Entertainment » Movies

Inside "The Green" :: Fear and loathing in a Connecticut suburb

by Robert Nesti
EDGE National Arts & Entertainment Editor
Monday Oct 10, 2011

In the new film "The Green," Michael (Jason Butler Harner) and Daniel (Cheyenne Jackson) live a somewhat idyllic life in a well-to-do Connecticut suburb. (The title refers to what Michael wanted to see when he left Manhattan.) Sure the house they've been living in since moving from Manhattan five years earlier is a major fixer-upper and Michael is undergoing writer's block on the novel he's writing, but they feel a strong kinship with their friends and neighbors; that is until Michael is accused of an inappropriate relationship with a student (Chris Bert) at the exclusive private school where he teaches.

In a moment, their life is upended. Overnight, Michael is a social pariah and Daniel finds his restaurant and catering business suffering as a result of being Michael's partner.

It is a story line out of Kafka and one that makes a tightly made, compelling drama.

The film, directed by Steven Williford, has been on the film festival circuit the past few months, picking up numerous awards along the way. Most recently it swept the awards at the San Diego Lesbian & Gay Film Festival, winning Best Narrative Feature, Best Actor awards for Jason Butler Harner and Cheyenne Jackson, Best Actress in a Supporting Role for Illeana Douglas and Best Direction for Steven Williford.

Some have compared the film to such similarly themed works as "The Children’s Hour," "The Crucible" and "Doubt" - works that Williford with which he feels his film has a kinship. And the early reviews have been strong. "Williford lends the proceedings polish and conviction," wrote Variety, "helped by an expert cast and handsome production values... Engrossing." And the San Francisco Chronicle wrote: "A smart and sophisticated film about life in a post-marriage-equality world."

Williford comes from a career in television, having directed close to 150 episodes of the now cancelled soap opera "All My Children" from 2004 to 2011, as well as work in the New York theater directing Off- Broadway premieres of "Walking Down Broadway" by Dawn Powell, "Halfway Home" by Diane Bank, "Laundry and Lies" by Innes McDade, "Heartbreak" by Jack Heifner, and the New York and Long Wharf premieres of Sinan Unel’s "Pera Palas," for which he is a proud recipient of the Daryl Roth Creative Spirit Award.

Though his name isn’t recognizable, Marcarelli’s face is - for the past nine years he’s been the "Test Man" on the popular series of Verizon commercials. His line - "can you hear me now?" - is one of the most familiar tag lines of the past decade. He is a founding member of the non-profit theater company Mobius Group and has been involved in productions of works by Warren Leight, Eric Bogosian, Richard Nelson and Wendy MacLeod. Marcarelli has produced the sold-out and critically acclaimed New York productions of "Bridezilla Strikes Back," and "Semi-Permanent," both winners of the Award for Outstanding Solo Show at FringeNY in 2005 and 2007.

EDGE contacted Williford and Marcarelli for an email Q&A where they talked about how they came to make the film, whether it was based on true events and how they define tolerance.

Homophobia beneath the surface

EDGE: Paul, how did you come to write the film?

Paul Marcarelli: Steven (Williford) came to me with an idea for a film in which a highly respected and well-liked Suburban gay couple experience an incident that forces them to face the homophobia simmering beneath the surface in the seemingly tolerant and liberal community they’ve come to call home. I was totally inspired by the idea and the early development of the story happened extremely fast.

EDGE: Is it based on actual events?

Paul Marcarelli: When I was trying to decide what the "incident" would be, I was trying to think of the one thing Michael could be accused of that would easily rally people together against him. An accusation of child abuse is a tough bell to un-ring. These stories figure prominently in the local news in communities all over the country because they translate into such easy ratings. If the teacher happens to be gay, I think this kind of accusation often stimulates a knee-jerk response, revealing even the most deeply suppressed homophobic bias. We wanted to test that line, which was why we chose this particular kind of accusation as the framing incident in the film.

