One of the hottest movies to do the LGBTQ Film Festival circuit last year and that received unanimous rave reviews was STRAIGHT UP. It was the feature film directing debut of JAMES SWEENEY a young queer filmmaker from LA who also wrote and produced and took the starring role. His story of Todd a man who struggled with sexual identity was a refreshing new take on the traditional ‘coming out story. Funny, heartwarming, intriguing and completely original: it’s very clear that the exceptionally talented Sweeney is a welcome new addition to queer cinema.
Queerguru tracked him down on the eve of the theatrical release of STRAIGHT UP in the USA.
QUEERGURU MEETS JAMES
QG: Congrats on Straight Up for which you collected 4 wage packets : writer, director, producer and star, and which is about to be released in US movie theaters. Can we start with you telling us a little of what it’s about, without giving it all away?
JS: It’s a romantic comedy about two people Todd and Rory who I like to refer to as intellectual soulmates . Todd starts the film self-identifying as gay but thinks statistically he’d have better luck dating women. He meets Rory a struggling actress they have many things in common and are like two peas in a pod and enter what becomes an asexual relationship.
QG: It comes over as a very personal movie but we read somewhere that you are insisting it’s not your own story….. come from?
JS: It’s not (smiling)
QG: So, where did it come from?
JS: I don’t even remember really as I started writing it so long. ago. I like the romantic comedy genre and I like a lot of the themes that I explore it the film. . It may partially have come from the idea that a lot of the representation of queer men in the media is often presented in a coming out story.
I kind of wanted to tell a different version of that story but also one where you see someone who has identified as gay but for once it doesn’t mean that everything is better, or easy to find love. There are so many other issues and intricacies to explore. Once I just started writing the characters they became very specific and real to me , and the story just involved from there
QG: Why did you want to write about sexuality in that way?
JS: I don’t know. I guess they say write what you know. It’s just a story at the time that I felt compelled to tell.
QG: There has been a continuing dialogue for some time now about gender identity which has been a learning curve for most of this, do you think that your movie may start a similar conversation about sexual identity?
JS: I would hope that you know. because the film has a progressive take on a lot of sexual identity politics . for people who are really unfamiliar with that . The film does present a lot of serious interviews in a palatable way that could be educational for some people. That’s definitely a hope. But I also hope for people who are well cultured and what have you, that they don’t feel they are being preached at or talked down at. Hopefully it presents it in a way that is entertaining regardless of where you are on your Kinsey scale of knowledge.
QG:: I think before we go much further we should add that although there is a serious side to your Todd’s dilemma, you do infuse the whole movie with a wonderful sense of humor that makes the piece a sheer joy to watch.
When OUTFEST in L.A. screened it in the summer they created a whole new centerpiece section labelling your movie as a breakthrough movie for its challenge of the notion of identity and the performative aspects of sexuality. That must have given you a great sense of achievement.
JS: It was definitely a surprise and an honour . I had never played OUTFEST before but most of my cast and crew are LA based, so it was a great way for everyone to see the film . It was a packed theater and was really wonderful.
QG: From where you sitting do you think it is a breakthrough .
JS: (laughing) My life hasn’t changed at all. I still living in the same apartment. I don’t feel that I have ‘broken through” but the film isn’t out to the general public yet.
It’s played a lot of film festivals and the one thing i have been pleased about is the sheer diversity of people who have seen it. Because of the age demographics of the characters I thought the audiences would also be similar, but it wasn’t so. I been very touched by the wide range of people who have been touched by the film.
QG: You just mentioned that you are still living in the same apartment, butI must almost say that ! was more than a tad jealous of all the glamorous homes that Tad got to house sit : hardly shabby locations!
JS: Me too! A little bit of wish fulfillment there.
MAKING YOUR DEBUT
QG: We know you mainly as an actor and director of short movies and I’m sure there are quite a few budding filmmakers who would want to know how you made the leap to creating your first feature like this
JS: In my specific case it was just sheer force of will . I had produced a concept called Normal Doors in 2015 which almost came together but then fell apart three years in a row until we filmed it in 2018. In the meantime I was directing and editing other short films . I think i have made about 12 shorts to date, most of which I hope will never see the light of day (laughing)
I think if I had any advice for queer filmmakers, I think you learn by doing . I think some directors could make a feature without ever shooting a short and they are magnificent, but they are an exception to the rule
QG: Was it scary or difficult wearing ‘four hats’ during the filming?
JS: Absolutely both. I had constant anxiety on Set. I did surround myself with people I trusted like my cinematographer who I have been working with since my Freshman year in College. So we had established our own shorthand and that familiarity made me feel comfortable and feel safe on set because I was juggling so many roles.
I was also the only Creative Producer on Set. It was a lot of multi-tasking which is not really my forte. There were some days when I thought I was going mad . It was a small crew so it felt like family, and everyone on Set was there for the right reasons and very warm.
QG: Your theatrical premiere is at the IFC in NY on Feb 28th and then the film will roll out across the US before being available streaming and on DVD. So hopefully your wonderful wee film will reach the widest audience, it deserves. Not just millenials in LA where it is set, but anybody from the LGBTQ community who are open to a new take on sexuality.
JS: For a film of this size to get a theatrical rollout like this is very rare, and as my favorite thing is to go to the movies, this is very special to me.
QG: I guess you are about to let the film go out into the world. So can we ask what’s next in your plans. Maybe a sequel even to see where Todd’s journey takes him?
JS: (laughing) No there are no plans for Straight Up Beyond.. I have another script about twins that maybe I will shoot this year or next I have also got a pilot in development …… I just want to keep working
N.B. For the list of cities where you can see STRAIGHT UP check out https://strandreleasing.com/films/straight-up/
P.S. You can read Queerguru’s full review of the movie HERE