By Tom Ue.
Born and raised in New York City, writer/director Joey Kuhn makes films that draw inspiration from the nexus of fine art and pop culture. His first feature film, Those People (2015), premiered in competition at SIFF 2015, and has since played over 65 film festivals worldwide. It has won 10 awards, including audience awards at both Outfest and Newfest. Joey’s short films “Thinly Veiled” (2010) and “Now Here” (2011) have also played at festivals around the world. In addition to his work as a writer/director, Joey is an editor (Pamela Romanowsky’s award-winning short, Gravity, 2011), a still photographer (feature films include 2015’s Touched with Fire, 2014’s Growing Up and Other Lies and 2012’s The Color of Time), and a diehard Mariah Carey fan. He graduated from Brown University in 2007 with a B.A. in Art-Semiotics and graduated with an M.F.A. from NYU Tisch Graduate Film in May 2014.
Those People follows the story of a young gay painter (Jonathan Gordon), who is caught between an unhealthy obsession for his best friend (Jason Ralph) and the possibility of romance with a pianist (Haaz Sleiman). Distributed by Wolfe, Those People was released theatrically in NY & LA in May 2016, and will be out on DVD and digital platforms in June.
Please note that elements of the plot will be revealed and discussed below.
So much of the film is concerned about autobiografiction, about self-invention through art. Charlie, for instance, paints pictures of his friends and lover, and as you say in your interview with Jesse Steinbach, the film is also semi-autobiographical. Can you comment on this?
For the film’s central love triangle, I definitely looked to my own life for inspiration. In college, I accidentally fell in love with my gay best friend. I kept it secret from him for years, afraid of rejection and of ruining the friendship. I finally told him after many years by showing him a short film I made about him. But when I sat down to write Those People a few years later, I still hadn’t moved past him and hadn’t been in a serious relationship since I had fallen in love with him. While it definitely sucked at the time, it provided an endless well of creative material for the script! I used writing the script as a type of therapy, to try to understand why I was hanging on to this infatuation for someone who would never love me like I loved him. So Charlie became the thinly-veiled version of myself, 5 years ago.
In early versions of the script, Charlie was an architect. I made Charlie a painter eventually, so that he could have an outward expression of his feelings, so the audience could track his arc. In the beginning of the movie, Charlie doesn’t really know who he is outside of other people, which is why he can’t yet paint a self-portrait. By the end of the film, he finally learns who he is, on his own, and is finally able to paint himself. In a lot of ways, Those People is my self-portrait.
What, in your view, attracts us to life-writing?
For young writers like myself, I think it is easiest to draw on our own experiences. In general, we first-time filmmakers want to tell our own stories. From an audience perspective, I think we like personal stories that are true. We want to feel like we come away knowing the author, that the work is revealing something intimate. There’s a great, fitting quote in Alan Bennett’s play The History Boys that explains that author/reader connection, “The best moments in reading are when you come across something – a thought, a feeling, a way of looking at things – which you had thought special and particular to you. Now here it is, set down by someone else, a person you have never met… And it is as if a hand has come out and taken yours.” I think as audiences, we want to see ourselves reflected on screen, but we also crave this personal connection. We want to grab or shake that author’s hand and say, “Me too.”
You had said that you wrote the script as a kind of therapy. Has your return to your earlier experiences changed in the process of writing, directing, and seeing this film?
Absolutely. When I started writing this script, it was therapy, and it was hard to separate myself from the character of Charlie. Writing that breakup scene between Charlie and Tim in the empty concert hall was eye-opening for me. It was the first time I had to look at my own complicity in the Sebastian situation: Why was I holding on to these feelings? What was I scared of? And then slowly but surely, Charlie became his own character as I moved on. Once I cast Jonathan Gordon, he became even further away from myself. Watching that character move through these situations and emotions, take after take, I was able to see my own infatuation in a new, objective light. And similarly, through writing Sebastian’s character, I was forced to explore and understand my own Sebastian’s side of our story. By the end of the shoot, I had truly moved past him. In fact, a few months after that, I met my current boyfriend, whom I’ve been with for over two years. I am happy to report we are head over heels in love! He’s even met my Sebastian.
Were there aspects of your own life that you hope to rewrite as you worked on the film?
No. From an emotional standpoint, I wish I hadn’t wasted 5 years being secretly in love with him. I wish I had confessed my feelings sooner. But if that had happened, I wouldn’t have made this movie. I think it was all meant to happen this way.
The film also reminds me of Alan Hollinghurst’s writing, especially its treatment of unrequited loves. What are some of the film’s other influences?
Thank you! I love Alan Hollinghurst’s writing, but I didn’t start reading his books until after I had written the script. I had many influences, both cinematic and otherwise. I watched Woody Allen’s Manhattan for tone, script structure, and Gordon Willis’s amazing cinematography. Believe it or not, St. Elmo’s Fire was a big touchstone when I was writing, because of the friend group dynamic of those twenty-something’s. I looked to Melville’s Les Enfants Terribles for the group behavior – I loved how those characters were always playing games. Andrew Haigh’s Weekend was a big influence for its sexual honesty and general vibe. Bob Fosse’s Cabaret is always a stylistic influence for me, and my cinematographer and watched it a lot in pre-production. We got the idea to use 70s zoom lenses because of it. And Evelyn Waugh’s book Brideshead Revisited has always stuck with me – I named my characters Charles and Sebastian as an homage. Funny enough, my Sebastian was the one who introduced me to Brideshead.
