Behind the Scenes of Pretty BoysEmbracing the Queer Film Festival: Interview with Everett Lewis Gary M. Kramer August 2023 Pride on the Margins Issue 106 Unapologetically queer writer/director Everett Lewis burst on the film scene in 1990 — one year before the “New Queer Cinema” movement — with his gritty, black and white gay-themed bromantic drama, The Natural History of Parking Lots. The film premiered at Sundance, and played numerous international festivals, including Berlin and London, as well as gay pride events. His subsequent release, Skin & Bone (1994) was an edgier, explicitly queer film about sex workers that went to the same fests before Lewis personally managed its theatrical release. Then the queer film festival circuit exploded and became a launching pad for Lewis’ scrappy, sexy, and stylish films. These include: the queer romance, Luster (2002); FAQs (2005) a film featuring queer politics and a chosen family; Lucky Bastard (2009), a gay love story featuring addiction; The Pretty Boys (2011), about a fictional gay glam rock band; and Somefarwhere (2011), a gay thriller set in the Middle East. Lewis developed a loyal following with his immersive films that provided a safe queer space for viewers. Moreover, these films challenged genre conventions and featured different styles and content as well as copious nudity. His work in the ‘00s were acquired by gay video distributors, including TLA Releasing and Breaking Glass Pictures, that used the festival circuit as a launching pad to generate word-of-mouth for theatrical and/or home video release. But while Lewis appreciated the opportunities of the festival circuit, he became disenchanted as programmers eventually resisted his experimental films, preferring more mainstream “crossover” titles. In addition, he faced issues with piracy. The director has since taken a break from releasing his work, but he admits, “I do look forward to releasing movies again. I keep making them…” Lewis chatted about his experiences with queer film festivals. Gary M. Kramer: How would you describe your experiences on the festival circuit? Everett Lewis: It was interesting at first because I travelled quite a bit. I think it was rewarding, but I never made any connections — save a few press contacts — that turned into another film. It was about presenting the work. What I learned fast was if you are in London, or Italy, it’s about what you agreed to do for the festival, whether you get paid for them or not. It’s work. It’s hard to even see films because that interferes with speaking on a panel. It was important to do what they wanted to do. For me, my films are about saying something about queer culture. Whenever someone wants to show my films, it is an opportunity to reach out and embrace that. But festivals are often clubs for people who put them on and attend them. Every fest has a culture that is maintained and curated and embraced. Either you fit into that culture — if they like you, you go back indefinitely — or you don’t. You can easily get on a bad list. I went for a decade or more but at some point, I realised it wasn’t as cool for me. I didn’t get to see other filmmakers’ films. I did interviews, panels and it was all about working for the festival. GMK: What were the benefits and drawbacks of queer film festivals? EL: In the ‘90s, films were “discovered” at festivals and got broader distribution. Sundance was glamorous then. Festivals were a stepping stone to distribution. It was hard to find filmmakers and films in those days. Sundance, Berlin, and Toronto had power to get work picked up by distributors. My first works were picked up through festivals, and they had agency in getting the word out in a broader sense. Filmmaking became fashionable in the ‘90s. By the way, that is no longer true. The edgier works seem to have less place in festivals, which are more mainstream. In the beginning, they were willing to advocate for more experimental work; festivals expected different kinds of work. I went out of fashion around 2010. GMK: Did you feel the safe spaces of queer festivals were a bubble? EL: Queer festivals’ function was to expose queer films. I don’t believe in crossover — as if somehow straight people would be interested in gay films?! I was looking for press and having a presence as a gay filmmaker. GMK So you were not afraid of being pigeonholed as a gay filmmaker? EL: I am very happy to be pigeonholed as a gay filmmaker. Once or twice a studio wanted me for a project. I wasn’t sure what I could bring to it, and they weren’t projects I wanted to do, so I didn’t do them. GMK: In the early part of your career, you managed your work on the festival circuit before it found distribution. Can you describe that experience? EL: Parking Lots did well at Sundance and in the press. Sundance was a festival where other festival curators would come to find films for their festivals. If someone liked my film, they would come up to me and get the film for their festival. That helped break the barriers for wider distribution. There were other companies trying to repeat the success using the Miramax model of discovering offbeat festival films and promoting the hell out of them. Strand tried to do it, and they distributed Skin & Bone, which was picked up by Alliance (a Canadian film distributor). The Alliance folks saw Skin & Bone on a Friday and said, “No thanks.” Then they called back on Monday and said, “I can’t get your film out of my head so we’re going to take it.” Sounds great, but they didn’t know what to do with it. In New York, I released it myself, I hired