Friday, July 11, 2008

INTERVIEW: Thomas Gustafson and Cory James Kruekeberg

'Were the World Mine' (Opening Film)
Thomas Gustafson (writer, director)
Cory James Kruekeberg (co-writer, producer, production designer)

We made our way out through the crush of festival visitors waiting to see the South Korean film ‘No Regret’, our second opening-night feature, and down to a more relaxed lounge on the 10th floor of the huge Wald 9 cinema complex. On the escalator ride, Tom wondered aloud about the subtitles (actually, more like ‘side-titles’, since they run vertically at the left-hand side of the screen, rather than at the bottom of the screen), saying he is always curious to know how the Shakespearean excerpts are handled when the film screens abroad. Ari-san, one of our co-programmers and a fluent English-speaker, told us that the translator tried to use older Japanese that would ring similarly in the ears of Japanese speakers as Shakespeare’s 400-year-old verse does to native English speakers.

Tom and Cory are, by now, old pros at the festival circuit, and didn’t seem in any way flustered either by the overwhelming scale and intensity of Tokyo, nor by the late July heat. Both dressed in sharp suit jackets – Tom’s a summery beige, over a smartly pressed striped shirt; Cory’s a sober blue over a cheerfully contrasting crew-neck shirt and indigo jeans – they looked every bit the sophisticated international filmmakers that the success of ‘Fairies’ and now ‘Were the World Mine’ has proven them to be. I was joined for my interview by Kim, our interpreter for all events involving English-speaking guests.

Guy: So you arrived in Tokyo maybe last night? How has it been so far?

Tom: Well, I woke up at about 2:00 last night and did some work. Then fell back asleep, and woke up again at 7:00.

Guy: How long will you be here?

Tom: Just until Monday. We have to be in L.A. early next week for Outfest.

Guy: Did you have some time do some sightseeing today?

Tom: Yeah, we went to the Meiji shrine [in Yoyogi park], and then wandered up through Harajuku. We saw the huge line of people waiting outside the Apple store for the new iPhone.

Guy: Yeah, there is a similar line daily at the Krispy Kreme donut shop here in Shinjuku.

Tom: I went to Krispy Kreme – it’s right near our hotel – at 7:00 this morning! I had some kind of star donut.

Guy: This is maybe an ‘only in Japan’ variety of donut?

Tom: Yeah, I don’t know. I’ve never seen it before!

[Tom and Cory graciously gave autographs to some fans and accepted greetings and thanks from members of the Peer Friends / LGBT Youth Exchange Project group.]

Guy: Cory, did you also grow up in small-town America?

Cory: Yes, in Indiana. I went to the University of Northeastern Illinois, and then became an actor in Chicago. Tom and I met there 10 years ago before moving to New York together.

Guy: So you’ve been to lots of festivals, but it must always be a bit disorienting. Are you having your ‘Lost in Translation’ moments?

Tom: Yeah, of course. But, I mean, we are from New York, so Tokyo is not that overwhelming for us. As Americans, you know a little Spanish or maybe French. But here it’s frustrating because we don’t even know the basics of Japanese.

Guy: How many international festivals have you been able to attend?

Cory: We did about 15 with the sort [‘Fairies’], and this is now our 15th with the feature [‘Were The World Mine’].

Guy: So how does Tokyo compare with the other festivals you’ve been to?

Tom: We haven’t had time to do much yet. We went to the festival in Torino, Italy with it. That’s one of the biggest [queer] film festivals. But every festival is different. We’re really glad we were able to come to Japan for the first time with the film.

Kim: There were some young people in the audience who got free tickets. Is that something you do at every festival?

Tom: Yeah, at every festival we attend we ask that the organizers make about 20 to 25 tickets available to queer youth. That’s a high number for a space this size. At this festival, they made 16 tickets available, which is great. The goal is not just to get them to see the film but also introduce a new audience to the festivals as well.

Cory: In the states, the majority of people coming to queer film festivals is men in their 40s.

Tom: But most performing arts organizations make tickets available at a discount to youth, so we thought film festivals should be doing the same thing. This story was made for youth and I know if I had seen a film like this when I was a kid I really would have connected with this kind of story.

Cory: From a purely commercial angle too, outside of the gay festival circuit, young people are most likely to connect with this film, so we want to tap into that audience.

Kim: Have you encountered any resistance to making those tickets available? Or to involving youth in the festivals?

Cory: If it is a gala screening, with a high ticket price, they are more reluctant to make tickets available for free to youth. But, no, we haven’t experienced any resistance to involving youth in the festivals.

Tom: One of the ways we are hoping to keep the film alive after the festival circuit is to do school tours with it. We’ve had some press that has described it as the anti-‘High School Musical.’

Cory: You know, ‘High School Musical’ is this very squeaky-clean, Disneyish film that is very popular among kids in the states. There were two movies made for TV first, and then they did the feature film version. The star, Zach Ephron, became a pop culture phenomenon.

