Imagine a film with the following plot line: A woman, Jill, asks her female ex-lover, Jamie, if they can date each other again just so that Jill can prove to herself that she is no longer attracted to Jamie and therefore no longer a lesbian. Jamie agrees.
This is the scenario in Michelle Ehlen's new film Heterosexual Jill. Although it might seem that Jamie's choice to sacrifice her self-worth for her ex is crazy, Ehlen craftily makes it all make sense. In fact, Ehlen, who stars as Jamie, plays her to great comic effect. She's also the writer, director, producer and editor of the film. What's more, this entertaining film asks some serious questions about gender, sexuality and identity but never seems preachy or overly didactic.
Ehlen is a self-described "butch lesbian," although she doesn't fully identify with either of those labels. "Like most people, I try to choose labels that describe me, but I think as people we're more complicated than that," she explains. "I believe gender and sexuality exist on a continuum, so any label is mostly an approximation." Heterosexual Jill is a followup to her first feature, Butch Jamie, which won several awards on the film festival circuit, including Best Actress for Ehlen at the Outfest Film Festival in 2007.
Where Heterosexual Jill is a satire on sexuality, Ehlen explains that Butch Jamie is a satire on gender. "Butch Jamie is basically a lesbian twist on Tootsie," says Ehlen. "The story revolves around a butch lesbian who gets cast as a man in a film. On top of the deadpan one-liners and slapstick physical comedy, it was the perfect platform to discuss gender stereotypes, roles, and assumptions."
Ehlen is currently writing a third and final installment in her series, called S&M Sally, which will be a satire about relationships. The story is about people choosing not to go outside their comfort zones for fear of losing their partner, only to discover the ways in which doing so leads to a richer experience for themselves. "I like to think there's an underlying theme in my films of living a more authentic life," says Ehlen. "Once you get over the idea of who you think you are or should be, you can begin to move toward a more genuine and three-dimensional experience."
As she prepares for Heterosexual Jill to be shown in film festivals around the world, Ehlen answered some questions.
Michelle Ehlen as Jamie, and Jen McPherson as Jill, in Heterosexual Jill (photo courtesy of Ballet Diesel Films, used with permission).
Jeryl Brunner: What inspired you to make Heterosexual Jill?
Michelle Ehlen: I thought it would be a nice progression from Butch Jamie, since that film focused almost exclusively on gender, and I liked the idea of focusing on sexuality from a variety of angles. I'm interested in identity in general: how and why people identify, how they choose or don't choose their identity, how people conform to their identity, and how their identity changes over time. And of course, I just thought there was a lot of ridiculous fun to be had with this story as well.
Brunner: Why is Jamie willing to risk her self-worth to date Jill even after Jill says, basically, "I'm more or less going out with you so that I can get over women"?
Ehlen: I believe Jamie feels a bit guilty for lying to Jill about being a man [in the previous film, Butch Jamie] and feels like she somehow owes her. There's even, I think, a little bit of macho heroism in terms of thinking she's the cool one who can help Jill, even if that means helping her be straight. But beyond that, I think that Jamie is drawn to Jill almost in spite of herself. That part I think I can identify with the most. I've never dated a woman who has only dated men in the past, but many of my lesbian friends have. Whenever I meet a straight woman I'm interested in (it's only bound to happen), I think, "What if this...? What if that...?" My lesbian friends all say, "No! You do not want to go down that road." And I say, "I know I don't. But I still kind of do anyway."
Ehlen directs the "ex-lesbian" therapy group in Heterosexual Jill (photo courtesy of Ballet Diesel Films, used with permission).
Brunner: Did anything similar to what occurred in the film happen to you?
Ehlen: No, the film is made up other than the subplot where Jamie starts dreaming about male anatomy. I've had similar dreams that felt like some sort of crazy repressed stuff coming up. I consider myself a lesbian, but I think very few people are 100-percent gay or straight, and there's a part of you that may not fit into who you think you are. Existing on a continuum of sexuality isn't something that you generally see portrayed from the point of view of a butch lesbian, so I loved the idea of portraying that in the film and embellishing Jamie's reaction to the point of being heterophobic.
Brunner: What inspired you to become a filmmaker?
Ehlen: I've always loved creating, performing, and telling stories, so in college, when I decided to actually pursue film as a career, it was something I had unknowingly been working toward for many years. I started acting when I was 8, and started editing on our home VCR when I was 12. I always loved delving into new projects and keeping busy creatively. I also have a lot of passion for ideas and themes, so as I've gained more life experience, I'm continually inspired to tell more stories.
Heterosexual Jill Q&A at the premiere screening at the Frameline Film Festival (from left to right: director Michelle Ehlen, producer Charlie Vaughn, and actors Keye Chen, Shaun Landry, Shaela Cook, Jen McPherson, and Katy Dore; photo courtesy of Ballet Diesel Films, used with permission).
Brunner: You appear in nearly every scene. How hard is it to direct yourself?
Ehlen: I actually think it's easier for me to direct myself than to act for another director. I give myself permission to do what I feel like in the moment, and there's no one on set that I need to look to for approval afterward to ask, "Was that good? Was that funny? Is that what I should be doing?" and that frees me to let go and get out of my own way. I find that I'm more confident and do my best work that way, and then afterward, in the editing room, I can be more critical as I review the footage. I think the challenge is more directing the other actors and assessing what they need from me, since every actor works differently, although I think that would be a challenge even if I was only behind the camera.
Brunner: Now that the Supreme Court ruled a key section of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) unconstitutional, do you feel that that has changed how people react to the film and the issues involved?
Ehlen: I believe society and culture is often several steps ahead of the legal system, so I wouldn't necessarily say the repeal of DOMA is changing people's perceptions, but rather the ruling is indicative of where society is and is moving toward. I've had positive responses from people who have seen the film, and even straight people are able to relate to it and have told me they appreciate the way the film depicts sexuality as a blurred and confused thing. I think the film sort of overanalyzes the boxes and labels people have to the extent where "gay"/"straight," "male"/"female," no longer means anything; there is just that moment where you look into someone's eyes and you connect in a way where none of that matters anymore.
Watch the trailer for Heterosexual Jill:
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