this guy who was good in distribution — he knew what papers to buy ads in. I designed the poster. It got a great review in the New York Times. I tried to get mainstream attention. Skin & Bone did well in New York on release, so it played all over. GMK: How did the festivals help you establish a reputation as a filmmaker? EL: Parking Lots and Skin & Bone got a lot of press, and press, for people who don’t have press, is exciting. It was great for people to regard me as an interesting filmmaker. It never turned into financial support; no one would pay for anything. GMK: Was limited theatrical play an issue? EL: No. I was happy if anyone showed it. I don’t have an inflated view of the work. I have a realistic view. I make experimental queer films. The audience for that is very small. GMK: What decisions did you make regarding the films that you made? EL: When we started this genre, if it is a genre, my impulse was to work with who I was, a queer guy making queer films. I remember seeing Querelle (Rainer Werner Fassbinder, 1982) back in the day, and there’s only one sort of sex scene featuring sweaty actor Brad Davis, and it’s totally opaque, but people lined up around the block to see it. I realised that people who want to see gay films will watch stuff that is not mainstream. So I began to really explore boundaries with my work, that excited me a lot, and there was an audience for edgier stuff. The attention I got with Parking Lots allowed me to experiment. There were no models as to how to make queer cinema, I got to make them up as I went. It was a beautiful realisation. GMK: Your films came out with the explosion not only of queer festivals but also the distribution model of launching queer films on the circuit, leading up to a DVD release. How did having support help you after doing some self-distribution? EL: The only film I released myself was Skin & Bone and I wanted to do it because I wanted to know how it was done. I four-walled it and made all the decisions. Rialto picked up after it got good reviews. In theory, you get a film distributed, and you get an advance to make another film. Every film I made was self-financed, or a producer helped me, and they got to keep any money the film made. If you showed up with a film, and it got into a festival, like Sundance, it had a chance at distribution. I ascribed it to queer content. Not enough people were doing it. A film got distribution if people liked it. Sometimes, my film was the only one that got distribution. My films had naked guys in them. Plenty of films that were made did not get picked up. GMK: Was there an agenda to feature full-frontal male nudity? EL: I always wanted to do it; I thought it was important in queer film to see queer bodies. To me it was an ideology of showing things I wish I could see more easily. I would like to have nudity in Somefarwhere, but there was no place for it. And that may be why that film didn’t do well when it came out. GMK: Did you find some festivals did not want your work because it was too edgy/indie? EL: I think that’s what ultimately happened. Films like Billy’s Hollywood Screen Kiss (Tommy O’Haver, 1998) seem to me silly and demeaning. I have a problem with gay films designed for mainstream audiences. It creates a vision of gay men that is palatable for straight people. I was given the script for Brokeback Mountain (Ang Lee, 2005), and I thought it was awful — let’s punish gay people! That movie shows awful consequences for gay desire. Why do I want to be involved with that? It presents a view of homosexuality that is ultimately defeating. That was not my experience. Charlie Bean in The Natural History of Parking Lots GMK: How do you think the market for queer films has changed? EL: In the beginning, there was no money in terms of distribution. When there began to be money, companies sprang up. There was no market when I made Parking Lots, but once money was being made, these new distributors abandoned the edgier films; they only wanted films they could easily sell. It reflected a big cultural shift — not just what they could sell, but what the audience will watch. Once there was a huge audience that would see foreign films like Bergman’s and Fellini’s. It was an amazing world of discovery and ambition and openness. But that culture died out with those audiences, and what replaced it was Kim Kardashian, which is now uber mainstream. In the past, cineastes were interested in different kinds of film experiences and went out and looked for them. That culture doesn’t seem to exist anymore. GMK: Do you think that your films were difficult for viewers to embrace? EL: I’m not warm and fuzzy. I rejected a mainstream career to make these queer artworks. I think this has to do with being gay; I realised quite young that I was gay, and that I had to have the courage to be an outsider and go with it. If you believe in something, you have to do it. I haven’t stopped. GMK: What observations do you have about the difficulties of getting work produced? EL: It’s hard, but that challenge makes you find a way if it’s important to you. I never made money from distributors. That’s not why I make the films. GMK: What observations do you have about the reception of your films on the fest circuit? EL: Parking Lots was huge. Skin & Bone was a scandal that got good reviews. Luster was huge. People loved that film; it made them feel good. It was on the cover of every gay magazine. FAQs played only a couple of festivals, including Philadelphia. Outfest (Los Angeles) told the distributor when they rejected it: “It isn’t one of