One (Gay) Man, One (Single) Woman :: Jonathan Lisecki on ’Gayby’
In the fantasies of some extremists, the universal (and only acceptable) recipe for a family is one man, one woman, and their offspring. Real life tends to be more complicated, of course, what with divorced mothers and fathers remarrying and blending their broods, not to mention single mothers and fathers, and adoption, and--the biggest bogeyman of all to hysterical homophobes--gays and lesbians actually having kids of their own. Oh, the horror.
Look beyond the reactionary fear and loathing, however, and the general picture that emerges from "non-traditional" family configurations is one of loving couples sharing their lives and attentive parents tending to their children. It’s devotion and commitment, rather than sexual dynamics, that make a family.
As society progresses, so-called "alternative" families are starting to see themselves represented in the media, as with the two adoptive dads on the popular TV show "Modern Family" or the lesbian moms in the movie "The Kids Are Alright," whose son and daughter are the products of the same sperm donor.
Writer-director Jonathan Lisecki throws the cinematic door open a little wider with "Gayby," a movie in which a single straight woman, Jenn (Jenn Harris), tired of waiting for a suitable husband to come along, turns to her gay best friend, Matt (Matthew Wilkas) for help in the mommy department. A zesty comedy ensues, as the would-be parents, still looking for romantic love, carry on with their dating lives but make a point of ending the evening in bed together as they attempt to conceive the old-fashioned, low-tech way.
Though "Gayby" started off as a short film, the new feature-length version feels completely integrated. There’s no sense of anything having been tacked on; Lisecki has developed his world and his characters more completely, rather than simply padding out the extra minutes. Jenn and Matt are surrounded by riotous companions like Nelson (Lisecki), Matt’s friend, a gently ironic presence who has decided to become a bear, and Jamie (Jack Ferver), Jenn’s pal at work, whose funny, catty quips are delivered in a rapid-fire deadpan fashion.
Jonathan Lisecki chatted with EDGE about the film, its balance of comedy and politics, and the small village of friends and colleagues it took to create this cinematic gem.
A Tight Script
EDGE: "Gayby" was originally a short film. Now you have expanded the idea into a feature, using the same two main characters and actors from the short. What went into the process of writing additional material to create the new, feature length version?
Jonathan Lisecki: I think of them as separate projects, in a way. It was always a story first regardless of what form it would take.
When I first came up with the basic idea for "Gayby," I had the resources to make a short much more easily than a feature. As the short played all over in various festivals, audiences started repeatedly asking for more, and my producers became interested in helping me make a feature.
I found it very easy to expand the same idea into a longer format. But in each case it was a story that I presented as best I could at the time.
EDGE: Did you use any of the short film’s footage in the feature, or is the feature a from-the-ground-up, all new production?
Jonathan Lisecki: No, you can’t really reuse old prior footage unless you’re doing flashbacks. While the short has similar scenes to the feature, they were re-written to fit more into the longer story. The short has a very definite ending; in the feature, that moment becomes the end of the first act.
EDGE: There’s a wonderful chemistry between Jenn Harris and Matthew Wilkas. How did you originally cast them? Were there any issues getting them back for the feature length version of the film?
Jonathan Lisecki: I had originally been thinking of a different actress, but she became unavailable as soon as I decided to make the short. I immediately thought of Matt and Jenn, whom I’d done a play with years before. They really are friends from college, as you can probably tell from the photos at the beginning of the film, and both are great actors and very fun to work with. As soon as I told them I wanted to make a feature based around the same characters we created, they were on board instantly.
EDGE: There’s a low-key brand of humor to the film that works quite well. Were any of the one-liners ad libbed?
Jonathan Lisecki: No, the film is tightly scripted. If anything happened that wasn’t on the page, it was because I asked for it in the moment. But ninety-nine percent of the film is directly from the script.
Quite a few of the characters were written with the people who played them in mind and I tried to write for their strengths. I also don’t like an overly rehearsed quality, so I tried to not go too far in that direction. That can help the words feel spontaneous. And having great actors really helps as well.
Playing it Straight
EDGE: The cast in general seem to have a sort of modern, Gen X-ish ironic take on life. Was this a directorial decision, or is it more a matter of the pool of acting talent you drew from?
Jonathan Lisecki: I directed the actors to be in the world of the film. And we re-asserted that in the editing room as often as necessary.
