First-time Filmmaker Joey Kuhn’s “Those People” Chats Up His Luscious Film and His First Frameline

Obsession, scandal, and shifting loyalties put pressure on a lifelong friendship and a new relationship in Joey Kuhn’s erotic, arresting directorial debut. Budding artist Charlie (Jonathan Gordon) is so hung up on handsome, vain BFF Sebastian (Jason Ralph) that when asked to paint a self-portrait, he can only deliver yet another painting of his friend. In the wake of a scandal that envelops Sebastian after his Bernie Madoff-like father goes to jail, Charlie moves into Sebastian’s luxurious Manhattan apartment, the perfect setup for getting closer to the object of his affection. But Sebastian is like a mirage, always just out of reach; so when Charlie meets Tim (Haaz Sleiman)—a Lebanese concert pianist, older settled in contrast to Sebastian’s chaos—Charlie is intrigued as well as attracted. Sebastian’s ensuing jealousy presents Charlie with a life-altering question: Should he maintain the status quo in the hopes that his feelings will someday be reciprocated, or should he pursue something real with his hot new man? “Those People” closely observes the social milieu in which the story is set, Charlie and Sebastian’s tight group of friends, and the changing nature of a friendship once a third party appears on the scene. Its privileged characters evoke Whit Stillman’s films, but Kuhn is a more tactile, visceral director. “Those People’s” great strengths are in its committed performances, the sultry chemistry between the three leads, and the passion at the heart of a decidedly uneven romantic triangle.

“Those People” will be shown at Frameline39 San Francisco International LGBTQ Film Festival Friday, June 19 at 9:30 p.m. at the Castro Theatre. Director Joey Kuhn, Actors Britt Lower, Haaz Sleiman, Jonathan Gordon, Producer Kimberly Parker are expected to attend.

In this exclusive interview, caught up with Director Joey Kuhn.

What was the inspiration for the film’s plot?

I created the story and the characters about four years ago with a very talented friend of mine, Grainne Belluomo. We knew we wanted to tell a coming of age story for a group of friends who should have come of age five years ago. Charlie was our anchor and loosely based on me. In college, I accidentally fell in love with my gay best friend and kept it secret from him for years, afraid of ruining the friendship (and of rejection). So I based Charlie and Sebastian’s friendship on the longstanding unrequited love I had for my friend. Sebastian’s ostentatious voice is based on him, but his situation came from another source. I was drawn to the story of Mark Madoff, Bernie Madoff’s son who killed himself two years after his father went to prison – a man whose life was ruined for something he presumably did not do. I knew I didn’t want to make Sebastian the main character though. Instead, I wanted to explore that character through the eyes of someone who loved him – someone who was blinded by his love. It was also important to me to make a movie with authentic representations of gay men my age, which I rarely see onscreen. I didn’t want to tell another coming out story.

Talk about writing a screenplay that works on every level.

Like most screenwriters, I do a lot of work before I start writing actual scenes. I do writing exercises to get in the head of the characters, and then I put scene and image ideas on index cards. I’m a huge fan of structure and outlining. I’ll map out the script first, identifying my inciting incident, midpoint, traditional act breaks, and other major plotpoints. Then I’ll usually start writing dialogue sketches or first drafts of scenes – all handwritten in notebooks. I think better hand to paper. Once I feel like I have a good scene, I’ll put it into Final Draft.

Rewriting is where the real fun begins. I love rewriting because that’s when the script gets richer. I start bringing out themes, planting seeds that will pay off later, and cutting dialogue wherever possible. Writing a first draft is like pulling teeth sometimes, but I find rewriting to be such a joy. This one took a lot of rewrites because it was so personal. When I started the script, I was still in love with my friend, and by the end of process, I was over him. So I gained a greater perspective on Charlie, as I got further away from him emotionally.

As both writer and director of “Those People” do you see complete images as you’re writing and how do those images change once you’re on the set?

