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Director Stephen Cone on the gay Christian film 'The Wise Kids'
by Steven Chaitman
2011-11-02

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Filmmaker Stephen Cone will kick off the 30th Reeling Lesbian and Gay International Film Festival this weekend with his film The Wise Kids. Filmed in Charleston, S.C. with a cast largely from Chicago, The Wise Kids will be the first film directed by a Chicago-based filmmaker to open the festival when it screens at the Music Box Thursday, Nov. 3, at 7:30 p.m.

This will be Cone's first experience with Reeling, but he is not new to the Chicago scene. The 31-year-old has been living in Chicago since 2004. Early on he did extensive work writing and directing plays for the side project theatre company. He has since transitioned primarily to film, though he made his Chicago stage-acting debut last summer in About Face Theatre's world premiere of Phillip Dawkins' The Homosexuals.

The Wise Kids, Cone's second feature film, focuses on three high school seniors in a conservative Christian community in Charleston who are wrestling with issues of faith and sexuality as they prepare to embark on their own lives and make their own choices. The film has won eight festival awards thus far, including the Grand Jury Prize for Best U.S. Dramatic Feature and Outstanding Screenwriting at this year's Outfest.

Windy City Times: This might be an unfair question, but would you describe your film to someone as a Christian gay & lesbian film or a gay & lesbian Christian film?

Stephen Cone: I would probably just call it a coming-of-age drama. I think Variety called it a gay Christian film. That's kind of provocative and interesting, but it's not something that I would ever ascribe a label to for any film really. But, to me, it's really about the kids. It's interesting too because when we won (at Outfest); what they said when they gave us the award was they called it "a coming-of-age and a coming-of-middle-age film."

Yeah, there's the three kids but it's really five kids, too, because you've got the 29/30-year-old characters Austin and Elizabeth, who may be still on this side of being able to make permanent changes, so that was interesting.

WCT: Was there a reason you made this film particularly more personal, in terms of actually filming in South Carolina?

SC: It interested me. I think it's the most important part of life—when you decide what you believe, as opposed to what was engrained in your family, and that seemed like an intriguing thing. And also, there's not a lot of rich three-dimensional portraits of conservative Christians so I wanted to make something human about Christians and to make a movie primarily about human beings and not primarily about religious people.

It's semi-autobiographical for sure, but only in the sense that maybe half of it I experienced directly and the other half is observation, wondering why that man is not married, you know, curiosity about people's private lives. I never had an encounter with a youth minister, but I'm familiar with those tensions.

WCT: There's a moment with your character, Austin, toward the end of the film when he just can't get out what he needs to say and it just kills you, the frustration of waiting. Have you gotten that kind of a reaction at all?

SC: As for the pace of the film, the tone of the film, the feel of the film, I've mostly heard about it in a relatively positive way. The only criticism that's been voiced to me—in a Q&A, actually, and I knew this would be a thing—is the fact that Tim's (the openly gay teenage character) life is so easy. But I made a decision not to do a portrait of bullying, to actually come at it from the angle of social progress.

There's a lot of really terrible bullying and torment in gay adolescence. On the other hand, more kids are out than ever; it's more acceptable than ever and that's just the angle I decided to take. But I know there are some older men wondering about why it seemed so rosy for him, even though he does get some small but sharp opposition from his brother.

There are three gay men in the movie: there's the teenage boy, the thirtysomething minister and there's this older, lonely man, and that was sort of a partially conscious attempt there to talk about how we've progressed. They come from three different points in social history.

WCT: In screening the film for LGBT audiences, compared to Southern audiences, what have been the differences in the reactions?

SC: There are potentially mixed blessings being branded a "gay film." Somewhere along the way you realize the audience you made (the film) for doesn't go to gay film festivals, and so gay audiences are very moved by it and need to see it and will continue to see it, but on the other hand there's a group of sort of average heterosexual, Southern Christian people who have an infinite amount to respond to in this movie and engage with, so I've had to actively seek out two different paths (for screening the film).

WCT: You are working on a new film, correct?

SC: I'd like to shoot a movie in February called Black Box that is set in the world of college theatre, a group of undergrads putting on an adaptation of an '80s horror novel, so it will be spirits and sexuality. … I'm kind of thinking of The Breakfast Club in terms of a group of young people in an enclosed space. We'll cast it out of Chicago and shoot in Chicago.

For more on The Wise Kids, visit Facebook or www.reelingfilmfestival.org .


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