Friday, July 11, 2008

Opening Night: Sweet Dreams Indeed!

The festival opened to a packed house for Thomas Gustafson’s ‘Were the World Mine’(screening again Saturday July 19, at 18:50 - Spiral Hall), a lushly photographed musical fantasy with a big heart, about Timothy, a queer student at an elite all-boys high school, who discovers a love potion while rehearsing Shakespeare’s ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’, and soon turns the whole town (temporarily) queer.

Just before show time, the lights dimmed and the distinctive thump and buzz of Eurythmics’ 1983 dance-floor hit ‘Sweet Dreams’ came pumping out over the loud-speakers. From the back of the theatre, two beautiful bronzed gladiators, brandishing aloft glowing red swords and wearing just the tiniest little white straps of leather (and enormous white fun-fur boots), descended on us.

For a few moments, as they thrust and parried on the stage in slow motion (giving the audience plenty of time to admire their chiselled physiques), we weren’t sure if their quarrel was with each other, or if they came as guardians of some other queer dignitary. Our silent question was soon answered as ‘Margaret’ – a Japanese drag Queen with a capital ‘Q’ – entered stage left, in full Elizabeth I regalia. She stood perhaps 6’5”, a full foot and a half of which was made up by her powdered wig, with a bun on each side giving it the silhouette of Mickey Mouse’s ears, and doubtless six or eight inch platform shoes concealed beneath her enormous dress. This would be our hostess for the evening, and she welcomed us to the 17th annual festival to resounding applause.

During the introduction (which was all in Japanese, so alas, I can only give the flavour of it), Margaret noted that she had been a high school student when the festival first began. At the back of the theatre, a row of 16 queer youth from the Peer Friends / LGBT Youth Exchange Project were asked to stand and take a bow. They were invited to attend the screening free of charge, at the request of the director (see my interview with Thomas Gustafson for more details) and the festival happily complied, finding an anonymous sponsor to cover the cost of the tickets. Then she dispatched her bodyguards (introduced to us as Hirosomi and Satoshi) to fetch the director and his co-writer / producer / production designer Cory James Kruekeberg to the stage to kick off the screening with a short interview and introduction.

Margaret: Welcome to the festival. Is this your first time in Japan?

Tom & Cory: Yes, it’s the first time for both of us.

Margaret: So what do you think of Japanese fairies?

Tom: I like fairies everywhere! (laughter)

Margaret: Before we watch this wonderful film, is there any comment you’d like to make?”

Tom: Thank you all for coming. We’re really honoured to have the opening night screening. ‘Were the World Mine’ is based on a short film we made called ‘Fairies’, which we took to 100 different film festivals. After that, we decided we wanted to expand it into a feature-length version, with the help of William Shakespeare, so that’s what you will be seeing here tonight. We hope you enjoy the film.

Cory: Yeah, we’re really excited to be in Japan for the first time. We’ll be here for a few days and we’re really looking forward to meeting some of you and seeing more of the city.

Margaret, Tom, Cory, Hirosomi and Satoshi then posed for anyone who cared to take their picture, and there were plenty eager to do so. As she towered over all the others, even the very tall Cory, she had to slouch rather like Nicole Kidman habitually did during her marriage to Tom Cruise, to avoid attracting attention to her own Amazonian height. And with the photo session over, we settled in for the first of more than 40 wonderful films on offer at this year’s festival.

From left to right: Cory James Kruekeberg, Tom Gustafson, Margaret, and the gladiators.

‘Were The World Mine’ straddles a line between fantasy and reality, with one foot in the delightful world of Shakespeare and his ‘fairies’, and another in the real world, often marred by intolerance and homophobia. A group of about 10 young male actors have the challenge of convincing us that they can be rowdy, macho rugby players one moment, and horny love-struck homos the next, under the influence of Timothy’s newly discovered love-potion. The musical sequences are beautifully arranged, choreographed and photographed. What I admired most was the way the film manages to give us a hopeful and optimistic story – particularly important since it’s primary audience is young people (queer or not) – while recognizing the wisdom of the old saying, ‘Be careful what you wish for.’ As Shakespeare tells us, and we are reminded over and over again in the film, “The course of true love never did run smooth.” Timothy’s transformation of his little town into a hotbed of sudden same-sex infatuations has many unhappy results, and as in Shakespeare’s play, in the end he finds it is best not to interfere with the natural course of love. Luckily for Timothy, however, the object of his own affections, the rugby jock Jonathon, does turn out to be queer after all, and all is well that ends this well.

After the screening, Margaret returned to the stage, this time in a fetching cocktail dress – all the better to show off her rather athletic-looking legs! – and a different (enormous!) blonde wig, for a short Q & A session with Tom and Cory.

Margaret: I have many questions. But first I’d like to know, why did you choose to focus on high school aged boys?

Tom: I grew up in a small American town like the one in this film. And it was hard growing up gay in a place like that. So as filmmakers, we often tell stories about what we know.

