A Conversation With Jonathan Lisecki (GAYBY)
Jonathan Lisecki and I kept meeting up with the intention of discussing his film Gayby but we repeatedly kept dropping the ball. The last time we got together, we ended up going to see The Avengers in Times Square and both got nauseous on concessions. But finally, we made it happen.
Best friends since college and now in their 30s, straight Jenn (Jenn Harris) decides to take gay Matt (Matt Wilkas) up on an old agreement to have a baby together if they should still be childless at this age. Having recently broken up with his boyfriend, the timing is right for Matt and the two set out to get knocked up… the old fashioned way. Like many classic comedies, both Jenn and Matt have their zany sidekick pals: in this case, Jamie (Jack Ferver) and Nelson (Lisecki), respectively. Both add to Gayby’s already laughter-packed 90 minutes. There is also a cadre of fully developed supporting characters including Adam Driver of Girls and Alycia Delmore of Humpday.
Lisecki’s charming comedy has been getting raves from critics and audiences pretty much across the board since it world premiered at the 2012 SXSW Film Festival. While aspects of Gayby are certainly very much of its moment, at its core, it’s an old fashioned screwball comedy in the vein of The Philadelphia Story and It Happened One Night. In other words, it’s a great date night movie.
Brooklyn audiences are going to have the opportunity to fall in love with the film this coming weekend, as the movie plays at BAMcinemaFest on Friday, June 22nd at 9:15 PM in Fort Greene and then again at Rooftop Films on Saturday evening, June 23rd. The Rooftop screening will take place at Open Road Rooftop (350 Grand Street) on the Lower East Side. Not so coincidentally, both organizations have scheduled their screenings for Pride Weekend.
Have all the great reviews and audience adoration gone to Lisecki’s head? Since we were down to the wire with this article’s deadline, we decided to Skype as a last resort. He’s currently at the LAFilmFest for his umpteenth festival screening, no doubt being handed yet another award to boot.
Hammer to Nail: You’re at The Los Angeles Film Festival. How did the screening of Gayby go?
Jonathan Lisecki: I missed it. We had the screening on Saturday but I couldn’t make it. I was in P-town on Friday, then flew to San Francisco on Saturday. Then a couple of hours later I was going to try and leave mid-screening to make another flight to L.A. but it just didn’t happen.
H2N: How frustrating.
JL: No, it’s okay. The San Francisco screening took place at The Castro and there were 1,400 people there. It was sold out, so I got to do the Q&A there. And my executive producer Zeke [Farrow] and actress Anna Margaret [Hollyman] did the Q&A here in L.A. and they were great. Everybody said as much, so it was fine.
H2N: So, audiences have been responding really favorably to the movie, it seems.
JL: Yeah, they’ve been bursting into applause throughout the movie. There’s quite a few things that get applause now. It’s happened at more than one screening. It’s kind of amazing, actually.
JL: Like when me and Jack Ferver [who plays Jamie] get into our cat fight on the couch, people love that. Also, when Jenn does her horny goat weed dance. When Matt and Scott kiss for the first time after that scene in the comic book store where they talk about the Human Torch. That’s always a big crowd-pleaser. When I rip up the republican gay sign at the LGBT Center, that seems to now get… at The Castro it was like rapturous applause where you couldn’t hear the rest of the scene [JL laughs]. There are these moments now, yeah. Audiences are really loving it, which is so nice.
H2N: You’re not surprised that the audiences at The Castro in San Francisco or in Provincetown are going to love it, are you?
JL: The audiences at Seattle and Dallas loved it too. It’s only just now where I’m seeing it at P-town and San Francisco but I’ve also seen it at plenty of places where it wasn’t a gay-based audience. [Mock outrage] “So, if you’re implying that only gay people like my movie then I’m gonna have to probably hang up because this interview is over!”
H2N: Actually, that wasn’t where I was going…
[At this point, Lisecki disconnects me from our Skype session. I promptly re-dial.]
JLi: Don’t feel special, I try to hang up on my husband at least once per conversation.
H2N: I see.
JL: Even if we’re not arguing. I should hang up on other people more often. Yeah, I had to do that. It’s dramatic, it’s an act break. We need more act breaks in life. Some people need to know that they can do things a little bit shorter.
