Drifting Further From Reality with Director Drew Tobia

See You Next Tuesday is a movie about a mentally unstable, very pregnant young woman named Mona. As Mona drifts further from reality, and thus closer to her mental breakdown, we watch as the people close to her – namely her alcoholic mother and manic lesbian sister – get caught in her downward spiral. As the film’s website puts it, “See You Next Tuesday is a dark comedy the whole family can enjoy cutting themselves to.”

This Brooklyn-based indie is the debut feature film from director Drew Tobia. Provocative and quick-witted, the movie feels at home in the world of fringe, queer cinema – a descendant of peculiar creative minds like Todd Solondz or John Waters. I recently hung out with Drew in New York to talk about divisive characters, girls who kick ass, and gay representation in film.

(Oh and p.s., I have a tiny role in the film–like literally two lines–and you can spot me in the trailer below the interview!)

Why did you want to make a film about a pregnant girl?

Drew Tobia: Well, I was interested in taking a concept that would be considered “mainstream,” but making it subversive and weird, while also retaining some semblance of heart. I wanted to create weird characters that I pushed to moral and emotional limits, and then dare the audience to like them.

Watching it, one does grow really fond of Mona, despite the fact that she’s a train wreck and not necessarily making efforts to improve herself.

Drew Tobia: That’s partly why I cast Eleanore Pienta to play the role, because she just immensely charming, so she can get away with saying almost anything and people still like her. There are still going to be people who have a violent reaction to her character, but clearly this movie isn’t for those people. But I still love all the characters in the film, even though they do terrible things.

Do you think it’s accurate to put the film in the category of queer cinema?

Drew Tobia: I definitely feel there’s a queer sensibility to the film– not necessarily in the forefront, but more in the execution of the humor, which can be dry and sarcastic, like an obnoxious gay man – a.k.a. me! Honestly, I was a bit surprised when none of the gay festivals we submitted the movie to wanted to show it. The thing is, there are two lesbian characters in the movie, but they’re not exactly the protagonists, and they’re not always portrayed in a positive light – they’re not in a very stable relationship. But because they’re lesbians, some people took their volatile relationship as a comment on lesbian relationships in general. But it has nothing to do with being gay or not – most relationships are unstable!

I liked the fact that the movie normalizes their gay relationship. It’s not glorifying anything about gay culture –the lesbians in the film are just as flawed or weird or boring as everyone else. I find it annoying that so often, especially in mainstream media, gay characters–their personalities and interests–are defined solely by their homosexuality.

Drew Tobia: I know, I hate that! Like, whose life experience is like that? I’m gay and I obviously love gay people, but I think it’s dangerous to define oneself as one single thing. It’s funny – following multiple screenings of See You Next Tuesday I was asked by audience members, “So, why were they lesbians?” And it’s like, “I don’t know, why wouldn’t they be lesbians? They’re just people. Also, I’ve been constantly asked “Why would you want to make a movie about women?” Of course, female filmmakers almost never get asked “Why did you want to make a movie about a man?” For some reason, making a movie about women is abnormal. When I began writing the script, I wasn’t setting out to make a movie about women or the female experience, because clearly I don’t know about that. But I’ve always loved movies about girls who kick ass. I loved the Fifth Element, I love BuffyEnlightened was amazing. I actually think I’m discovering my inner vagina, because I only listen to female singer-songwriters from the ’70s at the moment. It’s bizarre.

Watching SYNT I was reminded of the films of John Waters, partly because of the atypical characters, and also Todd Solondz, for its moments of bleakness…is it bad to us the word ‘bleak’?

Drew Tobia: Well, John Waters was a big influence of mine. When I was a kid I watched his movies on loop, especially Pink Flamingos. And I think you can use the word bleak, sure. Todd Solondz is amazing at capturing characters who are going through an extreme trauma, but portraying it in a way that’s both funny and heartfelt, and that was a big part of what I was trying to do with this film.

See You Next Tuesday is now available on Amazon and iTunes.

Fading Gigolo: Chatting with John Turturro

John Turturro’s new movie, Fading Gigolo, stars him as a hooker and Woody Allen as his pimp. The movie is really sweet, and sends what I think is a great message about sex work. I recently interviewed Turturro for The Guardian, and we had an interesting discussion about selling sex that you can read by clicking HERE.

