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“Judas Kiss:” The New New-Queer Cinema

JT Tepnapa

BY VICTOR HOFF

 

In general, the history of queer cinema reads like a never-ending saga of homophobia: murderers (“Rope,” 1948), psychopaths (“The Fan,” 1980), both (“Cruising,” 1981), limp-wristed pansies (“Partners,” 1982), manic depressives (“The Children’s Hour,” 1961) and just about every other pathology one can evoke. Hollywood was unapologetic in its cruel depictions of the LGBT community and mainstream audiences gobbled it up.

But a funny thing happened. At the start of the 1990s, a brave, young new cadre of independent filmmakers were beginning to reshape the ‘queer cinema’ genre, turning it into a slew of exciting, original and wholly unconventional pictures: Bruce LaBruce’s “No Skin Off My Ass” (1991), Gregg Araki’s “The Living End” (1992), Gus Van Sant’s “My Own Private Idaho” (1991) and Jennie Livingston’s “Paris Is Burning” (1990) to name but a few.

As mainstream America continued making its slow, inexorable march toward acceptance of our community, queer cinema got busy refining its contours, giving us a series of well-meaning, but fairly conventional, pictures: “Breaking The Surface: The Greg Louganis Story” (1997), “Gia” (1998), “A Home At The End of The World” (2004) and “In And Out” (1997) to name but a few.

Carlos Pedraza

Fast Forward to 2012. It seems breathtaking, the scope of our advances in the last five years. Gone are the endless tales of coming out. Today’s films have a confidence and seriousness of purpose that reflect more than just the host of issues we still face. Rather, movies by and about the LGBT community are, today, reflections of how we see ourselves.

To this end, filmmakers JT Tepnapa and Carlos Pedraza have crafted a remarkable work of incredible beauty in their 2011 indie hit, “Judas Kiss.” The film, which stars Dante Cove’s Charlie David, Sean Lockhart (the actor formerly known as gay porn superstar Brent Corrigan), Timo DeCamps and newcomer Richard S. Harmon, centers around one of life’s perpetual existential dilemmas: if we could go back in time and change our lives, would we?

And, as if some sort of metaphorical icing on the proverbial cake, Tepnapa’s and Pedraza’s decision to hire a former star from the world of gay adult entertainment speaks volumes about how the lines between just about everything are blurring. I asked Sean about that, specifically, about what he feels he needs to do to overcome “that stigma.”

“I think there will always be doors locked shut to me in the mainstream world. I accept that,” he said. “I have to; I consciously understood it when I made the decision to make mainstream entertainment the next phase of my career. That being said, times are certainly changing right in front of our eyes.  The difference a few years can make will surprise you.”

The film, befitting such an existential premise, mixes the conventional with the quasi-surreal and fails to court tired stereotypes common among so many of it predecessors. LGBT Weekly had a chance to finally sit down with the film’s director and writer – the two have been on a world wide tour since the release of “Judas Kiss” last year – for a Q- and-A and revealed two men who are as playful and as intelligent as the film for which they are currently now known.

LGBT Weekly: So it’s official. You’ve got a bona fide hit on your hands. Congratulations. But for a film that took almost five years to bring to light, were there ever moments where you thought: Meh, I’d rather be fishing.

Carlos Pedraza: It was rarely “meh.” It was more often, “AARRGGHH!!” The transition from shorts to a feature for JT I know was a challenge.

JT Tepnapa: Never. I mean, for me this is a dream come true. I mean, yes, there were moments that I thought it would never get done. But I actually don’t know how to fish. So I have to make movies. The sheer amount of time it takes to launch a feature was never something I considered on day one.

CP: I actually do know how to fish. And making a movie is way better than having to clean a fish.

JT: I’m sticking with making movies.

CP: I remember one conversation where JT wanted to give up and make another short. And I told him, “You are never making another short again.”

JT: Well…yes. Not for me. But I do love shorts! So I’ll make them for other people.

CP: Whenever we felt like we were getting tripped up, our motto became, “Let’s just make the fucking movie!”

You utilized some very creative fundraising techniques including Kickstarter.com. How did you hear about them? Were you surprised that not only was your modest goal of $5000 met but was actually doubled?

