by MK Scott -
SGN Contributing Writer
At the 2015 Seattle Lesbian and Gay Film Festival I was thrilled to see a new coming of age film about two Gay college students who are conflicted by a family secret. (This was in my Top 5 of the best films at the 2015 SLGFF.)
What I found was an inventive tale of two Gay lovers with no coming out issues, no health issues or small community conflicts, it is a simple story of two families that dealt with a family tragedy and how it will affect the family now that old wounds resurface.
The film synopsis from the AKRON website reads:
Benny and Christopher, college freshmen, meet playing football and begin a relationship. They fall in love supported by their family and friends. As their love for each other grows, a past tragic event involving their mothers comes to light. This revelation tests their own love and Benny's close-knit family.
Throughout this reflective love story, with the beauty of rural Ohio as its backdrop, Benny travels an emotional journey that examines both his own feelings and his family's ability to come to terms with the past. AKRON is a sensitive and unique independent film that puts a progressive, Midwestern spin on a classic family drama.
So I was doubly thrilled to have a chance to speak with writer/director, Brian O'Donnell by phone.
MK Scott: Brian, I am thrilled that your film, AKRON is finally on DVD and video on demand. This was one of the best films that I saw at the Seattle Lesbian and Gay Film Festival back in 2015. That - in fact it, one audience member commented at the post-screening, who noticed it was the first post coming out, post queer film, post acceptance and pro love genre, which was fabulous, very inventive and very unique.
Brian O'Donnell: Well, thank you. I appreciate that.
MK: Based in the Midwest, you have full acceptance, but other conflict, so it was very refreshing to see. How did you get the idea for the story?
Brian: I started writing at NYU years ago and I worked in the theatre for years and then I stopped writing altogether - I'm also a painter - but always with the intention of writing something again at some point. So I went to the opera one night, with a friend of mine who brought me to see Il Travatore at the Metropolitan here in New York and I was really inspired by the really classic structure - thematic structure - two houses against each other because of fate - because of something that happened. So all of the characters are good people, but they're all struggling with an incident in their lives.
And there's a very strong love relationship between the lead characters and a very strong relationship between the mother and child in the opera. And as I was watching it, I thought, this is what I would like to write. I'd like to write a Gay version of this. Obviously, not the same story, but the same concept, the same - I've been trying to figure out how to write about Gay love. And - and will write about Gay love in the - from a different perspective, so that we can be past, as you said, we can be past the coming out scenes, we can be past the struggle of just because a character is Gay doesn't mean they necessarily have to be dealing with shame or dealing with homophobia. I was very much inspired by young people that I'm meeting these days who are coming out and living in their truth at a much earlier age and many of them are being accepted by their friends and their families and many of them are having boyfriends and breaking up, having new boyfriends and living a life that was very different than the life that I was growing up with and very different than what I'd seen in movies. I think - it was really exciting to write scenes between two guys talking to each other where they're both out, they're both happy and healthy and they can be talking about things that interest them that have nothing to do with their Gay identity other than the fact that they are Gay men who have these interests.
MK: Wonderful, 'cause one thing I found to be extremely unique was the fact that it's like I have seen so many films that have to do with coming out, have to do with family acceptance and so forth - so I'm glad we were able to move beyond that and not even have a story reflected on that. It was actually the fact that, okay, we've already done the coming out process, you know, off camera, and the family acceptance off camera, so let's get on to the next chapter of the story.
Brian: I'm glad you responded to that and that's what a lot of people are responding to and honestly that's what the actors responded to and in the movie we have a Mexican American father in the Midwest. And he (Joseph Melendez) said that he read it and he realized he'd never seen this role before - this role never existed before for a Latino father to be accepting and loving of their Gay son and he was excited to do it for that reason. So it really was - the concept was to re-frame things and to talk about where we are now, where we should be now, where we can be now and to draw the line a little bit further ahead so that we don't have to create characters that are based on the same things that we've been seeing in the past. I think people are still coming out, people are still struggling, obviously there's incredible homophobia out there, and so I encourage people to make the stories that you want to make, and, in fact, if it's a coming out story, make it, but I would also encourage people to try and take a different perspective so that it's not a clichéd story, because we have seen so many of those.
