Interview with Gayby Director Jonathan Lisecki

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Gayby might be the first feature from writer/director Jonathan Lisecki, but its ace comic timing and deft depiction of physical humor suggest a seasoned comedic maestro. Expanded from a short that Lisecki shopped around the festival circuit in 2010 (it debuted at Slamdance and went on to hit more than 100 venues), the film is easily one of the year’s funniest, much thanks to its maker’s classic instincts for drumming up laughs. A veteran of independent theater, Lisecki couples a sharp, knowing wit with a mature sense of benevolence, yielding a well-rounded comedy for a demographic that desperately needs it.

Gayby is about characters first, namely Jenn (Jenn Harris) and Matt (Matthew Wilkas), a straight woman and her gay best friend who decide to have a child together the old-fashioned way. Hilarity, of course, ensues, but not in the boilerplate manner one might expect. Brimming with quotable one-liners (many spouted by Nelson, a confidant played by Lisecki himself), this modest gem transcends the typical comedy formula, and furthermore, it largely eschews its inherent politics to deliver a good time that’s universal.

Stopping in the Hamptons for a brief detour amid constant Gayby promotion, Lisecki quickly reveals a personality that mirrors his movie’s tone—always ready with a quip but also unmistakably warm. The New York-based filmmaker happily dishes on comic books, the state of gay media, and how his current full-time job is being Gayby‘s protective parent.

Filmmaker: Your movie is really refreshing. Before making it, when you looked at the gay cinema landscape, what did you feel was missing?

Lisecki: Well, in film in general, not necessarily just gay cinema, I felt there weren’t enough likable comedies that weren’t mean or filled with mean-spirited humor. And there are a lot of heavy movies right now. I wanted to stay away from that as much as possible.

Filmmaker: Is anything in the plot drawn from your real life?

Lisecki: The original kernel of the idea was drawn from my real life, but only that—only that I had a best friend in college that I had a pact like this with. We did not follow through with it; that person actually had a baby with someone else a couple of years ago, when I wrote the short. The short was kind of my way to deal with the sadness that that wasn’t a viable option anymore. Because, as a gay man without a straight woman lying around the house, it’s just incredibly [hard] to have a child. Since that option was gone, there was a little bit of sadness that pushed me into writing a comedy. I like comedies that come from a place of being serious, and can then turn into something farcical.

Filmmaker: At the risk of providing spoilers, this movie avoids two traps that a lesser film would have surely fallen into—one is having Matt and Jenn’s sex as a built-up endpoint abandoned at the last minute, and the other is to make Jenn a predatory hag with a deluded gay-friend fantasy. Were either of those scenarios ever considered for the story?

Lisecki: Nooooo. I was never interested in having a movie where the woman falls in love with the gay man. I find those movies so offensive. I don’t think that happens later in life. Those are things that could happen in your early college years, sometimes, and we play with that [in the film]. But this film is not about that at all. I don’t find that interesting to explore, or even based in reality. And there is that heightened moment when they’re about to have sex, and we’re not sure if it might happen, but by the end of the movie, we feel like they’re real characters and real people, and they’ve earned that heightened moment. When it comes to screwball comedies, you can have something that’s silly and heightened and almost unbelievable, but by the end of the movie you actually forgive that as part of the plot. So one of the reasons why they have sex so soon, and why the sex is so not sexy, is because that is really the way to get the rest of the story about these people in motion. I definitely never wanted to delay that. The movie is more about coming together as a new kind of family unit and growing into lives and careers and adulthood.

Jonathan Lisecki

Filmmaker: By and large, comic books aren’t typically associated with gay men, yet Matt is a superhero junkie who works in a comic book store. It was nice to see him have that job, as opposed to a gig as a personal assistant or hairdresser.

Lisecki: Well, that also comes from me. When I was 11 or 12, growing up in the Bronx, the first real thing that I ever read that said it was okay to be different was an X-Men comic book. Those books are about mutants who are hated and feared by the “normal” public, and there are allegories for racism and homophobia, and lessons in tolerance and all that. I feel like I learned that it was okay to be who I wanted to be, or who I was, from a comic book. I’ve always appreciated that, and I wanted to celebrate that when I made the movie. And I feel like comic-book stereotypes are often portrayed as mean, not very attractive, unfriendly, and not very sociable. I wanted to show that there are different sides of it. All of the guys who work at the comic book store I go to are actually very hip, with it, and kind of hot. Just like there are all different kinds of gay people, there are all different kinds of people who work in comic books stores. There are all different kinds of people who do anything.

Filmmaker: Two of the members of your cast, Alex Karpovsky and Adam Driver, are also in HBO’s Girls, and Gayby‘s tone is similar to the tone of that show. I don’t necessarily want to draw parallels, but I was wondering if your creative team and Lena Dunham’s gang run in the same circles. In terms of wit and immediacy, the two works feel like they’re coming from a similar place.

Lisecki: Oh, that’s great to hear. I love Lena. The short version of Gayby certainly played around Tiny Furniture quite a bit. They played a lot of the same festivals and I ran into her quite a bit along the way. She’s a great lady, and a nice person, and a friend. I think there is actually a small group of people making intelligent comedy in New York, and we do all kind of know each other. A lot of the cast is made up of people I’ve seen perform, or worked with, who I knew that, when it came time for me to make a feature, would be good to work with. So I got very lucky. Most of the casting was done before there was a Girls phenomenon. She was actually just shooting the show, I think, when we shot. But I am happy to receive any comparison to [Dunham’s] work. I think she’s brilliant.

