(Editor's note: SDGLN is featuring Q&A interviews with leading filmmakers from around the world who are participating in FilmOut San Diego's 15th annual LGBT Film Festival, running May 29 to June 2 at the historic Birch North Park Theatre. Follow SDGLN for all the news about one of the top LGBT film festivals in the U.S.)
Don’t be scared off by “Meth Head,” director Jane Clark’s gripping tale of meth addiction that has its West Coast premiere on Saturday, June 1 at FilmOut San Diego’s 15th annual LGBT Film Festival at the Birch.
“Meth Head” is an earnest and brutally honest look at the scourge that is crystal meth, the seductive party drug that is so addicting and is destroying so many young lives, particularly in the LGBT community.
Lukas Haas (“Lincoln,” “Red Riding Hood” and “Witness”) gives a powerful performance as Kyle Peoples, a likable accountant in a dead-end job who is engaged to the ambitious career guy, Julian (Wilson Cruz). Kyle is longing to get out his rut, and one night hooks up with the party crowd. But his new crew – led by Dusty (Blake Berris, who plays bad boy Nick Fallon on NBC’s “Days Of Our Lives”) and Maia (Necar Zadegan) – introduce him to meth, and suddenly Kyle’s life takes a disastrous turn that will eventually cost him the love of his life and way, way more. Look for a touching performance by Candis Cayne as Pinkie.
Director Jane Clark speaks with San Diego Gay & Lesbian News about “Meth Head,” about why she decided to make this movie, and how she pulled no punches in showing the destructive nature of crystal meth.
SDGLN: Meth addiction is one of the scourges of the LGBT community. Why did you decide to make this movie? What is the genesis of this movie, and what is the buzz on the gay film festival circuit?
Making a film is a huge undertaking and in my world there is very little if any money, long long hours, short shooting schedules and high stress. As a filmmaker, having a personal connection to and passion for the story helps fuel the drive, especially in the face of constant adversity. "Meth Head" is both of those things for me.
When my brother in law passed away from complications of a meth addiction, it was shocking. I thought I was fairly drug savvy. I had taken his “partying” casually, with no idea how addictive and destructive methamphetamine was. I had seen all the “faces of meth” and Dickie didn’t look like those people. He was handsome, healthy white teeth, no picking that I could see and when he lost weight I told him he looked great and wanted to know how he did it.
At about the same time a very dear friend, John W. McLaughlin, came back into my life after a long absence and shared with me his own struggle with addiction. He too, did not fit the stereotypical image that the media had been pushing. Those two important people merged and the idea was born. I asked John to share his story and told him it would require him being completely honest with me. If he could do that we could make a movie that could perhaps restart the conversation about meth addiction and reframe the discussion to include the people in my world, middle class, educated, successful people, straight and gay, who fell (and continue to fall) victim to this drug.
As to buzz on the gay fest circuit: Well, FilmOut is our premiere in this arena, so we’ll see. I will say that through the course of seeking financing, we were surprised at the amount of push-back. I thought it would be easy to find the money for the film in the gay community, because it is such a problem and there really does need to be a more public discussion about it. But no one who invested in the film is gay. Instead, from the gay world we heard a lot about how dark the story is and the economics of gay film. No one we encountered in the gay community was willing to get behind the story for the cause.
Having said that, Michael was one of the first people on the LGBT fest circuit who we showed the film to and his reaction was immediate and strongly positive, so we are hopeful that the buzz will catch on and this film can get in front of as many people as possible.
SDGLN: Did you have Lukas Haas in mind for the lead role as Kyle? What were his challenges in the role?
Lukas came to me late in the game, actually. I brought a casting director, Shannon Makhanian, on to help find someone for what is a very difficult role. I needed a combination of great talent with likability. She had suggested a few people that I was not overly enthused about, but as soon as she put Lukas on the table, I knew he was it. The only problem was he loved the script but didn’t want to do it. He just felt it was going to be too hard and I think he wasn’t confident he could pull it off. He turned me down, but I didn’t take that as an answer. I insisted he talked to me. We got on the phone, had a great conversation. His answer was he still didn’t think he could do it. I insisted that he meet me and at some point it seemed like that wasn’t going to happen. We were five days away from rehearsal, and I was just about to hire an unknown actor who I had auditioned, when I got the call that Lukas would meet with me. An hour later I was driving home and was told he was in. I’m not sure what I said to change his mind, but I am grateful he accepted the role and put his trust in me.
