Saturday, July 26, 2008

‘Shelter’ Screening & Interview with Director Jonah Markowitz

‘Shelter’ (Director: Jonah Markowitz)
2007 / USA / 88 mins
Screened: Sunday July 13, 16:00 – Wald 9; Monday July 21, 13:40 – Spiral Hall

I didn’t hesitate to tell the director, and I won’t hesitate to tell you, I think this is one of the best films – perhaps the very best film – that screened at this year’s festival, and is one of the best queer films I have seen in my more than 15 years of watching queer cinema. Sometimes we hear people say, about a film like ‘Brokeback Mountain’, for example, “It’s not really a gay film; it’s just a very human film” – or something to that effect. It is meant as a compliment, of course, to the artists behind the project, but it sounds oddly homophobic, like a back-handed insult to the queer community. Why can’t a film be both ‘gay’ and ‘very human’, after all? In this case, however, I think one can pay the film this compliment without in any way slighting the queer community. It is a gay film, as the director insisted to me, but there is a seamlessness with which it has blended sexuality with its other themes and preoccupations that I haven’t often seen in (particularly American) films about queer characters.

On paper, it doesn’t sound like this film should work. A young struggling artist from a poor background and a gay writer who is the elder brother of his best friend reconnect while surfing and begin a love affair that threatens to tear the fledgling artist’s world apart. Throw in a chronically ill parent and an unmarried sister with a child, and set it against the backdrop of Southern California’s beaches and surfing culture, and you might have the makings of a bad made-for-TV issue-of-the-week movie. But here it is handled so skilfully that it never slips over into the sort of ‘Beverly Hills 90210’ melodrama that the film’s premise puts it in danger of becoming.

How does it avoid these pitfalls? Quite simply, through a miraculous combination of good writing, excellent direction, cinematography and visual design, a knock-out performance by its young lead, Trevor Wright, and an original folk-rock soundtrack that sets the tone without distracting us with over-familiar melodies. I cried through about 60% of this film, not because it is relentlessly sad – it actually concludes with a well-earned and in no way cheap happy ending – but because I found it so moving to see these elements brought together with such grace. It’s the kind of film that, maybe, we were hoping would become possible 10 or 20 years ago, in which being gay is just a normal part of life, even as the world takes its time adjusting to the fact of our existence.

The director, Jonah Markowitz, joined us after the screening for a Q&A session with Nishimura-san.

Nishimura-san: Thank you very much for coming.

Jonah: Thank you for having me in Tokyo. It’s an honor.

Nishimura-san: One of the most impressive things about this film is that it concludes with a gay couple raising a child. What made you want to tell this kind of story?

Jonah: I didn’t set out specifically to make a gay film. I just wanted to tell a story about two people coming together and taking responsibility for one another and for a child.

Nishimura-san: As you may or may not know, it is almost impossible for us to see gay couples raising children in Japan.

Jonah: On the two coasts, in New York and Los Angeles, it is quite well accepted and relatively common. In the middle of the country, you don’t see it. But in California we have gay marriage now, so you are seeing families develop. Maybe it has something to do with being near the ocean! (laughter)

Nishimura-san: While you were making the film, or as you watch it now, are there any scenes in particular that stand out for you?

Jonah: Each time I see it I like different things, but that image of the family at the end is really important to me. Seeing the three of them together, that’s still an ideal that we are working toward. And also that in this story the gay character is not a disturbance or a threat to the family, as we sometimes see in other kinds of stories. Here, he’s responsible and helpful – he’s the one that is holding the family together.

Audience member: Thanks for this great film. It made me homesick [for California], so thanks for that. My question is about the importance of place in this film. Why did you choose to set it in San Pedro, rather than Malibu or Manhattan beach?

Jonah: San Pedro is a less affluent community and it’s a place you never see in movies. It’s usually Beverly Hills or the places you mention. I really wanted the characters to meet outdoors, not in a gay bar or something like that. So it had to be a place with a beach, maybe a port, a bridge – a mix of the ocean and of urban landscapes. I wanted Zach’s environment to be very urban [he’s a graffiti artist], so San Pedro had all those things.

2nd audience member: I really enjoyed the film, but I was surprised that the sex scene was so soft. It’s unusual in gay films now not to be more explicit about the sex. I wondered why this was. Did you cast heterosexual actors for this reason, or were you worried about shocking your audience?

Jonah: Both of the actors are straight, but they had great chemistry so I was really happy to get them. It was much more important for me to show intimacy in this film, not just sex. I wanted to show what was going on with their faces. For Zach, this is his first time to be really intimate, really vulnerable with someone. So, when we rehearsed it, we just talked about being in love, which anyone can relate to. You know, it’s that experience of spending all day in bed with someone. By the way, that set of clips in the middle of the film of them doing things together we jokingly called our ‘Big Gay Love Montage’. (laughter)

3rd audience member: As a mother, I find it hard to watch that last scene where the mother walks away from her child. Was it difficult for you to tell the story that way? Did you ever consider letting a larger family structure form around that couple?

Jonah: Yeah, it was hard for us too. The actress who played the mother was pregnant at the time, so it hit home for her. But we weren’t seeing it as a final separation. She’s not going away forever. So the film is a bit open-ended that way, which I like.

I had a chance to chat – too briefly, I fear – with the director, Jonah Markowitz, after the screening. Of course, I began by enthusing about the film to him in much the same terms as I have here.

