Andy Blubaugh makes personal films (that just happen to be gay)

by Joseph Erbentraut

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Thursday October 28, 2010

Andy Blubaugh is not your average gay filmmaker. In fact, he isn't particularly fond of the term itself, and a quick perusal of his work will tell you why.

Blubaugh, who is based in Portland, Oregon, specializes in films that challenge many traditional definitions of genre and often incorporate the filmmaker himself in the narrative. Building on a string of notable award-winning short films, Blubaugh has carved out a niche for his unique style of tackling larger, societal matters through the lens of examining his own life story. And that style has never been more evident than in his latest creation, the full-length feature The Adults in the Room, which will be featured during Reeling: The Chicago Gay & Lesbian Film Festival, which runs November 4 -13.

The Adults in the Room is a gripping film that juxtaposes its controversial narrative - a 15-year-old Andy carrying on a sexual relationship with a closeted man nearly twice his age - with both footage of the film's creative process and its high-profile, real-life counterpart: Portland's openly gay mayor Sam Adams' underage sex scandal. The three paths weave their way around the central theme of how age and sexuality intermingle and what constitutes consent in our modern world.

Just before the film played Reeling (screening at the Landmark Century Centre Cinema Monday, November 8, 2010), Blubaugh talked to EDGE about his first feature film, its controversial subject matter and what's next for him.

A squeamish subject?

EDGE: How has the reaction to the film been? It touches on some issues that can make folks a little squeamish, but has it met your expectations?

Andy Blubaugh: The audience reaction has been very strong in lots of different ways. It’s the type of film where I’ve found people tend to project their own experiences onto it, so I tried to make a film that doesn’t exonerate anyone who finds themselves on either side of this issue. It’s interesting to see how varied the response has been, people who want to commemorate the film and me as a fellow victim of abuse, which I don’t consider myself to be at all. Some watch it and want to engage in a debate with me about the issue. But it leaves no audience feeling unstirred, and to me that’s the greatest success the film could have.

EDGE: How did making this film - a full-length feature - compare with the short films you’d created before?

AB: My process didn’t really vary from my short work. I’ve learned to be pretty trusting of myself that the kernel of what a film is about will reveal itself in the filmmaking process if it is prodded at and explored. By Hollywood standards, this film was tiny, but it was huge for us and required a huge number of people to believe me when I said I wasn’t sure what this film will be about. It was amazing we were able to get as many fantastic and talented people. It was kind of an unpitchable project, not the type where I can sit down and tell someone exactly how it’s going to look. From the beginning, it was an experiment in the truest sense of the word, which was scary and exhilarating all at the same time.

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Watch the trailer for The Adults in the Room:



Why be in front of the camera?

EDGE: Tell me about your decision to place yourself in your films. Why is that a technique that you enjoy employing? It seems like so many other filmmakers seem to be uncomfortable putting themselves in front of the camera.

AB: I think I would rephrase "placing myself" in the film, rather, I think of myself as the lens through which a certain phenomenon or situation is examined. It has felt very natural for me to use the most readily available resource to make the biggest impact in the film and it makes perfect sense to me. I hope my films never come off simply an ego-based insertion of the self-interested filmmaker into an unrelated issue because that’s certainly not the intent. If anything, I’m more interested in exploring the insight that is more readily available and that is my own.

EDGE: The man who 15-year-old you is with - Peter - seems to be a character that you’ve purposely left a bit ambiguous. Are you happy with the character you ended up depicting in the film?

AB: Peter does seem to frustrate audiences I think because some people expect more resolution of the romantic issue. I end with a film that is not a love story. That’s not the form it takes. In film, we’re used to very clear ending and when romantic issues are at play and in documentaries we’re accustomed to films that take a clear, didactic stand on an issue. But this film raises more questions than answers, which I see as a great thing for a film but many others find unsettling. I sometimes get asked if I feel better after making this film, or if I fixed what I wanted to fix, but there’s no "fix" there because I never felt I was broken. I don’t think brokenness is a requisite for examining one’s own life. This film didn’t come from wanting to reach closure on what was done to me.

EDGE: This film also doesn’t really "fit" in with the traditional notion of "gay film," in a lot of ways. Has that made it more difficult to market it or presented other challenges for you?

AB: It was never my intent to be a "gay filmmaker," which is not to say that I don’t appreciate the support I’ve gotten from the queer filmmaking community and festivals I’ve been lucky enough to screen at, but I never considered that to be my home. I just make personal films and happen to be gay. The fact that this is challenging didn’t occur to me until I saw the contrast with other more traditional romantic or comedy short films that my film was distributed with on a compilation DVD titled Available Men. The reaction was really split to that and a lot of people were really baffled that my work would be on a compilation like that. But I had never thought of this film as primarily a gay interest film.

It’s an odd thing, we’ve played every queer festival we’ve applied to and they’ve really embraced us extremely, which is a huge honor. This is not a film about sex, that’s something at the surface of the movie and is the hook, but the film is ultimately about larger issues which I consider to be universal.

EDGE: I know that the film lost some financial support because of the Sam Adams content. Did you ever consider taking it out? Why did you choose to stick with it?

AB: When the Sam Adams situation exploded, it was such a fantastic opportunity to talk about this idea of adults having sex with children. It was absolutely priceless for us. The entire city was having this conversation of how we define an adult, how we define a child and what the exact transgression was. What were we upset about? This is the kind of scandal we see over and over again and it’s a proxy for every political sex scandal and the questions that come up from them: What are the responsibilities of those in power? Can we reasonably expect that people of a certain standing will separate themselves from their sexuality? It seemed to be crucial for tying so many elements of this film together.

EDGE: I know you were somewhat concerned for your day job teaching film to children at the Portland Art Museum’s Film Center. Have you run into any problems with parents concerned about your film’s content?

AB: Though we’ve played at a lot of festivals, the visibility of the film is somewhat limited, but I’ve been very lucky that there’s been a tremendous amount of support and really no backlash at all. I really expected there to at least be some questions, but that hasn’t been the case. I feel like maybe some of the hysteria around the issue comes from people who don’t really understand kids. The world isn’t quite as dangerous as we’ve made it out to be, and I don’t endanger anyone by simply talking about these issues.

EDGE: What’s next for the film and what will be next for you?

AB: The film is still on the festival circuit and I’m just dipping in my toe into Europe. We’re looking forward to quite a few more screenings in the coming months through a distribution deal with the Filmmakers Collaborative. We’re having a Portland premiere of the film next month, just a month after it’s shown in Chicago and I’m looking forward to that. After that, I’ve got to say I’m not sure. The film was such a big stepping stone in my creative process that I still haven’t quite decided where I’m going to take that process for the next step, but I certainly feel more ready for it now that I’ve achieved this milestone.

The Adults in the Room screens Monday, Nov. 8 during Reeling: Chicago’s Gay and Lesbian Film Festival. Visit www.theadultsintheroommovie.com for more information on the film and its upcoming screenings in other parts of the country. Visit www.reelingfilmfestival.org for information on the many other films playing Reeling, Nov. 4-13.

Joseph covers news, arts and entertainment and lives in Chicago. He is the assistant Chicago editor for The Huffington Post. Log on to www.joe-erbentraut.com to read more of his work.

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