SXSW FILM 2012
By Don Simpson | March 23, 2012
How do best friends go about making a baby? No, they are not married…or even dating, for that matter. Jenn (Jenn Harris) and Matt (Matthew Wilkas) are best friends from college. They are now in their thirties and currently single. Jenn has just never met the guy for her; neither has Matt, who is still recovering from his last relationship. Years ago, they promised to make a baby together; now, Jenn’s biological clock is ticking and she is ready to follow through on that pledge. The catch? She wants to make the baby the old fashioned way, you know, au naturale…no turkey basters, artificial insemination or fertilization for them!
Jonathan Lisecki’s Gayby is a film with many admirable qualities; it intelligently discusses sexuality (including issues of gay identity), aging, friendship, loneliness, and the definition of family. Gayby is not a “gay film”; it is a film about people and relationships, whether they be L-G-B-T-Q or A…and everything in between. (I also love the way race is handled.) Sure, Lisecki includes a lot of gay-oriented humor but his goal is not to segregate his audience, instead he hopes to create a better understanding of sexuality and gender. As offensive as some audiences may find a narrative about an unmarried straight woman and gay man having intercourse to make a baby, the purpose of Gayby is not to shock or offend people. For all of you naysayers out there (I am looking at you Rick Santorum!), Gayby might actually open your mind if you just give it a chance. When it comes down to it, Gayby is a well-written (and acted) and undeniably silly romantic comedy; I would love to watch any staunch religious conservative try to watch it with a straight (mind the pun) face!
Smells Like Screen Spirit met up with Jonathan Lisecki, Jenn Harris and Matthew Wilkas for a fun conversation about…well…a spectrum of topics that are in one way or another related to Gayby… (Check out our SXSW 2012 review of Gayby.)
Don Simpson: So… What does the Q and A stand for in LGBTQA?
Jonathan Lisecki: We actually say it later in the movie.
DS: Ooops… You do?
JL: Well he says “questioning and answering,” which is the joke; but it is questioning, and the A is for allies. Sometimes. Well, it has different meanings. For some its asexual, but I believe allies is the more common term. Every town has its own collection of letters. There are many more these days — that was where that joke was from.
DS: I love the way you handle gender and sexuality. The characters don’t necessarily fit in the traditional stereotypes.
JL: I have always found that sexuality is very fluid. When I was in college I wouldn’t call myself bisexual, but I was a gay guy who had sex with women. There was a lot them there and after a couple of cocktails it was like, well… she’s closer. I believed in experimentation. Now I am fully gay but I still think that if someone held a gun to my head that I could have sex with a woman. Some people are like “That is blasphemy!” For me it isn’t, and I just need to do what is true to me. I like the rainbow spectrum of sexuality and we have a lot of friends in New York who are at every point of that spectrum. Why not celebrate the silliness of all of that? Why is it so important to have some very specific label? I don’t think that’s necessary.
DS: And that brings us back to the letters — which basically categorizes people.
JL: Yeah, but I know why the need for that is. It is for the kids who have no place to identify with who they are. But once you have your place, you can still go outside of the box if you want to.
Jenn Harris: It is definitely great for the kids.
JL: They need to know that there is a place out there for them that they can feel safe and accepted.
DS: It gives them something to identify themselves with, which is especially important for teenagers.
JH: And for some adults who are questioning, you know?
JL: We even have that in the film. Matt’s (Matthew Wilkas) boyfriend is newly gay — although not really, I am sure that he knew he was gay before. But someone who comes out of the closet later in life… The more guys I meet, that is much more common than people would think. There are still people who do not realize they are gay — or they knew it, but they just don’t face it until their in their 30s and 40s. It’s interesting.
DS: I’m curious about the character development of Jenn and Matt — where did these characters come from?
JH: I think the short was the jumping point. Nothing really changed in terms of my character. We just had a full script and a whole other story to go with. It is not unlike us — I mean we have never had sex and we are not going to have a baby together, but Matt and I have been best friends since college. We are in our 30s. There is a lot that is us, and our friends as well…
JL: They picked specific places to be in the short that they kind of stuck with. In a way, because I knew that, I wrote the script to those people who they decided to be. But the people in the short and the people in the feature are not the people that Jenn and Matt are. And I am certainly not my character — I can be, if you wind me up and I am out at night, but most of the day I am not like that. I could not be like that all of the time.
JH: You would pass out on the street.
JL: I heard somebody say “All of the people in the movie sound like the director.” I’m like, you have no idea what I sound like, just come to my house and you’ll know.
DS: We don’t often see gay characters who are comic book geeks, where did that character trait come from?
