Escondido, California, 1994. It's the end of summer and Gene is preparing for his high school drama friends’ final murder mystery slumber party. The theatrical hostess, Rose, will fly off to start college the next morning, followed by earnest Claire, magnetic Oscar, and sarcastic Ally. Yet Gene has bigger problems than being left behind by his best friends: he wants to come out of the closet – but is terrified of what they might think.
Hi Jonathan, thank you so much for talking to The New Current about your film Dramarama, how are you handling the lockdown?
My pleasure! I'm handling the lockdown well so far - hopefully the same goes for you. Of course I was sad about the premiere of Dramarama being cancelled, but I'm more concerned for all the people who have to continue to put themselves at risk every day. I'm grateful to all the health care workers, grocery employees, janitors, delivery people, sanitation workers, first responders...being asked to stay at home indoors is a minor inconvenience in comparison.
Your crowdfunding campaign went really well, did you image you would get so much support for Dramarama?
Even though I had months of preparation and research before launching the Kickstarter, people warned me it still wasn't going to be easy...and they were right! It was an ambitious amount of money to raise, and I definitely had days of despair, but the campaign's success was thanks to my community believing in me and the project. And by "community" I mean everyone from peers who watched my elementary school plays as a kid to fellow filmmakers I just met last year! My main hope was that the concept would connect to fellow theatre people, and thankfully it did.
Why do you think this story has resonated with people so much?
I think the film offers a number of different entry points for viewers. Former theatre kids enjoy seeing versions of themselves and their friends onscreen. Gen Xers love the nostalgia of its 1990s setting. Young people connect with the young characters trying to find their way. The same goes for LGBTQ+ people. These are all very specific demographics, but sometimes I find the more specific something is, paradoxically, the more universal it becomes. Hopefully the story feels like an authentic coming-of-age tale, so even if it differs from how you grew up, you still connect to its authenticity.
Do you think modern LGBTQ+ audiences are a little detached from this period where characters don't have that coming-out moment?
Modern audiences absolutely see the 90s differently - but that window to the past can also be instructive. I know the teens who have seen the film are surprised that the gay characters are so terrified of coming out to their best friends. It's hard for them to believe that your own close friends might reject you for being queer. In many ways this shows the amazing progress we've made since the 80s and 90s - that today's teens are so accepting that they're shocked by the conflict's very premise. But it also underlines how important it is to keep LGBTQ+ history alive. The film actually prompted a friend's son to ask why LGBTQ+ history wasn't taught in school, leading him to learn about the LGBTQ+ civil rights movement. And, for what it's worth, I hope it also connects for contemporary teens who are not in a safe place for coming out. We can't forget that a grossly disproportionate number of our homeless and suicidal youth in the US identify as LGBTQ+. What's currently safe and accepted in one community may still be unsafe elsewhere.
How did you get involved in theatre at high school?
Oh - my thespian roots go further back than high school! I was one of those kids who sold his family tickets to my latest revue in our sunken living room. In 4th grade at my Catholic school, the teacher cancelled P.E. so the class could watch my first play about a married couple having an awful night at a fancy restaurant - and I played the wife in drag! So theatre was always in my blood, and being able to find my tribe of like-minded creatives in high school meant the world to me.
Do you remember the first play you ever saw that really left an impression on you?
Patio Playhouse was the main community theatre in my hometown of Escondido, and I spent years both watching and acting in their plays after seeing my first production as a child (Alice in Wonderland). I would definitely say seeing Tennessee Williams' The Glass Menagerie was a turning point, however. It was so rich and layered and truthful yet dreamlike - and I could tell it came from a tender, autobiographical place. I loved seeing touring productions of all the splashy Broadway shows that came through San Diego, but the intimacy of a well-done small theatre production can be completely electric. I was so obsessed with The Glass Menagerie that I begged my high school drama teacher to stage it my senior year, and he graciously complied! Of course I had to incorporate it into Dramarama as well. Life becomes art becomes life becomes art!
Can you tell me a little bit about Dramarama, how did this film come about?
I had written numerous indie features that were stuck in development, and finally decided I needed to write something that was small enough in scale that I could crowdfund it. I watched numerous filmmaker friends go that route, so I had a wealth of knowledge from them. But the decision to make something semi-autobiographical really came from the positive experiences I had from my last two shorts (Adjust-A-Dream and A Doll's Eyes), which were both reworking events from my memories. I found the process of recreating the past and adding layers of cinematic fiction to be incredibly rewarding, and the idea of doing the same thing with my experiences as a closeted, conservative drama teen felt like lightning in a bottle. Once I reread my high school diary in all its cringe-worthy glory, I was determined to figure out how to capture its essence.
