by Sara Michelle Fetters -
SGN A&E Writer
In some ways it is remarkable that writer/director Thomas Bezucha's 2000 debut Big Eden was even made, let alone ended up developing the kind of faithful and passionate following that would lead to a full-blown 15th anniversary Blu-ray restoration. Released long before Brokeback Mountain became an Academy Award-winner and got Hollywood thinking films with Gay and Lesbian themes might be worth the financial gamble, the movie was a combination of old school concepts going all the way back to Preston Sturges, Frank Capra and Billy Wilder. While it didn't reinvent the rulebook, Bezucha still put forth an enchanting and charming narrative of acceptance, romance and tolerance that broke through numerous stereotypes, in many respects paving the way for modern LGBT cinema as we now know it.
'It's so funny,' laughs Bezucha. 'Everyone is always like, how is it knowing you made a classic? How does it feel to be celebrating the film's anniversary? For me, I still feel like I got away with something. I can't believe [Big Eden] got made in the first place. That the film even transitioned from an idea, to a small little dream that I had, to an actual finished motion picture that got theatrical distribution. The fact it ever got made is amazing. The fact we're still talking about it 15 years later is just icing on the cake.'
With the Blu-ray release of the film just this past Tuesday and with the Seattle Lesbian & Gay Film Festival (SLGFF) wrapping up this weekend, now seemed like the perfect time to check in with the acclaimed filmmaker. Chatting about the state of LGBT film as it currently stands as well as where he's at in his own career, the director was a relative open book during our brief, if wide-ranging, conversation. Here are some of the highlights from that chat.
Sara Michelle Fetters: Wolfe Video has really gone all out with the anniversary Blu-ray release for Big Eden, haven't they?
Thomas Bezucha: They have. It's so crazy. [Wolfe] has always wanted to be involved with the film. With the theatrical release, they put so much behind it. With the original DVD release, they did this two-disc set. Then they've gone above and beyond with this Blu-ray release. It's always very humbling to see somebody believe in your child, your baby, with such passion and excitement. It's touching.
Sara Michelle Fetters: You could actually make a solid argument that your film is one of the big reasons there was such a large LGBT cinema boom during the 2000s. I don't think a number of those films that came out after yours would have been released if Big Eden hadn't been out there making the waves that it did.
Thomas Bezucha: I'll let you say that. [laughs]
Listen, it's impossible to know whether or not that's true or not. It is something I've heard on more than a few occasions. But I also think we were part of a pack of films released right around that time. Trick came out around then. Poison was, what? A decade earlier? But there were a number of films came out. Beautiful Thing. Edge of 17. Others. Ours was just one of them. Again, though, to be in that kind of conversation? It's humbling. I don't really know what else to say.
I've been asked numerous times if I think [Big Eden] could have been made today. I often answer that I doubt it could have, and not for the reasons you might assume. It has everything to do with the state of independent film. Things have changed so much. If you're not a $20-million production with name actors working for scale, then you're shooting your film on an iPhone hoping for the best. You can't get funding. The distribution model has changed completely. I don't think we'd have been allowed the freedom to craft and create an entire small town community in the fashion that we did. We wouldn't have gotten the theatrical distribution that we ultimately did. There's a chance the film today would premier via some video-on-demand service and not get any theatrical showings, other than a handful of festivals, at all.
Sara Michelle Fetters: The nice thing about Big Eden, even though it plays in the Frank Capra meets Preston Sturges-like world, even though there is a lot of inherent melodrama at play, I feel like the film never dips into outright overt sentimentality. It's as if you're trying to maintain emotional authenticity yet still fill the screen with a number of amusingly fanciful moments.
Thomas Bezucha: When you're approaching a fictional town, a sort of fantasyland such as the one in Big Eden, I always felt it was important that the emotional terrain needed to be authentic. That was key. If people couldn't relate to the core emotions at the heart of the story all they'd see would be all the fanciful stuff, they'd lose touch with the characters themselves. If that had happened then all would have been lost.
Sara Michelle Fetters: And, as part of that, casting was obviously the key component. Do you think it was your commitment to approaching the inherent emotions of the piece as you did that attracted actors like Arye Gross, Eric Schweig, Tim DeKay and Louise Fletcher to making the movie?
Thomas Bezucha: I don't know. I guess you'd have to ask them. All I do know is how grateful I was, and still am, that they all decided to go on this adventure of making the movie with me. Casting, you're really creating a family. I feel like Eric and Arye, Louise and Tim, they're all sort of kindred spirits, in a way. They made a good family. So, while I'm not sure what they were looking for, I know what I was wanting to find, and in the end we all found each other, and I'm very proud of the family we were able to create together.
Sara Michelle Fetters: Did you ever allow yourself to think or believe that maybe you were a little prescient when you were bringing this town and its citizens to life? Could you have ever imagined events would turn out as they have, what with the Supreme Court ruling on marriage equality and discussions on LGBT rights shifting in the way that they have?
Thomas Bezucha: No, of course not. But the question is still a terrific one and I'll tell you why. The film was always a fantasy about looking at the best of what is possible, yet Roger Ebert for some reason felt it necessary to scold me and school me on what it was like for LGBT people in 2000, specifically the fate of Matthew Shepard. It's as if he never asked himself if I did in fact know the story, and that I maybe that story informed my choices in imaging the world of Big Eden as I did.
As part of that, I believe in the best in people. I've always felt that the most radical, the most political action any of us could take was to just be out. To not be sitting in the closet. When you're out, you're making a statement. The more people that come out, the more the general public - our straight brothers and sisters - understand that Uncle Billy is gay, that their niece Charlotte is gay, that their boss is gay. I always felt like that would change things, so it's fascinating to me to watch this drama at the Supreme Court, this drama concerning Kim Davis, and see just how radically the conversation has shifted in large part because so many people bravely and authentically have been living their lives outside of the closet.
