Wednesday, July 16, 2008

C. Jay Cox Interview – “We’re too hung-up on labels.”

‘Kiss the Bride’ (director, C. Jay Cox)
Next Screening: Sunday, July 20, 18:15 – Spiral Hall, with special guests in attendance: C. Jay Cox (director), Philipp Karner & James O’Shea (lead actors)

I wasn’t quite expecting to meet C. Jay Cox when he waltzed up to me, as I was loitering in front of the festival reception desk, and said, “You look like you speak English.”

“I do...” I said, a little flustered, not sure who I was speaking to.

It took me half a minute to properly acknowledge the tall, blond, tanned and cheerful American who was so casual, so at ease with himself that it hardly dawned on me he might be the director of that afternoon’s feature, ‘Kiss the Bride’. I guess I was expecting someone a little more... self-important? Pretentious? A little more... Hollywood? But C. Jay Cox is none of these things. He’s just a really nice guy, and I like that about him. Perhaps it’s his Christian upbringing – he has the manners of an angel.

So, long before I sat down to formally interview him, the conversation had already begun. And to my surprise, he was just as interested in hearing about my experience in Japan, and my reasons for coming here, as he was in having me demonstrate an interest in his films. Maybe that’s the sign of a good writer: he’d rather gather information than monopolize the spotlight and listen to himself talk. He was also eagerly looking forward to exploring Japan on his own, during the interval of a few days when there are no screenings (Monday through Wednesday of this week), the festival staff takes a deep breath, and C. Jay waits for his stars – Philipp Karner and James O’Shea – to arrive for ‘Kiss the Bride’s second Tokyo screening on Sunday, July 20th.

He sold his first script, the Reese Witherspoon vehicle (and hit) ‘Sweet Home Alabama’, before beginning production of ‘Latter Days’, for which most of our audience knows him. Alternating between writing for Hollywood and directing for himself, as well as for all of us, C. Jay has managed to do something most artists only dream of – actually making a living from his work, and having the freedom to develop projects at his own pace, in his own sweet time.

With this success, however, comes the perennial accusation of selling out. Having grown up in a trailer park, C. Jay said, he’s always felt that you need a certain level of affluence to begin with in order to worry about ‘selling out.’ There has to be a feeling that you are wasting that degree in French literature or something, he said, which only someone already coming from a position of privilege can be expected to fret about. C. Jay has no such hang-ups. He tells the stories he wants to tell as skilfully and as unpretentiously as he can, and has found a wide audience that enjoys them. As we say in Japan: ‘omedetou gozaimasu’ – a hearty congratulations to him!

Our conversation continued again after the screening in a little Japanese coffee shop just on the edge of Shinjuku-Nichome, and began with the state of his career just before ‘Sweet Home Alabama’ and ‘Latter Days’...

And since C. Jay was so self-effacing with me, I think I’ll step back for a little while and let him do the talking here!

C. Jay: ...I had been working on a project called ‘The Thing in Bob’s Garage’, which had been optioned, so I had meetings with all the different production companies. At the first meeting I went to, they pitched the ‘Alabama’ script to me. They had been working on it with a screenwriter who did action movies, so it wasn’t the best fit. The focus of the story then was on the male lead, who was a dirt track racer. But the core of it really was a romantic comedy, so I stepped in to bring that into focus.

The ‘Bob’s Garage’ project got pulled away from me, essentially because it had attracted too much interest. No one was going to let me direct it myself. Sometimes, you have to just go ahead and make a movie to prove that you can make a movie. So I started developing ‘Latter Days’.

In the midst of production on that film, ‘Alabama’ came out and was a hit, so all of a sudden I wasn’t just some guy who had never made a movie before. I was the writer of the number one movie in America, which got people a lot more interested in the film I was making.

So, I had essentially given up on breaking into the industry, and – ironically – that’s when it happened!

The ‘Bob’s Garage’ script starts with a gay wedding, and then it becomes this collage of styles and genres. Everybody really liked it, but they also said they would never produce it.

[The film was ultimately directed by veteran comedy director Penelope Spheeris and released in 1998.]

