“It’s Really the Act of Saying the Words Out Loud, Bringing Darkness into Light, Negotiating the Past for Yourself”: Matthew Fifer on His Autobiographical NYC Drama, Cicada
Writer, director and actor Matthew Fifer makes his feature debut with Cicada, a very personal urban romance that’s also a perceptive and searching drama about the legacy of childhood abuse. Films that revolve around buried trauma can be overly melodramatic affairs, but Fifer’s Cicada balances painful backstory revelation with the sensuous pulse of the present. His depiction of early-aughts twentysomething Brooklyn romance is alive to the rhythms of the city and understanding of how place as well as economic circumstance frame the ways we connect with one another. Fifer plays Ben, a bisexual who we meet as he’s engaging in a string of hookups between his office temp and house painting jobs. For Ben, these unfulfilling encounters are underlined by a sense of emotional pain, literalized by his seeming hypochondria and frequent doctor visits. A chance encounter with a young tech worker, Sam (Sheldon Brown), offers a new, more emotionally connected kind of relationship, with both men soon sharing their own struggles. For Sam these involve being closeted from his father as well as the painful aftermath of a street shooting. And for Ben, it’s those memory flashes of childhood abuse triggered by news reports of the ongoing trial of Jerry Sandusky.
As actors Fifer and Brown have great chemistry, and Fifer and co-director Kieran Mulcare use that chemistry as well as flashes of unexpected humor to counterpoint the heavier themes and to weight the film in the present — even as it marches towards a raw and revealing conclusion that reaches across decades. Cicada is also a film that seems to have benefited from its ultra-low-budget approach. Cinematographer Eric Schleicher, who makes his own feature debut here, gracefully captures the lights and colors of New York, and the urgency of the film’s ultra-low-budget production is refracted on screen in productive ways.
After a festival run that included BIF London Film Festival, Outfest and Frameline, Cicada is in theaters now from Strand Releasing. Below, over email, I asked Fifer about how he and Brown incorporated autobiography in their characters, the film’s under-$50,000 production budget (post and deliverables added another $40,000), and what one offbeat scene with a spacey therapist (Cobie Smulders) has to say about self-analysis and discovery.
Filmmaker: Previous to this film, you created a couple of web series, which is very much on point in terms of the ways many were trying to break in to filmmaking over the last decade. So I’m interested in the decision to make a feature, and, specifically, what formal qualities of the feature film you were eager to embrace after the different storytelling rhythms of episodic web series.
Fifer: In a way, the feature represented my path of coming out and finding love. The web series was a loose, messy experiment where I’d time and time again wake up broke and confused not knowing where I was. I was 27, waiting tables and painting apartments for Upper East Side DILFs. I needed to do what I came to the city to do. The feature was the big scary commitment, the dream boat I could take home to my parents. Moving on from the metaphor, I loved that the feature had real departments, an actual budget, a DP, AD, line producer — the cinematic gestalt. It had a start date, an end date, and a story circumscribed by three acts, etc. This is all very ridiculous to say now, but we lost half our financing and finished production for under $50,000. In the end, there was nothing formal about it. Our insanely talented production designer Chris Weihert was also our scripty, our genius DP Eric Schleicher gripped and somehow pulled his own focus, the one and only Cobie Smulders nursed Guillermo the dog and did dishes. The fact we’re playing in a real theater with real people still blows my mind. To anyone reading, apply for grants! Even if you’ve secured funding, apply. We were saved by Tribeca Film Institute, SFFILM’s Rainin Grant and The Film Collaborative. And Bryce Norbitz, Michelle Hamada, Lauren Kushner, Jeffrey Winter… these wonderful, generous people are the reason we’re here today.
Filmmaker: Tell me about how you and Sheldon developed your characters together and specifically how you worked on the levels of autobiography you’d each bring to the part. How collaborative was this process when it comes to the on-screen relationship? I also have to admit I didn’t know that Sheldon, who has an additional story credit, had been shot and seriously injured in real-life, and that the film was envisioned before this event happened. Could you tell me more about his contribution in light of this very sad event?