I definitely think of images before and during the writing process. I love visuals, and sometimes a scene will come out of an image I have in my head. Because I’m a director and have also done a lot of editing, I’ll think of coverage/shots while I’m writing the scene. I try to convey the type of shot it is through the stage directions without explicitly saying “Wide shot” or “ECU.” In terms of how these things change, my directing teacher at NYU used to say prepare as much as possible and then stay open. You do as much planning as you can, in terms of shotlisting, choosing locations, working with the production designer, etc, but you have to be able to let some of those things go when you get on set. For instance, the climactic roof scene at the end of the film was never intended to take place during a blizzard. Instead of pushing the shoot, we decided to film in the snow and let it enhance the emotion of the scene. I think the scene is even more beautiful because of it. It’s also impossible to nail down shots until you block the scene with the actors, on the day, in the actual location. We didn’t have any rehearsal time in advance of the shoot, so we discovered a lot on set.

How many folks do you show your screenplay to during the writing and re-writing process and how open are you to both criticism and suggestions?

One of the best things I learned in film school was that you can’t (and shouldn’t) listen to everybody. Luckily, I have a great group of filmmaker friends and teachers from grad school whose opinions I trust. There are about 4 or 5 people to whom I regularly sent drafts. I also did 4 small readings of the script for 10-20 people along the way after major rewrites. I am very open to criticism and welcome it wholeheartedly, but it is always important to remember what you, the screenwriter, is trying to do. Everyone has an opinion on what the movie should be, especially with other filmmakers.

It seems you share much in common with the lead character Charlie.  How are you alike and how are you different?

Charlie’s character and voice are similar to me, 5 years ago. One of the best pieces of advice I ever got was from my writing teacher, Mick Casale. He said if your main character is based on you, the screenwriter (which happens often in first features), you have to take away something you know as the writer, so the character can learn that piece of information by the end. Charlie has to learn who he is, independently of other people, and how to put himself first sometimes. I think I’m more extroverted than Charlie, but equally bad at hitting on guys in bars. One major difference between me and Charlie is that while Charlie has no relationship with his absent father, I am lucky enough to have a father who is loving and supportive. Nonetheless, I have always been drawn to stories of fathers and sons in film, and I loved exploring that dynamic through each of the three main gay characters (Charlie, Sebastian, and Tim).

The main characters are enriched by compelling backstories and many interesting layers that are revealed as the story progresses.  Would you consider this a character-driven film and is that how you prefer to tell your stories?

I guess I would consider this a character-driven film, but shouldn’t all good films be character-driven? I can’t imagine writing a film without creating layered, interesting characters first, or at least in the rewriting process. Additionally, I come up with backstories for all my characters. I think each character should be as fleshed out in your head as the main character. I also base most of my characters on people I know, so I can write with a distinct voice in my head.

Your lead actors are all very talented and bring amazing depth to the film.  Talk about how you managed to find and cast such wonderful actors.

We were lucky enough to have the incredible Susan Shopmaker as our casting director. She prescreened actors, and then brought in the best to audition for me. I think we did two months of auditions. She has the most incredible eye for talent, and I trust her taste. We did callbacks, and then chemistry reads with different Charlie’s, Sebastian’s, and Tim’s. For Charlie and Sebastian, it came down to two very talented, but very different pairs. When Jon (“Charlie”) and Jason (“Sebastian”) got in the room together for the first time, it was pure magic. They read two scenes together – the scene where Charlie shows Sebastian the portrait he’s painted of him, and the Halloween confrontation scene. They seemed like they had known each other for years. I remember I giddily sent the tape to my producer, Kim Parker, and she watched it in the production office with our line producer, Melissa, and our UPM, Stephanie. They freaked out over the tape of Jon and Jason. I knew if three grown-ass women loved watching these actors explore this gay friendship, they were the right choice. And we cast Haaz (“Tim”) just three days before filming! I cast the amazing Britt Lower (“Ursula”) off an audition tape she sent in from LA! Chris Conroy (“Wyatt”) was one of the first people to audition for the movie. And I knew Meghann Fahy was the perfect “London” after she read with Jonathan. I just wanted to hug them both, they were so damn cute.

