(Editor's note: San Diego Gay & Lesbian News will be previewing the 14th annual FilmOut San Diego LGBT Film Festival, which runs May 30 through June 3 at the historical Birch North Park Theatre. Look for Q&A interviews with celebrities and directors as well as film reviews.)
Michael D. Akers, producer/director/writer/editor of "Morgan," speaks to San Diego Gay & Lesbian News about how his romantic movie featuring a paraplegic lead character is groundbreaking in LGBT cinema.
“Morgan” will be screened as the Boys Centerpiece on June 1 at the 14th annual FilmOut San Diego LGBT Film Festival at the historical Birch North Park Theatre.
Akers is also the director of “Gone, But Not Forgotten,” “Matrimonium” and “Phoenix,” all of which are LGBT cinema. “I have no problem being known as a gay director,” he says in the Q&A interview. But he also dreams of making mainstream movies that include gay characters.
After working in show biz in Los Angeles for many years, Akers has now anchored in New York City. Akers and his partner Sandon Berg founded United Gay Network, a production house that also releases his movies.
SDGLN: “Morgan” is not your typical gay love story with pretty-boy twinks, but it works beautifully. How did you come up with the rather daring screenplay? Did anybody inspire this movie?
Akers: Sandon Berg and I started kicking around this idea while casting our last movie “Phoenix.” It turned out that a handsome young actor who submitted his headshot was in a wheelchair. Though we could not cast him for that movie, we were very intrigued by him personally. He met with us and generously shared his story about being gay and paraplegic.
After that, Sandon began interviewing other gay men who are wheelchair bound and their collection of stories became the basis for the film. I feel guilty to admit that it had never occurred to me that there were young paraplegic people in our community. They were practically invisible to me in my experience of going to clubs or bars when I was dating. So I was really excited to share their story, but nervous at the same time because I didn’t know if I had the authority to tell it.
SDGLN: Didn’t you break new ground in LGBT cinema by featuring this unusual story about a gay athlete who becomes a paraplegic man?
Akers: I would like to think that I have pushed some boundaries on the kinds of stories that can be told about our community. I know when we started working on it, authenticity and sensitivity were extremely important. And as we researched and interviewed more people, the subject of paralysis began to lose its mystique, which is how it should be. The work became technical and soon a scene with a wheelchair was just another day on set.
It was only as the film unspooled in front of that first audience that I had that nervous moment where I said, “Oh my gosh, what exactly have we made here?” The audience didn’t make a sound for the first five minutes! Then I remembered that this was how I must have reacted when I first heard this same story. We are immediately engrossed because most of us are not exposed to the subject but we all want to know more about it. We just don’t have many opportunities in life or in cinema. I hope our film inspires some other filmmakers to go out there and tell more of these stories.
SDGLN: Why did you choose Leo Minaya for the lead role of Morgan Oliver? What made him perfect for this role?
Akers: Leo came to us through the audition process and we were struck immediately by his emotional availability and naturalness. He had that certain charm but also that cockiness that Morgan has. In his interview with us, Leo shared that he had been through a setback in his own personal life that he wasn’t sure that he would recover from. He had to dig deep to find the strength to journey on. So we knew that he really understood the theme of the movie. And he committed to bringing that experience to his role.
SDGLN: What challenges did you face shooting a film centered around a paraplegic character?
Akers: The No. 1 challenge was authenticity and sensitivity. We wanted to stay completely truthful about the experience, so we had to rearrange our home, adjust blocking, change dialogue, etc. to keep from “cheating.” Ultimately though, there was too much information about the life of a paraplegic to share. So, we had to draw the line between making a documentary and making a romantic drama. There are certain medical/health aspects that we decided not to cover mostly because it did not fit the tone or direction of the film. The story is about self-acceptance and the true demon of the film is Morgan’s drive to avoid dealing with his circumstance at almost all costs.
SDGLN: What sparked the casting of Jack Kesy as Dean Kagen, the love interest? Did Kagen and Minaya click on the set, considering that both identify as straight?
Akers: Ironically, when I first met Jack, I was positive he was going to play the role of Morgan. He is an accomplished athlete and had been through some hard times where his athletic career was basically ended. He had this kind of grit that I thought we be really interesting for the role. But when we read Leo and Jack together, there was no question that it was a perfect fit the other way around. The chemistry between the two was amazing right from the start.
I have had trouble with actors in the past who say they have no problem playing gay roles and then you get to some moment of intimacy and they back off or, worse, try to fake it. So Sandon and I required all the actors auditioning for the leads do the kissing scene in the living room. It quickly weeded out the posers. An amusing sidebar on this: Jack is a smoker. So really the only problem with the intimacy scenes was that Leo kept asking someone to get Jack a mint. The guys did a great job.
SDGLN: Loved the supporting performance by Madalyn McKay. How was she key to the plot?
Akers: Madalyn’s role was actually trimmed in the editing process. Originally, Peg (Morgan’s mom) is living with Morgan until the end of Act 1 when he kicks her out because she is cramping his style. Peg’s storyline underlines Morgan’s need to become independent. We were sure that this was an integral part of the story because Morgan must transition from the hospital to a new life back at home. However, the first cut of the film ended up being nearly 2½ hours! So we had to make some hard choices on certain subplots.
Madalyn still has some amazing scenes in the film that clearly define her character’s push for her son’s independence. [The DVD will have her deleted scenes and will discuss another subplot that was cut completely.]
SDGLN: How has “Morgan” been received so far on the film festival circuit?
Akers: I think this is a two-part answer. First, I am proud to say that “Morgan” has been very well received. We have been Opening Night, Closing Night, Centerpiece [here in San Diego!] and have won two Jury Awards and an Audience Award. This is by far my most lauded film. And for the first time in my career, my film will be in both Frameline and Outfest. This is certainly the “little movie that could.” More importantly, though, the film has a deep effect on people who understand the theme. That is what I’m really doing this for.