An equally important aspect of the film is its economic plot: Charlie’s friends are working multiple jobs. How did the current economic state affect your figuring of these twenty-somethings?
When I started writing the script, so many of my friends were having trouble finding jobs in the post-recession market. It felt appropriate to include it. Even though I wanted to tell a movie that felt timeless, I still wanted to tap into the zeitgeist of the moment.
How did you keep this economic plot in check?
Through a lot of table reads and test screenings. I would survey the audience about the financial scandal, for when they understood it and if they cared. We scaled back on some of the details of the financial scandal over time, and focused more on the personal relationships. Again, I felt it was important to keep it as the backdrop. Initially, the script used to take place during Sebastian’s father’s trial, but I realized I didn’t want to write scenes with lawyers and legal jargon. The aftermath proved more interesting to me.
The film looks and sounds superb! Tell us about shooting in New York.
Thank you! I wanted the film to have a distinct and timeless look that was different from the slice-of-life handheld aesthetic of so many indie films. My cinematographer, Leonardo D’Antoni, and I found this great zoom lens from the 1970s that we used for most scenes in the film. In terms of shooting in New York, we got lucky with a lot of big locations – from the High Line, to Lincoln Center, to my own synagogue, where we shot the Rosh Hashana scene. Because Those People is a low-budget film, and it’s my thesis film from the NYU Tisch Grad Film program, people were very generous about opening their doors to us for very little money. We got lucky with the weather for the most part, except for the unexpected blizzard that rolled in while shooting the climactic rooftop scene. Luckily, it fit the emotion of the scene and made our movie look much more expensive! It also started snowing during the High Line scene, which is supposed to take place during October! Haaz and Jonathan had to wear 2 layers of long underwear under their tuxedos, and we held a giant flag over their heads to prevent the snow from getting in the shot. If you look closely, you can see snow falling in the background of Haaz’s coverage.
What were some of the challenges?
That snow! It was also challenging to make huge locations look full of people on a tiny budget. For instance, in the United Palace Theater (where Charlie sees Tim playing piano with the orchestra), we had only 40 extras to fill the 3,500 seat theater. It took a lot of clever camera placement, and shifting around the background actors for every angle.
Gilbert and Sullivan was an important intertext throughout. How did you decide on the film’s sound?
I wanted the film to have its own big, classical sound to match the look. I thought the operettas of Gilbert and Sullivan matched the grandness of both the emotions and the Upper East Side locations. I was in my elementary school’s production of Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Gondoliers when I was 12 years old, and I’ve been obsessed with the music ever since. I also chose them for budgetary reasons: the songs are all in the public domain! The publishing rights are free, and luckily the D’Oyly Carte Opera Company gave us a great deal on a ton of their recordings.
Let’s talk more about the story. Tim tells Charlie that “Everyone has a Sebastian.” Do you agree?
I think most people do have a Sebastian. One of the best parts of this whole experience has been people, both gay and straight, telling me stories about their own Sebastians. It seems to be a very formative experience in people’s lives. And if you don’t have a Sebastian, you’re probably someone else’s.
Is Sebastian right? Would sex have damaged his friendship with Charlie?
Only Charlie and Sebastian know the answer to that question.
Is Sebastian right on another count, i.e., that Charlie is rushing into a relationship prematurely?
Not really. I think Sebastian is jealous and desperate for Charlie’s attention.
Do you think that this counterfactual (i.e. of a possible relationship with Sebastian) is something that Charlie will ever be able to move away from?
Yes. If I can, so can Charlie.
By the end of the film, Sebastian wants to begin in a state of tabula rasa by selling his father’s house and donating the money. Should we feel optimistic for him?
I’ll leave that open to interpretation. I can tell you that I certainly hope that Sebastian finds happiness. It just probably won’t be in New York.
Why leave his story there?
I ended the story there, because it felt right. It’s Charlie’s story, not Sebastian’s. For me, Charlie’s arc was learning how to put himself first, and understand who he was separate from other people. It felt like the end of this particular chapter in both Charlie’s and the group of friends’ lives.
Charlie seems to live in a state of arrested development. Are you optimistic for him and Tim by the film’s end?
I think Charlie is meant to be on his own for a while. It’s possible that several years down the road, Charlie and Tim will reconnect. Or Charlie will be the “Tim” in a new relationship with someone else. I’m incredibly optimistic for both Charlie and Tim, but I don’t know if a relationship with each other is in their future. As I’ve learned over the years, relationships are so much about timing.
What’s next for you?
I’m currently writing my next feature script. It’s a 1970s Miami Beach period drama about an unhappily married couple who falls back in love by stealing cars together. It’s very American Hustle meets Bonnie and Clyde. The main character, Eve, is inspired by my amazing grandmother. So hopefully, I’ll be shooting that soon.
Tom Ue was educated at Linacre College, University of Oxford, and at University College London, where he has worked from 2011 to 2016. His PhD examined Shakespeare’s influence on the writing of George Gissing. Ue has held visiting fellowships at Indiana University, Yale University, and the University of Toronto Scarborough, and he was the 2011 Cameron Hollyer Memorial Lecturer. He has published widely on Gissing, Conan Doyle, E. W. Hornung, and their contemporaries. Ue is the Frederick Banting Postdoctoral Fellow in the Department of English at the University of Toronto Scarborough and an Honorary Research Fellow at University College London.