P.S. Sorry my blog has mainly become just a bunch of links to read my stuff other places, but a girl’s gotta make some $$$!

Blue is the Warmest Color Improved my Sex Life

The title of the post pretty much sums it up, really. Not that my sex life was ever bad, but I’ve been dating my girlfriend for the good part of a year now, and you know how it goes–things slow down, people get “tired,” vibrators get lost under the bed. That’s normal, right? I told myself it was. However, “Blue…” has ignited a new spark. And I don’t think it’s solely to do with the drool-inducing sight of Lea Seydoux’s hot naked body.

Obviously, now that I’m a lesbo I’ve been wet with anticipation of “Blue is the Warmest Color” for months, ever since I first heard about the heated, lesbian coming-of-age story and its marathon sex scenes when the film won the Palme d’Or at Cannes back in May. I’d read all about the controversy surrounding the film–claims that it was tainted by the male gaze, that the sex scenes were unnecessarily long and pornographic, and about the actresses’ slanderous accounts of the director’s grueling working methods. However, I’d also read many praising reviews, and the film got an overwhelming positive response from my peers: all my lesbian friends told me they loved it, and how they felt Blue was finally a film that represented gay girls in an honest, non-stereotypical, non-cheesy way. One friend said, “It was great to see a film about a lesbian relationship where in the end, it was the straight girl who was the crazy one.” And in response to the controversially long sex scenes, my lesbian roommate put it pretty well: “Straight couples have sex for like five minutes, but lesbians have sex for like five hours, so if you look at the ratio, it makes sense that a lesbian sex scene in movie-time would be twenty minutes long.”

I finally saw the film a couple weeks ago. I have to admit, when I went to see it, I was not in the most lez-positive mood. For some reason–perhaps a slump in my own relationship?–I had occasionally been falling victim to very stereotypically cynical thoughts about the lifestyle: “Why do so many lesbians dress so badly?” and “What’s with all the frumpy blazers and asymmetrical haircuts and awful shoes?” and “Girls have too many feelings.” Basically, I walked into the cinema thinking, “I love my girlfriend, but being a lesbian can be kind of traj sometimes.” I walked out three hours later thinking, “Being a lesbian is the coolest, hottest thing a person could ever be. I want to be gay forever.”

This freaked me out–not because I’m scared of becoming full on gay or whatever, but because my sudden shift in mood made it so obvious to me how severely and transparently I am influenced by the things I see. We all know this to be true; we’ve been told it a million times: we see skinny models in magazines, therefore we want to be thin; we see Rihanna drinking Vita Coco, so we want to drink it too; monkey see monkey do, etc. However, as a smart, tuned-in person, sometimes it’s easy to be in denial about just how much the media, and the images that make up the world around us, affect the way we think and feel. As someone who works in the media, who’s aware of how trends and the zeitgeist are created and entered into the wider consciousness, I felt that I was in some way uniquely above the brainwashing. Unfortunately, that doesn’t seem to be the case.

It made me think: why had I, at certain cynical moments, felt that being a lesbian was “uncool.” Well, I hate to say it, but there’s a serious lack of lesbians and bi girls in the media today–both real and fictional–to represent an alternative. Of course, there are amazing women like Beth Ditto and JD Samson holding down the fort, but we need more women like them, especially in the mainstream. Yes, Ellen and Portia and Jane Lynch are great, but are they still all we have?! What about women who us younger generations of girls can relate to? All we get is the one-dimensional, reality-TV-made stereotypes on The Real L Word? Nightmare.

Orange is the New Black is a great new show that portrays lesbians, but we can’t ignore the fact that those lesbians are in jail. One media moment of semi-recent history that I recall as being really amazing and sexy was when Amber Heard walked down the red carpet with her girlfriend Tasya van Ree. I want more of that! And also, I know people love to hate on Lindsay Lohan, but can we please give her some credit for the fact that, as one of the most famous women in the world, she very publicly dated a girl, and never felt the need to make some grand issue about it–it was just, “Yeah, I’m being gay now, so what?” (Oh, and are Cara Delevingne and Rita Ora actually dating? I really hope so!)