Chemistry is always of great concern when a relationship is explored on film.  What’s your secret as a director for recognizing that certain special spark between actors and then capturing it on film?

Well, I made sure I saw it in the chemistry reads first. On set, I just tried to create an environment where the actors feel safe, that allowed them to play. The whole ensemble loved hanging out between scenes anyway. I was lucky enough to cast not just amazing actors, but amazing people and collaborators.

“Those People” is populated by many familiar faces.  What was it like working with such up-and-comers?

It was amazing. We didn’t have any divas or big egos on set, so everyone was on the same page. I was never happier than when I was on set directing my actors. I was incredibly sad when the shoot was over. I wish I could work with them all on every project moving forward. Troop THOSE PEOPLE!

Your film blends humor, romance, and drama in a most effective manner.  How did you manage to seamlessly move from one to the other?

Thank you! My favorite movies blend tones in that manner, so it’s what I’m drawn to naturally. I think most life situations move from one to another at the drop of a hat, so I think it’s impossible not to write scenes like that. I wanted to inject humor into some of the more dramatic scenes to keep it from going too far over into melodrama. The actors always brought authenticity to scenes, whether they were dramatic or comedic, so the scenes feel like they belong in the same movie. My editor, Sara Shaw, and I also spent a lot of time in the editing room making sure the tone never veered off track. Sometimes I would love a performance moment, and Sara would be like “NOPE! Too theatrical,” or “Nope, he looks like he’s trying to be funny.” So thank god for Sara’s extra high barometer for truth.

How did you go about getting the production funded?

My producers, Kim and Sarah, and I spent seven or eight months raising funds and asking people for money. There were a lot of panic attacks on the floor.

Tell us about the talented crew that helped you bring your film to life.  Are they a combination of seasoned professionals, longtime colleagues, and bright young things?

My crew was a mix of all of the above. Mitchell Travers, has been assisting on big films in wardrobe, but this was his first feature as the lead costume designer – and he knocked it out of the park! On the other hand, my script supervisor, Veronica Lupu, is an industry veteran. But the thing I’m most proud of is that my closest collaborators – lead producer (Kimberly Parker), cinematographer (Leonardo D’Antoni), and editor (Sara Shaw), are all classmates of mine from NYU Tisch Grad Film. It’s nice for us all to be going through this together. Kim, Leo, and I used to joke that if we couldn’t raise all the money, we would just make the movie with the three of us and a group of actors. Coming from NYU, that’s what we were used to doing anyway, having made many directing exercises together.

Will this be your first time presenting a film at Frameline?  Tell us what being part of the famed festival means to you as an out filmmaker?

Yes, this will be my first time at Frameline! I have been looking forward to screening at the festival since I made the film. And to be screening at the Castro Theater, with such an incredible history, is sort of beyond comprehension. I’ve never been to San Francisco, and this seems like the best way to first experience the city. So many of my friends from the West Coast have told me “Oh my god, you’re screening at the Castro?! I saw MILK (the Gus Van Sant film) there!” I swear, if I’ve learned anything from the last few months, it’s that everyone saw MILK at the Castro.

You’ve shown your feature at other festivals.  What has been the reaction to the film and how do you react to both praise and criticism?

The reaction has been pretty fantastic! I’m overjoyed people are so enamored with the performances, because I love my actors and am so proud of them. People also like to tell me stories about their own “Sebastian,” and how much the film touched them. It’s amazing to sit in a theater and hear the audience laughing at the right parts and crying at the end. People have commented a lot on how much they love the look of the film. I set out to make a visually arresting film with a distinct look, and I’m glad audiences are recognizing Leo’s amazing cinematography. In terms of the criticism – In both the writing and editing of the film, the character of Sebastian was difficult for a lot of people. A big part of the process was playing with where to put that line of unlikeability, and playing with the audience’s feelings towards him. He was never meant to be purely good or purely bad, but he is the unknowing villain of the film in some ways. Anyway, I’ll never forget, my producer Sarah Bremner said to me “Joey, you’re never going to be able to please everyone. And if you try to do that, your movie will be bad. You just have to be okay with some people hating your movie.” It was incredibly freeing, and I always try to remember that.

