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“The Experience of Being an Outsider Is a Universal One”: River Gallo and Esteban Arango on Ponyboi

A man leans over a femme-presenting person's shoulder. They gaze into each other's eyes.Ponyboi, courtesy of Sundance Institute.

On a dreary Valentine’s Day in New Jersey during the early aughts, intersex laundromat employee and sex worker Ponyboi (River Gallo) finds themselves embroiled in a bungled drug deal. Estranged from his family and afraid of coming clean to his best friend (Victoria Pedretti) and her husband (Dylan O’Brien)—also Ponyboi’s boss and clandestine sexual partner—he decides to go on the run and permanently escape the Garden State. Along the way, he crosses paths with a rugged kindly stranger who’s shrouded in mystery and en route to Las Vegas. Just when he’s ready to hitch a ride to the desert, however, Ponyboi realizes that a New Jersey crime syndicate on his tail is but one nagging predicament that he must reckon with.

Expanded from writer, director and star River Gallo’s 2019 short film of the same name, which premiered at Sundance five years ago, Ponyboi expands on the central character’s connection to a time and place rife with outsiders, few of whom can adequately find comfort in their own skin. Ditching the director’s chair as the project widened its scope, Gallo tapped Colombian-American filmmaker Esteban Arango to direct the feature.

I spoke with Gallo and Arango via Zoom a few days before Ponyboi made its January 20 Park City debut. Below, the filmmakers discuss how they came to collaborate on the project, the pressure of presenting a story of intersex identity amid a dearth in representation and their approach to capturing the “beauty behind the ugly side” of New Jersey.

Filmmaker: River originally served as the short’s director. Esteban, how did you become attached to direct the feature-length version of this project? 

Arango: It’s the magic of Sundance, I guess! River saw my movie Blast Beat [at Sundance in 2020], and they approached me with the project that they were starting to put together, which was a great honor. I got to see the short film, really absorb it, and it really spoke to me. But I’ve got to be honest, I only watched [the short] once, because to me it’s always a disservice to try to replicate something that’s already great. I wanted to bring my own take on the material now that the story had grown. There was a whole element of Ponyboi’s family in the larger feature-length story, and that for me was a point of connection to the material. Seeing the intersex story through the eyes of an immigrant, for me, was a perfect metaphor for people who come to this country with a set of inherited values, and as they grow and adapt to a new culture, they have to put them in check and decide whether they want to continue subscribing to that or move away from it in order to step into their true identity. Growing from the short film, I also think New Jersey as a whole played a huge character. I really wanted to tap into that texture, that grit, because it really informed who Ponyboi is as a person and how they see the world with this optimism that they want to move forward from.

Filmmaker: Following up on that, you were the writer and director of your debut feature, Blast Beat, which you similarly expanded from a short. What was it like to embark on a directorial project that you were not involved in the writing of? 

Arango: You always have to make it personal in order to fully get invested, especially since I didn’t write the script. The first step was to try and get to know River as closely as I could: to meet their family, [get to know] their world. Really early in pre-production, I asked my team to send me to New Jersey with River to see where it all unfolds. We got to really chat about the story, about ourselves as artists and experience New Jersey as a place and as a setting—you know, all the beauty behind the ugly side of it.

Something really beautiful happened in that trip. We kept talking about Ponyboi being a hopeless romantic, this person who lives in their heads all the time. And it really clicked for me in that conversation that Ponyboi doesn’t strike me as a hopeless romantic. He’s more like a hopeful romantic, somebody that has their eye set on finding the positive, finding the way out of whatever situation they’re in and really longing for this ideal life that they really want to have.

Through the collaboration with River, I could try to build on [the material] in a way that I could feel like I was steering the ship, but not departing from what River always wanted to communicate with this project.

Filmmaker: River, you originally wrote, directed and starred in the 2019 Ponyboi short film. Can you guide me through the process of expanding that into a feature-length project, particularly from a screenwriting perspective?

Gallo: It was a long and winding journey, but also not that long considering that I started writing the short in 2017 and it came out in 2019. Four years later, the feature’s premiering, which is pretty fast all things considered.

Filmmaker: Especially with COVID happening.

Gallo: And the strike, honey…It was literally the strangest time to make your first feature.