When I started writing ‘Latter Days’, I thought that I was past all the emotional issues in it. But I wasn’t. I thought it would just be a kind of time capsule, to tell that kid [that Cox himself had been] that he’s okay. So the character wrote a lot of it for me.

[The film, of course, is semi-autobiographical, and deals with a set of experience similar to his own, as a young Mormon, out on his two-year mission to win converts and prove himself to his church.]

Unlike the character in the film, I didn’t get sent home from my mission for being gay. I completed my mission and didn’t start to deal with that stuff until afterward. The ex-communication part of the story was something I had to research, and actually I ended up making it harsher in the film than I had first intended to because of what my research revealed.

I moved to Los Angeles after my mission was over. I struggled with a lot of things, but I saw an article in the L.A. Times about this Mormon writer who was questioning the religion. I read his book and he said that Mormonism is a great religion and lifestyle until logic rears its ugly head. He felt that if God hadn’t wanted us to use our reason, he wouldn’t have given it to us.

[Despite the life-changing effect of this book, however, C. Jay couldn’t remember the author’s name or the book’s title!]

There were a lot of prominent people who fell away from the church around that time. The church has this inability to retain intellectuals. Shortly after I left Brigham Young University, there was actually a purge of intellectuals from the university. Professors and historians were fired and kicked out of the church. A number of documents had been discovered that came into conflict with the official version of the story the church tells about itself, and these scholars were interested in these documents.

Guy: It’s sort of foolish, isn’t it, that religion tries to dress itself up as science, as the Creationists do in the U.S., because fundamentally religion and science address different questions. The moral and ethical questions that religion addresses can never be answered by science.

C. Jay: Yeah. If religion can’t come to terms with science and discovery, then how long can it last?

Guy: So you directed ‘Kiss the Bride’, but unlike ‘Latter Days’ you didn’t write it. What attracted you to the script?

C. Jay: Ty Lieberman first wrote it at the Outfest screenwriting lab, and I was helping lead that workshop. Like me, he was writing from what he knew. An ex-boyfriend of his, who had dumped him, was getting married, and he had gone back to his hometown for the wedding. But in the early drafts, the Ryan character [the one getting married] was always an asshole. Ty was obviously still hurting from this experience. And the wife was going to be this terrible shrew. I liked the set-up – it’s kind of this classic formula of the old love showing up at the wedding – but the more I looked at it the more I found myself pulling for the girl. So I encouraged Ty to take it in that direction, to make the characters more sympathetic. I like that you can sympathize with all of them – it means that you don’t know where the story is going to go. I really like the take Alex [Tori Spelling’s character] has on it in the final film. She would rather have the relationship end based on truth, than continue with it as a façade. And I like what Matt says at the end, that she loved him [Ryan] enough that she would have let him go for someone else that he loved [i.e. Matt].

Guy: Maybe it is too strong a word, but there is a pretty explicit critique of marriage in the film. Gay marriage is now a reality in California. What are your thoughts on it?

C. Jay: I don’t think ‘critique’ is too strong. I think a lot of us are too fixated on labels. A lot of gay men fixate on straight guys – you know, if he’s had a gay experience, then he must be gay – and there is this rigidity to these labels. We want our relationships to be called marriages, but maybe it is more politically expedient not to insist on that label, and to push for something else, like ‘civil unions.’ Some people insist that anything less than the word ‘marriage’ means we are second-class citizens.

Guy: But gay marriage is now a reality in California and some other states.

C. Jay: Yeah, but there’s a ballot initiative for this fall’s election in California to change the state constitution and outlaw it. They are trying to plant landmines so that if one day it becomes legal at the federal level, they’ll still be able to block it at the state level. Not surprisingly, a big source of money for this initiative is the Mormon church.

Guy: But what are they going to do? Unmarry thousands of couples?

C. Jay: Yes, that is the point – to invalidate all these marriages. To say that they were never valid.

Guy: Something like gay marriage is totally off the radar here. It’s not that hard to be gay in Japan, but it is also not that visible.

C. Jay: Yeah, I recall reading an interview with I think it was the Japanese foreign minister who said that they have no problem with homosexuality – because there are no homosexuals in Japan!

Guy: What about being gay in Hollywood? In my conversation with Tom Gustafson and Cory James Krueckeberg [director and co-producers of ‘Were the World Mine’] they said that in Hollywood everyone knows who is gay, it just doesn’t filter into the media.