I think what's happened over these past 15 years, people in their hearts, the thing that unites all of us, is this idea of fairness. It's satisfied me so much to watch people, even conservatives, understand that what Kim Davis is doing as a publically elected official is blatantly unfair. By being out, people understand LGBT people are their brothers and their sisters, and that's what Big Eden was supposed to represent. In many ways, the country has become Big Eden.
Sara Michelle Fetters: There is an irony, of course, that your film was released right in the middle of a highly contested presidential election where one of the main reasons the Republican candidate won was in large part due to his ability to get people out to vote because of so-called 'Social Issues.' Now, here we are, right at the start of a new presidential contest, and right as we're talking about your film's 15th anniversary and the conversation couldn't be any more different.
Thomas Bezucha: I know, right? It's a polar opposite conversation, by and large, isn't it? Even in 2000, it's not like Democrats were championing gay rights. Don't Ask, Don't Tell existed. Marriage Equality wasn't even a term let alone the law of the land. And, now, here you have Hillary Clinton running towards the LGBT community with open arms. It's interesting.
Sara Michelle Fetters: As part of that, the Seattle Lesbian & Gay Film Festival is currently winding down this weekend, and while I never want to bring it up but the question does linger there, I think, and that's this wonder that in this day and age when things have shifted so significantly for the LGBT community, do these sort of festivals still matter? Should LGBT films keep getting pigeonholed as their own genre? Shouldn't these stories rise and fall on their own merits? Should we stop calling them 'Gay Films' or 'Queer Films' and instead just call them 'Films' without any additional qualifier?
Thomas Bezucha: There are so many issues at play here. There are so many more out actors today, and you couldn't say that before. You have Ellen Page. You have Matt Bomer. You have Zach Quinto. It will be interesting to see, say 15 years from now, where all of them are in their respective careers, how they have been incorporated into mainstream culture.
Same time, we have 'Transparent' on television. We have 'Orange is the New Black.' We are having a national conversation about Caitlyn Jenner. It is going to be interesting to see how we blur as a culture, how we look at these stories and the conversations we end up having about them.
Yet, I admit, I miss the counterculture. I'm glad everybody can get married. I think that's super. I don't know that I would lie down in the middle of traffic with ACT UP like we did on the Brooklyn Bridge in 1989 so people could pursue a Donna Reed lifestyle or have the ability to register at Restoration Hardware. I'm not sure that was the goal.
I think these are clearly victories in regards to equal rights. In terms of cultural contribution, I'm not as sure. I do think there are so many more stories needing to be told. LGBT cinema should continue to exist. These festivals should continue to exist. There are stories and fights still brewing people haven't even considered yet, and it's up to a new generation of [LGBT] filmmakers to tell them. I would hate to see films that have a gay-specific story ever disappear.
Sara Michelle Fetters: So what about recent conversations involving upcoming films like The Danish Girl? Should Eddie Redmayne be playing the role of Lili Elbe? Or should that part have gone to a transgender actress?
Thomas Bezucha: Well, let me back up for second. I am complaining about the feeling of conformity of gay culture and yet I made a movie in Big Eden that is about as gay innocuous as you can get. Purposefully so. I think the word 'gay' is spoken once. I wanted a PG rating; we got a PG-13, which I still don't understand, but you get the idea. I wanted to make a movie you could watch with your grandmother. So, in a way, I'm partly to blame for what I'm talking about even if, at the time, I was being a little bit radical trying to make the movie and the world within it the way I did.
So, as far as these transgender conversations in cinema, I think it is a continuation of these political and social conversations that we are now having. The sudden visibility of Trans people in the culture has inherently made all of us more cognizant of this type of stuff. But, in answer to your question, I'm honestly not sure. Who's to say Eddie Redmayne isn't the best person for the role? On top of that, no studio unfortunately is going to make that movie if there is a Trans [actor] in the role. It's just not going to happen.
I mean, Brokeback Mountain never would have been made with two openly gay actors in the lead roles. It never would have met with the acclaim and the reactions that it did without Heath [Ledger], without Jake [Gyllenhaal]. You needed two Hollywood movie stars in order for that film to happen. Should we be angry now that Heath and Jake were cast and not two openly gay actors instead?
Also, and maybe I shouldn't say this, but anybody that's complaining? Go make a movie. You think that story isn't being told in the right way? Go tell it yourself. Get your voice out there.
Sara Michelle Fetters: You say that, but, as we've already discussed, making movies isn't exactly easy. I mean, you've been long perceived as a strong, talented writer/director, but you've only made a total of three films in a 15 year period, Big Eden, The Family Stone and the family-friendly tween comedy Monte Carlo.
Thomas Bezucha: I know. Sad, right? I'm trying to improve my average. [laughs]
Sara Michelle Fetters: Do does that mean we should expect more from you soon?
Thomas Bezucha: Definitely. It's so funny, the timing of doing these interviews for Big Eden is coming right when I'm working with the very talented Maria Maggenti, the writer/director of The Incredibly True Adventure of Two Girls in Love, and we're currently writing a script together. It's very exciting.
Sara Michelle Fetters: Final thoughts on Big Eden?
Thomas Bezucha: When we set out to make the film, I wanted it to have a timeless quality, that the story could have taken place during any era. I wanted viewers in the future to be able to watch it and not be able to relate to the story. I'm aware of the film's many flaws when I watch it, but, I'm happy to say, 15 years later, one of them isn't that the story is dated. I'm really proud of that.
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