MK: And I had noticed that you actually are from Akron, Ohio, yourself.
Brian: Yes, I am.
MK: Was any of the film autobiographical?
Brian: It wasn't. No, I mean, as - it was a very exciting thing for me to set in Ohio so as I was writing I could put them in locations that I knew already - and when we went there, we pretty much got to shoot in all those locations that I imagined, so that was - that was fun. But it's not based on any of my personal story or any story of individuals that I know personally. It's really a work of fiction.
MK: Now, where did you come up with the idea about the tragic family incident between the mothers?
Brian: That was really the very first scene that I thought of, what the film was built on. I think it was important to have an underlying theme that anybody could relate to. So whether you're straight, whether you're Gay, whether you're young, whether you're old, I wanted to concentrate on things that would resonate to people because of experiences in their own life. So starting off with the scene that we do, and understanding that there is grief that's been experienced by characters in the film, and then you see how that affects different members of the family in different ways. It was really a central component of the script as I was writing it. Just as first love was, just as the moment in a young person's life when they let go of their mother's hand as the primary source of love and hold onto their first boyfriend's hand and what that means to a parent and what that means to a son at a moment when the son is a young man. Right? So these were things that anybody can relate to. And so it was fun to focus on those things.
MK: And where did you find that beautiful cast of Benny and Christopher?
Brian: Well, we hired a casting agent there in New York, who works in theatre and in film. I think we saw over fifty guys for each of those roles and really talented Broadway actors and theatre actors and - Matthew Frias, who played Benny, sent us a tape in from the West Coast, and as soon as we saw it, immediately knew he was Benny. He was flawless in his audition tape. Edmund Donovan, who plays Christopher, came in and did an audition in front of us in New York and it was again the same thing - it was just - you could tell that they understood the roles, that they had worked on the nuances of the scenes; of course, it doesn't hurt that they're good looking. They looked like movie stars. But it was the connection that they had to the material and the understanding of not just their roles, but the whole, the script as a whole. They did not meet until the day before the shoot. We gave them Skype times so they met virtually and introduced themselves to each other and worked on the script with each other, but we were thrilled that they brought not only the professionalism that we saw in the auditions, but the chemistry that is really palpable when you watch the film, That's all them, they're just really terrific young actors.
MK: 'Cause they had actually had such great chemistry. All the way throughout - in fact, meeting and getting together was just so instantaneous, the chemistry was fabulous. And so the only - basically, the only conflict that they had was the fact that their mothers hated each other.
Brian: Exactly! It's clear that they're not the same person, that they have slightly different goals in life and as young people, you're blind to that, so yeah then - the main force of conflict certainly comes from the incident that occurred between their mothers and the fact that their loyalty is tested. Whose side do they choose at that age? That stage? And how the love for both your mother and your boyfriend - and you're put in that situation. It's really an impossible choice to make.
MK: And it also had a Romeo and Juliet kind of thing while - and, of course, in this case, a Roman and Julian kind of thing - scenario.
Brian: Yes, I was really inspired by traditional dramatic structures, but really injecting a very progressive theme on top of those.
MK: Now, any chance that you might be revisiting the story again? Like with a sequel or any kind of related story?
Brian: That's a good question, and it was funny. As soon as we were done shooting it, the crew was mostly young, mostly straight kids, actually from Ohio, kept saying so when are we doing the sequel when they get married? And I said, well, do we know if they get married? Do we know if they stay together? I don't even know. I don't really know personally what happens after the last page of the script. I think that's one of the strong things about the very ending is that the audience is - is left not knowing exactly what's going to happen to them and is possibly curious. I'm writing another script that is a completely different story, but it would be a good - it could be a fun idea a few years down the road to revisit it. God knows I'd love to work with all the actors again.
MK: Alright, and so tell me a little bit about the next film that you'll be doing?