Margaret: You have said in interviews that you wanted to make something different from a ‘gay indie’ film. What is your image of a ‘gay indie’ film?

Tom: Well, we wanted this to be more than just a gay film. We like to think that more than just gay people can relate to this story, and we wanted the film to reach a broader audience. In the U.S., as soon as you do a film with gay content it is immediately put into this gay film box, and then you are limited to the audience at gay film festivals. We wanted to break bout of that box and have more people see this film.

Cory: There is also this trend in independent cinema to shooting on video, with zero interest in how the film looks, telling everyday stories, with low production values. We wanted our film to look like it cost a lot more than it did.

Margaret: If you don’t mind me asking, how much did it cost to make? (laughter)

Tom: Well under $1,000,000 US. But we are still in negotiation with distributors, so it’s better not to say how much it cost exactly.

Margaret: Were you able to meet all of your costs, or did you go over-budget?

Cory: No, we still have some money in the bank!

Margaret: You are right about the production values – it didn’t look low budget. How about the casting? How did you go about finding the right actors?

Tom: We had already worked with Wendy Robie, who plays Mrs. Tebbit, the school teacher. She appeared in the short ‘Fairies’ that we did. I don’t know if it was popular over here, but she is quite well known from her role on the TV series ‘Twin Peaks’. So we got her first.

Margaret: I really liked her character the best. I wondered if, really, she is the main character of the story, sort of the Titania in this story, not Puck [i.e. Timothy].

Tom: Yeah, we liked her too. We like to imagine that maybe this is just one of her adventures, that she has maybe going around the world helping different people.

Cory: And the actress is very much behind that. Originally we approached her for the role of the mother, but Wendy didn’t want that role. She had taught Shakespeare in high school before becoming an actress, so she brought that to the role.

Margaret: I have an idea of three Japanese actresses that could play the three women’s roles in a Japanese version of this story. What about the two main guys?

Tom: We offered the roles to all the celebrity teen actors in Hollywood, but none of their agents would go for it. It’s very sad, in a way, that they are so afraid of playing a gay role. But we don’t know if they actors were against it, or just their agents. So we did open casting calls in Chicago, Los Angeles, and New York. We found both of the actors, Tanner Cohen and Nathaniel David Becker, at our New York casting call. This is the first big film role for both of them.

The teenage girl in the film, Frankie, is played by Zelda Williams, who is Robin Williams’ daughter. This is also her first big film role. I saw her on TV and thought we had to have her.

Margaret: The casting really is great. When I saw the basketball scene, at first I was thinking of ‘West Side Story’, but then later with the love potion I was thinking maybe George Romero’s zombie films! (laughter) Were you doing a parody of that film?

Tom: Hmm… should I say yes? I don’t know…

Margaret: I was thinking too deeply, apparently! (laughter) Okay, so we have time for a few questions from the audience.

1st audience member: In order to make a film like this, presumably you have some gay actors and some non-gay actors. How was it for the non-gay actors in the film?

Margaret: Let me first ask you [audience member], which one was your type? (laughter)

1st audience member: The principal! (laughter)

Tom: It was important for us to cast gay actors in gay roles. The two leads are gay—

[Here Tom and Cory had a short little private chat, which none of us was privy to, but elicited some curious giggles from the audience and Margaret as well.]

—You know, we’re getting tired of seeing straight actors playing gays. In terms of the other actors, this is an independent film so no one is doing it for the money. So, they are there because they believe in the project. There was some immaturity on the part of some of the teenage actors, but this is where Wendy Robie really helped. She sort of stepped in and said, ‘Look, we’re here to tell a story and if you can’t do what that story requires of you, then you shouldn’t be here.’

Margaret: And now back to the principal… (laughter)

2nd audience member: Thank you for this wonderful film. I have two questions: What was your favourite scene? And if you had some love juice in Tokyo, how would you use it?

Tom: Shooting the festival scene at night was fun. We had a lot of extras, and the energy was really high. When I look at the whole film now, the musical numbers are really fun to see. They were very complicated to stage.

As for the love juice, I would share it so you can all find mates!

Margaret: ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ ends with a wedding, and gay marriage is a hot topic in the U.S. at the moment. What do you think of gay marriage? Is it the final goal for gay activism or the gay movement?

Tom: No, it’s not the final goal, but it has to happen, and I think now is the time.

Cory: You know, activism takes on different forms in every country and culture. It never stops. In the U.S., there are so many different cultures and races that there is a constant fight to feel equal to the person next to you, so there is always some new battle to be fought. I’m not sure how that translates to other cultures.

Margaret: So I have to ask, did your hotel reservation involve a double bed? (laughter)

After a little pause…

Tom: Yes, it’s just one bed! (applause)

And that appealing mental image brought to a close our sold-out opening film. For more discussion with Tom and Cory, see my interview (posted separately) with the producing partners, and – as the answer to Margaret’s final question revealed – romantic partners as well!

Tomorrow: ‘Kiss the Bride’, with director Jay Cox…

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