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BFI Flare: G.B.F. – A chat with director Darren Stein & star Michael J. Willett

March 23, 2014

FestivalsFilm + EntertainmentInterview | by Francesco Cerniglia


G.B.F

Friday at BFI Flare was most definitely G.B.F. day. Directed by Darren Stein, writer/director of 1999’s teen cult Jawbreaker and starring Michael J. Willet (The United States Of Tara), Sasha Pieterse (Pretty Little Liars), Andrea Bowen (Desperate Housewives) and Megan Mullally (Will & Grace) among many others, G.B.F. is a funny and cute coming of age story about Tanner (Willett), a shy and closeted gay teenager who gets outed and becomes the must-have accessory for the queen bees competing for popularity in the school. In the process he compromises his friendship with his BFF Brent (Paul Iacono) who’s actually the one eager to gain the spotlight and become the coveted G.B.F. in the school. I’ve reviewed the film last month in Candid’s latest issue that you can find here.

Director Darren Stein and star Michael J. Willett are in London this weekend for the premiere at BFI Flare and a few other screenings across town to promote the film and do several Q&As with audiences. I had the pleasure of sitting down with them at BFI Southbank right before the first screening of the film at Flare. The atmosphere was light and fun on the first day of spring and you can immediately tell how they’ve become close friends after working together and how lovely they are to talk to.

Darren, who did you identify with between Brent and Tanner when you first read the script? Who were you in high school?

Darren: Probably I’m more of a Brent. I’d actually say Brent meets Fawcett and Caprice (two of the queen bees) since I really relate to divas, to the mean girls and the glamour of that. Brent is fun ‘cause he’s a bit campier and I think I can run a little more like that. I was never into comic books but my nerdiness was about movies. I loved films like Alien. Oh well I was really into horror and science fiction and all of that so I’m a bit of a Tanner too. Honestly I think I’m just a big melting pot.

Michael, you’ve played naughty boy Lionel in The United States Of Tara, shy boy Tanner in G.B.F. that you’ve declared feeling close to how you were in high school and now there’s your upcoming role in MTV’s Faking It as Shane who’s a golden gay boy trying to out a couple of supposed lesbians, a bit like the queen bees in G.B.F. do with Tanner. Is there room for new facets in this range of high schoolers and gay characters that you’d like to play?

Michael: Well I definitely related more to Tanner like you said because of the way I was in high school. I would like to play all different kinds of characters. I don’t feel limited to gay characters or necessarily high schoolers. I wanna branch out but I feel proud and honored to be portraying lots of different kinds of gay kids because ultimately there’s a stereotype as to how maybe in the past gay people have been portrayed on film and television and it’s not true. I just wanna be a person and any character I play hopefully is a well rounded individual in some way. When I played Lionel for instance I did not empathize with a lot of the things he was doing or saying so it was kind of more of a stretch but I had to find some belief behind him. I had to stay in his corner because I was playing him. With Tanner I was probably more myself but a younger version and now with this new character I’m playing in Faking It I’m probably more myself or even an idyllic version of myself. He’s popular, he tells people what causes to support and stuff. But yeah I just wanna have a variety of people I play.

2013 Seattle International Film Festival - "GBF" Premiere

Darren, given how you wrote or co-wrote you previous films, whereas this time you only have the director’s credit, I was wondering, were you consciously looking for something written by someone else and did you have any input on rewrites once you got on board with G.B.F?

Darren: I consider myself a director first before a writer, though yeah, I do both but I’m open to other writers. I love good storytelling and good writing so when I read G.B.F. I just thought it was a teen film I couldn’t say no to. And it was interesting because it did reference and process a lot of teen films from the past, one of them being Jawbreaker. When I was reading the slow motion walk stuff I was like “Oh am I really gonna revisit this again? Is this really gonna happen?” But I had to ’cause the film was so great and had such an important message plus the slow motion walk was reinventing that trope by bringing the gay character into that iconic march. It was just a great piece of material. I was laughing when I was reading the screenplay and it was clear that George (Norhty, the writer) understood the genre, characters, tone and structure. It was very well structured and sometimes structure is one of the most challenging aspects of writing. It’s so funny ’cause after Jawbreaker I was trying to escape that. I was offered lots of teen films to direct but I would pass on everything and yet, now here I am later with this one. But I definitely did develop the script with George over a whole year and there’s a lot we added. For instance, in the original script Fawcett didn’t change. She wasn’t a chemistry nerd. We added that whole layer in and in general we brought a lot of the themes up to the surface more. Caprice was a lesbian in the first draft but we cut that to avoid making it overly gay-oriented. And the whole finale of the film changed since the first draft. The whole glitter bombing, the “Carrie” thing was all new too. So yeah there was a lot of work done to the script but the great thing is that George is a collaborative writer. He understands that film is a medium that takes many people to create. I had him on the set every day because I know that as the writer I’d love to be there. He wanted to learn and he caught things I didn’t catch. He had ideas and I don’t have a director ego. I was very happy to take his ideas as much as he was very happy to take any ideas on the writing, so yeah it was a really fun, fluid collaboration.

