'A Midsummer Night's Dream' goes gay: Filmmaker Tom Gustafson discusses Shakespeare-inspired musical romantic comedy-drama 'Were the World Mine'
Directed by Tom Gustafson, and co-written by Gustafson and his partner Cory James Krueckeberg – using as inspiration both Gustafson's 2003 short Fairies and William Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream – the musical romantic comedy-drama Were the World Mine poses a couple of highly philosophical questions: What would it be like if a) you could magically make someone fall in love with you? b) just about everyone in your reactionary small town suddenly went gay?
The pleasantly whimsical Were the World Mine chronicles the difficult life of a small-town adolescent, Timothy (Tanner Cohen), who happens not only to be ostracized and bullied for being gay but also – inevitably – to be in love with the captain of his school's rugby team, Jonathon (Nathaniel David Becker).
Initially, Timothy's sole means of escape from his drab existence are his musical fantasies featuring bright lights and singing & dancing school athletes. But all that changes when an unusual English teacher (cleverly played by Wendy Robie of Twin Peaks) decides to stage a production of A Midsummer Night's Dream.
Cast as the mischief-making Puck, Timothy ends up playing the role offstage as well, using a liquid-spraying purple pansy (!) to spread (gay) love among the people around him – including, of course, Jonathon. But would that be the appropriate way for Timothy to experience true love?
'Were the World Mine' cast
Besides Tanner Cohen, Nathaniel David Becker, and Wendy Robie, the Were the World Mine cast includes the following:
- Mamma Mia! Broadway actress Judy McLane, who delivers a flawless performance as Timothy's high-strung mother.
- All My Children actress Jill Larson, humorously over the top as a stiff cosmetics entrepreneur who, following the purple pansy treatment, is turned into a ravenously lovestruck lesbian.
- Christian Stolte, as the obnoxious macho rugby team coach who falls desperately in love with (the very much puzzled) school principal David Darlow.
Among the other cast members are:
Zelda Williams (Robin Williams' daughter). Ricky Goldman. Brad Bukauskas. Parker Croft. Reid Dawson. Colleen Skemp.
Alexander Aguilar. Yoni Solomon. Waymon Arnette. Zach Gray. Michael Hargrove. Chris Blim.
Outfest Jury Prize winner
Director Tom Gustafson has kindly agreed to answer a few questions about his feature film debut, which has won about a dozen awards at various gay film festivals, including the Jury Prize at Los Angeles' 2008 Outfest and the Audience Award for Best Narrative Feature at the Turin International Gay & Lesbian Film Festival.
Were the World Mine has also performed well at screenings in San Francisco, Berkeley, and New York City. It'll open in Chicago, Washington, and Los Angeles (Sunset 5 in West Hollywood) on Dec. 12. (Full screening schedule.)
Now, considering one of Gustafson's answers to my questions, film agents, festival heads, and distributors – much like some of the small-town characters in Were the World Mine – apparently need to get their faces sprayed with a large quantity of some purple flower's mind-opening liquid.
Q&A with 'Were the World Mine' filmmaker Tom Gustafson
- Were the World Mine is an “expansion” of your 2003 short Fairies. How did you come up with the idea for Fairies?
I loved the idea of a teenager in his basement working away at a potion that would make people gay, probably because I always wished I had one.
That idea seemed too silly to stand on its own, so my partner ([Cory Krueckeberg,] co-writer of Were the World Mine) suggested I ground it in something. We started thinking of literature that you are forced to read in school, and Midsummer seemed like a perfect match.
- I haven't watched Fairies. Besides being shorter, how different is it from Were the World Mine?
The short is really a one-joke film – Timothy turns everyone gay – The End. When we decided to expand Fairies, we really wanted to use Midsummer – the story, the characters – as the real inspiration to all the expansions. So Were the World Mine really is much more of a retelling of Midsummer than Fairies.
- Except for Wendy Robie, who has the same role (but different make-up) in Fairies, my understanding is that the actors in Were the World Mine have no connection to the short film.
Why was only Robie kept on? And how did you go about casting the main roles in Were the World Mine? Did Tanner Cohen and Nathaniel David Becker do their own singing?
Wendy really was instrumental in creating the role of Ms. Tebbit. She helped inspire the character and the power of the Ms. T character. I couldn't imagine anyone else in the role. We almost had to replace her due to scheduling problems, but luckily we didn't.
We worked with Judy McLane (Donna) & Jill Larson (Nora) in some staged readings of the screenplay during our search for financing and we were thrilled to keep them on board. I met Zelda Williams ([the character] Frankie & daughter of Robin) about 2 years before we shot; she was the perfect Frankie.