Filmmaker: You definitely have a strong knack for comedy, be it the one-liners or the physical things. There are small, subtle sight gags, like, say, the awkward nodding of Jenn’s head while she watches Matt masturbate, and they really go a long way in drawing laughs. What were your comedic influences?

Lisecki: That all comes from the theater. It’s from knowing that the physical is just as important as the lines. I think [the whole cast] was aware that, you can have comic timing, but if you don’t also add the physical stuff, it doesn’t work so well. If you can find ways to do both, it really is the best. I really love physical humor—Jenn getting thrown up on the wall with wet paint, or her flipping out in the yoga studio. I just love that stuff. It’s a little goofy, but I don’t care. I think it’s good to have that balance.

Filmmaker: And the film was shot in New York, correct?

Lisecki: Yeah, we shot the film last August, for 16 days in New York. There are a lot of Bed-Stuy locations. Jenn’s yoga studio was in Bed-Stuy. Some of the film’s reviews are saying, “These apartments are so amazing! How can these people afford this?” And I’m thinking, “They’re in Bed-Stuy!” They’re not living in Manhattan. A lot of the filming locations came courtesy of people who were on our team and very nice. The comic book store and the furniture store—those spaces were either donated or given to us for a very minimal cost, which was probably why we got the movie done. We had a lot of people and a lot of locations and we were very lucky.

Filmmaker: There are a lot of great lines in the movie, but Nelson, the character you play, gets some particularly good ones. Were you ever worried you might be hogging all the zingers?

Lisecki: No, I just give gold every take! I can’t help it! [Laughs.] Someone else said to me, “Why did you give yourself all the good lines?” And I said, “It’s not that I have all the good lines, it’s that I have the best delivery!” I think everybody has good lines, actually, I’m just playing a certain type of character where it’s easier to get the lines—the sidekick type.

Filmmaker: Another strength of the movie is that it doesn’t skimp on serious moments, yet it knows when not to get too deep or take itself too seriously. There’s that great ballad version of Beyonce’s “Crazy in Love” playing near the climax, for example, maintaining a bit of irony. How often did you go back and tone things down for levity’s sake?

Lisecki: I think one job you have while directing a comedy is remaining aware of your tone. And I tried to make sure my tone never went too far in that [serious] direction. You need to have respect for the characters, and you need to make them relatable, but if it goes too heavy it can feel like a clunker. I didn’t ever want it to feel like the brakes were put on the film, or that it got too heavy. I love when something is done because it sounds like a hilarious idea, but it’s then executed with integrity and artistry. And I always thought that song [by Antony and The Johnsons] was perfect, and I hoped that someday, when I made a movie, I could use it. And I did.

Filmmaker: What kind of response have you been getting from the gay community? Because so often, gay comedies deal only in sex, and, raunch, and frivolity, and Gayby, predominantly, doesn’t.

Lisecki: Yeah, I sometimes feel like a little bit of a prude, honestly. In our film, you don’t even really see anything—just some shirtless shots and that’s it! That’s just the way I am. I also think [the other approach] just isn’t that funny. There’s something that happens when things get a little too sexualized—it takes away from the humor a bit. I tried to just stay true to the friendship, and I didn’t try to hit beats where I was making it as a “gay” comedy. When I was watching it with a gay audience, I did find that there are these sort of special bonus features that gay people enjoy more. There’s definitely comedy in the movie that’s more specific to the gay community, but I tried as much as possible to just make it a film first. I didn’t really think about that stuff until I watched it. I was really just trying to make a romantic comedy…without romance.

Filmmaker: With the recent release of sitcoms like The New Normal and Partners, what are your thoughts on the ways the gay community is being depicted in the media in general these days?

Lisecki: Someone asked me a question recently that really turned me off. They said they appreciated that Matt was “not a stereotype,” and he was “just like any other guy” and that that was great. And I thought, “Well, hold up a minute. What’s great about him is that he’s a well-written, well-rounded character, not that he’s, you know, straight-acting.” I really wanted to get rid of that whole idea that only the straight-acting gay can be the acceptable character. That’s just not true. And I’m glad that the gays in my film are pretty much from all across the spectrum. As long as they’re written with intelligence and integrity, I think you can have any character you want. What I don’t like, stereotype-wise, is the super-gay assistant who’s, like, an asexual eunuch, who just exists to be happy for the straight person and doesn’t have any acceptance or intelligence of his own. That stuff makes me upset. The key to not having those feelings is just to treat your characters with respect and treat them like real people. I hope I’ve achieved that. I often see it not achieved. You see gay guys who are super butch, or ones that we’ll call “queeny” types. Both sides bother me a bit, and I guess everyone has their own barometer for what bothers them.

I’ve seen some of the new shows. I’m not sure how I feel. I mean, Glee may not be the best show anymore, but it’s certainly crazy that there’s a show on Fox with a transgendered character and more than one gay character. We should celebrate the fact that there’s that much representation in primetime, but it would be great if it were always a representation that made us feel proud.

Filmmaker: What are you up to next?

Lisecki: Well I’m probably going to be busy promoting Gayby for the next two months. But I had a script written before I made Gayby, and I’m going to go back, and do some rewrites, and hopefully get that filmed as soon as I can. And there have been some other opportunities that have come up, including arrangements with people who have asked me to write with them. But I feel like I have to stick with [Gayby] right now. That’s my full-time job until the movie is out into the world.