This past summer, after a screening of my new film, Five Dances, at Philadelphia's QFest, a gay college student approached and asked if I'd be willing to give him some career advice over a cup of coffee. I agreed, and a week later he took a Bolt Bus up to New York, and we met at a small café in the West Village. It was a hot, humid summer's day, but he arrived wearing a pressed white shirt and tie, dress slacks, and polished shoes, an outfit that his professor had advised him to don for the occasion. (I was in shorts and a T-shirt.) He was smart, talented, and ambitious, an honors film student who'd already directed a slew of shorts and a Web series.
What did he want to talk to me about? I asked. Ever conscientious and prepared, he took out his notebook and pen and started peppering me with questions, about my work process, my career trajectory, all the expected hows and whys and whens I'd been asked countless times before. Finally, though, he got to the "big questions," the ones I realized were the real reason that he'd bussed all the way up from Philly to ask me: How did I feel about making "gay" films? Had being labeled a "gay filmmaker" hurt or helped my career?
I was momentarily at a loss. It's not that I'd never been asked, or asked myself, those questions. It's that I still hadn't articulated the answers. We left the café and went for a stroll on the High Line, where we gave his questions the time and consideration they deserved. This earnest film student was out and proud. That wasn't the issue. His issues were solely practical. He wasn't yet sure what he wanted to do, career-wise, but he wanted to keep his options open, to be able to someday work in TV, or to possibly make studio films. I told him that the best advice I could give him was to think about what he wants to say with his work, to explore the subjects that interest him, and to try hard to make the films he really wants to make. "The labels will follow -- or not," I said.
I do think about labels, I admitted. Like every artist, I want my work to be seen. Each time I make a new film, the producers, distributors, and I wrestle with the "gay film" label, very grateful to have the support of the LGBTQIA festivals and film goers, but also anxious for the film to reach wider audiences. It meant a great deal to me that my last film, Private Romeo, a contemporary, all-male adaptation of Romeo and Juliet, was embraced by Shakespeare and gay audiences alike.
My new film, Five Dances, which opens in U.S. theaters on Oct. 4, is a coming-of-age story set in the modern dance world. So far in its festival life both here and abroad, it has been enthusiastically received by both dance and gay audiences. Not so coincidentally, the story of Five Dances' main character, Chip, deals with these same issues of identity. A newcomer to New York's professional dance world, 18-year-old Chip (played by the dancer Ryan Steele in his first film role) only blossoms as an artist as he falls in love and embraces his sexual identity. And watching his personal and professional journeys, we see how inexorably intertwined they are.
But would I, could I, write and direct straight characters and stories? That's what the film student asked me as we neared the end of our walk. Of course I could, and have, I told him. My films Book of Love and Superheroes have no gay characters. And even in my "gay" films, not all the characters or story lines are gay.
The more important question, I suggested, is whether straight writers and directors tell gay stories. The answer is that, yes, they do, but very rarely. In an August report on LGBT roles in major studio films, GLAAD found that of the 101 releases from six major studios in 2012, just 14 included lesbian, gay, or bisexual characters. And almost all those were cameos or minor roles. The reasons are grist for another essay. But one big reason is that gay people are raised in straight families and grow up among straight friends in straight society. It is second nature -- and a necessary survival skill -0 for "us" to imagine "them." But until recent decades, most straight people didn't even know that they knew gay people. It's not so easy, then, to create us up on the screen, which is a problem because, as every study tells us, with visibility comes understanding and acceptance.
So, after an afternoon of walking and talking, I arrived at last at an answer to this film student's, and my own, concerns about the career ramifications of making "gay" movies, an answer that I hope was worth his time and bus fare: Making "gay" films hasn't hurt my career. On the contrary, it has helped me grow both as an artist and as a person. Furthermore, we gay filmmakers aren't just part of the dialogue and the cultural landscape; we help create it. So we have a real obligation to put gay characters and stories up on the screen. If we don't, who will?
Check out the trailer for Five Dances:
Five Dances opens Friday, Oct. 4, at Cinema Village in New York City, and at the Plaza Cinema in Atlanta, Ga., and subsequently at other theaters nationwide. At Cinema Village the cast and I will be present for Q-and-A sessions following both the 7 p.m. and the 9:15 p.m. screenings on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday nights of the opening weekend. Learn more at cinemavillage.com. For more information on the film, visit fivedancesthemovie.com and facebook.com/fivedances.