H2N: Like my questions? By the way, I wasn’t trying to suggest that only gay people liked your movie; only that they were probably going to be more demonstrative. Has anyone’s response to the film caught you off-guard?
JL: There’ve been some folks who show up after having seen the trailer and expect a different kind of movie. They might be coming with a pre-judgment. But, you know, I haven’t really encountered someone who’s had a negative response to it yet. No. How is it possible to have a negative response to this movie, anyway? It’s a very pleasing film. And it’s really funny. Even if it’s not totally up your alley, you can’t deny that it makes audiences happy. You can sit in an audience and not like it, but the fact that you’re surrounded by people that are hollering, laughing and applauding just makes you look like a grump.
H2N: Gayby has only been playing at screenings or special one-off screenings, I take it. It’s.. you… it’s an old fashioned love story… it’s…
JL: Look how adorable you are. Why are you all stuttery and nervous?
H2N: I feel unprepared, I am not prepared enough. I should’ve prepared more for this interview.
JL: You can edit this piece, can’t you?
H2N: This is like a repeat of our radio show.
JL: Onur [Tukel, who was in L.A. for Alex Karpovsky’s Red Flag] told me he listened to it and thought it was fun. He said it was very sweet and that we had a nice rapport.
H2N: Didn’t you think we had a nice rapport?
JL: Onur’s so sweet but I told him he had to stop with that self-deprecating bullsh*t. That it was getting annoying. He thought I hated his movie [Richard’s Wedding]. I told him no. It’s just exhausting when you keep saying negative stuff about yourself to, like, c**k-block other people from saying anything negative about your film.
H2N: That’s exactly right. He beats you to the punch. And, besides, it’s not really effective.
JL: No, it really doesn’t work.
H2N: Getting back to Gayby, has your cast been coming to any screenings?
JL: Wait, did you get a haircut?
H2N: Not recently no. Not since the opening night of Richard’s Wedding.
JL: Really? Let’s change the subject; I’m not going to help publicize that film for you.
H2N: I repeat, have your cast members been coming to your screenings?
JL: Well, as I just said—in case you weren’t paying attention—Anna Margaret [who plays Kelly] went to the Q&A in L.A. just yesterday. This was while Matt and I did the Q&A in San Francisco. Jenn and Matt are going to come to the Outfest screening in July. Most of the cast is going to be at the BAM screening on Friday; quite a few of them. I know Jenn and Matt are going to come. Some other cast and crew will be there as well. That’s gonna be a nice screening. I believe the same thing will happen for Rooftop, that most of the people will be able to make it afterward for the Q&A. And then, I don’t know, I assume once we have our official theatrical premiere in New York City, that everyone will come.
H2N: I don’t want to ask you all the typical questions, Jonathan. What’s a question that no one has asked you yet? Something that you really want to talk about?
JL: I can’t do your job for you. You can’t continue to get by on your fading looks.
H2N: This is a difficult interview because you and I go back a while.
JL: When did we do that radio interview?
H2N: Back at the end of March, I believe.
JL: So, we’ve known each other for like three months so calm the f**k down. You’re like 48 or something; three months of your life is like a really small percentage point.
H2N: That’s actually very true. Gayby started as a short. Tell me about adapting Gayby to a feature length film. How did that work?
JL: I had a short. It played around. People liked it. Some people said, “Make a feature.” I went away and wrote it in three weeks. Then I made it. It wasn’t really that intricate.
H2N: it only took you three weeks to write it?
JL: It’s really easy to write for people you know. I already had the basic story from the short. People already loved Matt and Jenn. They already loved the scenes that were in the short. I doubt this will happen every time I write something but this was a very easy process. It was a bit of a gift from whatever spirit… it flowed out of me very naturally.
H2N: And the casting process for the rest of the folks in the feature?
JL: I just cast people I liked. I worked in the theater in New York for a while. And I was on the festival circuit with shorts, so I know tons of actors. There are parts that I wrote with specific actors in mind. And others whom I just wanted to work with. So, I asked them after the script was written. Maybe tailored the parts a little to them a little bit.
H2N: Did you have input from them on the script?