CP: I learned everything I needed from observing how NPR does its fundraising. (I’m not kidding). Plus, I come from a nonprofit background, so I learned how to beg.

JT: It was a surprise. But it was also a lot hard work. For 30 days, we lived and breathed fundraising.

CP: With dignity.

JT: He begs really well.

LGBT Weekly: It’s a lost art.

CP: I actually consider JT our team’s official ‘ho.

JT: We’re bringing it back in style. We kid a lot about it. But we were well prepared (coughs sardonically).

CP: But the key thing for us – from the start ­– even before Kickstarter, was that we had to build and sustain a relationship with people who were interested in the movie and who became fans.

Speaking of relationships, talk a little bit about your relationship. Between the producing, writing and directing responsibilities, which you mostly shared, your roles seem to have intertwined quite a bit. Talk about your relationship prior to the start of the movie and how it evolved over the course of the picture. If J.T. cuts his finger, did you, Carlos, shout: “Ouch!”

CP: When JT cuts his finger I try to find some salt to rub in. For his own good, you know.

JT: Well I think it was a very evolving process. Our relationship during the writing stage was very different from production to post [production] and even marketing. It is constantly evolving. We argue a lot too…that helps.

CP: That’s really true. Our roles in developing the movie were different from pre-production, different again during production and yet again during post, and now as we are promoting the film. During each phase of the film’s life cycle, we really look to what our individual strengths and weaknesses are, how we fill in one another’s gaps, and build an effective team in order to get the job at hand done. Plus, we really believe in planning. Independent filmmakers either have money or they have time. We didn’t have a lot of money so we took our time. There’s a phrase used in organizational development that really became our byword: “You have to move slow to move fast.”

JT: I really hate that motto…it makes my brain hurt.

CP: And arguing is a fundamental part of our creative and business dynamic. If we both agree on something, it’s usually the right thing to do. But if we disagree on something, the conclusion we ultimately reach – after a lot of arguing – is also the right thing to do. I wouldn’t want a creative partner who agreed with me all the time. All that does is amplify my own flaws. And this way, with J.T., I can concentrate on HIS flaws. (And he’s got a LOT of them.)

JT: I actually find it amazing thinking about many of things we argued about. I see as the things that were big at the time don’t even matter now, or they never even made it into the final movie.

Your film was primarily shot in Seattle. What were the practical considerations of shooting there?

CP: Believe me, shooting in Seattle was one of the things we really argued about. First and foremost, though, we wanted the film to NOT look like every other indie film shot in L.A. The light, the palm trees, the incessant sunshine. All stuff we DIDN’T want in Judas Kiss.

JT: Definitely. I did want the brick and Ivy look, but I had major concerns about the film community in Seattle. Would it be able to support our film, or would we have to fly everyone in.

CP: We wanted the campus, especially, to look like it existed in some ways outside of usual reality, to have a timeless and classic feeling. I’m from Seattle, and I knew that it had the infrastructure to support our film. So JT came up for some location scouting and he was sold.

JT: It really took a location scout in Seattle for me to fall in love with the campus. It was stunning. I loved it.

CP: Plus, from a cost perspective, access to locations, film permits and such, are cheaper in a place like Seattle, where fewer features are shot, than they are in L.A. where everyone wants you to pay the same for stuff as if you were a studio picture.

Were you aware of the other “Judas Kiss,” the 1998 feature by writer/director Sebastian Gutierrez? You know, the one without the gay adult porn star in it?

CP: The fact it has no adult film star may really be one of its crucial flaws.

JT: Actually, yes. But I have watched the movie.

CP: Although from what I’ve read on the Internet, lots of boys love that Carla Gugino

JT: I have NEVER seen the movie.

CP: I haven’t seen the movie either. In fact, I’ve avoided it just to make sure no one could ever say we copied this or that from it – besides the title, of course. But I figured, it was made 13 years ago, and that’s long enough, and our story is different enough that there shouldn’t be any commercial confusion between the two. “Judas Kiss” is a title that JT wanted for the film very early on. So early that I wasn’t sure his original story idea supported it. But it’s an awesome title, so as we developed the screenplay it informed many of the directions we ended up taking with the characters and the plot.

JT: I think it was there in spirit, but Carlos really fleshed it out. I do love titles. It’s really hard for me to focus on a movie without a catchy title to excite me.