C. Jay: Yeah, there are a lot of highly respected figures in the U.S. that everyone knows are gay, but it’s not talked about. It is basically a non-issue in the film industry. But I tend to feel that with actors, actually, the less you know about their personal life the better. It’s a distraction. When I am watching a film, the less I know about them as people, the more I am able to enjoy their performances. I am in favour of actors coming out, but I wouldn’t go so far as to say it won’t affect their careers.

Guy: There are still no actors of the leading-man type that are out in Hollywood. What do you make of that?

C. Jay: We used to hear that [a big Hollywood star, who is probably not gay] was going to come out and that would make it okay for everyone else. I don’t know if he’s gay or not. I don’t care. There are some popular young actors now who are out in the industry, and will probably transition from TV and become big movie stars, like George Clooney did.

[C. Jay did name names, but to protect him from libel lawsuits, it might be best to omit them here.]

So I think if people have known for years that an actor is gay, it won’t be such a big deal when they become movie stars. But, you know, very few people make it to the level of a Tom Cruise or a Brad Pitt anyway. So it’s not realistic to think that someone like that is going to become a big star and then come out. If they are going to get there, they will have to arrive at that level already out.

Guy: Like Rupert Everett and Ian McKellen did. They basically arrived as stars in America already out in England, so it was never an issue.

C. Jay: Yeah. ‘Lord of the Rings’ and ‘X-Men’ were huge, and Ian McKellan was everywhere [even on the plastic cups at Burger King!--Guy]. So we do have prominent out stars. For some people, though, until we have an out star who’s the biggest star in the world, it won’t be enough. But I just don’t see it happening that way, and I don’t think it matters.

Guy: I found it strange to see in the news a while back that Jodie Foster was breaking up with her partner of 14 years. I thought, ‘When did she ever publicly confirm she was a lesbian?’ But then she is kind of on the waning side of her stardom anyway.

C. Jay: Well, that is more a function of being a middle-aged woman in Hollywood than of being a lesbian. That last sort of action film she did, ‘The Brave One’, didn’t make enough money, so the head of Warner Brothers announced, ‘We’re not making any more films for women.’

Guy: But now you have ‘Sex in the City: The Movie’ and it’s a big hit.

C. Jay: Yeah, so now they’ll look at that and say, ‘Oh, well, that was a success, so maybe we can make money doing films for women.’

Guy: There is a really interesting moment in ‘Kiss the Bride’ when Tori’s character basically says it’s okay to be average, to have an ordinary life and be happy with it, if that’s what you want for yourself. But it’s a message that’s coming from what is basically a Hollywood movie that’s full of people who are not ordinary. So I wonder, how seriously do you mean for us to take that idea – that it’s okay to be average?

C. Jay: Again, I think it’s a question of labels. It’s okay to be extraordinary if that’s really what you are. But if you are not, it’s okay to be ordinary too. In the movie, the kid whose parents are disappointed by his average report card goes from being a happy kid to feeling like damaged goods, because of a label. It’s the same with gays and the labels we want for ourselves. We think we’re second-class citizens if we can’t call our relationships ‘marriages’. It’s the same thing. Do you need society to recognize you as extraordinary in order to feel good about yourself? I know lots of straight couples who have been together for years and aren’t married. But they know the value of their relationship. They don’t need the label ‘marriage’ to validate it.

Guy: I tend to think that gay people and straight people have been sort of heading in opposite directions. It used to be that there were very few options for gays to be open about their sexuality or to have sort of settled relationships, so you had the anonymous sex thing and a lot of secrecy. Whereas for straights, it was the opposite problem. Marriage was the only valid kind of relationship you could have. You weren’t even supposed to have sex unless you were married. So I think maybe we are sort of meeting in the middle, where it’s okay for straight people not to get married and it’s also okay for gays to have long-term monogamous relationships.

C. Jay: Or maybe we are on a collision course and we’re just going to crash in the middle!

Guy: Maybe! But I think gay lifestyles can open things up for straight people. I know a woman here in Tokyo raising a daughter with a former partner of hers, and she said that her sister – who is straight and unmarried – didn’t think she could have children until her sister and her partner did. And then it was like, ‘Well, if they can do it [as lesbians], why can’t I [as a single woman]?’

