Out writer-director Abe Sylvia spent close to seven and a half years getting his debut feature, Dirty Girl, made and into theatresat least some theatres. After a hot bidding war at the 2010 Toronto Film Festival where the film premiered and theatrical runs last fall in New York and Los Angeles, Weinstein, the movie's distributor pulled Chicago and other cities from its release schedule. Now, with the film arriving on DVD, movie fans in the Windy City will finally have a chance to check out Sylvia's energetic little road comedy.
The movie centers on a mismatched duo: Juno Temple as Danielle ( the title character ) , a cynical high school tramp shielding a heart of gold and Jeremy Dozier ( in his movie debut ) as Clarke, the gay, awkward and shy, overweight object of high school bullying. Outside of school, both Danielle and Clarke have their proverbial crosses to bear, tooa trampy mother ( Milla Jovovich ) mixed up with a conservative Mormon boyfriend ( William H. Macy ) for Danielle and a homophobic father ( Dwight Yoakam ) and mother in denial ( Mary Steenburgen ) for Clarke. When things reach an emotional breaking point the mismatched teens hit the road in search of Danielle's father ( Tim McGraw ) . Along the way they bond and, in one memorable sequence, Clarke loses his virginity to a hot male stripper ( played with sensual finesse by Nicholas D'Agosto ) .
Dirty Girl is set in 1987 in Oklahoma and has an autobiographical basis ( although the openly queer Sylvia had supportive parents ) . The movie is awash with bright, hot colors and the New Wave music that Sylvia, who started as a Broadway dancer before deciding instead on a career in film, remembered listening to as he was growing up during that period. Singer/songwriter Melissa Manchester, whose songs play a big part in the movie, also wrote ( in collaboration with Steenburgen ) a new ballad for the film that is being touted as a possible Oscar contender. The young filmmaker enthusiastically chatted about his movie and upcoming projects in an exclusive interview with Windy City Times.
Windy City Times: You had a terrific producer in Christine Vachon for your first movie.
Abe Sylvia: Oh yes, I did but, you know, no movie gets made easily and Christine actually has a favorite quote that she repeats from time to time. When people say, "I don't know how movies get made," Christine answers, "Producers are how" [ laughs ] and, luckily, I had wonderful producers to help make this happen. Everyone really believed in the script. We had a great team, all onboard making the movie we wanted to make.
WCT: You also had a great cast, starting with your lead, Juno Temple.
AS: Yes, absolutely. When I was going around to festivals people in the audience would say, "Where did you find that girl? She's amazing," and I would say, "That's the little red-headed girl from Atonement." There would be an audible gasp because she so got the character of Danielle and, in real life, she was a British boarding school chick but she's a real actress and is really able to transform herself. People don't realize how many times they've seen her in something because she's such a chameleon.
WCT: I understand you went through hundreds of auditions in L.A. to find the actor to play Clarke but you ended up finding him somewhere else.
AS: That's right. We just couldn't find him. We knew this kid had to feel incredibly real and my casting director finally said, "Let's open this up nationwide" and about a week later we got this tape from Jeremy [ Dozier ] ; he was a theater student at the University of Texas and he sent this tape that was utterly charming. He shot it in his dorm room after finals; he'd hung a bedsheet up on his wall and I think he lit it himself with a lamp and we flew him to L.A. He was terrific.
WCT: What sequence in the shoot stands out when you look back?
AS: The first day really stands out. When I pulled up that first day and all the trailers were there and that was so thrilling to meand to see all these people there to create something that I had started writing on my laptop at a Starbucks not that many years before. It was pretty amazing.
WCT: One of the film's highlights for queer audiences no doubt is going to be the scene where Danielle and Clarke pick up the hitchhiker who turns out to be a male stripper and gives Clarke a night he'll never forget. Can you talk about that scene?
AS: It's a pretty magical sequence and the sequence of the film I'm most proud of, in terms of pure cinema. Nicholas [ D'Agosto ] the actor who played the part is a really fearless, wonderful actor and had no qualms about playing Joelwho I don't think is gay. I think of him as sort of omnisexual. He's one of those guys who will flirt with anybody, you know?
WCT: I got thathe's like the character Colin Farrell played in A Home at the End of the World.
AS: That's a really good corollary, yeah. We rehearsed that scene within an inch of his life because getting all of those elements on camera was going to be tricky. ( Joel does a strip tease while dancing on the hood of the car at a deserted drive-in theater. ) That whole sequence is about how as a gay kid growing upthis has changed a bit nowyou fell in love with the movies but yet there were no images of yourself in the film.
There were no images to claim for yourself if you were gay; there were no images of the kinds of feelings you were having in the movie and so you would identify with the girl or whoevera bit of a transference would have to happen. I want gay kids to come along and say, "Yes, I deserve romance and there it is in Dirty Girl."
WCT: It's wonderful to hear young queer filmmakers like yourself determine that this next generation will have images to call their ownthat they won't have to reconfigure in their heads.
AS: The downside of this is that now sometimes I think gay audiences only want idealized images of themselves and they might not always be the most truthful depictions. It's hard because there are still so few films made with gay characters in the lead. And that means that every gay character on film bears the weight of being a role model or an image that we all have to look up to. It's unfair to the character. We don't put that kind of pressure on straight, white characters.
WCT: There's also a perception in general that gay movies are not as financially viable. I'm going to guess that you experienced some of that because you came out of Toronto with a hot distribution deal and then the film didn't get the greatest reviews in New York and L.A. and suddenly its distribution got scaled back a bit. Does that have to do with it being a "gay" movie or am I reading into that?
AS: I hope not; I don't think so. If our research showed us anything our movie scored very high and audiences loved it. I don't think it was a gay backlash so much as it was
WCT: I'm just wondering if the "gay movie" tag was part of it?
AS: I honestly don't think so. I've seen the movie with so many kinds of audiences and that has never been my experience. The movie aims to please and you get past the fact that I made a movie where the two lead characters are ostensibly in the Hollywood vernacular "unlikeable." There's no middle ground with this movie. The people who love it, love it and the people who hate, hate it.
WCT: So what's up next, Abe?
AS: I'm writing a pilot for HBO with Josh Brolin attached and I'm very excited about that. I can't really talk much about it but one of the lead characters is transgender.
WCT: Love that.
AS: I'm working with Claudia Shear on a film adaptation of her play, Dirty Blonde, and I literally finished a draft of that this week. I'm very excited about thatit's about Mae West and the people who worship her. [ Laughs ] I like making movies about iconoclastic women. My fascination with Danielle is not so far off from women who aren't afraid to be themselves.
WCT: Well, we look forward to more of those women in your movies.
AS: Thank you.
See www.abesylvia.com .