EDGE: Why did you want to tell this story on film?

Paul Marcarelli: I split my time between my homes in Shoreline Connecticut and New York City, and I have become increasingly conscious of the very different ways I approach my life in these two very different places. Not to be glib, but in New York it’s almost like you’re gay until proven otherwise. In non-urban America I think there is another set of assumptions. Until recently I found myself spending a lot more time when at home in Connecticut trying to make sure everyone else was comfortable with my being gay than I ever would in New York. I think this is common when you’re the only gay person on the block. I wanted to explore all of the dynamics that get in the way of building a community that really is for everyone, including the perceptions that I project onto the place I call home.

EDGE: Steven, were you involved in the project from the onset or did you come across it when Paul sent you the script?

Steven Williford: As Paul explains above, I came to him with the initial story idea because I felt it was elementally well suited for film. The idea was born of experiences I’d had when I was artistic directing a regional theatre company in Southwestern Indiana. The region was extremely conservative and my comfortability with being out was a topic of interest among various groups and individuals I was introduced to when I first arrived.

During those first months in the job, I fielded a great many well-meaning questions about being gay -- and I came to realize that I was an anomaly (of a kind) in their community because I was not in any way careful about who knew that I was gay. I was meeting other gay people in prominent or high profile positions there, but many of them were "flying under the radar" and their public personas often never included their queerness. I’m not a flag-waver or an in-your-face kind of guy, but I never attempted to present myself as anything other than exactly who I was. I realized that in simply living my life, I was committing an inadvertent political act because I was challenging the norms and well as some of the preconceived ideas about homosexuality in that heavily Republican environment.

In sharing this story, I’m always quick to point out that I never once experienced any face-to-face homophobia during my five years there. People were extremely kind and generous every step of the way. But because of the general air of conservatism, I always wondered what thoughts various contingents might have secretly harbored about my open homosexuality -- what might husbands have said to wives driving home from fund-raising parties in my home, or what might two CEO’s have said to one another on the golf course after attending a function where I’d been a keynote speaker as a part of my promotional work for the theatre?

That question haunted me (creatively) for years. How might this community genuinely have responded if some aspect of my queerness came into direct, immediate contact with their politics and/or moral belief systems?

Cold comfort

EDGE: How Gavin is ostracized is quite horrifying. Like Julia says to him, that he’s guilty without any due process. Does the film expose the myth that liberals aren’t quite as tolerant as they pretend to be?

Paul Marcarelli: To me tolerance has always been cold comfort. The most harmonious places, whether they are academic settings, towns, cities, churches, are the ones in which differences are celebrated, not tolerated. There is a superiority inherent in the notion of tolerance. I mean, who are you to tolerate me?

Steven Williford: I agree wholeheartedly with what Paul’s saying about the cloying nature of tolerance. The concept of "other" remains an inherent part of exercising tolerance -- and I think our film addresses that notion in a variety of ways.

EDGE: You’ve both done quite a bit of work on stage and television -- how did that inform your work on the film?

Paul Marcarelli: For my part, I have always tried to bring the same level of consciousness to the work, whether I have three seconds of screen time to tell a story or ninety minutes. I’ve done well over 400 commercials in my career; I know that time on set has been a huge education.

Steven Williford: At the core of realizing any script, whether it’s a play, a television program or a film, the people who are responsible for breathing a sense of purpose into the text must make the moment-to-moment life of a scene believable and "true." That commonality is the center of the experience for me in each medium. While the tools for communicating those "truths" are vastly different medium to medium, all of the work remains focused on unveiling some aspect of the human condition and so there has always been a great deal of cross-pollination between the disciplines for me. That said, I believe that my background in theatre has always given me a leg-up in television and film production because not only do I understand process with the actors, it’s one of the most joyous, rewarding parts of every job.

EDGE: Were there difficulties you didn’t see when you decided to direct the film?