There’s nothing left to chance. Some actors were cast well enough that I didn’t need to do too much work, whereas others required a little more. But as a director I find that maintaining the overall tone has to be at the forefront of every decision you make. It was always on my mind at every step of the process.
EDGE: I noticed some interesting cameos--Randy Harrison from "Queer As Folk" appears briefly, and Adam Driver, now a regular on the HBO series "Girls," was also in a few scenes. How did they come to be part of the production?
Jonathan Lisecki: Randy was in the original reading of the screenplay. I would have loved to have him have a larger part, but he was doing a play in DC at the time and could only come down for one day. He appears in an additional musical sequence that you’ll be able to see on the DVD.
I saw Adam Driver and Joanne Tucker (who plays Valerie) in a play they did when they were seniors at Juilliard. I think they’re both so talented, and I was very happy when they said yes to the film.
The entire cast consists of friends I’ve worked with in the past, actors I met along the film festival circuit, and people I know from seeing their work. There is really no one in the film that I didn’t already know. Which is often the way it is when you are making a low budget film that is more a labor of love than a job for everyone involved.
EDGE: The whole notion of gay parentage seems pre-loaded with a lot of political weight, but "Gayby" is refreshingly free of all that. Was this a deliberate choice? Or is this just how you roll as a writer and director?
Jonathan Lisecki: I took out anything that felt like an overt statement, but I do feel that the film addresses the issue of what a truly modern family can be in a clear way.
As a viewer, I prefer experiencing something as opposed to being told what I should be experiencing. I feel that comedy, when it is done well, can get a point across in a way that a hardcore drama never could. The message of acceptance of difference and respect for alternative parenting is there, without me having to beat anyone over the head with it.
But if the viewer wants to skip that, they can still enjoy the movie as a pure comedy.
EDGE: Another charged aspect of the film is the theme of gay men having straight sex. I think it’s an interesting thing that GLBT film and literature often overlooks: Gay men might actually enjoy sex with women on occasion, and for various reasons, without risking their "gay identity." And the film mines some real comic gold from the situation of a gay man sleeping with a straight woman, with both of them still seeking romance elsewhere--it’s a very neatly made point about the difference between sex and romance and the different kinds of love that can exist between people.
Jonathan Lisecki: The incredibly brief and awkward sex between Matt and Jenn is only about procreation. I don’t think they particularly enjoy the sex. And beyond the first time we never really see them do it again, except for very brief moments as they finish. They find their romance elsewhere with people in line with their orientation.
I wanted it to replicate what it might be like for any two friends who were having sex purely to have a child together, especially college friends who may have had bad sex before. Personally, while I was in college, I was open to sex with both genders, although I do consider myself a gay man. And the kernel of this idea comes from my own personal experience. I have to be true to that.
EDGE: You cast yourself in the film as Nelson, Matt’s friend and a sweet would-be bear. Did you find it hard to direct yourself, or to wear both hats in the scenes that included you?
Jonathan Lisecki: I’ve worked with almost everyone I act with in the film before. I’ve been acting with Matt, Jenn, and Jack for years. Since most of my acting scenes were with people I trust, it was not difficult at all to change hats. If anything, it was easier to have one less person in the mix.
My cinematographer, Clay Liford, is a close friend, and I knew I could rely on him to be extra vigilant on the days when I was in the film. But honestly, in this case I think it helped. It certainly helps in yet another way to get across your intended tone if you are delivering your own lines.
EDGE: I particularly liked the mix of antagonism and sexual tension between Nelson and Jenn’s gay friend from work, Jamie. Any plans to spin those two off in a movie of their own?
Jonathan Lisecki: Jack Ferver, who plays Jamie, is a genius comedic performer. He was in the same play I first did with Jenn and Matt years ago. And we have always had this very funny interplay back and forth, as people and as performers. So I wanted to include that in the feature.
I don’t know if I will revisit these specific characters, but I hope to continue working with him. My sound person did make a dance song out of some of our lines combined together, and it’s fairly hilarious and quite catchy.
EDGE: What projects are you cooking up for the future?
Jonathan Lisecki: I have to travel with "Gayby" quite a bit through the summer. I have a project I’d like to start working on in the fall, involving some of the same cast. I don’t like to talk too much about things before they happen. I might be a bit superstitious in that regard.