By Gary M. Kramer
Edge of Seventeen is writer Todd Stephens’ seminal and semi-autobiographical 1988 coming out film. Directed by David Moreton (after Stephens stepped down), the film concerns Eric (an excellent Chris Stafford), who comes to terms with his sexual identity in 1984 Sandusky, Ohio. Eric’s best friend is Maggie (Tina Holmes), but working over the summer, he gets crushed on by the gay Rod (Andersen Gabrych).
As Eric changes his hair, cutting it, and then dyeing it, and starts to wear makeup, he also begins to explore the local gay bar and has a series of formative sexual experiences. His mother (Stephanie McVay) soon questions her son’s behavior, prompting him to come out to her.
The film, which was just re-issued in a new, restored Blu-ray, holds up extremely well after 17-plus years. Even in this age of same-sex marriage (and cell phones), this period piece hardly feels dated. The emotional core remains as powerful as ever. A scene of Eric dancing at a high school party contrasted with him dancing at a gay club deftly shows how Eric goes from awkward to self-aware and back again. And this sensitive queer classic may even jerk a tear or two during Eric’s powerful scenes coming out to Maggie and his mom.
In recent interviews, members of the cast and crew chatted about Edge of Seventeen and their thoughts about the film then and now.
Screenwriter Todd Stephens
Edge of Seventeen was made in 1998, but set in 1984. Looking back now, is it still painful?
TS: It isn’t painful now. I hadn’t seen the film in many, many years. Even though it was really my life, it’s become more than that. I’ve been able to look at it in a really separated kind of way now. I looked at it as if I hadn’t made it. It struck me that it still has this power, and it has a lot of pain in it.
At the time, it was horrible making it. I had a nervous breakdown in the middle of the shoot. A week into the four-week shoot, they had to cart me off. At the time it was difficult, but I have such a different perspective on it now. It was difficult for me because I was a perfectionist trying to exactly replicate my life. I went back to the original locations, and used my old clothes—like the polyester uniform I wore. I’d walk on to the cafeteria set and see the coke machine was on the left side not the right. I thought that because it wasn’t the way it happened, it was bad, or wrong. I had a difficult time letting go. That was a warped, perfectionist view, and a great life lesson. Films are inspired by reality but you have to let them become their own thing. Seeing the film later, and cut together, I realized it totally captured the spirit of how I felt even if the details weren’t perfect. I still feel that way.
TS: At the time, as gay men, we were closer to our own coming out, and we hadn’t seen so much frank sexuality in films at the time that people got a little buzzed on that. And now that time has passed, that’s not such a big deal; we’re all fixated on the relationship. Seeing it now, the relationship between Eric and Maggie is what blows us away.
What can you say about the impact the film had on fans?
TS: So many people came up to me and said, “How did you know how to tell my life story?” I was lucky to tap into some shared experience we all had. Nothing makes me happier. The film did make a difference, but there are still people who struggle, and hopefully they can find the film.
How did this film impact your life?
TS: It allowed me to make my next film, Gypsy 83 and I got some writing jobs and an agent and some Hollywood jobs. It launched my career making movies. I’m indebted to David [Moreton] for carrying on and taking over directing because it really could have all fallen apart, so his belief in me and the film and the script really kept the train on the rails.
Director David Moreton
How did this film resonate with you back in 1998? Did you identify with the Eric character, and Todd’s story?
DM: Eric’s experience was not my experience. I had a much different coming out experience myself. I knew I was gay. I came out to my family in my late 20s. I related to the character, whose mom knows the truth and doesn’t want to hear it out loud. But the underlying feelings are universal. The biggest thing I wanted to portray, and draw out of the story, is that in all of the coming out stories prior to Edge of Seventeen things were tied up nicely in the end. But coming out is not a one-time thing; it’s a process. We come out again and again. Coming out the first time doesn’t happen overnight. We make mistakes, and hurt people, and lose people and it’s not always OK, or they accept it after a time.
How do you feel Edge played when it was made in comparison to the LGBT film scene today?
DM: The 1990’s was the age of independent queer cinema. The only way our stories were getting told was if we made them ourselves. In the 2000s with Will and Grace and gay characters on Six Feet Under… it’s a totally different landscape now. The 1990’s had gay film festivals that gave us a way to look at these issues and give filmmakers and storytellers an outlet to tell these stories and then do bigger things on a larger scale.
What do you recall about the difficulties of making Edge of Seventeen?
DM: It was an unusual shoot. One of the benefits was that we had never done it before, so we were ignorant to what we were undertaking, so we just kind of did it. Looking back, that was a great gift; it was an adventure. We went to Ohio and started doing it. We kept the subject matter under wraps because we were worried about people judging it if they knew what it was about. We had a sanitized version for the script to give to people if the needed it.
I was the producer and on day 6 of a 30-day shoot, Todd looked at me and said, “I have to go right now.” And he left. It was during a big party scene. It was sink or swim. I had no choice. I had been preparing to direct a movie prior to that, so I wasn’t completely unprepared, but I just sort of did it. It was a wonderful experience for me. I feel bad that happened to Todd.
DM: It was a huge thing for me. I had fantasized about making a movie, and here I was doing it. And then once we had finished it…we didn’t have a plan. We made it not knowing what we were going to do with it. We got into festivals, and then Strand picked it up. So we went from not knowing what we were doing to have it play theatres. It put me on the path to making movies. I got an MBA at Wharton. I started filmmaking not knowing anything about it. This film gave me the confidence to continue.
