37th BFI Flare 2023
Fans of Frances Ha and Fire Island will revel in Todd Flaherty’s exploration of what happens when you break up with your (platonic) soulmate.
Hi Todd, thanks you for talking with The New Current, you got nominated in the New Direction Competition at the Cleveland International Film Festival 2023, did you imagine your debut feature would get such an incredible, and inspiring response?
To be totally honest, I never expected that a micro-budget queer film made for queer people would have the international reach it’s had. I think it speaks mostly to the heart of the story about breaking up with your best friend and how universal that story is.
What does it mean to you to have your debut feature Chrissy Judy in the HEARTS section at the 37th BFI Flare?
When we first started on our festival journey, BFI was at the top of the list of festivals we hoped to screen in. We’ve been running the circuit for almost a year now, so it feels incredible to be coming to a close on that journey at such a prestigious fest. We’re almost sold out of our first screening, which is mind-blowing, so I’m excited to see how BFI’s audience relates to the story.
Will there be any nerves ahead of the screening or are you able to enjoy the ride?
There’s always a fair amount of anxiety at the screening until I hear the audience laugh for the first time. Then the nerves melt away.
How essential is it for LGBTQ+ filmmakers to continue to push the boundaries of the stories and themes they want to explore in their films?
Queer storytelling isn’t new, but as we move from the subversive to mainstream, I think it’s our duty as queer filmmakers to keep telling new stories for queer people. Most of us don’t have queer parents, we have to seek out our elders or figure things out as we go with our peers, so it’s important that we see our lives reflected on screen to continue opening a dialogue about how we exist and move through the world. I find most queer cinema falls into the category of a coming out story, a story of unrequited love, or a story about overcoming adversity and victimhood. Chrissy Judy strays from all of those in its exploration of queer friendship and its value to us as a community that relies on “chosen family” when searching for our authentic voice.
Can you tell me a little bit about how Chrissy Judy came about, what was the inspiration behind your screenplay?
I started writing Chrissy Judy in 2018 when I left New York City, my home of 13 years, to pursue a romantic partnership in Philadelphia. At the time, I was processing my feelings of wanting to partake in this heteronormative relationship that I was so excited to be exploring, while not wanting to let go of this fabulous queer artistic lifestyle I had worked so hard to create in New York. Throughout my twenties I had two or three incredible friendships with other gay men that ended with the introduction of a romantic partner. I think as gay men, we’ve all had that friend, someone you take as your plus-one to a formal affair and everyone asks, “Why aren’t you two together?” In an effort to create our chosen family, sometimes what weed up creating are codependent relationships that have to end in order for both parties to grow. I had never seen a relationship like this explored on film before so, I decided to write it myself.
"Apart from the device of cell phones, we tried not to tie our story to any specific modern time period, so my hope this that people can watch this ten or twenty years from now and wonder when it was made."
When writing a film like Chrissy Judy how much do you pull from you own life and experience?
I hesitate to call the film autobiographical because I am nowhere near as brave or rebellious or messy as Judy, but I will say, I’m an observer. I journal every day and I’m constantly taking note of ordinary occurrences in life that feel profound and cinematic. So most of what audiences see on screen is pulled from life experience…it just most likely isn’t my own.
Had you always intended to shoot the film in black and white, for a debut feature was this challenging to pull off?
Before I started writing, I knew I wanted to shoot this in black and white. I think there is something inherently romantic about black and white films that I wanted to juxtapose with this story of a platonic friendship. I also think there’s something timeless about black and white film, which I think marries well with this story. Apart from the device of cell phones, we tried not to tie our story to any specific modern time period, so my hope this that people can watch this ten or twenty years from now and wonder when it was made. The only real challenge of shooting in black and white was that we worked with only natural light and lighting that was provided in the spaces where we worked, so creating the chiaroscuro effects was really dependent on our location (and the weather). Overall, I’m pleased with my brother’s cinematic lens and how the film turned out.
Not only did you write and direct Chrissy Judy you also play “Judy”, was it easy to director yourself and will you do it again?
Playing Judy and directing myself was made easy because of our incredibly talented cast, crew, and my brother Brendan Flaherty who was our cinematographer and my right hand. Any hurdles we faced in production were easily overcome because Brendan and I share a creative mind, so I trusted that we would always find a solution to any road-blocks. We were also insanely lucky to have Wyatt Fenner come on as Chrissy. He breathed life into Chrissy in a way that made putting on my “acting hat” a breeze. Additionally, when you have talent like Joey Taranto and James Tison and the rest of our incredible cast, it makes directing easy.
I’m preparing my next feature for production and plan on acting in it as well.
Looking back is there anything you would have changed or shoot differently?
I wouldn’t change anything about the script, but OF COURSE there are things I would change cinematically. I think that’s the curse of a creative mind. There are multiple shots that we got at the end of a 16 hour day that I wish we had reshot or scenes where our locations fell through last minute and we had to make do with a space that didn’t feel as cinematic or authentic to Judy’s story. However, I am still impressed with what we created for so little. We shot the first two acts of the film in 10 days in New York, Philadelphia, New Jersey, and Fire Island, and then we shot the third act in 6 or 7 days in Provincetown. All for $20,000. It’s a miracle the film was even made in the first place. So yes, there are still scenes where I cringe looking at the lighting or sound mixing, but I think maybe that’s also what makes the film feel so special.
What has been the most valuable lesson you have taken away from making Chrissy Judy?
Take a gamble on yourself. If you have a story in your heart and you want to tell it, write it! Film it! Make art! It’s always an uphill battle, but the act of creation will have such an incredible impact on your life, the pros will always outweigh the cons.
Have you always had a passion for filmmaking?
Yes, but I think that passion always stemmed from an even greater passion for acting, which is why I spent most of my twenties pursuing a career in the theatre and not focusing on film. My brother and I were always making home movies growing up. It’s exciting to see just how that’s manifested in adulthood.
What was the first LGBTQ+ film you saw that really left an impact?
Okay, this might not technically be a queer film, but I remember seeing "The Birdcage" when I was eight and feeling ALL kinds of feelings about the men performing drag.
Now that you have your debut feature under your belt what advice or tips could you offer someone about to make their first film?
Again, take a gamble on yourself. There’s never going to be a perfect circumstance to shoot your first film. Look at the resources you have at hand and go from there. You know folks at A24? Great, call them and pitch your script. You have a buddy who has a camera? Great, see if they’ll help you shoot a ten-minute short. There’s no right way to begin…you just have to begin. Also, inevitably, your first film won’t be perfect, that’s a good thing, it gives you room to grow.
And finally, what message do you hope you audiences will take away from Chrissy Judy?
I don’t know that there is a particular message I hope audiences take away. I wanted the end to feel ambiguous so people can see themselves in some way on screen and reflect on relationships in their lives.