Fifer: Yeah, unfortunately it’s very true. And no one else goes through what Sheldon did and bounces back with such strength and humor and jumps on a plane to make a feature film. That’s the moment everything changed. To answer this question I have to go back a few years. Sheldon and I met in 2015, a hot day in Bushwick. We drank cold cans on a stoop below an old knitting factory, climbed up to a rooftop where the sun had just set and slowly unspooled our stories. It was a lot like the date you see in the film. A few days later we said goodbye, and he caught a plane back home. It was a lot like Andrew Haigh’s Weekend. Honestly, he might have had me saved in his phone as Plywood Ceilings Nut Allergy but for me, he was Sheldon D. Brown, one of the first guys I liked after coming out. We stayed friends and got together here and there when he was in town. And years later when I sat down to write this story, he was the first person to pop into my mind.
I finished a draft that February and texted him, “I have a project I think you’d be good for,” and he hit me back that he was actually in NYC at that very moment. It was a little cosmic. We grabbed a drink across from where we first met, and a week later he read the script. He had never done a feature before, but neither had I. Over those months we went back and forth refining the scenes and dialogue. Then in April, I got the text. He was shot in a drive-by shooting in Chicago. I’ll let him fill in the details but it was unreal. We didn’t know if he was going to be okay, he didn’t know if he was going to be okay. We held our breaths and waited.
It was Spring, Sheldon called. He was doing much better. He was healthy enough to come to New York but he’d lost a lot of weight, had thick scars and an ostomy bag. At the same time, my DP Eric and I saw Chloe Zhao’s The Rider, a story that toes the line between narrative and doc. It was another cosmic moment. Instead of having to recast Sheldon or try and hide his own trauma, why not write it in? I didn’t know Sheldon’s pain — I didn’t even know if Sheldon knew his own pain — but at the heart of this story was always processing the pain. And if he was healthy enough, I knew we could try doing it together.
He wrote that story, the haunting monologue in Prospect Park. The project molted and evolved. We continued to rehearse and refine to make the lines and circumstance more authentic. And on July 12th, we closed our eyes and walked hand in hand into the past. Cicada is a story of love and loss, great pain but also immense joy. It is a secret told, wounds exposed, and a promise that even in the dark, it’s never too late to cry out.
Filmmaker: As you say, your character goes on a journey of self-analysis and self-discovery in Cicada, a journey that includes sessions with a brusque and somewhat spacey therapist. This scene reveals aspects of your character to the audience — we learn about Ben as the therapist does — but they also seem to offer a commentary, perhaps, on the ability of therapy to reach someone like Ben. Is this a fair or accurate take? Could you talk about this character and the intent behind this scene?
Fifer: Finding a good therapist is terrible. We all know no one emails you back, they’re all out of network, the person you end up with doesn’t laugh at any of your jokes. I had a secret I kept for 13 years. When I finally had the guts to say it, I think my therapist coughed something up and couldn’t find a tissue. It was really anticlimactic and I wanted to go home. I guess I had this really romantic idea that she’d burst into tears and tell me how I was the only boy who had ever been abused and hug me or something crazy like that. I think her words were “oh that’s very common…” and the session was over five minutes later. That said, my take is Ben was helped in the end. It’s really the act of saying the words out loud, bringing darkness into light, negotiating the past for yourself. That’s crucial. Cobie’s character was brusque and spacey, but she does listen. On this note, I want to briefly talk about the brilliant comedic actors we were so lucky to get: Scott Adsit, Jo Firestone, Bowen Yang, Freckle. So many films that reify trauma lean heavily into melodrama, and we didn’t want to bring more sand to the beach. I was a class clown my whole life, always getting in trouble, always deflecting with a joke. The first time I tried to tell someone I was molested they actually laughed, they thought I was joking. They laughed so hard I started laughing. Comedy has always been a part of my life even when I’ve been painfully unfunny. Growing up I didn’t have a therapist or a doctor who understood the reason for my psychosomatic symptoms — I had sitcoms and late night tv. I wanted the Cicada audience to be able to laugh through the pain. And perhaps, a little self-reflexively, I was still trying to cushion the blow.
Filmmaker: The film is lovely and sensual in its depiction of New York City while the cinematography and locations also captures the harshness of city life. And, you worked with a first-time cinematographer. Could you discuss the kinds of conversations you had with your DP — the shared references and decisions made about the shooting style?