CP: It’s true. Sometimes the title is the first thing that springs into your head before the full story is there.

In a Q & A after the screening in San Diego, all of the actors understood, relished it seemed, the fact that they were not going to get rich off this project – I know, I know, they do it for the love – and that their trailers would not be stocked with unlimited quantities of Veuve Cliquot. Why do you think that is? What do you think they saw in this project that every critic appears to have seen as well?

CP: Heart.

JT: There’s a lot of passion in this project. It’s a story about second chances. I think a lot people want a second opportunity to things differently.

CP: We started realizing this when we started interviewing casting directors, who all volunteered to help us at rates way below their usual because they saw the story as an opportunity to showcase their work, and the work of actors they know, through characters with a combination of heart, humor, depth.

JT: It’s not the just the story and plot. It’s also in the actual making of this movie. We all get a chance to live out our dreams in actually making this movie.

CP: Also, a lot of people were intrigued by the notion, could we really pull this off? And, if so, they wanted to be a part of it. We certainly felt like we had good fortune smile on many times over the past five years.

Were there any parts you did have trouble casting?

CP: Hmmm. Not sure. Really, all our principal cast came to us in one way or another.

JT: We were very fortunate in the casting department. Most of our leads came to us.

Carlos Pedraza: JT and I worked closely together in casting the major parts, then we had a fantastic casting director, Patti Kalles in Seattle, who got us connected to great actors in Seattle’s theater, film and TV community.

CP: Seattle’s filmmaking community is small, but highly competent and very tight-knit. This paid off for us in several ways. For one thing, most of our crew have worked with one another repeatedly on many projects – artistic and commercial – in Seattle. So they had an already-established rhythm and pace for working with each other. So from day one, we had people who knew each other, knew how to communicate with each other. Consequently, we finished on time or early on every day but one. And that day we went overtime by only 35 minutes. That never happens in filmmaking

J.T., which one scene was the most difficult to shoot? And Carlos, for you, what scene gave you the most trouble, narratively speaking? How much of the movie landed on the cutting room floor?

CP: From a narrative standpoint, the part that gave us the most trouble – in writing, shooting and editing – was the cross-cutting of the confrontation between young Danny and his father with the clips of the short film, “Judas Kiss,” that are screening simultaneously at the film festival. Figuring out how to weave together these two separate but parallel narratives, when to cut away from one to the other, when to come back — it drove us crazy for quite a while.

JT: That’s a tough question really. There was the luncheon scene, that was not terrible hard to shoot, but gave me a lot of grief because we only had three extras, when we actually needed 25 extras. I had a much larger scope in mind for that scene. The rooftop scenes in Judas Kiss are actually more challenging scenes to shoot because they are at night with a dolly track and special effects that need to added after the fact. But I had the most fun with those scenes because they were challenging story-wise.

CP: Even in editing, after it was all shot, we revisited many of the same issues.

JT: Ah, yes. Editing that scene was a headache!

CP: We argued a LOT then, too. Our editor, Whitney Dunn, got to referee.

Your film has, what I have called, the cinematic version of Magic Realism. Explain how and why you went in that direction for the look of the picture?

CP: Well, the godfather of magical realism is Colombian author Gabriel Garcia Marquez. And I’m Colombian, so I think it’s kinda baked in…

JT: Actually the early drafts were really meant to be a straight up drama.

CP: Getting to the point of figuring out how to portray all this visually, though — that was a journey. Our own sort of magically real journey. Once we asked ourselves, what have we really got here in this story. How can it be more? How can it make a greater impact?

And then we started thinking more visually.

JT: That’s when the magical stuff started coming into the picture.

CP: And a lot of credit goes to our visual effects supervisor, Joël Bellucci, who dared us to dream big. And he has the talent to actually deliver big. We gave Joël the script and said: “Imagine.” And, boy, did he.

JT: Carlos and I love Sci-fi. And I think as we moved along we embraced that more and more. Thank goodness Joël was there to help us make real.

CP: We brought Joël to the set during principal photography so he could make sure we shot the film in a way that would give him a canvas to create his effects. A lot of people rely on CGI artists to “fix it in post.” We, instead, relied on him to “imagine in pre-production.” And “excute in production.” JT’s right. Our own sci-fi background was something I think we tried to deny in early drafts of the script.