Steven Williford: Hopefully I’ve done my pre-production homework well and anticipated every difficulty -- but of course there are challenges and changes that occur every day, if not every hour, when you’re shooting any film. I’m proud to say that coping with the unexpected is where our cumulative backgrounds in theatre, television and film production served us best. I felt that as a team -- Molly Pearson (Table Ten producing partner), Paul and I were tremendously facile with creating solutions. We knew that we had to capture our story in a 17-day shooting schedule and that certain sacrifices, adjustments and accommodations would have to be made along the way. So when issues did occur, we were ready to create solutions.

Casting the best actors

EDGE: How did you cast your leads?

Paul Marcarelli: First of all we had an amazing casting director, Todd Thaler. And we since we were telling the story ourselves, we were relatively free to imagine our dream cast and then go after it. We consider ourselves VERY VERY fortunate to have assembled the team we did. Everyone worked for less than they are accustomed to earning because they believed in the project and what we were doing.

Steven Williford: I worked most closely with casting the Michael and Daniel roles -- but for the bulk of the casting process, I was in Los Angeles so Molly and Paul led that work with Todd. While they kept me tightly in the loop, it was their unrelenting ingenuity that pulled together our remarkable cast. Therefore I’m going to forego chiming in on the bulk of the casting questions below, except for one...

EDGE: Both Jason and Cheyenne have great chemistry -- how did that evolve?

Paul Marcarelli: Well, they’re both great theater actors and are used to having to dive in head first, and because there was so little time to build trust and chemistry, they had no choice but to give over to the energy between them, I think. And whatever that energy was, it translates.

Our production designer Lucio Seixas and Art Director Cassia Maher created an exquisite home for them out of a completely empty apartment in this huge Victorian house in town. On the night they arrived in Connecticut we gave them the keys and told them to make the set their home. The next day was the first day of filming, and honestly, we were as surprised as anyone to see that they really do seem like a couple that’s been together for a long time.

Steven Williford: I think the "energy" between Jason and Cheyenne that Paul is speaking about above had a great deal to do with the fact that these two out gay men had no emotional or behavioral hurdles to jump regarding their comfortability with one another. In our very first meeting, Paul and I discussed our desire to cast openly gay and lesbian actors in our gay and lesbian roles. Of course, as he mentions later, we were most interested in casting the best actor for each role, but I don’t think we would have ever compromised our fundamental desire to have gay actors play Michael and Daniel because of what we wanted to say about gay men and the realities of long-term relationships between same-sex couples. Just as there is a body of shared primordial knowledge among any codified group, the same is true of our tribe (if you will) and those guys are calling on that knowledge base, making tangible the ineffable in their on-screen relationship.

LGBT actors in key roles

EDGE: How did you get Illeana Douglas involved?

Paul Marcarelli: I am possibly the hugest Illeana Douglas fan on the planet. As it turns out, she grew up two towns over from Guilford, CT, where we shot the movie. She loved the script when we sent it to her, and I don’t think it hurt that she would get to stay with her mom for the duration of the shoot. Her mom drove her to location every day with a brown bag lunch and became a fixture on the set. We set her up in a director’s chair and told people she was our backer.

EDGE: And Julia Ormond?

Paul Marcarelli: Julia came late in the process. She is very committed to issues affecting the LGBTQ community, and was really drawn to the subject matter. Her schedule was extremely tight and we managed to fit her into just three days in the schedule. She came on set and introduced herself to every single person on the crew and then got to work, delving into script questions, making sure there was no question left unanswered, should her character have a dog, what’s a better way to say this, will this logic track... She was amazing. And then she was gone and the next day we watched her win the Emmy for "Temple Grandin." We love her.

EDGE: I read where you initially had hoped to get LGBT actors in the key roles (such as Julia’s), but you weren’t able to find any. What do you think that says about the industry?

