My new film, Private Romeo, which opens today in New York, is a contemporary, all-male adaptation of Romeo and Juliet, retaining Shakespeare's original Elizabethan language, but set in a high school military academy.
We cast the film in the late spring of 2010, and shot it that summer, when the battle over repealing DADT, the military's ban on gays serving openly, was still raging, and when mainstream media coverage of the "epidemic" of gay bullying in schools and teen suicides was at its peak.
Filmmaking (particularly of the low-budget, indie variety) is always an emotionally roiling experience. For a brief time, a "family" is formed. Fiction and reality collide and overlap, as do actors and their roles. And by the time I'm in the editing room, a leitmotif -- not for the film, but for the making of it -- always becomes apparent. On Private Romeo, that leitmotif would be "courage."
It's not for nothing that Shakespeare refers to his own drama as the story "of Juliet and her Romeo." Romeo, from my perspective, was just a moody, horny, and impulsive teenage boy who behaved as teenage boys have since the beginning of time. Juliet may have been just as self-absorbed and rash, but she can take your breath away, with all the risks she took. To defy her father's marriage wishes, and to sneak Romeo into her father's house for sex, was unfathomably courageous for a girl in that society.
Making a low-budget, indie film also takes courage -- for all involved. It's physically and mentally exhausting, and the pay is low to nonexistent. In the case of Private Romeo, I also was asking eight young, male actors to commit emotionally to exploring gay identity and sexual love onscreen at a formative time in all their professional careers. Yet, from the moment my cast came together for rehearsals, I was touched by the courage of their convictions.
All in their 20s, a few just out of school, their sexual politics seemed completely divorced from their individual sexual identities, and career aspirations. As their director, I could speak with them at length about their characters' motivations and objectives, and how to adapt the contemporary circumstances to Shakespeare's language. But as a gay man a generation removed from theirs, I couldn't teach them how to inhabit teenage characters that had the courage to act on their sexual and romantic convictions. Nor how to play the friends of those characters who were less (or not at all) bothered by the "coming out" of their cadet friends than by how this unexpected revelation and romance affected the group.
I didn't have to. Straight and gay, and from very diverse geographic, economic, and religious backgrounds, they all saw gay civil rights and full equality as a no-brainer. I was constantly moved by their physical ease with one another, both onscreen and off, and their own insistence that we tell "our" story -- of two young military cadets in love -- in a responsible manner. They instinctively understood that as actors, they had a powerful opportunity to make a difference, to have an impact, through their work. And they almost desperately wanted to seize that opportunity.
My friend John and I have been meeting for lunch regularly for decades now. John is a composer in his mid-80s, so our conversations are frequently about politics and art, and, sometimes, about our unique responsibility and opportunity as artists. "Tend to your own garden first" is always his advice when we're both feeling particularly politically impotent. What he means is that we, as artists, do effect change.
In the midst of this Republic primary season, with candidates once again trying to turn gay civil rights into a cultural wedge issue, and flinging around hurtful, vitriolic rhetoric, I am once again conscious of tending to my garden.
The unquestioning courage of my actors -- and of a lot of young artists I encounter in New York -- can be deceiving. Their apparent ease with their and others' sexuality can lead one to assume that it wasn't hard-won, to forget that the "It Gets Better" video campaign (which some of Private Romeo's actors took part in) and the Trevor Project arose out of a real, desperate need.
The truth is, when I hear their individual coming-out stories, they're sadly not much different from my own a generation ago. What's different, of course, is that when I was a teenage boy grappling with my sexuality, there was no Internet, no television shows or films to turn to for solace and hope. While I don't consciously make agitprop, I do feel, with each film I make, more and more committed to telling stories and creating characters onscreen that will give courage to LGBT youth. And ironically, on each of those films (I just finished shooting another one), it's the actors who inspire me and give me more courage. I'm very, very proud of Private Romeo, of how we tell Shakespeare's story, and of how we portray young gay love on the screen. But most of all, I'm proud of my actors.
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