JL: Actors, not so much, no. We had a reading right after I finished the draft. And most of it worked. I might’ve tweaked it after that. The producers and the executive producer had some comments on the script. That was it though. The actors loved the script; no one had any issues. But in my head I was writing for people I know. I know their voices. Especially the four leads. Most of the people in the film are people I’ve worked with for a rather long time. I met Jenn, Jack and Matt in 2003 doing a play. That’s a while ago now.
H2N: Which play was that?
JL: Jenn, Jack and I were in a play called The Dilemma of Drugs where we showed slides from those ’70s films and we read from the scripts…. remember those anti-drug films they showed in high school? About, like, bad trips? It was incredibly funny. And Jenn would have an acid trip every night and if people wouldn’t laugh she would kept screaming at the top of her lungs until people laughed. Sometimes it would take minutes [JL laughs]. I learned very early that she would do anything for a laugh.
Then Matt was in the next one. Five actors read aloud the gay chapter from the book Everything You Wanted to Know About Sex But Were Afraid to Ask. It’s very dated, and it contains an offensive chapter about what gays do for sex. It was written long ago. We would act it out as if we were those people in the book. And Jenn was in it, too, and she would interrupt us with stories that she felt like telling. The stories changed every night. [JL laughs] We would all try and make each other laugh on stage. It was very funny. There are still people who saw it and bring it up to me. It’s great working with people who can actually make you laugh and also be in a little bit of competition about who can make who break on stage.
H2N: What was the transition like from theater to film?
JL: It’s not all that different. I mean, I guess theater directors are better at working with actors. It’s a lot longer process, the rehearsal process for a play. And you can keep fine tuning the performances throughout the run. You talk to a director more than the three takes you get on a crazy film set.
I often produced, directed and acted in the plays that I worked on. It was so much effort for such a short span. When you work in the downtown indie theater scene you get like a three- or four-week run. That’s like the most you can guarantee at these spaces. We would do so much for these shows and a finite number of people would ever be able to see them. I think at some point I just decided I really wanted more people to be able to see my work.
That first short I made, Woman in Burka with Sarita Choudhury, was made over the course a year. We’d figure out who was coming that day and write the a scene around them. It was very spontaneous and free like that. I was gonna use that short to apply to graduate school but then that didn’t happen. I sent it to Slamdance and they accepted, and then I won an award. I figured, instead of spending all this money on graduate school when I already have a degree in directing from undergraduate, I might as well use the money to make my films instead. Then after that I made the short version of Gayby. There are differences and similarities between the theater and film. The staging is sort of similar. I don’t know what to tell you. Things like timing and helping actors be good apply to both.
H2N: It doesn’t take a special kind of director to go in between both worlds?
JL: A lot of people are extremely visual directors but don’t necessarily pay so much attention to what their actors are doing. And that’s fine, but I think I’m good at the making-the-actors-shine side of directing. And that comes directly from working with people in the theater.
H2N: So the things you find the most gratifying about working in film are the same things you got from working in the theater?
JL: I wouldn’t meet such cute radio interviewers if I didn’t work in film.
H2N: I don’t know anything about that. Was there a rehearsal period for Gayby?
JL: You don’t get a rehearsal period for features but we had two days of meetings where Jenn and Louis [Cancelmi] met. I wanted everyone to meet with me who was gonna have some sort of romantic scene with other people. So, Mike Doyle, Matt and I sat together. Matt and I sat down. Jack came over. We had some rehearsal but it was more talking and preparing. You know when you’re shooting digital, the first couple of takes are the rehearsal. Then you tweak that. Making the film is almost part of the rehearsal process. It’s different. You have to be on your feet the entire time.
H2N: Are you enjoying the interview so far? It feels very unnatural asking you these questions.
JL: It is getting like this because I’ve been answering so many questions in so many interviews. And I’m tired. It’s weird; at The Castro the audience was asking me all these questions. I was so tired but Alex and my friend were, like, “Jesus, you were on fire!”
JL: Yeah, someone asked me about Kickstarter and I made Kickstarter sound like it was the most wonderful way of reaching out to other people; that had nothing to do with the money. You know, about just building involvement in your project.
H2N: And without having to give them a producer’s credit. Was there a moment after you finished Gayby when you thought that you had made something that people were going to really respond to?