Paul Marcarelli: Hmmm. That’s not entirely true. We were very committed to a casting process that did not exclude gay actors from playing gay roles. I think when there are huge commercial concerns that come with major studio pictures, there is bias in casting, which is driven entirely by bankability. Is it a big enough name? That’s what it comes down to. It’s getting better, but it’s hard to become a big enough name if you can’t get ahead because of bias in casting. Lots of people think an audience won’t buy an out gay actor playing straight so the actor has harder time getting ahead, making him less bankable. The reality is audiences are ten steps ahead of the industry on this. Ultimately, we knew the best way to tell this story was to find the best actors for the parts. And I personally think it’s interesting to hear how an audience responds to gay actors playing a gay couple when they aren’t getting pulled out of the story by that voice in their head saying, "Oh wow that’s may favorite movie star kissing another dude up there."

EDGE: The film packs a lot into a relatively brief running time. Were you afraid that it would appear too melodramatic? It’s not, but I’m curious if that was a concern.

Paul Marcarelli: Show me a gay story that doesn’t have its share of drama.

I’m pretty sure we wouldn’t get this question if it were a film about a straight teacher. I am inclined to think that the circumstances a "straight" Michael would face in the film would be considered "high stakes" as opposed to "melodramatic." This is the same kind of language used to dismiss an entire body of gay literature that was emerging the 70s and early 80s.

Steven Williford: The accounts of real-life situations that serve as inspiration for our fictional construct in "The Green" are nothing short of horrifying. One has only to peruse the first-page of a Google search to read harrowing accounts of teachers who have been drummed out of their jobs on far lesser charges than "inappropriate behavior" with a student. Our story is focused on how a change in perceived circumstances unleashes an unstoppable tidal wave of personal and public response that almost drowns our protagonist and his entire community. The film reflects the ravages of that wave of intolerance and fear... it’s big stuff, Greek (drama) in scope perhaps, but I hope that in keeping the behavior rooted in simple truths, we eschew the melodramatic.

A worst nightmare

EDGE: What do you hope audiences will take away from the film?

Paul Marcarelli: The title of the film is a reference to the central square that is such a prominent part of the life of New England towns like the one in the film. This green is the place where early communities came together to figure out how to get along with each other, settle differences, work together for the betterment of the whole... The green is the civic heart of a community. In Massachusetts you call them "commons," right? The film ultimately is about how different kinds of people need to find a common language and figure out a way to live together.

Steven Williford: My hope for the audience is simple: that they walk away from the film having been awakened to their prejudiced perceptions of people and circumstances that they don’t fully know.

EDGE: And since previewing the film to audiences, has anyone come forward with similar experiences?

Paul Marcarelli: Absolutely. We have met so many teachers all over the country, at almost every screening, who relate to the fear of this type of accusation. To many it’s their worst nightmare. Underneath that fear I suspect is a feeling that despite all the progress that has been made, we still live in a country where a portion of the population is still denied the most basic rights by the rest of the population. It’s hard to feel entirely safe when you live somewhere that still doesn’t see you as deserving the rights enjoyed by the culture at large.

Steven Williford: During our Q&A at Outfest in Los Angeles, a gentlemen who identified himself as a teacher spoke of a terrible prank played on him by a student posing as a parent in an email exchange. Needless to say the similarities between our film’s story and what happened to this teacher were hair-raising. His story shot through us like a lightning strike -- a blinding reminder of the precarious position that many of our LGBT educators find themselves in daily. But as the teacher concluded his story, he deftly wrapped it up with an off-handed remark that got a huge laugh -- a laugh of communal recognition and commiseration. When I thought about it later, I was saddened to realize that in laughing along with him, we’d participated in an act that marginalized the experience -- he’d had to laugh it off in order to survive it, and in laughing it off, we’d all tacitly let everyone involved off the hook.

Robert Nesti can be reached at rnesti@edgemedianetwork.com.


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