By Tom Ue.
With more than 900K followers on Instagram alone, writer and director Max Emerson uses his social media presence to promote awareness of problems facing the LGBTQ community. His latest project, the film Hooked had its world premiere at the Toronto Inside Out Festival, and it partners with organizations including the Ali Forney Center, LA LGBT Center, Albert Kennedy Trust, Lost and Found, and GLAAD. Statistics shows the increased vulnerability of LGBTQ youth in the USA. Hooked, in response, aims to donate 50% of its profits to homeless shelters. Its story focuses on Jack (Conor Donnally), a homeless eighteen-year-old prostitute with impulsive tendencies who aspires to create a better life for himself and his boyfriend Tom (Sean Ormond). In what follows, Emerson and I discuss his impressive first feature film, which is now available on DVD and VOD, and his larger social commentary.
Hooked is doing incredible work by raising public awareness of the plight of homeless youths. Let’s begin by talking about the Hooked Project. What are some of its achievements to date?
Hooked has been a wonderful gateway into getting to know the shelters and people involved with them. We’ve had a screening with Newfest in NYC where the ticket sales went directly to Ali Forney Center. People viewing the film at festivals have reached out pledging to get involved with their local shelters. As far as I’m concerned, Hooked has more than achieved its goals when it comes to awareness. I’m excited to see how the distribution phase goes so that I can have a tangible metric for the change the project has affected.
The film was successfully funded by Indiegogo. What has the response been like?
I’m still overwhelmed with the support I’ve found through our community, both for this project and others that my team and I dream up. That being said, crowd sourcing is work. I think that model is ideal for an experimental project, but ultimately it’s just too exhausting to do as a regular production model. We’ll be shipping DVDs to our backer on June 5. Fingers are crossed that they like the film!
What inspired you to write and direct this film?
Of all the projects sitting in my “Please Produce Me!” file, Hooked was the obvious choice for an introductory feature film. Upon completing my novel Hot Sissy: Life Before Flashbulbs, many queer youths personally reached out for a free e-book and shared their experiences. Given the majority of their stories, it became abundantly clear how easy I’ve had it. Many of these people were in places where it simply wasn’t safe to be themselves. I wanted to make something completely different from the usual YouTube and Instagram stuff…something hard-hitting that would affect real change in the lives of people like the ones who reached out to me.
In what ways did it develop during production?
A big part of filmmaking (especially the “ultra low budget” films) is being flexible with your resources and allow collaboration in almost any form. There were many hurdles that caused us to rearrange different production/story elements, but at the end of the day I think those obstacles helped shape Hooked into a concise, well-paced story.
The cinematography is consistently strong, from the interior shots of houses to the driving scenes. What are the greatest challenges?
“Q: How many photographers does it take to change a light-bulb? A: Just one more, just one more….” The greatest challenge was keeping our cinematographer Olivier Lessard on schedule. We were unbelievably lucky to have him on board, so it felt wrong to put any sort of limit on his work. Other than time (meaning “budget”) constraints, every scene had its own trials. From hanging out of the back of a convertible to avoiding nosey cops, guerrilla filmmaking requires its creative team to be artists, gymnasts and sometimes outlaws.
Tell us about the casting.
Given our budget and my lack of filmmaking experience, I relied almost entirely on my University of Miami connections to get the film cast. We were in luck, as the film is chock-full of incredibly talented people. The cast was by far my favorite part of production. Given our similar educational background, we all spoke the same language when it came to shaping their performances.
The film is populated by minor characters, like Jess, about whom we grow to care deeply. How do you balance between the amount of time to devote to each?
Hooked is a circular exploration of LGBTQ youth homelessness, which means it’s also an exploration of homophobia and abuse. The cultural norms that victimize these kids affect many more people than we realize. It was important for me to find as much humanity in the people perpetuating these problems because a huge issue our society faces today is that we are too-often failing to see the humanity in anyone we’ve pre-emptively labeled “the opposition.”
Questions of (in)fidelity loom large in most of the film’s narratives: what, in your view, is so interesting about them?
Infidelity has always fascinated me. I started writing Hooked the week after I walked in on my boyfriend at the time having a threesome. I’ve never understood why people feel a need to lie about their sexual urges…which obviously means that I’m in an incredible place of privilege! I modeled several storylines in Hooked after friends and family in similar circumstances. Obviously the drama has been elevated for storytelling purposes, but the initial causes/urges/phobias remained intact.
Both Jack and Tom have troubling relationships with their families, of which we only get glimpses. What led you to keep in this in background?
Jack and Tom are homeless either because they were abandoned or refused to be subject to any more abuse. Those families are in the past where they belong. Hooked is about their struggle to build a new “chosen family”.
Are you optimistic for Jack and Tom?
I’ve never worried about Tom, he’s going to be just fine. Jack however struggles with Borderline Personality Disorder and will never allow himself to have it “easy”. His disorder usually has a very long prognosis and rarely results in “full” recovery. There is optimism at the end when Jack calls Tom from his holding cell. He promises to be less stubborn and to trust Tom when it comes to accepting help, which is really the best we can hope for.
What is next for you?
Sorry, my big projects are top secret for the next few months! But my Web team and I recently premiered a wonderful web series called “Drag Babies” where Insta Hunks learn drag from the industry’s top queens. You can check that out at www.dragbabies.com. I’ll be traveling, vlogging, and writing quite a bit this summer while getting all the necessary ducks lined up for my next features, series, and stage shows.
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 Assistant Professor of English at Dalhousie University in Nova Scotia, Canada and an Honorary Research Associate at University College London.