuff,” David says, “so I’d love to bring all of that into my writing.”
But when it comes to I Do, the duo isn’t giving up hope that the true message of the film will inspire change. “Success for me is creating something that moves people, or changes their hearts and minds,” Glenn says. “And for I Do, success would be for this film to, in any way, whether it’s small or large, find its way in helping change policy so that my step sister and her wife could have the choice to live where they want as a family.”
So, yes, as it turns out, Outfest is more than just a bunch of films with gay and lesbian themes, it is an agent for change and equality. Once seen as pushing the envelope with just the mention of a gay or lesbian character, Outfest has created an environment where the envelope no longer needs pushing, and built a creative plane where homosexuality is no longer the focus, but simply an accent to a larger picture, as with Sunset Stories. And as the narratives continue to change, so does the world.