What modes of distribution are you considering for “Those People?”

We don’t have distribution yet, so cross your fingers! In an ideal world, we’d get some sort of theatrical distribution first, even if it’s only in two cities. But Kim and I just want people to see it, whether it be on Netflix, iTunes, or VOD.

Talk a bit about your education and when you decided you wanted to become a filmmaker.

I’ve known I wanted to be a filmmaker since I was thirteen or so. I loved acting in elementary school, but once I hit puberty, I was like “Oh god, I can’t be in front of people.” So I turned my focus to behind the scenes. I’ve been making short films ever since. I actually learned how to shoot on film and edit on a Steenbeck, cutting and splicing the film together with my hands. I did some filmmaking during undergrad at Brown as well, all on 16mm film. My teacher there, Leslie Thornton, is a great experimental filmmaker, so it allowed us to really play and explore. It was usually me with a camera, with my friends as the actors. But it wasn’t until graduate film school at NYU Tisch, where I really learned how to write and structure a script and how to direct actors. The amazing thing about the grad film program at Tisch is that you learn how to do all crew positions. You’re the DP on one shoot, and then you’re the sound person on another, and then you’re an Assistant Director on the next. So we really come out of the program understanding all aspects of the filmmaking process. We also had to take acting classes, so you understand what type of direction resonates. At NYU Tisch, I was lucky to have been part of a phenomenally collaborative, inspiring, and supportive class. Out of the 34 people in my class, I think 12 of us have made features. It’s truly because we all collaborate and push each other.

Who are your favorite filmmakers and how have they influenced your work?

My all-time favorite movie is Bob Fosse’s “Cabaret.” Leo and I actually drew a lot of visual inspiration from that film for “Those People,” namely the color palette and the use of zooms. We shot most of “Those People” on a huge zoom lens from the 1970s to give it a more classic aesthetic. My second favorite movie is Anthony Minghella’s “The Talented Mr. Ripley.” Not only is it a visual feast – The locations! The clothes! – but I love that the protagonist is a killer, and the audience is supposed to identify emotionally with him. That movie is probably the one that made me want to be a filmmaker. It also made me fall in love with Italy, jazz music, and Jude Law.

But my favorite filmmaker is Woody Allen. His films have such a remarkable tone, nimbly jumping from comedy to drama within scenes. And no one writes dialogue like Woody Allen. My favorite films by him are “Manhattan,” “Interiors,” and “Hannah and Her Sisters.” I’m incredibly influenced by his writing and the way he covers his scenes, often in long developing takes. Often when I’m writing a scene and it’s getting too cheesy or boring or dramatic, I’ll think “how would Woody Allen write this?”

Tell us about your previous films.

This is my first feature! The first major short film I made at NYU, “Thinly Veiled,” was also based on my unrequited love for my gay best friend from college. I made the short film my second year in grad school, when I was still head over heels in love with him. That summer after I completed the film, I flew to India (where he lives), and on the last night of my stay there, I was like “Surprise! I’m in love with you, and I made this short film based on us.” That was an interesting night, to say the least. Poor guy – I was like the extreme version of the emo guy in high school who writes a song on his guitar for his crush. Anyway, through the making of “Those People,” I can confidently say I’ve finally moved on from him.

What advice would you offer filmmakers out there who are plugging away to make their film, tell their story?

I would say to make films that you want to see, not what you think you should be making. Tell the stories you want to tell, not the one you think is going to get you into a festival. It’s also important to find your people. I feel lucky to have found great friends whose opinions I trust, and who are going through the same thing. As I said, my classmates all support and push each other. You can find that with or without film school.

What’s next for you?

I’m working on a new feature script right now that’s a family drama in 1970s Miami Beach, as well as a TV miniseries script about a group of gay friends in NYC over several decades. But eventually, I want to do a movie musical. Sondheim’s “Company” would be the dream.

Joey, congratulations once again and I wish you the very best for ”Those People” and look forward to your next film.

Thank you so much for the thoughtful questions and kind words, Gary! Happy Pride!