Kim: Do you ever meet the young people that are able to attend your film for free?

Tom: Yeah. Usually it’s just a ‘Hi’ and a ‘Thank you.’ But that’s great. We also have a MySpace page, and a FaceBook profile for the film so we make all these friends that way. It is a great way to promote the film to kids.

Kim: So which international festivals have you been to with the film?

Tom & Cory: Italy, Canada, Budapest – we didn’t go, but the film was there –, Dublin, Copenhagen, South Africa…

Guy: The film really does look great – not low-budget. How did you manage to do that?

Tom: The whole crew was paid the same wage, including Cory and me, so there was no hierarchy.

Cory: Everyone got the lowest level of pay allowed by SAG [the Screen Actors’ Guild].

Tom: But we also had a lot of help from sponsors. Kodak gave us about half of our film for free. MAC cosmetics donated make-up. Puma gave us shoes! That’s great for a film like this.

Kim: The woman who played the cosmetics lady in the film was really interesting.

Tom: Yeah, Jill Larson, she is a soap opera star. She has been on ‘All My Children’ for like 20 years.

Guy: So what are some gay films that you particularly admire?

Tom: Of course, Todd Haynes – ‘Velvet Goldmine.’

Cory: For me, ‘Parting Glances’ was the first [gay] film I saw that really felt authentic and real. But on the gay indie circuit, it’s pretty bleak.

Tom: We definitely wanted to make something optimistic.

Guy: Yeah, there seems to be some tension in the film between wanting it to be a fantasy but also keeping one foot on the ground. I liked that about it.

Cory: It’s funny, we don’t even think of it as a fantasy anymore. We’re in the habit of thinking, ‘Oh, yeah, this could happen…’!

Tom: The film was rejected from a lot of mainstream film festivals, maybe because it is too positive.

Cory: You know, if it had ended with somebody committing suicide or something, maybe they would have been more interested.

Tom: It sad to say, but that may be the reason it was rejected.

Guy: So the question came up after the screening about gay marriage. It’s taking off like wildfire in California – sorry, bad metaphor! What do you make of that?

Cory: It’s kind of incredible. I mean, until about 5 years ago, gay marriage wasn’t even on the radar. Then it became an issue in the last election. And now it’s just a reality.

Tom: I think it’s inevitable now…

Cory: It’s like with women’s rights and racial equality, it just gets to a point where it is so obviously unequal that it has to change and it can happen quickly. You know, it started in a few places – Massachusetts, California. But it might take 10 years for it to become a nationwide thing.

Tom: And now New York is recognizing gay marriages from other jurisdictions. I mean, it’s just a matter of time. If a couple gets married in Canada, and then there is some issue back home with one being denied the right to visit their partner in hospital or something, there’ll be a lawsuit.

Cory: My first boyfriend has been with an illegal migrant from Mexico for a long time. He was just arrested for a minor offence, but of course he is being detained and will probably be sent back to Mexico.

Tom: They did all the stuff you can do legally [i.e. to make their relationship official], but of course they are not married, so…

Cory: Marriage is just such a symbol. I mean, I don’t even know if it is so important to most [gay] people. We’re really just pushing through to the next plateau. Tom and I have been together for 10 years, but we don’t really think about getting married.

Guy: So do you have your next project mapped out? Can you tell us a little about it?

Tom: Our next feature is called ‘Mariachi Gringo’. It’s going to be filmed in the U.S. and Mexico, and it will be music-driven, like ‘Were the World Mine’.

Cory: It’s about an average Midwestern American guy who discovers a love of mariachi music and goes down to Mexico to become a mariachi musician.

Guy: So is there a gay aspect to it?

Cory: Yeah, in Mexico he befriends a young woman, and she eventually comes out to him as a lesbian. We were just down in Mexico making connections with the lesbian community there. We want to try to get a flavour of what life is like for lesbians there, because obviously it’s not something we have any direct experience with. It also makes sense for us to have gay content in this film, because we now have such a great relationship with so many gay film festivals. So we feel it’s necessary to create something that can be shown at those festivals.

Tom: Yeah, we’re interested in exploring the question of what it’s like to come out in a different culture.

Cory: So the woman in the film dated an American while she was at college, so there are all those issues of crossing the border…

Guy: You both seem very ambitious. You really seem like you are shooting for the Oscars some day. But also to sort of sneak queer content into more mainstream movies.

Tom: Yeah, we are always trying to take it to the next level. What’s the point in telling a small story?

Cory: But at the same time, our style just tends to be seen as more commercial than a lot of the other independent stuff.

Kim: Which festivals around the U.S. has ‘Were the World Mine’ been screened at?

Cory: The premiere was at the Florida Film Festival, where it won the audience award. It also played at Nashville, where it won the music award, which was really exciting. And it is going to the Taipei Golden Horse festival. That will be our first big international non-gay film festival.