JL: That is so true to my experience. I have always loved comic books. It just struck me for the first time that the X-Men was the first thing that I ever read that the main gist is the acceptance of other cultures. That is what comic books are about — accepting weird, different people. My comic book store is amazing. They are so accepting and the guys are really wonderful. It is the most accepting culture ever. People think that its not, but it really is. There are tons of gay guys who shop at the same store that I go to. A very good friend of mine wrote Batgirl for a while. In a way I had gotten out of comic books for a while, but when he started doing that I got pulled back in.
DS: And then all of the vinyl (albums) in Matt’s apartment, too.
JL: That was just lucky. For years I had a huge a huge vinyl collection because I used to DJ, which I don’t do anymore because I am old and married and can’t stay out until 4 a.m. But that was the luck of the draw. We found this apartment in Bed-Stuy for Clay [Liford] and the other crew from Texas. When I went to it I thought it would be the most amazing place to have Matt live. He is just that guy — the one who had all the records and all the books. He is just so smart. He said “Sure, you can shoot the movie in my apartment.”
Matthew Wilkas: And the yoga studio was underneath it.
JL: But that wasn’t the yoga studio that we were supposed to shoot. I was trapped in the 90 degree heat waiting outside the apartment, and I went into that studio and asked “What is this?” And she said, “Its my yoga studio. It just opened three weeks ago. Nobody comes yet.” So I said, “Can I shoot my movie here?” And she was like, “Sure.” It was so weird. Half our movie was shot in one building of Bed-Stuy. Oh, and its funny. Somebody made a comment that the movie is about a New York where people have impossibly wonderful apartments, and I was like “That apartment is in Bed-Stuy! You can find nice apartments in Bed-Stuy because that is a commute!”
DS: I used to live just outside of Bed-Stuy.
MW: It is becoming really hip.
JL: It has gotten a little hip, but that specific block has not been totally gentrified yet.
DS: You mentioned your Austin crew — how did that come about? How did you pick Clay Liford as your cinematographer?
JL: Our shorts played together on the festival circuit. It is so weird. When I first played Slamdance in 2008 with my first short (Woman in Burka) I had met David Lowery. He had a short that played there — A Catalog of Anticipations — and it is so good. He is so smart and funny. He was there with Adam Donaghey. I met Clay when St. Nick, David’s movie that Clay shot, screened in New York. I met Yen Tan, who did our poster, at a festival in San Francisco. I just ended up making friends with all of these amazing filmmakers. It turns out that a lot of people make films in Texas. It’s crazy! You would never think… But I have to say that the most filmmakers I have met have been from Texas.
MW: Isn’t Fourplay from Texas?
JL: Fourplay is by Kyle Henry. He came to the screening today. He is amazing. He now teaches in Chicago. He just moved. He watched a cut of Gayby and gave me the most amazing set of notes. He is a genius. Clay is someone I just really like. I was in Wuss for a little bit — I played the coach. It is very silly. But I stayed down here with him, and I stayed with him for SXSW last year. I just knew that if I was going to make a movie that I was also going to be in, I wanted to have someone who would really have my back as the DP. Someone who would just do really good work and is fun. If I felt like being really bitchy, he would just take it. Clay is amazing. He is a wonderful guy. He brought Marie, his Assistant Camera, from Dallas. Then, Anna Margaret Hollyman, who plays Jenn’s sister… I met her at the Austin Film Festival, at the Driskill. She gave me her short that she was in at the time, Adelaide, and I was like, “Wow, that’s amazing!” She was supposed to play a smaller part, but we lost an actress and she got to play Jenn’s sister. It was an amazing accident. She is unbelievable in the movie!
DS: She and Jenn play off of each other so well.
JL: It was fantastic chemistry. It was just shocking when she came in. It was magical.
JH: I was like “This girl! This girl, please!” She left and I looked at Jonathan in the eyes.
MW: Jenn and I were filming our awkward sex scene at the time —
JL: — then Jenn went out in the hallway to see her. Anna Margaret had to come and film her last scene — the big one — the very next day! People gasp in the audience during that scene because there are such hot moments of transition. She makes you hate this woman, then you totally love her by the end of the scene.
MW: That scene when she’s sitting in the little chair. You shot that in what?
JH: Like 10 minutes.
JL: People are going to watch the film and think that it was just a lot of single takes, but it is singles because we had a half an hour to shoot a five page scene! We shot 22 pages in one day. That was crazy.
