One of the interesting facts about queer cinema is that it provides a perfect platform for so many different gay men and women from all walks of life to tell their stories to add to the rich tapestry of how our community is still evolving. It enables us to mold our own history and also help shape our future as we share our experiences on how we accepted our sexuality and all that it entailed. By doing so, it hopefully enriches our lives too.
One of the themes that we never tire of re-visiting is a coming-of-age tale as even now this rite of passage is the time when we first realize that not only are we different from most of our peers, but that our adolescence may not be as smooth as theirs just because we are queer.
Akron is one such story and it’s creator Brian O’Donnell grew up there in the mid-west in this suburban city that the movie is named after, and whose main claim to fame is that it’s the birthplace of Firestone tires and Chrissie Hynde of The Pretenders. O’Donnell left there several years ago and settled in NY where he created art and wrote whilst holding down a day job, which for the past 18 years has been with Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS. Not having written much for some time, a trip to the Opera at the Met suddenly plopped an idea for a screenplay in his head, and (almost) overnight he became a first-time filmmaker. O’Donnell’s positively refreshing tale really tugs at heartstrings and has become a fast favorite on the Film Festival circuit right now. It’s the story of two college freshman falling in love and then having to deal with some disfunction between the two sets of parents, and in it O’Donnell sets out to show that small towns do not always mean small closed minds
queerguru sat down with O’Donnell before his latest sold-out screening at MiFo in Miami to talk about why it was so important for him to tell this tale.
I made the movie because I wrote the screenplay, which came to me in a moment of inspiration. I hadn’t written anything for quite some time and so I thought I have to take it as far as I can because it may never come again. Also if I wrote it down then it would free space up in my mind for something else. However I had no idea when I wrote it that I was going to direct it, or co-direct it, until my friend Sasha King read the script and said let’s make this together. We made a decision to co-produce it too and I was happy to agree because it made sense as I was so familiar with the story and with the locations. This was after all my hometown and I had the visuals all in my head for specific locations that were the same in the script and that ended up being in the shoot, so everything came together nicely.
QG: Where did the story come from?
A friend of mine took me to go see Il Trovatore at The Met and I was so blown away, and it so inspired me that I had it all in my head by the intermission. The opera has this really big emotional content with two houses pitting against each other because of fate, and there is a strong mother-son relationship plus a strong love relationship. So then by the 2nd Act the movie actually started playing in my head. I was not even making any conscious decisions about the plot as the story simply really took care of itself .
QG: Does their situation/attitude reflect reality there in Akron or was this how you would like it to be?
Mostly the latter. I definitely know several young people in particular who generally have strong relationships with their parents, and who had come out to them in High School and been accepted by them, but that was certainly not so with my generation.
However it is changing. We just screened it in Akron and the local audience took ownership of it right away. Parents of my age whose kids aren’t in high school yet know that this would be their attitude even if they haven’t yet had the chance to actually live it out, and so I think they found it very affirming. There were certainly people in the audience affected by it and who really liked it, but as they hadn’t personally experienced any situation like this, I think for them it was seen as more like science fiction. I also think it works on the level of people being able to see a world that they never imagined and that is a bit unfamiliar to them. Because we placed the story in the mid-west and rooted it in the commonality of the suburbs, the (straight) audience found themselves identifying with it much more than they thought they would.
QG: Where is Akron on the scale of easy/tough to come out as gay?
There is a University downtown, and I think any time there is a University there are kids in the 20’s who are either coming out, or are out, and tend to proclaim themselves. I think for high school kids it is still hard everywhere, and in Akron, it probably is even harder. I hear stories from both sides. There was a young guy at one high school who was a football player and he came out and the next day he was in drama club with all of his friends, and he was totally accepted, and it was no big deal. But I also hear stories about others that were not so lucky and were ostracized and bullied.
So I don’t think Akron is on the cutting edge, but I do think that like similar smaller cities across America the school systems are now really supportive. There is an elementary school down the street from where I grew up that now has a second-grader transgendered kid, and they did everything right. Their response was perfect and pro-active. So I think it is moving a lot faster and in a lot more areas than people anticipate
QG:Why did you almost play down the boys sexuality in the movie?
For two reasons, I wanted to really concentrate on the love relationship between them, which I wanted to make very clear. My mother, after seeing it a couple of times, remarked that she thinks that a lot of straight people simply do not know that gay people are capable of falling in love, and I think she is spot on with that. That is something we wanted to express. We’ve seen in so many movies that attractive young men be sexual constantly, but seeing them falling in love, and flirting, and talking through difficult situations, is rarely shown on the screen.
Also we are hoping to get a PG rating, and we know that the Ratings Board is notoriously homophobic and harder on gay films. If there is some sort of gay content … especially sexual…. they will automatically give it an ‘R’. We really would like young people to be able watch our movie. Obviously in the long run it doesn’t matter when it turns up on Netflix and Cable etc., but if we do get a theatrical release we would like for younger people to be able to go see it too.
QG: How important was it to you to have a happy/positive ending?
My original script was even more positive because I had fallen in love with the characters and I wanted them all to be very happy. Then as I wrote it out I realized that plot wise these characters wouldn’t make it as far as the length of my script, so it is more open-ended that my original draft. There is still connectivity but there is less than there was . I think it reflects more accurately what could happen because of the characters own personal struggles.
In London at a Q & A someone asked why we made the ending so happy, but here in the US people are opposite and ask couldn’t I have made it more happy ? So I think this middle ground works for us because it will please most people in that it is not all tied up completely and you come away thinking that these characters have still got some things to work out after the final shot.
