ENLARGE Jenn Harris and Matthew Wilkas try to make a baby the old-fashioned way in “Gayby,” showing at FilmOut San Diego on July 18.
SAN DIEGO — Jonathan Lisecki made a name for himself on the festival circuit with his award-winning short films “Woman In Burka” (2008) and “Gayby” (2010). This year, he has a bona fide hit on his hands with a full-length version of “Gayby,” which he produced, wrote, directed and acted in.
Since its world premiere on March 12 at SXSW 2012 in Texas, “Gayby” has drawn large audiences and much laughter wherever it has played at film festivals. The film’s San Diego premiere will be screened on Wednesday, July 18, at the historic Birch North Park Theatre, presented as the monthly screening by FilmOut San Diego and co-presented by San Diego Pride.
“Gayby” will be shown along with Steven Tylor O’Connor’s new short film, “Welcome To New York,” which stars San Diego actor Sean Paul Lockhart (“Judas Kiss” an “Chillerama”).
In an interview with San Diego Gay & Lesbian News, Lisecki talks about how “Gayby” developed from a short film into a full-length feature, his casting choices that included himself playing a key supporting role, trends in LGBT movies, and future projects.
SDGLN: “Gayby” is an expansion of a hit short film you did. Please explain how all this came about.
Jonathan: I saw it as a feature from the start, but I didn’t have the resources back then. I made the short as a way of seeing whether the idea would interest me further. I was really happy with how it came it out, and thought for a while that I was done with the story. But audiences wanted more: as the short played the festival circuit, they kept asking what would happen next. That response is kind of rare, and it’s partially due to Matt and Jenn’s charisma. They are hilarious, wonderful people and incredibly talented actors. One simple reason for making this feature was so that I could work with them again. We have a ridiculously great time working together.
SDGLN: Is there any autobiographical material in the film, and if so what would it be?
Jonathan: Yes, there was a personal story that inspired the original idea. I had a very good friend from college, and we talked about having a baby together if we didn’t meet anyone else by a certain time. But she did eventually meet someone and have a baby with that person. I think I made the short version of “Gayby” as a way of dealing with the sadness I felt when that option was gone. The movie is a sort of comical fantasy on my idea of what it might have been like if that particular baby had happened, but with real feelings beneath the surface.
SDGLN: The preview released ahead of the film’s premiere at SXSW is hilarious, and FilmOut San Diego put the movie high on its list to show to its audience. Here’s a challenge: Describe the movie in one sentence that captures the essence of the plot.
Jonathan: “Gayby” is an outrageous, crowd-pleasing conception comedy about a straight woman and her gay best friend who are fulfilling an old promise to have a baby together, and the perils, pitfalls, and awkward sex they encounter during their quest.
SDGLN: Why did you pick Jenn Harris and Matthew Wilkas as your two leads? What made them perfect fits for their roles?
Jonathan: The parts were written for them. I’d worked with Jenn and Matt several times and greatly enjoyed being around them. Back when I made the short, I originally had someone else in mind as the female lead, but she became unavailable, and I immediately thought of Jenn and Matt. They really are friends from college, as you can tell from the opening montage, and their relationship is a lot like the one I was trying to portray. It was a bit of magic when it all worked out. Audiences love them and there was never any question that if and when I made a feature of “Gayby” they would be the leads.
SDGLN: You have a supporting role in this film? Who do you play? Why did you cast yourself? And what challenges does a director face when directing himself in his own movie?
Jonathan: I wanted everyone in the film to have a gay best friend—it’s kind of a twist on the bad versions of those type of roles all gay actors have to audition for. So Jenn and Matt each have their own gay friend. Jack Ferver plays Jenn’s friend Jamie, and I play Matt’s friend Nelson. We are both the smarter, sassier version of the gay sidekick. Plus, my character has recently decided to become a bear. The four of us all met doing performance-based theater in New York. We did over-the-top comedies where we’d try to make each other break character and laugh. We had a blast and a rapport that I wanted to capture on film. Almost all of the actors in the film are people I know from theater or people I met on the film festival circuit. When you work with actors you know well and trust, it makes the job of acting plus directing much easier than it should be. I didn’t really find it challenging for this project, although I’m sure that isn’t always the case. Sometimes I think it was a gift this time to have one less body on our crazy hot sets in August in NYC.
SDGLN: You used Kickstarter and raised over $16,000 to help make the movie. How helpful was this, and is this type of fundraising vital to gay indie filmmakers?
Jonathan: The really great thing about Kickstarter is that you can start drawing an audience to your film even before you shoot it. Contributing to Kickstarter gives people a sense of personal involvement in the project: they know about it, they talk about it, they help get the word out. The fact we had this community of people involved in the process early on was in a way more important than the money they gave. Not that it wasn’t great to have the money, but ultimately Kickstarter benefited us by creating an excited base of people who are as excited about the movie as we are. I think crowd funding is vital to all indie filmmakers, but I personally tend to give more often to gay filmmakers. Maybe because I know what an uphill battle funding our projects are.
SDGLN: Would you call this a gay film or a general audience movie?
Jonathan: I’d like to think it’s both. My hope was that gay and straight audiences alike would get a kick out of the movie, and I’ve been incredibly happy to see that happening as “Gayby” shows around the country, at festivals marketed to different communities. I wrote it so there would be an even balance between the straight woman and the gay man. Plus, I wanted to play around a little with the usual stereotypes: Matt is shy, hung up on his ex-boyfriend, afraid of casual sex, and a comic-book nerd. You don’t see that type all the time. And Jenn isn’t the sad female character waiting for a man. She is the wild one who gets all the action. She’s more the Hugh Grant and he’s the Renee Zellweger. At one of the SXSW screenings a straight guy announced to the theatre that he had a little bit of a crush on Matt.
SDGLN: Isn’t the trend that “gay” films are becoming more gentrified, appealing often to a wider audience?
Jonathan: I just think that with so many gay characters on TV shows and in films, how could it not be easier to have a wider audience? The fact that I premiered at a festival like SXSW, as “Weekend” did last year, shows that movies with gay themes don’t have to be pigeonholed. But I could make a less crossover film if I wanted to, and I maybe I will someday. But this particular movie was made to be enjoyed by people of all backgrounds. My hope is always that the more people see it the more they understand that we all want families, however it comes about. I do think that gay people get a little bit more of the humor, and it’s certainly fun to see it with a gay audience—our screening at the Castro was insanely well received.
SDGLN: Do you shoot on film or digitally, and why?
Jonathan: Digitally for this project. The pace was fast and furious and digital allows for a quickness that film doesn’t. Actually, I’ve come to like the look of digital. And I believe for a comedy like this, one that doesn’t have sweeping vistas, you don’t need film. My cinematographer Clay Liford is very talented, though, and he got some beautiful shots out of the camera.
SDGLN: What’s next for you?
Jonathan: I have a project I wrote before “Gayby,” and I’ll revisit it soon. For the next few months, my job is really to travel with the film, screen it with audiences, and experience it in new settings. Filmmaking can be an isolated business, especially at the beginning and at the end, and so this part of the process is really welcome. It’s great for me to meet people, hear what they laugh at, and answer questions. I am excited to come to San Diego for the first time and share “Gayby” with the FilmOut audience.
WHAT: “Gayby” will be shown with the short film, “Welcome To New York,” at the monthly screening of FilmOut San Diego. The co-presenter is San Diego Pride. A Q&A session will follow the two films.
WHEN: 7 pm Wednesday, July 18
WHERE: Birch North Park Theatre, 2891 University Ave., San Diego