JT Tepnapa: He was a blessing on set. It was actually much more freeing to know what we were going to get screened or swapped. It makes a lot my work easier on set.

CP: But as we moved forward, we realized that embracing our past offered us substantial creative opportunities in this production. Joël and our cinematographer, Dave Berry, both share this essential quality: they are true storytellers. They aren’t merely technically competent – which they are, thank God! – but they participated with JT and I on the story level.

Do you feel the subject – second chances – was simply a natural extension of where you are in lives now?

JT: Definitely for me! I mean I have always wondered ‘what if?’ It’s a theme I have pondered for a long time. And it really inspired “Judas Kiss.”

CP: Completely. Filmmaking is, like, my ninth career. A huge gamble. I went from a comfortable living in my own house to a vagabond existence these past 4 years, putting everything into making and promoting this film.But this has been one of the happiest periods of my life. Thematically, though, in both the movie and our own lives, one of the key ideas is that getting a second chance really relies on being able to confront the mistakes you’ve made in the past, to learn from them.

JT: I’m definitely a different person on this side of a feature film. I can see more opportunities and possibilities in my career.

Okay, time now for the stock question: What are some of your favorite gay-themed pictures? (Besides “Judas Kiss” that is.)

CP: “Latter Days,” for sure. In many ways, we tried to follow that movie as a model.

In what ways, Carlos?

CP: It’s a movie about gay people, not a gay movie, if that makes any sense.

It does and it’s one of my biggest criticisms about most queer cinema.

JT: We’ll my first gay film was “Torch Song Trilogy.” I think that one will always have a special place in my heart. But I think I have to give some shout outs to an excellent year in LGBT-themed moviemaking. I can’t stop talking about “Tomboy.” I loved that one. That really gets me, too. I really want us as filmmakers to tell richer stories that go beyond our sexuality.

CP: “Weekend,” too. Again, a movie about gay people, about things and themes that anyone can relate to.

How do you enjoy movies, given how much you know about how they are made?

CP: I. Love. Movies. Knowing how they’re made only makes them more fun to watch. But seeing badly made ones makes me want to scream at filmmakers who take the easy way out, who pander to audiences, who dumb things down, who try to substitute money for creativity. Or, worse, who use the lack of money as an excuse for a lack of creativity.

JT: At first it was difficult. I think a little knowledge is dangerous. I wanted to critique everything. Now over the past years, I can appreciate movies for what they are. It’s very easy for me to fall into a story. Well…unless the acting is bad. Then the movie will drive me CRAZY.

CP: One of the things I often say is that movies deserve to be judged on their own merits, not constantly compared to other movies. I respect filmmakers who take risks, and risk-taking often covers many sins. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t realize when sins are being committed. Or that we shouldn’t try to avoid committing the same sins in our next film.

And, finally, how soon will you need me in Los Angeles as a writer for your next project? (My calendar is cleared through 2013 if that helps.) Also, please tell Richard Harmon that my doctor has cleared me for long-distance travel and I’ve cashed out my 401K.

CP: You’ll have to get in line behind a lot of others! For Richard, that is. For writing… well, then you’d have to put up with JT.

JT Tepnapa: Hahaha! We’ll unless that 401K is for next movie deal.

You guys have been awesome. Really.

Carlos Pedraza: It’s been our pleasure.

JT Tepnapa: Thank you.

 



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Posted by editor on Feb 2, 2012. Filed under Bottom Highlights, Feature Story, Online Only. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. You can leave a response or trackback to this entry

2 Comments for ““Judas Kiss:” The New New-Queer Cinema”

  1. Great Q&A, Victor. I feel like I know Carlos Pedraza and JT Tepnapa. We’ve never had a 3,000-word Q&A, and it’s worth the read. I plan to see Judas.Kiss after reading your interview. -Ed.

  2. One of my favorite interviews with Carlos and JT. Victor I think almost everyone “Gay Cinema” is finally growing up and maturing depicting our lives not just sexuality.

    One item I always mention yes the script,direction and cast is solid and a highlight this past year. The cinematography is what blew me away. In no way does Judas Kiss “look” like a low budget indy film. The lighting the cameras this film far surpasses almost every Independent film.

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