How long have you been wanting to make Dramarama?
Compared to my other feature projects, the process was relatively short! I spent a little over a year writing and developing it before we went into production.
Did you have any apprehensions about making a film that was so personal?
My essay short A Doll's Eyes was such a vulnerable project that it definitely helped to have made that first. I think if you're the sensitive artist type (raises hand!), anything you create and put out there for approval unleashes the stomach butterflies. There's also a blender effect of fact and fiction in Dramarama that a documentary like A Doll's Eyes doesn't have - so I feel slightly less exposed. Honestly, I was much more worried about my high school friends since details of their lives are also onscreen!
"For every success story, there are thousands of untold tragedies, of young men cast out of the profession without any warning."
During the writing and making of Dramarama has it been cathartic for you looking back at this period of your life?
There have definitely been cathartic moments at every step of the process. It's powerful to be able to look back at your undeveloped teen self and tell that kid it's going to be okay. And it's incredible to compile all the weird, intimate details about your friend group and have complete strangers connect to your private freak flag.
Dramarama is a unique coming of age film, do you think more LGBTQ+ filmmakers can look past the 'standard coming of age' narrative and look towards stories and experiences that don't fit this standard model?
I think there have always been LGBTQ+ filmmakers who push the boundaries of narrative cinema and hope that innovation never ceases. For me, boundaries get pushed when people speak their truth and incorporate those singular details into their work. In Dramarama, no one gets to have a classic "coming out" moment because that wasn't my reality in 1994. No one gets drunk for the first time or loses their virginity. And the fact that the friends are all Christian yet religion isn't demonized or made cartoonish is also atypical. I'm just putting my own experiences onscreen. As long as filmmakers are tapping into what makes their life experiences unique, we will continue to break away from the same stories being told again and again. And since the LGBTQ+ community is not a simply-packaged monolith, showcasing our diversity will prevent us from being put into one single box.
Your previous film A Doll's Eyes won a host of awards during its festival run, did you imagine you would get this type of response to your film?
A Doll's Eyes was such a personal project that it was hard to see beyond its role as art therapy while we were editing it. It felt so focused on my experiences and fears that I was unprepared for its positive global response. When it started getting translated into other languages, it honestly blew my mind! It's gratifying to create something that connects to so many cultures.
Have you always had a passion for filmmaking?
Growing up, I was always making movies in my mind - no camera needed! I would even draw movie posters for them when they were "finished." Seeing the world around me as if it was a movie was a huge part of my imaginative play as a child. But even though I started making films with an actual camera in high school, it wasn't until after my undergraduate degree in theatre that I wanted to pursue film professionally.
How has your approach as a writer/director changed since your debut short?
I'm less hesitant about making personal films than when I started - and I know I've grown a lot overall as writer. I've also learned to be less precious about the script once I'm wearing the director's cap: if it's not working on set, I need to change it. With directing, I find there are new lessons to learn from on every film. I feel like I accept the controlled chaos of production more so I can be flexible with all the creative elements the cast and crew bring to set. I love that the medium is so collaborative.
Do you think filmmakers, particularly LGBTQ+ filmmakers, should continue to take risks with their film projects?
I do, and I myself regret projects where I dodged the risk in order to make the film more "commercial." Sometimes risks just don't work - or are bad ideas. But I'd rather watch something that tried something different and failed than something that's been so watered down I'll never remember it again. When I teach queer cinema, I spend a lot of time looking at indie films from the early 90s because they're so artistically unique. Not every choice lands, but at least they're daring artistic expressions. At least we're still analysing them decades later. You can't say the same for indie films that played it safe for the sake of "appeal."
Is there any advice you would offer an emerging filmmaker?
If you write, try to write something every day. Learn how to revise a script multiple times. Screenwriting is definitely a muscle that improves with exercise. The same goes for directing. Don't be too precious about your first short films since each film will teach you something new and valuable. In short: just make stuff! And never wait for permission or validation in order to create.
And finally, what do you hope people will take away from Dramarama?
I would love for people to come away with empathy for their younger selves. It's the kind of film that encourages you to examine who you were as a teenager - what you feared, what you desired, what you believed and valued. I hope that by spending time with the characters, you'll reflect on who you once were - for better or worse! - and maybe shed some love and light on that former version of you.