C. Jay: Yeah, sure. Again, we get so hung up on these labels. I mean, I grew up in cowboy country, where men were men. But you know, I went to this diner in my home town again recently, and there are all these pictures on the walls of miners, cowboys – from like 100 years ago. And, you know, they clearly portray something like a gay relationship. They have these little captions that say things like, ‘Lifetime riding partners.’ I mean, men outnumbered women 50 to 1 in the old west, so it’s not unlikely that some of them were gay.

Guy: There is an American academic who collects those photos, and did a book about it called ‘Dear Friends’[:American Photographs of Men Together 1840-1918, edited by David Deitcher].

C. Jay: Right. I know that book. Or, take the Mormon thing. You put 19-year-old boys together in pairs of two, send them out together for two years, they are not allowed to have any contact with women, they are supposed to be together 24 hours a day. It’s perfect training for being in a gay couple! And once a week you have a ‘companionship evaluation’ meeting where you are supposed to talk about your feelings for each other. It’s like date night. Then you close with a prayer and reaffirm your love for one another. This is what I went through, and it was the most homoerotic period of my life!

Most of those guys were terribly straight! But still you saw them rubbing each others knees and being very physically affectionate with each other.

Guy: You see the same thing in schools here. But I think it’s because homosexuality is still far enough below the radar that it doesn’t register as queer. I mean, you see outrageous gay people on TV; everyone knows gay people exist. But I don’t think the average person here has accepted yet that the person next to them – their friend, fellow student, or co-worker – might actually be gay. So there is a lot of freedom for boys to be affectionate with each other. Plus, there is such a barrier to socialization between the sexes, even in co-ed schools, that I think boys have to get affection from each other because there is nowhere else to get it.

C. Jay: I have a 13-year-old son, and we are very affectionate with each other. But sometimes, it is more satisfying to wrestle or play fight than to hug each other. I think that’s just the way boys are.

Guy: Well, that’s the way young male animals play with each other.

C. Jay: His mother is much more uptight about this than I am. He’ll be inside all day doing something quiet and creative, and then he’ll just want to throw a punch at me or something. His mother thought he needed to be in therapy, but you know roughhousing is just what boys like to do.

It’s kind of incredible that straight relationships ever work, because men and women are so different. I know lots of straight guys that, aside from sex, really have no interest in or use for women. They would rather work on their cars, watch sports, hang out with their buddies – anything but spend time with women.

Guy: At the same time, though, I think that as gay people become more visible, straight men have to police their sexuality more closely. I gather that in the Arab world, again, homosexuality is so under the radar, that there is a lot of freedom for men to be affectionate with each other, because it is not read as queer. But I think Japan is kind of right on that edge, and that as queer visibility increases, a lot of the nice affectionate stuff that you see between boys here will start to get shut down.

C. Jay: Yeah, straight guys are wary of anything that might be perceived as gay. My son is junior high-school aged, and at that age anything you don’t like or that’s uncool is ‘gay’.

Guy: Do his peers know that his father is gay? This can’t be all that uncommon in Los Angeles?

C. Jay: Yeah, no, it’s not. He sort of has to find something else to be embarrassed about!

Guy: How about having a dad that makes movies? I guess that’s not that uncommon either.

C. Jay: Yeah, for him it just means he has to come to meeting sometimes and be really bored.

Guy: Did you always want to have kids, or did you think you had to choose between fatherhood and living as a gay man?

C. Jay: Yeah, I sort of grew up with that assumption, that it was one or the other – being a dad or being gay. But as it worked out, I didn’t have to choose.

So there you go. Add being an upstanding, responsible dad – to the point of being unembarrassing! – to C. Jay’s growing list of credits. We wish him well with ‘Chilled in Miami’ and ‘Three’, and look forward to seeing him again this coming weekend, when ‘Kiss the Bride’ screens for a second time at this year’s festival, with its two stars in attendance. Maybe we’ll have to quiz C. Jay on what he’s learned about Japan from his 3-day jaunt to Kyoto and Hiroshima. Stay tuned!

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