Everett’s best films.” Shouldn’t they consider someone’s (body of) work? Lucky Bastard did quite well because the style is not crazypants, and Dale (Dymkowski) was well worth looking at. The story resonated with viewers and was based on my experience. Somefarwhere didn’t fare well at festivals; maybe I didn’t go far enough in telling the story from a single point of view. I put in some scenes to give the audience some idea of what was going on with the plot and give a more complex Arab point of view. Maybe it was too much of a compromise. Festivals just didn’t respond. Curiously, it seems to hold up well; I get emails from queers obsessed with it. Who knew? Maybe it’s coming into its own. Rusty (Patrick Tatten) and Denny (Dale Dymkoski) kiss in Lucky Bastard GMK: What about your perceptions as a filmmaker? You brought quality and good storylines and developed a following but you never quite broke out like some of the New Queer Cinema directors. EL: In the ‘90s, it seemed like there was a path. Do a film, get success, make bigger and bigger budgeted films. I thought that was the path. Gregg Araki did that with his films, and he got money to do them. Todd Haynes had Christine Vachon. Without her, I’m not sure he would have had that career. I never had a Christine Vachon. When Gus Van Sant made his first film, Cary Brokaw at Avenue Pictures grabbed him. Brokaw understood indie film and got high quality indie films for his company. He produced Drugstore Cowboy (Gus Van Sant, 1989). He saw Parking Lots and talked to me and optioned a script. I came a year or two too late. He was closing down distribution and the money to be made in these films wasn’t as much as his backers hoped. So that door was kind of closed by the time I got there. GMK: Did you feel that as your career progressed, fests didn’t support your work? EL: They didn’t, and that’s curious: I’m in a few histories of gay cinema. I’m not a one-off director, and I have an uncompromising body of work, which is pretty unusual. I never wanted to do the same film over and over. I guess I aged out. GMK: Queer film has evolved considerably since New Queer Cinema. What are your thoughts on this shift? EL: That’s sort of why I stopped. I paused because I felt the zeitgeist and I had parted ways. But now, people have begun talking to me about my work with a different attitude, and they seem to want more of my work. Not enough directors are making (independent gay cinema) anymore but there’s still an audience for it. Maybe I can finish the two (unreleased) films I’m fooling around with — Christians and Territory — and get them out in the world. Filmmakers’ work should always be seen in festivals if they are to truly represent what is going on in the world in gay culture. And it would be nice to get some kind of respect for just keeping going, doing this work. But “It’s not one of your best, Everett.” — I don’t understand what their mission is. Novelty? Money-making? What? I stopped attending fests because I don’t understand them anymore. Do they reflect the filmmaking scene, or the people running them? Fests are a business. I don’t see myself as a businessperson. I’m an artist. It’s not unlike the relationship an artist has to a gallery, it’s complex. So, as a gay filmmaker, I have complex feelings about festivals. They inevitably reflect contemporary gay culture, but it is nice to have a larger historical vision too. Bryce Blais and Khaled Haider in Somefarwhere GMK: Can you talk about piracy and streaming as a factor in your decision to stop making film? EL: Early on, I was unaware what was going to happen with streaming. With Somefarwhere I got sandbagged. This French company was going to release it and they got it in Brussels’ gay film festival. I showed it as a work in progress, and when I got back to L.A., I found it was available for free online. The stolen version was not the final cut and had temp music that was copyrighted. I tried to track it down. There was no way to get the company to stop the (pirates) from stealing it. It was free on the internet at that point, so it had no value for a distributor. My rights as an artist were stolen. That was extremely discouraging. Maybe a big studio could deal with it, but I’m not a big studio. By the time it all unfolded, I was exhausted. Making Somefarwhere was difficult enough to begin with — shooting a queer film in the Middle East with secret police lurking and whatnot. After all that, to have it all stolen, it was difficult for me to understand or take in. If I’m going to have to give them away, I decided to accept that and continue to make films but since there’s no clear path to distribution, not to mention ownership, I’m going to figure out a different path for my new films. Festivals have changed so much from their original function as a way of seeing a broad range of approaches, popular and unpopular, and some of the work possibly finding distribution. But the transition from celluloid to digital and from screens in theatres to screening on a phone, well that’s really altered the whole equation. Something gained, yeah, but a hell of a lot has been lost. It’s so easy today to make media, there is less respect for the filmmaking process in contemporary film culture in a profound sense. In the past, it was really difficult to make a film and just doing the work generated respect; you became part of the history of film and the people who loved the medium respected your achievement even as they evaluated it. I really loved that world and the films of that era. The whole thing. It was worth all the struggle.