Brian: Okay, well, it's very early stages right now. I'm working on the script um - so - I'm still in a really fun discovery stage right now. But if all goes well the script would be shot mostly in India - in Mumbai. It's based on my experiences - I've been several times; I have very dear friends who live in Mumbai. And I've met some really extraordinary people and have been exposed to the Gay world there that's - that I have never seen depicted on film - that I think might surprise and really touch people when they - when they see these characters. So I'm still a bit - I'm still at the stage right now that I'm excited about the story. I'm excited about the characters. So I'm hoping to finish the script and start working to collaborate with producers there. AKRON was shown in Mumbai at the film festival, which is the LGBT film festival in Mumbai. It was mind-blowing! It was in this old art-deco theatre downtown. And they sold out every screening - five hundred young Gay men were in the audience to watch my movie and they cheered during scenes, they applauded after certain lines. I mean a lot of the film festivals that I've been to - LGBT, the crowds tend just to be an older crowd - that they're not necessarily sure how to crack that nut of getting younger people there. But in Mumbai it was almost exclusively young people, so just very exciting energy over there and I'd like to tap into that with my next project.
MK: And, also, I read that you are the executive director of the Calamus Foundation. Tell us a little bit about that.
Brian: Yeah, sure. Calamus Foundation is a small, private grant making organization that was created by a man named Shelly Kaplan who was an architect here in the city who passed away about seven, eight years ago now and left in his will a certain amount of his fortune to create a foundation - a trust to create a foundation to make grants to LGBT - and it's part of the AIDS organization - mostly here in New York, but across the state as well, so I work with a really fantastic board there to give some large grants that make a difference, often matching grants to organizations which works with LGBT elders, the LGBT Center and the largest funder to set up a twenty-four hour drop-in center for kids who need a place just to get off the street. It's a terrific day job, for sure. And I also am the national grant manager at Broadway Cares, which I do now on a part-time basis, but I've been affiliated with them for 18 years now. So I've been in the fight to support with HIV and AIDS and LGBT rights and support groups for quite a long time now.
MK: Okay, and I've got one last question - this is my burning question. In your own coming out process, what was your biggest conflict or your biggest hurdle?
Brian: My biggest hurdle in coming out - it took me awhile. I'm 46 now. I was born in 1970; I lived and grew up in Ohio. When I moved to New York, I lived in the Village and went to NYU. I was certainly meeting Gay people. But this was also at the time when there was no medication for HIV and AIDS and I was in a position of how does one come out and be Gay - if one can't have sex, because you'll have to have sex. Obviously, I was well aware of condom use and safe sex, but it made it - it - it was a very - it was a very scary time for anybody, but it was a very scary time for Gay men. And, it was hard to create - to open myself up to my Gay identity without having it be immediately attached to incredible fear and, as well, I was born and raised Catholic. I was not in fear of eternal damnation, but I did think about my parents - I was worried about their reaction and them - if you add to that, you come out as Gay and then they think you're going to die of AIDS. You know, it's just so strongly linked back then that I think it really was a - it was a difficult time for me to come out. So kids are coming out in their teens now - as early as like ten, but then we didn't have the Internet. We didn't have access to a lot of information. It was just getting enough bravery, getting enough courage to navigate through the reality back then, because obviously there was a - a strong desire there, there was a strong - there was a strong desire to meet a man who I could fall in love with, but I wasn't sure how that would happen. How it could possibly play itself out. So little by little, I was able to, you know, figure it out and - the first time that I fell in love with a guy, then it was over. Oh I get it, now. This is actually quite simple. But I had a lot of fear and a lot of things that obstructed me to get to that point.
That's what I wanted to show in the movie - I wanted the characters to be for the audience to recognize that these characters are Gay because they fall in love with each other and the love that they have and the chemistry is not deniable that - being Gay certainly does include having sex with men, but certainly does include being attracted to men. But to me I wanted to portray it as being Gay means you have the drive, the ability, the need to fall in love with another man. And have it be about love.
MK: And, I think, that's one of the reasons why the film is just so unique, and it is a complete original. And that's why I think people should see it, because it is completely different than any other Gay film out there. You know, it's like someone said in the audience, it was like this is: you basically have invented a completely new genre.
Brian: Well, I'm thrilled that that's the response. I'm really glad that people are connecting to it, for sure. It was a movie that I wanted to see, that I hadn't seen, so I thought I guess I better make it.
AKRON is now available from Wolfe Video, Amazon and across all digital platforms including iTunes, Vimeo On Demand, and WolfeOnDemand.com
MK Scott is a Seattle-based arts blogger. Check out his blog at outviewonline.com.
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