By Jeff Walsh
I recently got the chance to sit down with actors Tanner Cohen (Timothy) and Zelda Williams (Frankie) and director Tom Gustafson from the new gay youth indie Shakespeare musical, Were The World Mine. The three were in San Francisco promoting the film in advance of its release in the San Francisco Bay Area and New York City this week (see my review here).
We had a pretty fun discussion that touched on everything from the origin of the film, Cohen's reticence to label himself, trying to sing outdoors without inhaling insects, and we finished up talking about Zelda's famous dad, Robin Williams.
Here's what we said:
I finally saw the movie. I missed it when it was here for Frameline (the San Francisco gay and lesbian film festival). I remember seeing the trailer a week later and was like, "Oh my God? how did I miss this?! I'm a total theater/musical nerd. This is exactly what I should have been seeing…" How did that screening go?
Director Tom Gustafson: Frameline was pretty amazing. It was sold out. We got a very nice standing ovation afterwards.
How does a movie like this come about? I mean, you look at this, and with all of the elements, it's your first movie, and you have to balance the musical, the gay teen, the Shakespeare… it seems like a lot of points of potential failure and you seemed to navigate around each of them really well. But did that worry you at all going into it?
Gustafson: Yeah, but I surrounded myself by people that were all there to move the film forward. I say this a lot, but it wasn't just my first film. It was the production designer's first feature. It was the cinematographer's. A lot of the cast… I guess almost everybody above the line in the crew, it was their first feature, and I truly believe that became the charm of the piece. They weren't there for money. They were there to really kind of get it out there and put everything into it.
And when I think of an independent movie, I think a short, tight schedules. But with a musical, you have to do so much work in advance with all the recording. For the actors, what is it like to have such a short period of time to determine what you're going to do later when recording things weeks in advance…
Zelda Williams: It was pretty close by, though…
Gustafson: It was a good three years the making, with the writing and music aspect. We did the short film in 2003. We did staged readings of the script in New York at the New York Musical Theater Festival and with NewFest in 2006. So at that point, we had all the musical numbers written, and then we started actually creating the musical numbers probably four months before shooting… but we didn't get the cast until the week before. It was one day of rehearsal?
Williams: It was…
Gustafson: And then they were in the recording studio. But the good thing about film is that … I think we went back and did a couple of pick up things…
Tanner Cohen: Nothing for the music… just ADR stuff.
Williams: It was great, though. We all got to hang out with each other, too. Even though we were doing the recording stuff right before… (to Tanner) I think I only met you when we were doing the recording that day, right?
Cohen: Yeah, the first day.
Williams: The first day we all met each other was at this, like, really fun attic/recording studio that was so hilariously amazingly like a whimsical ghetto in a way (laughs). And we all got to meet each other there. Our first experiences together were some of the most … the ones where you got the opportunity to be the most shy and self-conscious, at least for me. I'm not used to singing in front of people that I don't know. Maybe back when I was in grade school and I did chorus? Then, yeah, but I still got night terrors from that. So just meeting your cast and be all, 'I'm gonna go sing now!' That was great. We got to be really close to each other just from that, and then from then on, because of the tight schedule, you really got to have a relationship with them.
Especially the lyrics in some of these songs, they don't just roll off the tongue…
Williams: Oh, yes… singing in Shakespearean iambic pentameter? Difficult.
I cheated because I watched it on DVD, so I would watch a song and then back it up and have "A Midsummer Night's Dream" on my laptop, and search on the lyrics. It was kind of amazing how it jumps all over.
Williams: It's brilliant like that.
And it flows well, it doesn't seem like you pulled these jigsaw pieces from all over the place.
Gustafson: That was all Cory (James Krueckeberg). He went through the whole script and picked out lines that really jump out and then constructed the songs to tell our own story and how to make that into the story that we wanted to tell.
For our audience, I have to imagine it's going to be well received, if only for the wish fulfillment aspect of being able to turn your straight peers gay. It brought up a lot of moral questions for me, because (to Tanner) you're so conflicted and all 'No, I can't. You're straight.' And I'm thinking, 'He doesn't know' and 'Will he remember this afterward?' But I think that says more about me than the movie.
Gustafson: (laughs) Yeah, I think so.
What was your first thought when you read the script?
Cohen: You know, I have a hard time remember what my first thought was… because it was a year and a half ago… and I was wasted.
Gustafson: You still are…
Cohen: Yeah, I'm also wasted right now. (He's kidding… I think). I'm definitely one to be engaged with anything that identifies the edge of whatever artistic genre it's playing with, and attacks it. It definitely felt like this movie did that. I definitely familiarized myself with gay cinema, much more extensively since I did the film. But I just knew that it was a totally fresh voice and I just love the idea of subverting teen film. We grew up watching that stuff, and trying to find ourself within that realm of teen film and figuring out which characters relate to me, and which guy am I in this narrative of what high school looks like? And this film was, I think, dead on for an experience that most people have never really been able to watch on screen. I had my speculations, but I was really into it, and I hoped that it would be seen and start to politicize some of the stuff that hadn't been before.
And how much of this is verbatim from the short film, Faeries?
Gustafson: The short is basically the first 20 minutes of the film. The character of Timothy is very different in the short, I think. But the short is kind of like a one joke film: he finds this potion and turns everyone gay and that's the end. So when we decided to expand it, we really wanted to be smarter than just that, so hopefully we are.
And what is the origin? How do you get from Shakespeare and gay teen stories to the end result?
Gustafson: The short was really kind of my own experience growing up in a little town, being gay…
Williams: And they're all still gay there… (laughs)
Gustafson: Yeah, I turned my town gay. So, that was the start of the short. And then, when the short was done, I really thought that it was over. I thought it was time to move on. But as we started traveling to all the festivals, there were so many people that came up to us who said they really wanted to see more. It was at that time that Logo, and here!, and all these gay distribution options were popping up, so we started playing with the idea of 'What if we made this a TV series?' or 'What could be the next incarnation of Faeries?' And the feature was the thing that made the most sense.