Fifer: Thank you for saying that, Eric Schleicher is so much at the heart of this film. He made the impossibility of shooting 45 locations in New York City with no budget possible. He pulled his own focus, gripped, DIT’ed and rode a skateboard down Broadway at 15 miles an hour with an Amira on his shoulder. He embodies a similar dichotomy to New York — sensual long hair, harsh calloused DP feet. He’s his own entire camera department and an amazing storyteller in his own right. For this project we were really inspired by Andrea Arnold and Robbie Ryan’s collaborations. Fish Tank and Wasp are two of my favorite films — both feel incredibly authentic and lived in. John Cassavetes, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Chloe Zhao — these filmmakers were other big inspirations. Their films are fearless, subversive, always finding the truth of the moment. We wanted Cicada to breathe the same air. Something cold yet lush, dramatic with levity — painful and at the same time healing.
Filmmaker: Following up on the cinematography question, I notice that you had no grips or electrics. Could you discuss your approach to designing a film that could be done with a minimal crew, both on-set and otherwise? And, how many days did you shoot?
Fifer: Writing the script I definitely strayed from from the typical gay indie budget pitfalls — ketamine car chases, Hell’s Kitchen explosions, CGI muscle twinks. This is a true indie, everything was excruciating. So many props and locations were donated or borrowed. That was my apartment, my childhood house, our friend’s places, Washington Square at five in the morning. That was the parking lot of the actual Panera I came out at. I recommend it to anyone coming out to their mother on her lunch break. We filmed for 18 days in July, with a full set of pick-ups. Eric and Jeremy Truong, our powerhouse producer, always worked tirelessly with what they had. In the spirit of the title, I think so many filmmakers are helpless baby cicadas. There are so many of us crammed together. We live in the dark for years and years waiting for a break, only to come up briefly to make some noise, before burrowing underground again, our dads flinging us off their lawns with a leaf blower. This was everyone’s first feature film! This was our moment to break out and sing.
Filmmaker: You also worked with a co-director, Kieran Mulcare. I assume this collaboration was partly due to the fact that it’s your first film, and you also are in virtually every scene as an actor. How did this collaboration develop, and how did it function on set?
Fifer: Yes! Kieran invited me to audition for his acting class with the wonderful Caymichael Patten a few years ago. One night he did a scene from Amy Herzog’s The Great God Pan, and I remember holding back tears not only for his deeply affecting performance, but I knew in that moment he had been through something similar. When I thought about possible partners on this there wasn’t a single other person I wanted to work with. We understood each other from the start. On set the collaboration was a tacit dance. Sometimes I’d be setting up the shot with Eric, Kieran would be working with the other actor. Sometimes I’d be crying, Kieran would be feeding me snacks. Again, this crew wore 15 hats, we’d both be fielding issues with continuity, performance, set design, costumes and the myriad of dumpster fires you have to put out as directors. Kieran was always rooting us in the truth of the moment. The short answer to how it functioned is trust.
Filmmaker: Your character, Ben, as you note, has a backstory which we, the audience, gradually learn throughout the film, a process that mirrors the character’s own grappling with his past. We also hear throughout the film snippets of news reports on the Sandusky trial that echo the character’s past. Could you discuss this dramatic construction — the tension involved with the way this information is revealed through the screenplay and also how it was revised in the edit? And, finally, how you’d like this reckoning of Ben’s to resonate with your audience?
Fifer: I never had any closure with my abuser. Anytime I heard a similar story on the news I was hooked. I needed to know how it ended. The Sandusky trial was everywhere for a long, long time — even if you tried you couldn’t get away. Sound is incredibly pervasive and violent in that way. Certain moments of my life I’ve definitely had more psychosomatic symptoms, and the news doesn’t help. With Cicada, the idea was to hear bits and pieces, planted auditory motifs that would crescendo over the dramatic arc. I never wanted the audience to see the trial, or the cicadas, or Ben’s abuser. I wanted these moments to live completely in diagetic sound. One in three girls and one in five boys will be sexually abused before the age of 18. Male victims are far less likely to come forward. These events happen behind the curtains, off screen, they’re heard but rarely seen. So often, trauma lands in silence. When Sandusky was finally convicted on June 22nd, amidst the cries and cheers, you could hear a chorus of cicadas. Years later I read how only the male cicadas sing out at night, and I thought huh, what a beautiful title for this story. I imagine at the end, as Ben is opening up to his mother, all of those boys are crying out with him, finally free.