In Jesse Rosen's feature-film debut, The Art of Being Straight, 23-year-old Jon (played by Rosen himself), recently arrived in Los Angeles after leaving behind his girlfriend in New York, discovers that Southern California has more than sunshine and hot chicks to offer. Like, a hot-in-the-pants (male) boss who simply won't take no for an answer. So, that leads to a kiss, which leads to some more intimate stuff, which leads to self-denial, identity issues, and problems with anti-gay buddies. Being straight – if you ain't, really – is not just an art form. In fact, it's a chore.
In writer-director Rosen's laidback, unpretentious dramatic comedy, which is currently playing at the Music Hall in Beverly Hills in addition to being available on Here! on demand, characters must come to terms not only with who they are, but with who others think they are. That's no easy task, and Rosen has a generally capable cast helping him convey that message. Particularly good is Rachel Castillo's Maddy, who identifies herself as a lesbian but who doesn't hesitate (too much) to become physically close with the (male) history teacher next door.
What I liked best about The Art of Being Straight, is Rosen's refusal to label his characters. Jon may come across to some as a closeted gay man, but just because he's in denial about his attraction to other men doesn't necessarily negate the possibility that he may be into women as well. Even the straight buddies come across as less hetero than they pride themselves to be, considering their obsession with who's gay who isn't, what's gay what isn't.
Jesse Rosen has kindly agreed to take part in a q&a (via e-mail) for Alt Film Guide, and in his very first answer he's dropped a revelatory bomb about a certain contributor to this site whose identity shall remain hidden for propriety's sake (though “you know who you are!”). See below.
The Art of Being Straight will next open in Ft. Lauderdale (June 19) and Columbus, Ohio (June 26). More information here.
Watch the trailer here.
Photos: Courtesy of Here Media / Regent Releasing
Jesse Rosen, Johnny Ray Rodriguez
Could you tell us how much of what goes on in The Art of Being Straight is factual – or inspired by factual events – and how much is fictional?
I based the film loosely on someone who works at Alt Film Guide office, but I won't name names. You know who you are! No, I'd say there's a nice blend of fact and fiction within the film. It's certainly inspired by events in my own life, but also events in the lives of friends and people I had spoken with when I was in the thick of doing research for the film. The character of Maddy is loosely based off of an old friend of mine, but barely any of her subplot, if at all.
The Art of Being Straight is your first film as a director. What was it like to direct and star in a film that you wrote? In other words, how comfortable (or uncomfortable) were you directing your own piece, having the producers making sure that you kept costs under control, having to choose what to leave out, what to keep in the final cut, etc? And what about directing yourself?
Starring in this film was by no means ever my intention. Our lead, who was the last person to be cast, dropped out three days before shooting, and we could either shelve the film (which is eternal damnation in LA) or say (*)&^ and go make it. I was pretty insistent on going forward, so was glad the producers believed in me at that point to do it.
Luckily, I had a tremendously creative, passionate crew that weren't afraid to give feedback as we shot. I looked to everyone on set who thankfully was willing to be honest and open about what the scenes required. From our DP Aaron Torres to on-set producers Amy Wasserman and Ursula Camack, to our grip who yelled out “That didn't look real enough!” after a gay sex scene take…
I was very lucky to be working on a team that all had the same goal: they believed in the movie and wanted it to be great. We definitely had to make big choices as to what to shoot and what not to shoot, especially when you're heading into a day with 16 pages. I had to combine scenes, and make quick, on-set decisions as to what scenes just maybe weren't necessary.
Your fellow The Art of Being Straight cast members. Where were they found? Why did you choose them? And what was it like handling actors, most of whom had little-to-no experience performing in front of a camera?
Many of the cast were old friends or acquaintances from Emerson College, who just simply came to auditions and blew everyone away. I remember rummaging through friends and friends of friends on Myspace, or LA casting websites.
I think for people with lesser experience in front of the camera, like myself, we just focused on simply telling this story the best way we could. I did have some interesting casting experiences though, most notably for Paul, the older man. Amy, our producer, couldn't make it that day, and I had all these strange men [with whom] I was taping and reading come to my house. The old lady neighbor downstairs was freaked out.
A character who likes to think of himself as straight, but then isn't so sure. Another character who likes to think of herself as a lesbian, but then isn't so sure. Could you elaborate a little on your views regarding sexual orientation boundaries – or lack thereof?
When you hear someone ask “Is he/she gay?” it's a great indicator of how our society views being gay, how we seek to label, and more so, eliminate the other possibilities, such as bisexual, or no label at all, which from what I understand has not been allowed in this country since the Great No-Label Experiment of 1889.
Someone recently mentioned to me this is a “coming in” story and I really loved that. Because it is. For me, it's about becoming comfortable with yourself and your desires, not trying to fit into someone else's box.
Along those same lines, would you say that sexual identity is – or can be – something set or determined? In other words, can it be a label (gay, straight, bi) that actually defines who a person is?
I think it can be set, sure. However, for me, any time I've tried to label myself, I find in the morning I might have written down the wrong thing on the name tag… I'm sure for many it's different. The problem is when you feel pressured to choose between the extremes, and those feel like your only options. And then you make a choice, but the next day it's no longer valid, and you can feel like a liar. I don't think any one label is enough to define who a person is.
Emilia Richeson, Rachel Castillo
I recall reading at one point that Maddy “chooses” to become a lesbian. Would you say that in the real world it's possible for a person's sexual “preference” (male or female or both) to be a choice? (Note: Unless I missed something, there's no indication in the film that Maddy's relationship with another woman was actually a “choice.”)
For Maddy do you mean in the beginning of the film or the end? If you're bi or open to sexual exploration, then sure. You can't force sexual attraction. You can only be true to yourself. You can “choose” to be straight, and end up leaving your husband/wife for someone of same-sex years later.
I just know growing up, it was like there was never a middle ground. Being gay can be/might have been okay in some cities I've lived, but bisexuality or any open-sexuality classification was not an option, or at least not one anyone believed would last. Why wasn't that talked about in sex-ed?
I think in some cases yes, and in others no. For some, I think if you're open to it, it's possible. You can and should be able to choose who you'd like to take home. The real problem in all of this, is whether or not they'd be at all interested in going home with you.
And finally, any upcoming directorial projects?
Yes, thanks… I'm excited about shooting a father-son film I've written hopefully later this year.