Put simply, after I saw Blue, I felt like I had new idols. (Is that cheesy?) I really connected with the characters on screen, and I left the cinema wanting to have sex like they had, and wanting to be in love like they were (in the first half of the film, anyway); being with a girl seemed exciting and erotic, and I suddenly felt part of something special, rather than something “traj.” Of course, deep down these are things I always knew, and always felt. But unfortunately, it’s far too easy to get down on ourselves, especially when we don’t have people and art and words and music and in our lives that support and inspire us. We cannot be what we cannot see, and until we see more smart, interesting, cool, sensual, romantic, powerful gay and bi women in positions of influence, it will be a difficult to aspire toward such an image.

I <3 Caveh Zahedi

I always admire people who can talk opening about sex, but in a way that’s really funny and self-aware (i.e. not cringeworthy). It makes the reality of our ever-warped sexualities a lot more bearable. For this reason, last year I fell in love with the filmmaker Caveh Zahedi, after seeing his autobiographical film I am Sex Addict. It’s the sort of film that will make you pee your pants laughing, but will also make you gasp, like, “OMG did he really just say that?” Here’s the trailer:

I recommend you watch it. It’s on Netflix. Anyway, last month I got to interview Caveh for Dazed and Confused mag about his amazing new film, The Sheik and I. So cool! You can read the interview below:

American filmmaker Caveh Zahedi is a master provocateur. At 52, Zahedi is best known for his 2006 comedy I Am A Sex Addict–a quasi-documentary about his obsession with prostitutes. Two of his previous documentaries, Tripping with Caveh and I Was Possessed by God, follow the director as he trips on psychedelic mushrooms, the latter resulting in “divine possession.” His films tend to be profoundly uncomfortable, hysterically funny, and bravely uncensored, all driven by Zahedi, the charming and irreverent madman.

In late 2010, Zahedi was commissioned by the Sharjah Biennial– the largest art exhibition in the Middle East–to make a film on the theme of  “art as a subversive act.” The curators told Zahedi he could do whatever he wanted, warning him only not to make fun of the Sheik, who is Sharjah’s absolute ruler and the Biennial’s financier. Zahedi then went on to do precisely what he was forbidden to do, traveling to Sharjah and turning his camera on the Biennial itself, and enlisting the locals to take part in his cinematic practical joke. The film was subsequently banned from the Biennial for blasphemy, and Zahedi was threatened with arrest. The controversy then led to concern that the blasphemy laws in Sharjah (a conservative Islamic state) could result in jail time for anyone associated with the film.

The Sheik and I, out next month, is Zahedi’s feature length documentary about his wild month in Sharjah, and his willingness to test political and social boundaries for the sake of his art.

When you set out to make the film, did you expect it would cause such a controversy?
Caveh Zahedi: When I went to Sharjah I had no idea what I was going to find. I didn’t know it was a dictatorship. I didn’t know people were afraid of the government. Throughout the trip, I was just holding up a hypothetical divining rod, seeking out people or places with energy or tension, and then playing on it. A lot of people have had really extreme responses to the film–it’s been called irresponsible, imperialistic, and some say it could put people’s lives in danger. A lot of Muslims hate it, a lot of Arabs hate it, and a lot of liberal, PC Americans hate it too. But I hate PC-ness more than anything.

People like to be offended by things; it creates the illusion of superiority.
Well that’s how morality works, isn’t it? People love to say, “I disapprove.” But the world is so corrupt at every level that there’s no ethical place to stand. It’s a complicated juggling act–choosing what battles to fight and what laws to break in order to expose what injustices.

Thom Powers, the documentary programer of the Toronto Film Festival, called The Sheik and I “deeply troubling for its breach of documentary ethics and reckless behavior.” That’s a heavy judgment.
Yeah. He compared me to the Florida pastor, Terry Jones, who burned the Koran. But in my eyes my film is something completely different, because it’s a work of art. I’m saying something complicated about the idea of God and spirituality, I’m not just pissing people off in a monolithic way. But Thom Powers doesn’t seem to see the difference. He thinks I’m being ignorant and self-centered. And he’s worried about people associated with the film getting hurt as a result of it.

But at the end of the film you make it clear that the government of Sharjah, after consideration, stated there would be no consequences for anyone who appeared in your movie, is that right?
Well yes, but there’s a question mark that hangs over the situation, because there’s a dictator in Sharjah who can do whatever he wants, and there are Islamic fanatics who just kill people when they don’t like them. So when you are dealing with these irrational, loose canon types, anything can happen. But to censor a work of art because somebody crazy might do something seems wrong to me.

