Festival hit Gayby returns to Austin for Cinema East
Cinema East brings Gayby to the big screen Sunday night at the Yellow Jacket Stadium. The indie-comedy about a woman and her gay best friend who decide to have a baby together started out as successful short film on the festival circuit and then grew into a full-length feature that appeared at this year's SXSW.
We sat down with writer/director Jonathan Lisecki in his New York City apartment to talk about his roundabout journey into filmmaking.
CultureMap: How did you first get into film?
Jonathan Lisecki: I have a degree in theater and I did a lot of plays in downtown New York. They’re calling it "indie" theatre now, but then it was just called off, off, off, off, off, off Broadway. It was my first love, but the minute I made my first short, more people saw it than had ever seen any play I have ever done.
My first short I was making as a grad school app short. My friend Sarita Choudhury, who is in Gayby, and I decided to do it together. It’s called “Woman in Burka” and it follows an actress who has to continually audition for these super stereotypy roles for shows like 24 and Law and Order. It was all she was getting called in on. Roles like “lady that blows up the bus.”
We spent a year doing it. We’d shot a scene once a month. It was very lackadaisical. Whoever showed up, I’d write the script that day for then. It was so fun, but it was more of an experiment, and I didn’t really do the graduate school thing. I sent it in to Slamdance. It played and won their spirit award for “Ra Ra, you should keep going.”
So, you basically just picked up a camera and started shooting?
JL: I have a job during the day at an ad production/management company. I’ve worked there since 2003 and they had extra cameras which they let me borrow. That first one I shot, it’s a hot mess. The story is funny so it doesn’t matter. I have never done that since. We shot it on a crappy extra commercial camera. It does not look good. The fact it sounds good is only because someone did the sound mix for me.
How did the idea for Gayby come about?
JL: Some time went by before I thought of Gayby. I actually wanted this actress who was in my first short to be in Gayby, but she wasn’t around. It was going to be about her and me originally because I wanted it to be about older people than Matt and Jenn (the leads Matt Wilkas and Jenn Harris). I thought it would be funnier if it were further down the line.
I had done a play with Matt and Jenn. It was staged reading of the gay chapter of Everything You Want to Know About Sex And Were Afraid To Ask. I don’t know if you’ve read the book, but the gay chapter is horrifying.
I haven't, but it sounds amazing!
JL: The sixties idea of what gay people do for sex is crazy! So, it was Matt (the guy that plays Jaime in the movie), Jack Ferver and me. We’d all read from the book as if we were characters and Jenn would interrupt us with personal stories that she changed every night, which was amazing. They were so fun and they had really gone to college so we already had so much of the story I wanted to tell anyway.
The original idea was based on friend from college and I. We made this pact, but she had a baby with someone. So, it’s me fantasying what it would have been like because I think it would have been hilarious.
Jenn and Matt are pretty great in the movie.
JL: I kind of wrote it for them. The short played everywhere and around a year ago I was at the Sarasota festival. Amy Hobby, a producer I work with, was like, “When are you going to make a feature out of Gayby?” I said let’s do it. I didn’t have a script, but I said I had one. I disappeared for three weeks and wrote the script and came back. we went through a couple drafts of it and had a read through and that’s it. It was a natural journey, but it started from the finite nature of theater.
You really didn’t have much feature experience?
JL: As an actor I had been in a couple features. I had been in my friend Debra Eisenstadt’s movie The Limbo Room with Melissa Leo about really frustrated understudies in a Broadway play. Seeing her do it really inspired me. She was so good at it and made it on no money and still it’s really good.
Did you learn the most from just jumping into it and doing it?
JL: Yes, from that and my day job. I’d pick up little things here and there because there are so many people working on the commercials. There was a DP who was very helpful and I would ask him really dumb questions about how the shoot with the camera we used. It was a little bit about teaching myself.
There were nights before we made the first one where I’d be on Cinematography.com looking up settings. They sent me to an editing course and that really helped. Knowing how to edit when you’re shooting helps to economize and not waist time. So it was like I got paid to learn some of the same things I would have learned in college, but less expensive.
There are a lot of comments on the YouTube trailer from what appear to be gay critics. Have you received a lot of backlash about the premise of the film from straight and gay audiences?
JL: I get a lot of comments that say: “He isn’t gay because he is having sex with a woman.” But it’s true to my story. I guess I considered myself bi. But I’m gay now. I have a husband, but I still don’t think it would be impossible to have sex with a woman. People can have that response and that’s fine. It doesn’t really bother me. I get to be me. You write your own movie.
I think that your job as a comedy writer is to make something absurd be relatable. The movie takes something totally absurd and hilarious. As it keeps going, thought, it becomes less and less absurd and you really believe in those people.
Some people think gay means it is impossible. I just don’t think that is true. There are millions of gay men throughout time in loveless marriages who had sex with their wives even though they were gay. To ignore that history just because you think right now gay teens need to know it’s okay to be gay. Yes, they do, but gay does not mean you can absolutely not physically have sex with someone else. Go to a liberal arts college, you’ll have sex with whoever shows up.
Gayby is a part of Cinema East, the outdoor summer movie series at the Yellow Jacket Stadium (1156 Hargrave St.) Doors open at 8 pm with movies starting at dusk. The screening is BYOB and has a 3 dollar cover charge.