QG: How did you cast these boys?
We had an Agent in NY and we probably saw about 50 guys for the roles including a lot of Broadway actors. Then there was this moment when Matthew Frias who plays Benny, sent his tape in from Dallas where he was based at the time, and it was immediate, we knew that it was him. His performance, his look, his age …he was 18 when we filmed it … everything about him was perfect. Edmund Donovan came in to audition for us, and once again it was obvious that he was perfect, and we were so lucky enough to get them to agree. The same with the mothers and the father.
She’s doing it right now on Broadway and has just been nominated for an Outer Circle Critics Award, and I’m sure she’ll get nominated for a Tony too … it’s one of those standout performances. She was one of the original cast members of ‘In The Heights’ and is an incredible singer and a stage performer. She turned out to be wonderfully down to earth and we brought her with everyone else to Ohio in March when it was winter and snowy and her dressing room was my brother’s basement. She was very game and pitched in and we sat down to dinners with the Grip and the interns and the whole crew, and she really fitted into our very communal atmosphere.
QG: So how has the City of Akron taken this all ? Are you going to be given the keys for the city or a lifetime ban?
(laughs) The Cleveland International Film Festival brought us to Akron and we screened there in the biggest auditorium in town and over 400 people showed up which was their biggest crowd there ever. It was not necessarily a homecoming for me, and really was people just coming to see the film. It was a very good cross section of the people who engage in the arts in Akron both gay and straight, and there were all really responsive and really excited about it .
We will most likely go back and screen there again at one of the local Art House theaters as people have been asking for us to return. I’d like to think that I might even get invited to a Pride Parade which is not quite the city keys. I know talking to locals afterwards the film had a very real personal impact on them.
QG: What’s next for the movie?
We still have some more festivals that we are going to screen at, and we are in conversation with distributors and hope to be able to make an announcement about that by the end of summer as far as where it is going to go and where it is going to get to people. It is all very exciting.
QG: What’s next for you?
Well I think my directing and producing partner Sasha and I are going to make another movie together. I’m working on a script and most likely it will be set in Mumbai, India because I have been there and have good friends there still. It will be very loosely based on experiences I had there and characters that I met.
In making another movie my goal is very similar to the one I had about Akron and that is that I want to make movies that I have never seen before and characters that I haven’t seen on screen.
QG: Will this be an Indian gay story?
It will be an American in India. and the majority of the characters will be gay Indian characters in Mumbai talking about the differences how people relate to each other. I can’t talk about it too much as I am still working on the script, but yes I am hoping to cast it with a majority of an Indian cast, and luckily I am going there next month as Akron is playing at the Mumbai Film Festival so I will be able to start.
QG: Can we talk about your day job at Broadway Cares?
Actually I have two day jobs. (He is also Executive Director of The Calamus Foundation). I’ve been with Broadway Cares for 17/18 years now, I’m there on a part-time basis now and run their National Grants Program. We give over 400 – 500 grants to organizations in every state in the country. The need for supportive services for people living with HIV is just as important as it has ever been. There is a feeling because of the advent of PREP, and because of antiretrovirals and medication on which people are doing well, that everything is fine. But this disease is so directly linked to poverty and lack of access to services and lack of economic control that people have of their lives. We often fail to recognize in NY and right across the country, that if someone becomes HIV + it affects their lives in several ways : emotional and financial that is difficult to even comprehend. We need social service organizations to be able to work to help stabilize those peoples’s lives . We also need to support meals programs to make sure people are getting the right nutrition with their medication so that they work more fully.
We need to continually work towards getting rid of HIV through needle-exchange programs and Prep and things like that. Over the years we have seen how the face of AIDS constantly changes and how it affects different populations and especially the ones that are underserved and if there is a tiny crack for it to get it, it will get in.
There was a feeling for a while that younger people were not recognizing its existence. or just thinking that the epidemic had passed, but thankfully that is not so. I know in NY there is a continued awareness, and so thankfully the Broadway community is raising more and more money than ever before for us because of the understanding and awareness of the power that they have to ask people for money after they have given a performance to help support people. It is a model that is unprecedented and incredibly powerful.
QG: How much do you raise each year?
We have 4 or 5 different major fundraising events. We are just about to finish our Easter Bonnet Collection where we have buckets outside theaters, and with just a week left we have already raised $5.5 mill. We probably gross over $10 mill a year I think ….in our Grants Program we give away $4 per annum . We also give monies to the Actors Fund and support services for people within the industry who need help, If you are not working they do not necessarily have health insurance.
QG: Wow …. and long may it continue. Back to the filmmaker in you for one brief question that we finish all our interviews with. If we were to make a movie about your life, and we have unlimited budget, then who would play you?
I would want an unknown. ….depending on the period of my life ….a compelling story that I haven’t seen yet is about what it was like for me (and others) coming out in the early 1990’s …..and the dilemma then was how do you come out as gay then when everyone gay that you knew was dying? How do you become a sexual person when you believe that sex leads to death? This is one of the main reasons why I have worked at Broadway Cares for so long, and is also why I want to work on films that explore issues of identity because it was a real struggle for us back then.
So I would want one of the best looking top notch actors out of Yale drama school.
QG: But who?
Edmund Donovan could do a fantastic job (laughs)
QG: That was a very long answer to a very short question.
I’m not exactly the same type as Edmund, but you can also wish ….
QG: And dream too.