The pair discuss the difficulties in getting a film with a gay protagonist financed in Hollywood, finding an intimacy in such grandiose surroundings, the striking visual experience of the picture – and how being an outsider in real life has helped them both when creating this piece of cinema.
Darren it’s been 14 years since your last feature film. What was it about this particular story that lured you back in?
Darren Stein: It was the script. I’m not interested in making specifically teen films, but this one was so smart and relevant and funny and it’s a story that hadn’t been told before, and it was a film that had to be made, and I knew that I was the filmmaker for it. Sometimes you just know. Knowing’s not enough though, you have to get it financed which is the difficult part, but this film came together. I was really lucky that the stars aligned for it.
In terms of getting this financed, of course we’re always progressing and the industry is always progressing – but is it still harder to get a film about gay characters financed in Hollywood, than it would be otherwise?
DS: Yes. But what was exciting to me about this movie is that it’s a teen film, not a gay film. Which makes it even more powerful, because you’re presenting a gay character in a mainstream context. It was taken to studios first and bigger producers and they loved the script but said they don’t make teen films any more in Hollywood, and they certainly weren’t going to make one with a gay protagonist. So we couldn’t get it made in the mainstream venues, so we had to make the money independently, which took some time. I haven’t had the best luck with independent financing in the past, but this one came together. People liked the script and understood the power of the material.
Michael, were you able to find any comparisons between yourself and Tanner? Was it a character you could identify with at all?
Michael J. Willet: Absolutely. I’ve been offered a lot of gay roles and scripts in the past couple of years but I’ve turned them all down because I didn’t think there was anything special or unique about them, like, there was no reason for the films to be made, in my opinion. But when I read this I felt it was so meaningful and important and fun and smart, and that’s a winning combo, and you don’t always get that. I related so much with my character because in high school I was much more introverted and this is the future, essentially, he doesn’t relate to things that are stereotypically gay, in fact he’s confounded by them. I definitely see myself in the role, and when I read it I was like, I have to play this. So I fought for it, for sure.
You mentioned you get offered a lot of gay parts – does that frustrate you at all, as though you’re being pigeon-holed? Or do you quite like having this niche, so to speak?
MJW: I think I’ve gone back and forth with my feelings about that. I’m hoping that people will see that there are lots of different kinds of gay people. I think that these characters I’m playing, like the one in a new TV series I’m in called Faking It, he’s gay but he’s the popular kid, almost like it’s five years after G.B.F, it’s no longer a new thing, he’s just part of the hierarchy that is high school. I want to play all kind of roles. I’d like to do an action film, in science fiction, I’m not exclusively looking for gay roles, that’s what has been presented to me, but I’m okay with it.
The film handles some raw human emotions and serious themes, but it’s presented in a quite grandiose setup. Was it quite a challenge to find the intimacy in the tale, amidst the extravagance of the setting?
DS: I felt like the emotion of the script was just as organic as the campier elements of it, so I didn’t feel challenged by them, I welcomed them, I was excited by them. The actors were cast in a way that I knew they could pull the bigger and smaller moments in the movie. So I think they exist well in the structure of the film, and the grandiosity of the films makes the intimate moments even more intimate, if that makes sense, because they take you by surprise, you don’t expect them. They make the film special.
MJW: That’s the brilliance of it. I was going to say the script was more one way and the visuals are another way, but it keeps going back and forth and tows the line and I think we were able to balance it somehow.
Talking of the visual side of the film, the way the colours are used is so deliberate and particular. There is one scene where three characters are sitting down and there are piles of books behind them which are colour coded with their outfits. How important is colour to you as a director Darren?
DS: I’m a very visual director, my favourite films are the ones you get immersed in. Whether it’s the Kubrick movies, or like, Blade Runner, or anything Ridley Scott basically, and you don’t often see that visual aesthetic brought to teen movies. They’re definitely visual, Clueless, for example, but this is my own vision of high school, like a fantasy of what it could be. Almodovar is also someone who is a big influence of mine. It’s just fun to take influences, like Almodovar, and bring it to an American high school and see that culture in a way it has never been presented. There aren’t many high schools that like the high school in G.B.F., it’s very modern, walls are glass, minimalist, and then the costume design.
MJW: It works for the story specifically because it shows how far Tanner is outside this alternate reality of people, it shows the world very separately.
DS: That room for the scene you mentioned was round, the table was round, and the whole thing felt very Dr. Strangelove. Then when I walked in and saw the text books, in my head I instantly wanted the colours of the books to match the actors. It’s subtle, but someone like you notices that, which is awesome.
The casting across the board is great, but the one which interested me most was Evanna Lynch, because she seems like the lovely person, and to see her play someone that evil was great. Why was she the choice?
DS: I love to cast against type. I like to make casting choices that are surprising, because why not challenge yourself? I don’t want to see the same actors playing the same roles, that’s boring for the viewer. With the American high school genre being so specific, it was an outside the box choice to find an Irish girl known for playing a fantasy role in a hugely beloved franchise, to play the evil Christian girl. It was so funny, because Evanna was concerned about being too evil, she freaked herself out because she was trying to understand the character who is a hateful person. At the end she doesn’t grow either, she’s still mired in her own views, which is nice, I like that she doesn’t change.
Jawbreaker picked up on themes about being an outsider at school, as does G.B.F., what is it about this particular world that appeals to you?
DS: I always felt like an outsider in life, I like different things, I don’t belong to any groups. High school is such a ripe place where feeling different is so pronounced, which is perhaps why we’re attracted to that material. I have an intrinsic otherness, I’ve always felt, which is why I think my films are so fantastic, because I just like that type of vividness, where everything is on that frequency. Teen films don’t go anywhere, they’re like time capsules, which is fun for people to revisit. They’re time capsules and they’re timeless. You can watch films like Jawbreaker and Clueless at any time and they still feel relevant.
One of the perks of filmmaking is touring the world with your feature, taking it to festivals.
DS: It’s been so great. Just to be here with Michael has been so much fun, because we get to reconnect having not seen each other for a while. It’s fun to see how different cultures react to the material, it’s travelled pretty world, especially overseas.
MJW: It’s actually cool to see it internationally accepted.
Anywhere in particular that really responded to the film?
DS: Oh, Brazil. Sao Paolo. They were laughing uproariously the entire way through. I didn’t go to Paris, but apparently there too. I feel like UK culture is so influential for me in film, music and fashion, that I feel like my aesthetic probably translates even more to the UK than it does to the States. So it’s exciting to be here for that reason alone.
MJW: Every character, for instance, is like a parody or farce of themselves, so if anything we’re kind of making fun of Americans.
DS: That’s true! That is totally true. I guess we’ve got much more of an international view of American culture, we’re outside of it all.
You were saying earlier that you felt like outsiders – has that been beneficial then?
DS: Oh totally.
MJW: Yes. I don’t know anything else.
When making a movie about going back to high school, which in this case, is effectively a story of the underdog. Is that therapeutic for you to go back to a time and almost change it?
DS: It is. You get to invent a culture, entirely, from the way people dress, to who is playing the roles, it’s definitely a way to work out a very old deep wound I guess.
MJW: For me it’s definitely a character who has not been the centre of attention, he’s the guy in the corner, the wallflower, who is now the main focus. I think that alone is, like you said, redeeming my high school years in some ways.
G.B.F. is released on Blu-ray and DVD on April 14th.