But we were rejected from maybe the top 5 international festivals. Just like the film industry itself, the festival circuit is very complicated. Like, we were rejected from Berlin. And then a while later a programmer from the Berlin festival saw it in New York and asked us, ‘Why didn’t you submit it to our festival?’ So it’s hard to know what happens. In some cases, there is a head programmer, and if that person sees it and doesn’t like it, that’s the end of the story.

Tom: The film sells-out its screening wherever it plays.

Cory: Some festivals have told us that the film is too gay for a mainstream festival.

Guy: I hope Toronto didn’t tell you it was too gay!

Tom: No, the Toronto International Film Festival accepted the film for consideration and waived the fee for submitting it. But we haven’t heard back from them yet.

Cory: We’ve also had some really great press quotes in the states that have helped. Like one said something like, ‘This film surpasses in quality everything that screened this year at Tribeca and Sundance.’ So that puts some pressure on them to say, ‘Yeah, why isn’t this film showing? It should be at these festivals.’ Unfortunately, at Sundance this year they had two other films about students being inspired by their teachers!

Guy: About 15 years ago, there was this quote from Ian McKellan who said, ‘One of these days a really talented young actor is going to come along and come out, and everybody will love him, and he’ll make a lot of money for his agents and the movie studios.’ But it hasn’t happened. What do you make of that?

Tom: Yeah. It’s strange. The closet is very much created by the industry. An agent will say he doesn’t want his actor in a film, but you’re never sure if the actor is in the closet, or the agent is keeping him in the closet.

Cory: Everybody in the industry knows who is gay, but they just don’t get asked about it in the press. But, yeah, the agents and the managers are sort of in the closet too.

Tom: Even the stars of our film are now backing away from talking about their sexuality now in interviews.

Guy: One of the things that really irritated me when ‘Brokeback Mountain’ was released – I didn’t particularly like that film, but it was an interesting moment – was that the interviews with the guys were so homophobic. They kept getting asked these basically homophobic questions about shooting the love scenes, and they totally fumbled the ball. I just wish someone could have coached them on how to respond to those questions. I mean, if you want brownie points for making a ‘groundbreaking’ film, you had better learn to talk about your film in a way that doesn’t reinforce the homophobia you are supposedly combating.

Cory: The ridiculous thing too is Jake Gyllenhaal is from one of the most liberal families you can imagine. His parents are both in the industry. He’s like the most gay friendly person you could hope to meet. But as soon as you put a microphone in front of a young guy and start asking those questions…

Tom: Yeah, that and they sort of tried to market it as a love story, not really a gay film.

Kim: The same thing has happened with ‘The L Word’. It’s had a huge marketing push here, but it is aimed at straight women.

Cory: But that’s the same audience that is watching it in the states!

Guy: So what are your plans for your time in Tokyo? Is there anything you absolutely have to do?

Tom: Normally we are huge planners, but this time we don’t have any firm plans. Our sales representative gave us all these books and maps, she said, ‘Here, take this and this…’ And my aunt lived here for 5 or 6 years, so she is giving us some ideas of what to do.

Cory: I want to try to see some kabuki, and apparently there is a nice river cruise you can do.

Guy: What about trying a Japanese public bath? That would be a good cross-cultural experience for you! It’s too bad you are here in the heat of summer, because no one wants to take a hot bath now.

Tom: Actually, we saw a Japanese gay short film at the New Festival [New York’s queer film fest] about going to a bath. It was about an M-to-F transsexual who goes for a bath with her sisters, who are very protective of her. It played with the Philippine film ‘Queen Raquela.’

Guy: Do either of you recognize any influences of Japanese cinema on your own work?

Tom: [a little embarrassed, perhaps…] Not really. I mean, I haven’t seen much.

Guy: That’s one of the great things about living in Japan, is you can see all this film culture that never makes it across the pond.

Tom: I even went to film school!

Cory: Well, I come from a theatre background, so one of my professors – Shozo Sato – was a scholar of Kabuki, and a faculty member at my university, so he exposed us to that. He even brought his Kabuki MacBeth to Tokyo. We also studied tea ceremony with him.

Guy: Yeah, I think a lot of us have teachers like that in our past. They are sort of guerrilla ambassadors for Japanese culture, to start getting you curious about Japan.

What about future stage projects, Cory? You both seem to be in a film groove now.

Cory: Well, as far as theatre goes, I am an actor, so I probably will start going to auditions again sometime soon.

Tom: We get pressured a lot to do a stage version of ‘Were the World Mine.’ The film is compared a lot to ‘Lilies’ [Canadian film by John Greyson], and that started as a theatre piece.

We thought we had tortured Tom and Cory long enough, so we ended the conversation. They politely declined any help finding their way back to their hotel, just as they had insisted they could make their way into the city without an escort from the airport. Like their innovative films, these two are independent in every sense of the word! We wish them well and hope to welcome them back to Tokyo with their next project, ‘Mariachi Gringo.’ Thanks, guys!

For more info on the screening, and more interview nuggets with Tom and Cory, see Kim's piece at:

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