Actor Andersen Gabrych (Rod)
What experiences do you recall about casting, being on set, and making the film?
AG: I had just gotten out of grad school and had done a showcase. I was in Austria, and I got a call from an agent who represented young actors, including Chris [Stafford, who played Eric]. I’d done a gay piece in the showcase and he saw it, and I called him back. He said nobody was interested in doing Edge because it was gay, and this was 1997! I was willing to do it. It was work! It was my first film audition. Todd and David asked me to take off my shirt to make sure I had a 1980’s body, not a Chelsea body. I did a chemistry test with Chris.
I was a stage actor, and the first scene I shot was at the picnic table. I knew nothing about continuity. So someone had to tell me that I had to put mustard on my hot dog during this one line. The second scene was the sex scene. When I was in grad school they asked me what I was most afraid of, and for me, it was taking my clothes off. So of course, the first thing I booked professionally, I had to take my clothes off!
Making the film was a wonderful experience to be honest, and I had a lot of fun shooting it. It was freeing being a gay actor playing a gay role. This is real for me, not me pretending to be straight. I was really proud of it. I worried about this film pigeonholing me as an actor, and it kind of did.
How much did you identify with your character in the film? Are you a Heartbreaker?
AG: No, that came much later, honey. I was a manipulative teenager, always trying to finagle guys, not overtly, but testing the waters to see how they responded. I used that for Rod. I was 24, so that was still a fresh feeling for me. Being gay was about manipulating other men. I played off that.
Eric was how I was when I was 15. I had a 19 year old interested in me. He disappeared. No calls. So I understood [Eric and Rod’s relationship] from both points of view. I realized now it was a lot more Maggie’s story than I remember it. A lot of my female friends identified with her experience, and I think it’s her Edge of Seventeen as much as his. Her heart is really broken and her life is just as changed.
When you look back at this film now, do you find it hard to watch?
AG: It was hard at first, because I was in it, but because it was brutally honest at moments like the part where Eric asks to use a condom, or the mom’s response to her son’s coming out. But over time I think it is the best coming out movie. It captures the confusion. I slept with girls when I was that age, and I was confused about what I was feeling.
I liked that it starts out as a comedy. Rod’s first encounter with Eric is funny. We get drunk, and I feel him up. Then things change….they get real, going from childhood fun to “Oh fuck, I have a life ahead of me.”
Edge of Seventeen was very important at the time for teens coming out. Any interesting encounters or experiences, or something you are particularly proud of?
AG: There was a guy I knew who was a boyfriend of a friend. He told me “I had a poster of you on my dorm room ceiling.” I was surprised by how many people loved me as the villain. I never saw Rod that way; as an actor, I approached him as the protagonist…. I’m proud UCLA put the film in its archives.
How did this film, your debut, affect your career?
AG: Right after, I got a job at Public Theater, because the casting director loved the movie. I did some things here and there, and formed a theater company. I got another movie, a lead, because the director was a fan of Edge of Seventeen. But I realized I could not count on acting, and started writing comic books, and then did some screenwriting, and some acting here and there, but then the rat race and auditioning in a room full of 6-foot blondes got old.
Actress Stephanie McVay (Mom)
This was your first time in a film, what do you recall about the experience?
SM: I remember being on set the first day and I don’t think I breathed. I wasn’t sure what to expect. It was a loving and caring place to be. I wasn’t intimidated; I’d been on camera before, but not on film. I had a theatre background
Do you find the film hard to watch then or even now?
SM: It was had to watch then. When see it 17 years later, it takes on a little camp value for us with the outfits and costumes. It’s still a really nice story. It’s heartwarming.
SM: After our film came out, there was a series of coming out films, and I think our film helped people find themselves. Sweet young boys told me it helped them come out, or “That was just like my experience,” or “I wish that had been my experience.” I had not been in a family that had to deal with gay boys, so I just went ahead and channeled my mom and how she would have handled something like that. She was sweet and nice and a little guarded, and knew there was more work to be done. She wasn’t going to [just accept it]. When Eric’s mom says, “I know you’re gay. But I don’t know how I’m going to handle this,” she wasn’t going to step away. I felt comfortable using the way [my mom] would have handled it. I remember that day before we filmed that scene how I was quiet, perhaps overly quiet. I was happy with that particular scene.
How did this film change or chart your life?
SM: It’s interesting. I moved to New York in 1995 hoping to do Broadway and theatre. I never thought I’d go for film. I read [about Edge in] Backstage East and thought, “I could be a mom.” I was 42 at the time. I didn’t have an idea. But I reminded Todd so much of his mom. I did what I thought a mom does. I had no idea of what would come of it. But Edge went to Sundance and we got all this recognition. In 2000, I moved back home [to California] and I stayed there… when I get an agent she used Edge as a platform, pitching me as a gay icon. That got me in doors right away. I auditioned for Marley and Me because the casting director loved Edge. Other casting director brought me in because of Another Gay Movie. Now I am on The People Vs. OJ Simpson playing John Travolta’s secretary. That was awesome!
Gary M. Kramer is the author of Independent Queer Cinema: Reviews and Interviews, and co-editor of the recently published Directory of World Cinema: Argentina.