Guy: Is this your first feature-length film?

Jonah: Yes.

Guy: It’s a great looking film. Right from the opening credits, it has a very distinctive visual style. Where does that come from?

Jonah: Well, I worked as an art director for years before this. You know, again, we wanted to reflect that urban world of Zach’s, so the graffiti and the opening credits are all part of that.

Guy: How did you like the Tokyo audience for the film?

Jonah: They were great. They really responded well to the film. And it was nice to see so many women in the audience. Often at queer film festivals it is all men.

Guy: Sort of a technical question – was the film shot digitally or on film?

Jonah: We shot it on film, but then transferred it to video for editing. Most films are edited digitally now, because it is just so much easier. But then typically they are transferred back to film. We decided to stick with digital for projection as well. The projection here today was one of the best I have seen.

Guy: It’s interesting in this film that it’s a love story that crosses lines of class as well as sexuality. It put me in mind of E.M. Forster’s ‘Maurice’. Was there anything you were trying to say by introducing that theme?

Jonah: Sure, I mean, it’s the same idea really that in love we all connect regardless of class, race, sexuality.

Guy: In the end, this is a story about a kind of improvised family. Why did you want to tell that kind of story?

Jonah: From the beginning we wanted it to be about family. You know, losing our families is perhaps the scariest thing we can imagine. So stories about improvised families, as you say, are appealing because they suggest that we can make new families out of just the people that are already in our lives, and that gives us hope.

Guy: Did you have any models for telling that kind of story? My background is in literature more so than film, and often Dickens’ stories involve improvised families.

Jonah: No, there was no model. I wanted to create a new model.

Guy: Trevor Wright’s performance is fantastic. Did he have any difficulty playing this role?

Jonah: No, Trevor is a natural. He’s done a lot of TV work, and he grew up in the industry, so he is an experienced actor.

Guy: The surf setting is really interesting – it really sets the tone of the film. Did you have a special unit to do the surf scenes?

Jonah: Yeah, I had a great surf DP [Director of Photography] for those sequences.

Guy: Why was it so important for you to incorporate this into the story?

Jonah: Because I think in America male bonding tends to take place outdoors. These are not conventional gay characters, so I wanted them to connect in a kind of unconventional way.

Guy: Are there any films or filmmakers that you particularly admire?

Jonah: I admire anyone who can get their films made. I think we really have to honour and respect each other as fellow artists.

Guy: Where did the financing for this film come from?

Jonah: From Here! Films. They’re an all-gay cable TV channel in the U.S., and they’re primarily involved in distributing films and television programs, but they decided to set up a program where they would fund the development and production of a feature. This is the first feature film to come out of that program.

Guy: It feels to me that this is a film about which you can say, “It’s not a gay movie” without slighting the gay community.

Jonah: Well, it is a gay movie, but it’s not just a gay movie. I think young queer viewers in particular are not interested in the standard gay coming out stories any more. So this film sort of breaks out of that mould, and maybe is something young people can relate to more easily.

Guy: What about the child actor in the film? How did he deal with being a film with these themes?

Jonah: He didn’t really understand the context of the story, so there was no issue with that.

[At this point, Jonah’s partner Sean joined the conversation.]

Guy: Is the character Sean [played by Brad Rowe] in the film named after you?

Sean: No, no. I didn’t meet Jonah until after the film was finished!

Guy: So have you guys had a chance to get out and explore Tokyo? Does Tokyo live up to the hype?

Jonah: Absolutely. Yeah, we’ve been having a lot of fun.

Guy: What do you like best about the city?

Sean: I like just walking around the city and seeing the variety of scenery. I must have put like 2,000 miles on this pair of Vans [his shoes]! I like finding a park and you think it’s just going to be a few trees, and it turns out to be this forest in the city.

Guy: Earlier in the week we had Thomas Gustafson and Cory James Kruekeberg here with ‘Were the World Mine’. They’re a couple and they make their films together. Do you guys collaborate with each other?

Jonah: No, Sean is not in the industry – thank god!

Guy: So what is your next project?

Jonah: I am developing several things at the moment, some queer-themed and some not.

And with the success of ‘Shelter’, I’m sure we’re ready to watch anything else Jonah wants to show us.

EPILOGUE: ‘The Downtown Disco Wallet’

Incidentally... when we first met Sean the previous night he gave us an invaluable little urban survival tip, as he showed us what he calls his ‘Downtown Disco Wallet’. Suitable both for world travellers, like him and his partner Jonah, or just for style-conscious revellers out for a night on the town, the Downtown Disco Wallet is a practical solution to the perennial problem of how to carry cash and cards all in neat package that doesn’t make it look like you’re concealing an eggplant in the front pocket of your jeans (though that might well bring about other desirable opportunities).

So, what is the Downtown Disco Wallet? It’s simple: take your credit cards, your ID, business cards and any other essentials of the same size, and wrap your cash around them. Affix a standard type black binder clip, readily available at Business Depot or any office environment you happen to be slaving away in until you sell your first screenplay or land your first role in a Michael Bay film. And voila! No muss, no fuss! Just one handy, slender, ultra-practical and in no-way unfashionable DIY [Do-It-Yourself] Downtown Disco Wallet. Let’s see how long it takes this trend to catch on! Thanks for the tip, Sean.

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