Lukas had several challenges. He’s straight, for one. I wanted the character to retain some of his Midwestern vibe and the idea that until he left home, and when he returns home to visit, being gay was not/is not something that he felt comfortable sharing with his family. That is actually a harder thing to play than say, a flamboyant character, because he had to show just enough to be believably gay, but not enough to make him overtly gay. On top of that, when Lukas used to use drugs they were downers – completely the opposite of methamphetamine, so he didn’t have a fame of reference. The other challenge for Lukas was that he was in almost every scene, and we were shooting in 14 days. So there was no downtime. He had to show up ready and stay ready all day, every day through the shoot – combined with really difficult emotional scenes, that was a huge drain on him.
SDGLN: You also snagged Black Berris, who stars as bad boy Nick Fallon on “Days Of Our Lives.” What did Berris bring to the table that led to his casting as Dusty, the “photographer” and drug dealer?
I always start with talent, which Blake has in droves. I found him through the audition process and when he read for the first time, I was sitting there thinking, how is it possible that this guy, with so much talent is unknown to me. The second thing I was looking for with the character were conflicting ideas – 1. A combination of knowing and innocent. 2. A straight guy, who also has a quality that makes you believe he can hook with men to get high. Blake naturally had those two dichotomies and it made him very appealing.
SDGLN: The lovely Candis Cayne, a well-known transgender actress, plays Pinkie. What was it like working with Cayne?
I love Candis. She is one of the most beautiful women I have ever met, inside and out. She brings such heart to her character, and she does it quite easily. She also brings lightness and humor to "Meth Head," without losing her believability, which was key to the pacing of the film. When I was writing the script I made a special effort to find humor where I could and Pinkie is a big part of that. Candis is actually in my next film, "Crazy Bitches," which I’ll be shooting in June and is attached to another project that is set up in Paris, "Slate & Kelly."
SDGLN: You don’t pull any punches in showing how meth addiction can be a downward spiral? Kyle goes from being in a successful relationship to living in a seedy motel in a flash, and ends up turning tricks to buy his next round of drugs. How close is this portrayal to real-life meth heads?
We have had critics say that it is unrealistic how quickly Kyle becomes addicted and descends. Those critics are judging addiction on the trajectory of other drugs, particularly coke. Meth is completely different. It is 80% addictive after the first try. It does happen in a flash. Think of it this way, if your base level of dopamine is 100%, let’s say a casual conversation with a friend might raise it to 150. Eating something you love might raise it to 200. Having sex, 250. Coke raises it to 350. Meth raises it to 1,350. And that is just the beginning of the reasons why it is so hard to resist. It moves along quickly as an addiction because it is not only emotionally addictive drug, but it literally deadens the nerve receptors in your brain, making it difficult to create your own euphoria or happiness. So even from the beginning you don’t feel quite as good as when you were using it. The more you use, the more depressed you are without it. It’s really vicious. Once you are using regularly, the depression and the pain of withdrawal are two overwhelming reasons not to stop, even when your life is spiraling and you know deep down you are killing yourself.
Just as an example, we had someone who was involved with "Meth Head" – key during pre-production to bringing several elements on to the film - a successful, educated guy with a fiancé, a home, a big job – a super nice guy. In the weeks leading up to production, his emails started showing up at 3 in the morning and were erratic. Phone conversations were scrambled and illogical. At the time I didn’t put it together. The lunacy is that he was using meth – literally helping us with Meth Head, while he slipped into a serious addiction. Within six months he was out on the streets living out of a duffle bag. A month or two later he was arrested for breaking and entering.
SDGLN: Where did you shoot the movie, and why did you choose this location?
We shot primarily in this run-down house that we found on the MLS Real Estate guide. I had done a search for 5 – 8 bedroom homes and we looked at a lot in various areas of LA, but this one was beyond perfect. It hadn’t been lived in for years and had that feeling that a house has when an old person lives there and hasn’t redecorated for decades. That was important because the house belongs to an older character in the film, Nora. It was also perfect because it doubled for a whole bunch of other locations. It wasn’t the best neighborhood, but that wasn’t why I picked it. It was for all the production value it brought.
SDGLN: What do you want audiences to remember about the film after they leave the theater?
I want them to walk away talking – clearly about the addiction. We really wanted to make a film that could stop someone from trying the drug, or help persuade someone to quit before their addiction deepens any further. (which we know has already happened.) It has been really interesting to me to talk to people after they have watched the film. Some people really attach to the family element of the film, in particular the father/son relationship. Many people are most impacted by the addiction story but don’t agree on which addict’s story affected them the most.
Sometimes I am surprised by what someone walks away with. There was a lovely South African couple at my screening in DC. We went out to dinner together the last night of the festival and the woman confessed she walked out of "Meth Head." “Why?” I asked, thinking she would say it was after one of the more difficult scenes.