For the other lead roles, we did casting calls in NY, LA and Chicago. We found Tanner & Nate in NYC. And yes – like the rest of the cast – they did their own singing!
Systematic anti-gay bias?
- The press notes remark on an apparent – or rather, quite obvious – anti-gay bias when it came to talent agents and agencies, pulling out their clients once they found out what Were the World Mine was all about. How did you manage to work around that type of project “blacklisting”?
For the young roles, we had to do a lot of the legwork ourselves. We decided to not just rely on agent submissions, but go to high schools, colleges, etc. to find real teenagers. Oh, Hollywood.
But, the “anti-gay” bias certainly didn't stop with casting the film. It followed us into the world of festivals and distribution as well. Every major non-LGBT festival turned us down – some even said our film was “too gay” – even though the industry and press kept asking us “Why aren't you in Sundance? Why aren't you in Tribeca? Why aren't you in…???”
And the same with distributors – even though we had a hit film that was selling out dozens of festival screenings and racking up awards at almost every one. Not one acquisitions person from even the smaller mainstream distributors would come to a screening. The closet within the industry seriously makes me crazy and hopefully little by little we can destroy it.
'Were the World Mine' challenges
- What were the biggest challenges of directing a low-budget romantic-dramatic-comedy musical as your feature film debut?
Many people thought it was too ambitious for a first feature. Luckily, we found investors who not only believed in the story we wanted to tell, but gave me the freedom to make my own choices with casting, locations, crew, etc.
From a producing perspective the biggest challenges were money, time, and the constant fight to not let the “gay film” label limit the film's potential in all aspects of filmmaking – from financing to festivals to distribution to promotion.
- What were the biggest challenges while directing the musical numbers in Were the World Mine? The numbers, in fact, are quite outlandish. Did you and choreographer Todd Underwood attempt to go as out on a limb as possible, or…?
We wanted the musical numbers to first and foremost tell a story, not just be a complete escape from reality. They each needed to help move the story forward. Therefore, we first treated the musical moments as a part of the script and storyboarded the story elements we wanted to tell.
Then [cinematographer] Kira [Kelly], Cory, Todd, and I worked together on the best way to give them the most visual punch to add excitement and to take the story in those moments to a different level visually.
- Which musicals and/or romantic comedies/dramas served as inspiration for your thematic/aesthetic approach to Were the World Mine?
We pulled images from many films, artists, and designers that we used for inspiration, research & guidance, including some from some of my favorite films – Moulin Rouge!, Millions, Velvet Goldmine, Dead Poets Society, Wings of Desire, Dancer in the Dark – so I'm sure there are hints of those in Were the World Mine somewhere, even if completely unintentional.
Walking in The Other's shoes
- In Were the World Mine, characters undergo a radical change after walking in The Other's shoes. Do you believe something similar would happen in real life as well – or is that wishful thinking? A combination of both?
I'm a very optimistic person – sometimes to a fault. But I truly do believe that people's thinking can be changed by experiencing someone else's struggle or joy. A new perspective usually leads to some sort of knowledge gained. I've seen it happen in my own life with this film, actually.
I, like everyone, have a couple of family members who tend to be a little homophobic at times. Watching their reaction to this film has been very interesting. I can see them breaking down some of their own walls as they speak to others about the success and themes of the film. Hopefully, these little steps forward in changing individuals' opinions can add up to big steps forward.
- And finally, do you have any film projects in the works?
Cory Krueckeberg (co-writer/producer/production designer of Were the World Mine) just finished a script titled Mariachi Gringo – a very music-driven story about a guy who leaves his dead-end Midwestern life to become a Mariachi singer in Mexico. We hope to secure the financing and shoot that in late '09.
'A Midsummer Night's Dream' movie versions
In 1982, Woody Allen came up with A Midsummer Night's Sex Comedy, which was mostly a remake of Ingmar Bergman's 1955 classic Smiles of a Summer Night. Allen's comedy starred himself, Mia Farrow, José Ferrer, Julie Hagerty, Tony Roberts, and Mary Steenburgen.
'Were the World Mine' title origin
“My ear should catch your voice. My eye, your eye.
My tongue should catch your tongue's sweet melody.
Were the world mine, Demetrius being bated,
The rest I'd give to be to you translated.”
Nathaniel David Becker and Tanner Cohen Were the World Mine images: SPEAKProductions.
“Were the World Mine: Shakespeare-Inspired Gay Musical Is Q&A Topic with Filmmaker Tom Gustafson” last updated in March 2018.