JL: That’s a difficult question because at every part of the process you are hoping that. Right? I didn’t have any blinking light moment. I mean, I wrote something that was supposed to connect with people.
H2N: It doesn’t always turn out that way.
JL: Are you asking me whether my gay movie is going to be liked by straight people again? [Back to mock outrage] “I find that I’m so offended by you right now.”
H2N: Here comes another hang-up.
JL: Skip that question. You might as well ask [in a mock excited voice], “Did you watch Will & Grace?” I had to actually tell someone recently that I didn’t even own a TV for ten years. I was just so tired of the Will & Grace question. I’ve never seen an episode of Will & Grace, ever. Sorry!
H2N: Someone asked you about Will & Grace?
JL: Oh, more than one person. And I’m tired of people saying we stereotyped gays. No, there are actual gay people who are gay! The characters of me and Jack? We’re actually gay and we enjoy being gay. And we’re funny, and that’s fine. Not every gay person nowadays has to be a pretend straight person. It’s starting to get on my nerves.
H2N: I see that. So, people who see Gayby think you are a gay man who is acting too gay?
JL: As I said at The Castro, I want to bring back the sissy. I’m tired of the butch gay guy. Enough already. We have Matt for that anyway. There’s nothing wrong with being a queenie gay either. I just don’t understand why everything has to be so limited. Enough about that.
H2N: But where does that come from? Gay people who are worried about how gays are portrayed in the media?
JL: I’m also getting it from straight reviewers who think the characters are too gay. No, go to a gay bar. It’s okay.
H2N: Are they coming from a place that is too PC and feel they need to advocate? Because, as we know, gay people can’t speak for themselves.
JL: Right. Of all repressed minorities, I think the gays are okay speaking up for themselves. We don’t need straight people helping us out.
H2N: As far as you know, have any gay people been offended by the movie?
JL: Not that I know of. I get some questions but once answered, they see my point. I can generally speak to these questions. I’ve thought a lot about the characters when I was developing them and so… and I think people believe they are asking you something original when, no, you’re like the 30th person to ask me that question. And that’s okay, but I did give a lot of prior thought to what kinds of questions people might be asking later on. So I haven’t encountered anything that was totally new yet.
It was a conscious choice for me to make my character [Nelson] and Jack Ferver’s character [Jamie] the sidekicks, who also happen to have more of an effeminate side. I feel that’s a perfectly fine thing to represent that and, also—as I’ve probably told you in the past—when Jack and I were actors, we had to suffer through so many terribly written versions of that character-type. So, I think it’s fine to have a hilarious, smart, with-it and secure version of those characters. And we have two in my movie! And they balance out Matt, who also happens to be a very different kind of gay character. I mean, he works in a comic book store. He’s insecure even though he’s stunning and muscled. I just got a review from The Hollywood Reporter where the reviewer mentioned that he thought it was so original that a person like that is the insecure one. And that he’s not running out to have sex, and that the other gay characters are self-possessed and empowered.
I think there are some things about the movie that are different and not everyone gets. But a lot of people do and that’s what’s so nice. He’s still sad about his break up and he doesn’t go for any of the sex that’s offered to him. Except for the bad procreational sex. And that’s also different. Usually in gay films, the lead character has many a sexual encounter. In Gayby, I wanted to make a traditional romantic comedy where it was the male character who had had his heart broken and who was laying off casual sex. Jenn has more play than Matt. It’s the woman who was more of the free spirit and didn’t feel guilty or weird.
H2N: Has making this movie changed your own feeling about ever having a child?
JL: I don’t know. We’ve talked about it, and it’s incredibly expensive. It’s not so easy when you don’t have a free womb or egg laying around. You have to do it in a way that you don’t have any legal repercussions with people who might change their minds later on. You have to get an egg from somewhere and then implant the egg somewhere else. This way there’s no genetic attachment to someone and you don’t have the legal problems down the road. You often have to do this in different states because different states have different laws. It’s not as easy for a gay couple in New York to adopt. There are other states where it’s easier and then other states where it’s illegal. So there are a lot of blockades. But we probably used all our money on the movie. [JL laughs] The baby would still be three times the cost of this film, I’m sure. And over a lifetime, a million times the cost of this film. But we have talked about it and it might happen some day.
— Adam Schartoff