But secondly, we have found out that some people are a bit reluctant to see a “wheelchair movie.” They think that it’s going to be depressing. But it’s not. I swear! The movie is inspiring and touching. And it wouldn’t be a Michael Akers film if it wasn’t romantic, too.
SDGLN: “Morgan” will be the Boys Centerpiece on June 1 at FilmOut San Diego. Will local audiences see you are or any of the stars at the film festival?
Akers: Either Sandon or I will attend. It depends how the travel schedule works out for us.
SDGLN: Your three previous films are “Gone, But Not Forgotten,” “Matrimonium” and “Phoenix.” How does “Morgan” reflect your growth as a filmmaker?
Akers: What a tough question! I have learned SO much from making this film. But I think the thing I’m taking away from “Morgan” is that I finally understand and “own” my method of filmmaking. I have always tailored my films around the actors that I cast. Much like Mike Leigh or Ken Loach, I feel that filmmaking is collaborative and immersive. So there are a lot of rehearsals, rewriting, improv and on-set changes throughout the entire shoot. It is a strenuous exercise not for the weak. I am after truth and truth is elusive! But finding it is so sweet and rewarding, and capturing it is so fantastic, that I don’t think I’m going to change my process on my next film. This is the kind of filmmaker that I am. So I’m going to trust the process more to see if it yields even better results.
SDGLN: What’s next on your horizon?
Akers: I have no problem being known as a gay director. However, I’m not necessarily only interested in GLBT projects and have a few mainstream scripts in development. But my projects will always have a gay character in there somewhere. Just like life! As far as gay genre projects, we have been hard at work on a Civil War courtroom drama (that needs financing, hint, hint) as well as a sexy psychological thriller. We should be announcing something shortly after our DVD release in September.
SDGLN: Michael, you grew up in Lancaster County, Pa., one of the most beautiful spots in that part of the world. How has living in Amish country affected your life?
Akers: Obviously Lancaster is a conservative place. And not like 1950’s conservative but more like 1850’s conservative. So growing up there, I was definitely ashamed of my sexual orientation. I always blamed religion, which my area is (over)populated with. I mean, the Amish and Mennonite cultures date back to the founding of the country. As the years have passed and I look back now, I have to admit that those older religious traditions are very much about the community and family values. They support each other in a way that many modern Christians just do not. I’m not saying they are perfect by any stretch, but something is getting lost in today’s Christianity. I think that’s why they church has been coming under fire. It no longer teaches the family to stick together, to get through adversity together, and to accept every family member for what they have to offer the whole. And that’s creating a crisis for our kids today.
SDGLN: After living in Los Angeles for many years, you have relocated to New York, where “Morgan” was made. Why did you make that move? Does living on the East Coast impact your ability to make movies?
Akers: My partner Sandon [Berg] and I moved back to the East Coast to help take care of our aging grandparents. At the time we thought this would coincide with the production of our Civil War movie. But life is a tricky bastard and things didn’t work out that way at all. We did share the last years of our grandparents’ life with them which I am forever grateful. However, professionally we hit a wall. And it seemed like there would be no recovery from it.
Having reconnected with our families, we decided to stay close and moved to New York City. It felt like starting all over because we didn’t know anyone and didn’t have the industry support group that we had in Los Angeles. And to bring this whole story full circle, as we were looking at our scripts to see what we could put into production, we took another look at “Morgan.” It had been in development for awhile but we had not been able to zero in on what the film was “About.” But now it was clear to us. We could relate to Morgan metaphorically, in that sometimes something bad just happens. And it’s not the thing that happened that defines you. It’s about how you handled it, about your ability to move forward. Obviously that easier said than done!
SDGLN: You’ve made some videos for the Ali Forney Center in NYC. Is this a cause dear to your heart? What other forms of activism are you drawn toward?
Akers: I met up with some great people early on in NYC who needed help with a benefit concert for the Ali Forney Center. As I created these videos, I found out that out of the total number of homeless teens in the U.S., a large percentage are GLBTQ! Most homeless kids either run away or are ejected from their homes because of their sexual orientation. Homeless youth is not just a social problem; it is largely OUR community’s problem. One rather unknown side effect from “It Gets Better” is that kids are coming out and then being rejected by their families. We need to create safe spaces for these kids. There are several of these agencies in the U.S. I also worked with Models of Pride in Los Angeles for a short time.
SDGLN: What is something that your fans don’t know about you?
Akers: I hate to fly! I am convinced that the plane is going to explode at any minute. The whole time. So it’s a double-edged sword to travel to the film festivals for me. I love coming there and meeting everyone. But it’s bookended by all these plane trips!
SDGLN: Single or taken?
Akers: Taken. By Sandon Berg. My partner in everything for the last 14 years.
SDGLN: If you were granted three wishes, how would you use them?
Akers: Oh jeez … probably for something selfish involving Ryan Gosling, chocolate and a yacht. LOL.
Ken Williams is Editor in Chief of SDGLN. He can be reached at email@example.com, @KenSanDiego on Twitter, or by calling toll-free to (877) 727-5446, ext. 713.
FilmOut screening: "Boys Centerpiece" is at 9:15 pm Friday, June 1
Sponsored by: GayTravel.Com
Co-presented by: Ascent Real Estate: Ron Oster, David Yoder and Josh Bottfeld
Where: Birch North Park Theatre, 2891 University Ave., San Diego, CA 92104
Tickets: $10. Order online HERE.
Festival Pass: $125 – providing access to all movies and parties. Click HERE to purchase a pass.
Tickets are also being sold for Opening Night film, the Opening Night Party and the combo pass. Click HERE.