JH: I remember I came in the morning at 6 a.m. I sat in hair and make-up and I asked for my lines. I was literally coming straight from a show. I had no idea what we were shooting that day. I would learn my lines the second before we did them. And Anne [Hubbell] handed me a book of 22 pages! I just kept highlighting and highlighting and thinking, “It’s not ending, it’s not ending.” But we did it. That scene with me in the closet with the yoga mats, it was like —
JL: — like 30 seconds. That amazing yoga studio also didn’t tell us that they were going to have yoga at 7:00 and it was 6:45.
JH: We had to go in 15 minutes but we still had a whole other scene to shoot.
JL: We had a lot of stuff like that happen, but we always kept our wits about us. It stayed fun even though it was crazy.
MW: And it made room for spontaneity, in a way. Things are fresher when you don’t have time to think about it.
JH: Like, “How am I going to say this line?” Never once in this film did I ever, ever think that. I thought, “What is my next line?” Literally, this film for me was like, “What are my lines?” I am just going to listen. Just listen.
JL: And that’s why they are such good actors. You can see that they are truly interacting with the people, whether they knew their lines fully or not. Everybody in this movie was like a real actor who actually pays attention to the person they are in the scene with. You see acting and reacting. It is a real sharing of the space. You don’t see that everywhere.
DS: How close did you stick to the original script?
JH: The script is a fantastic script. We did improv. A lot of the physical stuff was improv — the dancing.
MW: Some of the final beats of scenes were improvised.
JH: For the most part… We had moments of improv, but the script was very good.
MW: I think we were pretty good at doing it word for word… Am I wrong?
JL: Well… The three months of editing was spent sifting through the takes and finding the one where they stayed as close to the script as possible. I did recreate the script in the editing room, which is great. It was always close enough. It was exactly the script, except for every once in a while they chose to use a different word; but, in a way, that was the word that they would have used in that situation, so it sounded better. That’s actually the way I really love to work. Very scripted, but if a couple words are changed here and there — or pauses are different — that actually helps it. That is the gift of working with really good actors, because they can make a script seem like it is improvised with their acting.
DS: Oh, and I really loved the bright colors and the design of the film. Was that always your vision for this film?
JL: I asked for really bright, poppy colors. They asked me for movies to base it upon and I gave Anne, our producer, a list. [Pedro] Almodóvar, but not too crazy, because he is all red everywhere.
DS: Yeah, I was actually reminded of Almodóvar while watching Gayby, except it had a lot less red.
JL: How funny! Yeah, bouncy and colorful, but not too crazy. We talked about it a lot. We had this girl, and it was her first gig as a production designer.
JH: She was fantastic!
JL: She was out of control, she worked so hard. Cat Navarro, she was amazing. Then, David [Tabbert] my costume designer has been helping me for years, and he had just done Martha Marcy May Marlene — so he was getting real gigs. He really worked! The costumes were amazing! He worked his butt off for us. He had a crazy, huge, vast closet of stuff that he spent way too much money on and then shockingly returned it all and still came in under budget. But, yeah, it is definitely important. It was definitely a choice. I think things are funnier when they are brighter. I like bright colors… Like pop art and comic books. The short was much more muted and that was the one thing about the short, I wished it was brighter.
DS: What role did the short film play for you — to be a calling card for the feature?
JL: I know people that do that, but that was not my intention at all. I had made a short film two years before, and I felt like I really needed to do something. And I had this idea, and I wanted it to be a feature; but I wasn’t ready as an artist, but I also wasn’t ready financially — I just wasn’t ready. But I knew that I could do a short. I wrote it. Jenn and Matt came over. We talked about it. I rewrote it, to get more of what we discussed into the script. Then we shot really quickly. Then, as I showed the short around, people really responded to it and loved it. It played so many places and it really did well. People really liked it. And Jenn and Matt are so fun and funny and charismatic. Everybody was like “Your actors are so good!” I feel like the intention was to make a feature, but then I made the short and I was happy with the short for a while, but it was the response that people had to the short that made me know that I had to keep going. I had to do the feature — for the fun that we had but also because people wanted to see it. When people are telling you that they want to see something, you make it for them…if it’s something you still want to make.
DS: Who is the audience for Gayby?
JL: I honestly feel like… Well, why can’t it be the audience for Knocked Up and Bridesmaids? And the Hal Hartley movies that I loved in the 90s… And, the audience who thinks David Lynch is funny. The audience that thinks All About Eve is funny… It’s funny and smart and I want people who like funny and smart films to like it. I don’t think it should be based on their gender or orientation, any of that. What is great about SXSW is that the audience is super diverse here. It seemed to play really well. It didn’t have to feel niche. I hope that continues. It was very true with the short — it didn’t just play gay festivals or comedy festivals.