She never even made it that far. She left the theater because the love between Lukas and Wilson felt so palpably deep and true that it challenged all her notions of a gay relationship. She said she had friends who were gay, but she never thought that a relationship between two men was anything more than for having gay sex. It upset her to have her beliefs challenged so viscerally. The film actually changed her understanding and deepened her acceptance of gay relationships as being as real as her own with her husband.
SDGLN: Do you prefer the LGBT genre?
I don’t think of films as LGBT or not. I think of any film I make in terms of story. Is it a story I care about, do I love my characters, will other people care? Beyond that, truthfully, making LGBT films is a particularly limiting endeavor. There is a rule of thumb for how much you can spend on a gay film and how much on a lesbian film (gay films can be made for a little more money because they tend to generate more sales). So the process of making a quality film with the restrictions of a limited budget is grueling. And in the end there’s very little if any money for the filmmaker. It is not a financially sustainable niche to exist in.
SDGLN: Has LGBT cinema grown up, is it “crossing over” to attract mainstream audiences, or do you sense it will remain a niche product?
I think it can’t and shouldn’t stay a niche product. I think the general audience is changing. The only thing that holds back films with LGBT storylines are the producers/financiers (in the financing stage) and distributors (and media to some extent) who are still living in a world where decisions are made by slotting films in different categories. I truly believe, that if any really quality film with gay characters can reach the mainstream audience it can play commercially as well as any other film in its league. I hate to harken back to "Brokeback Mountain" because it was a few years ago now, but that is what I’m talking about. If there is a good story with identifiable situations and empathetic characters, regardless of the sexual identification, the audience will come. All you need is a distributor the size and power of Focus Features. And that’s where the hold back is.
That and the money to make a quality film. It’s hard to make a good looking film for very little money. It takes a special mind-set and production experience in that budget level. So what happens is that a lot of time LGBT films fall short of a quality necessary to put the film into a multiplex.
SDGLN: What’s next for you?
"Crazy Bitches." I’m still raising a little money, but have set a start date for June 10 and am confident we will go into production. It’s about seven women (including Candis Cayne) and one fab gay guy (Wilson Cruz) who go to a remote ranch for some R&R, but things go terribly wrong when one by one they are killed by their own vanity.
SDGLN: Single or taken?
SDGLN: What is something your fans don’t know about you?
This is hard to answer because I have newsletter I put out once a month and my blog in the newsletter is about me – what I believe, how I work, what I am learning in life. So I’m pretty open book.
Having said that … I can’t eat cooked green vegetables. Really. I gag on them. I love salads. And I can do things like mushrooms, onions, red peppers if they are cooked. But there’s something about green things. Blech.
SDGLN: Will you be coming to the FilmOut San Diego LGBT Film Festival?
Yes, most definitely and looking forward to it. I had a short film, THE TOUCH, screen there a few years back. It’s a great festival. And we are honored to be a part of their 15th Anniversary.
SDGLN: If you were granted three wishes, what would you do with them?
I would give one to my friends, one to my husband and family, and use one for my career.
SHOWING ON SATURDAY, JUNE 1
Time: 7 pm
Sponsored by ABC10/Azteca America
Co-presented by LIVE and Rage magazines
“Meth Head” (2013), directed by Jane Clark, 107 minutes, U.S.
West Coast premiere
Kyle Peoples (Lukas Haas) never wanted to be the man he has become in his 30s - stuck in a dead end job, engaged to a lover (Wilson Cruz) who is more successful than he and burdened with a family that doesn't understand him. When an innocent night of partying leads to a new family of friends and fun, Kyle sees an opportunity to escape from his former reality. But Kyle's new friendship with Maia (Necar Zadegan) and Dusty (Blake Berris), and their love of crystal meth, eventually cost Kyle everything - his job, his lover and his family. Kyle's escape quickly becomes a trap of desperation and prostitution as they search for their next hit. Taking a toll both physically and mentally, Kyle is forced to choose between life or meth. With Theo Rossi, John W. McLaughlin and Candis Cayne.
* Shown with “T Is For Twig” (2011), directed by Judson Scott, 5 minutes, U.S.
West Coast premiere
Two women go for a hike in the woods with a shocking and unexpected outcome.
* Shown with “It’s Consuming Me” (2012), directed by Kai Staenicke, 4 minutes, Germany
Caught in the mindset of what could have been, a man contemplates and recollects his former relationship… verging on the edge of obsession.
Ken Williams is Editor in Chief of SDGLN. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, @KenSanDiego on Twitter, or by calling toll-free to 888-442-9639, ext. 713.