Michael, when I spoke with Andrea (Bowen) who plays ‘Shley, she said there was no need for improvisation since the script was so good although she was proud of a line she came up with that apparently wound up in the film. What was your experience? Did you feel you had room for that?

I was playing the straight man as much as my character is gay so I didn’t have a lot of room for improvisation. There were a few things that I kind of spoke up and said for a couple of the other characters. One of them is “later, later” that’s something we used to say in school and so I kind of added that in. Sasha (Pieterse) who plays Fawcett says it and it wound up on our quote list but other than that, not really. I was playing very much by the script so that all of these other characters could be fun and larger than life.

Darren at this point chimes in…

Darren: It’s a testament to his performance that he doesn’t feel reactive. It doesn’t feel like he’s being dragged on along the journey. A lot of his stuff is reaction but the reactions are so narrative that you’re compelled by it. And that’s why he had to play Tanner. There was nobody else that could’ve played this role –

Michael erupts with a cute “Shush!” but Darren continues the praise…

Darren: No seriously! Believe me, we saw a lot of actors. There was a lot of talk on whether we should get some more of a name but it’s a testament to Michael’s uniqueness. He’s a spiritual person and he’s also entertaining and naturally funny and the humor that he brings comes from pathos.

Michael then wraps his thoughts on the topic:

Michael: Actually that’s interesting what Darren says about Tanner’s comedy. When I read the script I thought he could come across as droll and boring but I saw him as very funny. To me he was hilarious but it’s all beneath the surface and situational.

g-b-f08

I need to inevitably touch the bummer topic of the film getting a risible (to say the least) R rating which limits its availability to the main audience it aims for. It’s especially disheartening because of the positive message the film wants to convey and the absolute lack of anything controversial enough to require that rating. Do you guys have any thoughts on how LGBT cinema can overcome these issues and reach out to a wider audience?

Darren: Well, first of all great things are happening in TV right now. Michael’s new show, Faking It, is sort of G.B.F. with marketing budget hence more exposure –

Michael: With TV you’re in somebody’s living room weekly. There is a power in that.

Darren: Big Hollywood studios are only making tentpole movies and remakes. When we brought this to studios, they told us “We don’t make teen films anymore”. What was the last big teen comedy? Easy A. More recent films like The To Do List or The Spectacular Now were kind of financed independently. So I guess you have no other way rather than making your film independently. Of course I would’ve loved to have Fox Searchlight or Magnolia release G.B.F. but even without that support the word is getting out through the media, film festivals, the kids finding it on VOD and tweeting how they watched it 35 times and that’s a great way to spread the word.

Michael: I have lots of thoughts on this topic. I just feel like in general throughout history, especially for gay people, it’s been a main priority to expose and see ourselves on film. I think it’s a big deal and it’s powerful. Seeing yourself in those characters is important. Art sometimes evolves sooner than society does so it’s important to get it out there cause it helps our culture grow.

Darren: And in the end I think the film is indeed traveling internationally quite well. We went to Brazil and that was a great market. The film played in Paris and people loved it and now that’s why we wanted to come to England cause we thought the UK was such an important market for the movie. Peccadillo, our distributor here, has been so great and their attention to detail with the marketing has been awesome, so that’s exciting.

Darren, before I let you go, I have to ask what’s the update on the Jawbreaker musical you’ve been working on.

Darren: We are having a workshop this summer in Seattle, so it’s finally moving ahead. Heathers just opened off Broadway, Mean Girls is probably coming to Broadway so we wanted to carve out our own path with Jawbreaker. We’re doing a club tour. We’ll start in Seattle and go throughout the US and probably end up in New York. We had a reading and Jojo from G.B.F. did it and also Taylor Frey who plays Topher did it. So it’s fun to bring some of the actors from G.B.F. into that. I like working again with people I worked with. I’d work with Michael again in a heartbeat.

Michael, I found out you’re also a musician and I watched some of your videos. Great voice by the way. Are you thinking about Broadway yourself at some point?

Michael: Oh yeah, absolutely. I’m a very artistic and creative person and I’d like to dive into many mediums. I feel that as a musician and songwriter I’m able to express myself and I think people know me better when I share my music with them. I’ll actually be coming out with a music video for my song Burning Desire this year which is going to be more like a London fashion film. It’s kind of that style. There’s no lip-synching. It’s gonna be pretty epic!

After its BFI Flare Premiere, G.B.F. is now available in a few theatres and on VOD. Check out all the information on where and how to watch it here

Francesco Cerniglia – Film Editor