SXSW FILM 2013
By Don Simpson | March 23, 2013
Yen Tan’s Pit Stop reveals an Altmanesque finesse in developing so many characters equally. Adequately developing this many characters is certainly not an easy task — I have seen many more directors fail than succeed at doing this. Tan’s secret is that he views all of his characters as equals. More importantly, their personalities and personal histories are intriguing to Tan, and he passes that intrigue along to us.
In the process of telling us the parallel stories of Gabe (Bill Heck) and Ernesto (Marcus DeAnda), Pit Stop fleshes out this rural Texas town with a well-developed ensemble cast. On Gabe’s side of the narrative, we meet his ex-wife Shannon (Amy Seimetz) and their young daughter (Bailey Bass); and let us not forget Shannon’s hapless co-worker Winston (John Merriman). On Ernesto’s side of the narrative, we meet his ex-boyfriend Luis (Alfredo Maduro).
The various gay relationships in Pit Stop are cleverly juxtaposed with the clumsy romance of Shannon and Winston. Tan’s intimate portrayals of the relationships establish a normalcy of the gay lifestyle. When two men hook up, or fall in love, it is no stranger than the connection between a man and a woman. This is where Pit Stop truly excels, in creating a world in which everyone is portrayed as normal, independent of their sexual orientation or skin color.
Pit Stop was one of my favorite films at Sundance 2013, but mine and Tan’s schedules just never seemed to sync up for us to chat while we were both in Park City, Utah. In the back of my mind, I knew that Tan and I would probably have a better chance of meeting up for an interview during SXSW 2013. As luck would have it, we did; and it somehow seems fitting that we would meet (along with actor Marcus DeAnda) in the basement storeroom of the Stateside Theater. This is one of those interviews that probably could have gone on for another hour or so, but Tan had to get back upstairs to the screening of Pit Stop and I had to rush off to a screening at another SXSW venue.
Don Simpson: How did you approach the narrative structure of Pit Stop, specifically distributing equal weight to all of the characters?
Yen Tan: Maybe this is one of those things that you don’t realize that you’re doing in a film until you’re screening it for people, talking to people about it, and reading reviews about it; then you realize, oh, I didn’t know I was doing that! Something a lot people have also mentioned after they have seen the film is that the film seems to genuinely love all of the characters. There are no villains, but everyone is flawed in their own ways. That was not really conscious. I was wanting to cover a spectrum of characters, and I was always trying to maintain each character’s integrity. The end result of that is that people would say that everyone in the film feels fully-realized, or well-rounded. Even if they are not that most favorable person in the film, you still feel something for them.
DS: The relationships in this film are each very unique. Do these relationships each have a different significance to you?
YT: No. If anything, they all have the same meaning to me. I recognize the universal reality of what happens in relationships, the cycles of relationships, and in some ways it is very conventional. You get into a relationship and you fall in love; then you have conflicts and you fall out of love; then you get out of the relationship, or you don’t get out of the relationship. I feel like those kinds of things are just so common. In this film, every character is at different points of that cycle, then you see the grander scheme and realize it is a common thing for everyone.
DS: And it doesn’t even depend upon their sexual orientation.
YT: Exactly. In the process, it just blurs everything out. Towards the end of the film, even though you are seeing two guys making love, at that point you are not conscious of what you are watching anymore. Its totally the gay agenda of slipping it in…slipping it in! [Laughs]
DS: Pit Stop speaks in a more universal language, and it doesn’t play like a “gay film.”
YT: That’s the thing though. This whole “gay film” and “film” thing. I don’t want to say that its not a gay film, because when you say that it implies that a gay film is a bad thing. There is nothing wrong with gay films. That is not a bad thing. I have no problems saying that Pit Stop is a gay film or a queer film. It is just a way for people to categorize things. That is something that happens across the board with black films, Latino films, whatever… I am trying to get a dialogue started with the idea that someone will be smart enough at some point to figure it out. I totally want to change the dialogue, because this happens with all directors who make gay films with crossover potential.
DS: Recently there seem to be even more gay films with crossover potential, with films like Weekend and Gayby. It seems like a movement to “normalize” the gay lifestyle by making films that can fit into a mainstream market. They are less overt in terms of the sexuality and the characters are toned down, they are just “normal” people. With Pit Stop, that seems to be one of the benefits of setting the story in a small Texas town, because the characters who are gay have to blend in with the people around them.
YT: The only thing that I am consciously doing with Pit Stop is depicting gay people in a different way. It is not meant as a way to depict something in a way that it hasn’t been seen before or avoid stereotypes — which insinuates that there is something wrong with stereotypes, or there is something wrong with flamboyant or queen-y characters. The important thing that filmmakers in general need to do is think about the characteristics of their characters; even it is a stereotypical trait, you still need to make the character interesting. Fleshed-out characters can have any stereotypical traits but it will still feel new and interesting because the characters feel very real.
DS: Did the actors work on developing their backstories and aspects of their lives that are not revealed in the script?
MD: It is interesting because Yen’s script is so incredible for an actor to read. The characters are so well-written. When you read a lot of bad stuff and you get a script like this…wow! It gives the actors an opportunity to develop notes and really flesh out their characters. I saw some of Bill Heck’s notes and he did almost the same thing. Along the way, before we would do a scene, Yen would give us more information and some things to think about, then he would leave. It was such a great environment.
DS: The relationships are so well-developed that it seems like the actors worked together for a long time.
MD: Well, my character does not meet Gabe until the very end, but I think that anticipation and excitement is felt along the way. I did talk a lot with the other two men who are in my character’s life along the way, and a lot of that personality and background does come through into our scenes.
YT: All of the actors in this film are very smart people, so I didn’t have to tell them a lot of things. They could convey the nuances and intricacies of the characters themselves. They did things with their characters that I could have never in my wildest dreams been able to write or express on paper. The actors added these invisible elements that I could have never written that explicitly, but the audience can see on screen. That made me realize that good actors are smart people, so they can bring stuff like that to the table.
DS: Can you talk about integrating Shannon and Winston’s relationship into this narrative?
YT: That is another really nice way to slip the pill in! Here’s the straight stuff to keep you occupied and make you think that it is all the same thing. [Laughs]
MD: I love that! I remember the first time I saw Yen’s Ciao (2008) and just seeing the way that the characters love each other so much. Some of my favorite scenes in Pit Stop are between Gabe and Shannon and Winston and Shannon, those are some of the tenderest moments in the film.
DS: That leads right up to my next question… Marcus, how familiar were you with Yen’s work prior to signing on to Pit Stop?
MD: I was very familiar. I remember exactly where I was when I first watched Ciao. I was watching it on DVD and I literally had to pause in the middle of it and wondered why I couldn’t be involved in something like that as an actor. It was never really able to let go of that feeling. Once I saw the incredible ending, that really resonated with me. Once I knew that Yen was writing Pit Stop, I knew that I wanted to be involved with it.
DS: What appealed to you about playing Ernesto?
MD: He grew up in a small town, just like I did. He’s Latin. He’s a quiet guy. Growing up gay in a small town, I played Ernesto as someone who accepted his sexuality early on. He never wanted to marry a woman, yet he still has lived a very quiet life. That is the way a lot of gay people in small communities have to live their lives. As an actor, that quietness is a challenge. From watching Yen’s films, he lets his actors do a lot of work. You might not have any lines but there is still a lot going on with them and you can see that.