It’s a ‘Gayby’– Interview with Writer-Director Jonathan Lisecki [SXSW Film]

on Wednesday, Mar. 14th

Jonathan Poritsky is covering the 2012 SXSW Film Festival in Austin.

Jonathan Lisecki’s Gayby, which just had its premiere here at SXSW, is a charming comedy about two best friends, a straight woman and a gay man, trying to have a child together. I saw the film in a packed theater with a crowd that roared with laughter through most of the film. It is, simply, a very funny movie.

Lisecki, who also has a supporting role in the film, is, himself, quite a character. When I sat with him to discuss the film, he had an ear to ear grin most of the time and would cut off into fits of laughter whenever he knew he had a good quip for me. He talks a mile a minute and, as he told me, has an answer for everything. You can instantly tell he loves what he does as a filmmaker; he is having the time of his life here.

That love shows on the screen. “Gayby” is a smart comedy with tightly engineered jokes. The premise alone has a lot of room for comedy, but many filmmakers, especially on their first feature, tend to forget to give a film some real heart outside of its concept. That’s not the case here. Jonathan feels right at home in the feature world, which is great because I think we’ll be seeing some more great work from him in the years to come.

How long has “Gayby” been gestating?

Probably for a long time. Definitely before the short. I had certainly mentioned it to a friend of mine who I originally wanted to play the lead years ago. But ideas come and go. I had an opportunity to make another short in a small span and I thought about her but she wasn’t available at the time, so then I thought about Matt (Wilkas) and Jenn (Harris). I had written the short and I had them come over and we talked about it and then I rewrote it kind of more for them. It was just more fun to do it for them. And they’re also real best friends in real life, which kind of just makes it special.

Writing, re-writing, meeting them and then shooting the short all happened within the space of about two weeks.

Really? Just two weeks?

Yeah, just two weeks. A festival had been like, “Hey, you should make another short. Get something into me.” Sometimes when you have an external deadline it makes something happen a lot faster. (laughs)

It wound up playing Slamdance that year and it played a lot of places. People really liked it. The producer and women I like said, “If you’re going to make a feature that’s the one you should make first because people want to see it.”

So it’s been around forever but it’s definitely had its steps, its journey.

The short is incorporated into the feature?

In a way yes. I mean, the scenes are different. The short had a really heavy ending scene on the roof that we definitely truncated for this because we couldn’t end the movie at that point. The short was just: they meet, they do it, they talk about it after. The movie in a way has those scenes and some of the same dialogue, but some different stuff. It’s done differently.

In a way it’s like the style of the short was very “British ‘Office.'” It had that crazy camerawork and it was super dead-pan comedy. The style of the film is actually like a little different so it makes the scenes different. I like this more. The sex scene in the short is hilarious and will never be able to be topped, but the sex scene in the movie is actually better, I think. It’s more real.

I first saw the short in the McSweeney’s app…

Awesome. They put it out there and now they’ve put it on a Wholphin. It’s on the newest one, number 15. I love those guys. They put out my first short too; they’ve been so supportive.

How was the response to the app?

The McSweeney’s guys are just very supportive. That app was new at the time, I think, or newish. They were starting to say they were going to put some Wholphin films or films that they weren’t going to put on Wholphin but they loved out via that way. I just thought it sounded cool.

They do this thing where the reader’s subscription gets them access to a couple of stories and little short movies. I just thought it sounded like a really interesting way to get to an audience. People definitely responded. I got a lot of contacts after that from people who said nice things about it.

Have you had a film at SXSW before?

I have not. The short played at the Austin Film Festival, but I was in a film last year as an actor. My friend Clay Liford’s movie “Wuss.” I played the coach in that. He is the director of photography for “Gayby.” So I was here last year for the entire festival but I had not had a film here until now. This was a big surprise and a really happy thing that I got in.

How was the film’s premiere?

It was just a few hours ago so I’m still, in a way, decompressing because you are a bundle of nerves before your movie screen’s for the first time ever. During it it’s kind of an out-of-body experience. Right after then you just want to sleep for a month. I haven’t slept in about a year.

It was amazing. This is the absolute perfect festival for a kind of silly comedy with slight political undertones and some heart. This is a great place for me.

Can I call it a romantic comedy?

It is, in a way, a romantic comedy without the actual leads being in a romance. They have a relationship. It’s a friendship, it’s like a “friend-mantic” comedy. I don’t know if there is such a thing.