What makes the film seemingly commercial is that it’s so funny, and all the antics are done in good humor, almost like a real-life Borat.
But Borat isn’t offensive. There’s something about what Sacha Baron Cohen does that’s very PC, because the things he’s targeting are things that most people agree are bad, like homophobia or hateful right-wingers. But some people find what I do unethical. For example sometimes I film people without their consent or knowledge, and right off the bat people think that’s wrong. Other people think the film is culturally insensitive. But I’m not trying to not offend, I’m just trying to make a good film. In the art world you’d call this an ‘institutional critique’–looking behind the facade of the institution. But most people don’t have that reference point. They’re just like “Why are you being so rude? They invited you to their country, and you were so ungrateful and ungracious, and so American.” But it’s like, “Yeah, but that’s what’s interesting about the film!”

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But as someone who is trying to create provocative art, don’t you sort of like it when people get pissed off?
That’s true. I’m glad people hate the film.

So is art basically a ‘get out of jail free’ card to do and say whatever you want?
I think art has its own ontology, and so it should have its own set of rules. I think the moral lines are basically the same as in real life: you shouldn’t hurt people. A snuff film seems wrong to me. You don’t get a ‘get out of jail free’ card to kill someone for the sake of a film. But if you’re not hurting anyone, then yes, you can do and say whatever you want. No one knows what the consequences of any particular action will be. It’s not unethical of Salman Rushdie to write The Satanic Verses. What’s unethical is to try to kill him for it.

How does being so honest, especially about sex stuff, affect your relationships with your wife, parents, etc.?
It definitely causes some friction. I never showed my mom Sex Addict, and she doesn’t want to see it, because she knows it would disturb her. But I try not to let that stop me from doing something I want to do. Although actually, there was a film I wrote that involved my parents a lot and my mom completely refused to cooperate. And basically it got to the point where I knew that if I made the film my relationship with her would be irrevocably destroyed, and I had to step back and say, “Is it worth it?” My conclusion, in that case, was, “I guess not.”

Did you ever censor yourself?
There was one scene in an early edit of Sex Addict that involved a man who had molested his daughter talking about his past, and how he had hurt the  person he loved the most, and he was crying while expressing all this remorse. And I really started to relate to the guy. I thought, “Yeah, I’ve hurt people too, and I feel remorse too, so I guess him and I aren’t so different.” But everyone I showed the film to insisted that child molestation is a whole different ballgame, and that the scene was asking too much of the audience. You have to pick your battles, and so I took it out. I was trying to make the film commercially viable, so that people would be affected by it, and it wouldn’t just be completely ghettoized.

What are your opinions on the current start of independent cinema, in this time when cameras are affordable enough that practically anyone can make a movie?
Well, I think everyone is making movies, and that a lot of them are really good. It’s impressive how many great films are being made. When I started making films there were no video tapes, and you couldn’t’ see a movie unless you were in a cinema, so the level of film culture was much lower. People now are so much more film literate than they used to be, which means that naturally there’s going to be a lot more experimentation going on in filmmaking.

The last film you released was I Am a Sex Addict, in 2006. Why the six year gap?
Well, every single thing I tried to do fell apart. The big one that collapsed was a film I was making as part of a residency at the American Academy in Rome. Crispin Glover, Vincent Gallo and Greta Gerwig had all agreed to act in the film. But then the financier didn’t agree with me on a few things and just pulled the plug suddenly. And meanwhile I had given up my job and my apartment, because my wife and I were planning to move back to Rome to make the movie, and we had a new baby, and then after that happened we spent a whole year living on friend’s couches while I tried to find a job.

What a bummer.
Big bummer. I was depressed for a long time after that.

You have a tendency, in interviews and in your films, to talk about your failures as much as your successes. In a recent interview I did with Lena Dunham (who I know is a big fan of yours), she talked about how she views her own embarrassment as a tool for connection. Do you feel similarly about self-deprecation?
Absolutely. David Lynch once said that all great films have at least one really embarrassing moment in them. And I like it when other people talk about their failings, because it makes me feel better. They’re the most interesting things to hear about! Inside that dialectic of shame and pretense is where people really live.

The Sheik and I will be released by Factory 25 on December 7th