It’s certainly based on the romantic comedy trope. I mean, they get together, they do something goofy, they break up, they get back together…it has all of that stuff in it. But they also have their own side romances with other characters which I think are kind of fun and silly.

The script seems very tight. How long were you working on this script to get it to this level.

(somewhat embarrassed) I wrote it in 3 weeks. It sounds crazy, but I typed it for 3 weeks is really what happened. In my head I had been writing the script for a year. I had little notes to myself. I sent myself little emails with little lines here and there, little ideas. So basically I collated for 3 weeks but it was years of ideas.

The first draft was 3 weeks in April of last year. Then the producers read it and I did another draft after that with some of their insight. Then the executive producers had some insight. We shot by August, so I think I probably did about 3 or 4 drafts of it with little notes here and there.

The script itself was long. It was 112 pages so the movie itself would have been closer to 2 hours or something, but I decided at the time to just film what I wanted to film and wind up with what I wanted to wind up. So some stuff got cut, but not a lot actually. On the whole, because everyone in the movie speaks so fast, which is the kind of style of comedy I really like, I really like screwball comedies, even though the page count is long we got by with a quicker runtime. It’s 86 minutes but it’s probably like 100 pages of text.

Did you encounter any opposition to the political overtones of the short?

I really didn’t. That’s the great thing. I found opposition nowhere, whether it screened here or Dallas or… You know this short screened everywhere. I don’t want to point out just the South; it played in Jakarta, it played in Tokyo. I think, in a way, comedy is the best way to slide across a point of view. People don’t feel like they’re being spoon-fed a point of view if you’re giving it in a comedy.

I found a lot of acceptance which is amazing. I’m sure there are some people who didn’t play it because they didn’t like that aspect of it, but I didn’t have to encounter that.

There’s the other aspect where there are probably some gay people that are mad at me because a gay guy has sex with a woman, but it is a farce. And the sex scene itself is a disaster.

Had you braced yourself for people not to be opposed to the film?

You know, I’m a gay guy from the Bronx who had to claw his way out of there. People can come at me with that, but I can take care of myself. I can have a conversation and I have a point of view and if you have a different point of view that’s fine, but I’m not in the habit of backing down or losing arguments. I’m prepared for that. If anyone has issues they can come find me at gaybyfilm.com and we can discuss it.

Does the film’s plot come from personal experience?

At one point, this kind of thing was proposed to me by one person. It was definitely for the wrong reason. There was another person I had made kind of a commitment to maybe do this if we were both single at a certain point; when we were in college we talked about it. But she’s not single anymore and she has a child. The funny thing is, I think when she had her child I was, like, “Oh no, that option is no longer available to me.” In a way that’s the time I started thinking about it more and that really coincided with the time I made the short. Sometimes you don’t even know a thing like that is happening but I think my response to losing that option was making a film about it. In a way this film is my baby for now.

What are you working on next?

I have another script that I’d like to work on. I want to experience this film with an audience a little bit first before I jump right on the train again, but I do have something I’d like to make that is also another comedy, probably with a bit of a darker tone. My first short was very dark. Sometimes people don’t realize. They’re like “where’d that guy go?” It was very vicious in a way. So I might revisit that with this next film.

For awhile I just want to show this around and experience it. It’s very fun. From April when I wrote this script up to 2 weeks ago I’ve literally been working on this film non-stop. Just to get to sit with an audience and have them enjoy it is so nice. It’s just so nice to be in a room with people instead of just your laptop.

Do you find there enough opportunities for gay characters in movies?

My next script is not gay-centric. My first short really wasn’t either. They all have gay characters because my life has that. I live in New York where the entire spectrum of humanity is represented. There are people of color in my movie because I know people of color and the one thing I hate is when I come to a film festival and I see indies where every single person is white. It happens all the time. It’s like, “Don’t you know anybody who isn’t white?” It really drives me crazy. I like to represent what I see in the real world. I happen to see a lot of, like, gay guys. (laughs)

My core group of friends and the actors I wanted to work with…there’s quite a few gay guys in there who deserve to have parts, who deserve to not have to play super duper bit parts. I didn’t write this to give opportunities to gay characters, nor do I see a limit. I wrote this for the story first. The next story that I want to tell is not specifically gay but it’s a very specific story that I want to tell. I still want to represent an aspect of humanity that I see in real life. I don’t ever want to do a closed story that doesn’t represent what I see.

Gayby screens again at the SXSW Film Festival this Thursday, March 15th at 5:00PM. You can find more reviews and interviews by Jonathan Poritsky at the candler blog.

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