Essentially, it was always my intention to make the short [into] a feature, and the process of writing felt intuitive, in that it meant deepening my connection with my family in a way that the short didn’t really have enough time to tap into. A lot of the process of writing the feature involved essentially getting much more personal than the short allowed me to, which was crazy because the short felt like it was already very personal.

I think what was the most surprising to me writing the feature was that I initially never thought I would write a film that was in the crime-thriller genre. But the more that I got into the writing and the story of it, the Jersey came out. What’s inextricable about New Jersey is this the mythology of crime, particularly organized crime, and people that have to fend for themselves. I always say that people from New Jersey represent people who are outsiders, that stand on the edge of New York but aren’t fully there. They’re on the periphery of things. What I wanted to evoke in the feature was this intense longing to want to be where your desires are, but also feeling a half-step removed, like it’s impossible to be who you are, and to have the life that you want. Ponyboi, on this very wild Valentine’s Day, is able to actually reckon with what it is that he wants and who he wants to be. Expectations of others—his family, the world, society—have put him in a box that he’s also cursed himself inside of. 

For me, writing the feature was a lot about my own personal freedom, how I could liberate myself from the boxes that I was put under being queer, intersex, trans, Latino, from New Jersey [laughs]—all these things that people say make me an outsider.

The journey of writing Ponyboi became one of creating an alchemy around all those different identities, creating something that, through [incorporating] different genres of film, was singular, unique and couldn’t really fit into one box, and celebrating that.

Filmmaker: This is a similar question that I posed to Esteban, but how did you feel vacating the director’s chair on Ponyboi? What were the benefits and drawbacks of this decision, if any, especially in hindsight? 

Gallo: I have to give it to Esteban for being someone who was able to direct me. It was hard, because like Esteban said, we made something good with the short and we didn’t want to replicate it, but there were certain things that I was attached to. To depart from my vision as a director, get on board with what Esteban had, collaborate together and find a third thing that neither of us knew was possible, was definitely a dance that we sometimes stumbled [doing]. In the end, we really found something that was so special and that we both were really proud of. 

There are things that I really like about the language and medium of cinema, and there are things that Esteban doesn’t like about the things that I like. And there are things that Esteban likes that I don’t like, so it was just about finding those compromises. It was collaboration in the truest form that it could be, honestly, even when we were so excited about something or couldn’t speak to each other because I felt too strongly about something. 

But we always listened to each other and there was always great care and great respect for Esteban being the director and me being the creator of this entire world. It literally felt like we both played mom and dad to give birth to this baby, but I don’t know who was mom and who was dad [laughs]. 

Filmmaker: Esteban, out of curiosity, I also would love to know what was your experience directing River, especially after getting to know their background and the landscape of New Jersey for the film?

Arango: New Jersey throws challenges at you at every turn, with COVID being the easiest [laughs]. No, I mean, it was always an eye-opening experience. I’m not intersex, I’m not queer. I am an immigrant, but I always approached conversations with River with a lot of tact and open ears. I didn’t want to take up space from the important message that this movie has to get across. It’s a unique lifetime project, really, that we get to share this with the world. 

Like River said, it was challenging at times, because I saw things in one color and River saw them in another. But we always found compromise, or we always gave concessions to the other. Filmmaking is such a collaborative experience, and I’ve got to give it to our crew, as well. I feel like we were all so open to being influenced by New Jersey and what it had to offer us. For example, Dylan O’Brien was in such close contact with our gaffer, Sean Soto, who’s got the thickest Jersey accent, so they were feeding off each other. I really value those things when you’re on set. You get to discover what the film itself is giving to you. This is my second movie now, but one of the biggest challenges that I had to overcome, and the biggest gift that I’ve taken away from this experience, is just being open, letting go of your preconceived ideas and letting the movie speak to you.

Filmmaker: I notice that Ponyboi is being touted as the first feature-length film to feature an intersex actor portraying an intersex character. As a result, were there any myths surrounding intersex identity that you felt responsible for challenging or dispelling, and how did you approach them during the making of this film? 

Gallo: I’m still struggling to understand how that’s possible. When we were making the short, we were like, “This is the first time an intersex person has done this,” and now we’re saying the same thing for the feature! On the one hand, it does feel like a bit of a burden, just because there are millions of people who are not out about being intersex. There is the experience of an identity that has been so silenced, but an identity that also comes with such a variety and spectrum of how to exist. I can’t speak for the whole community, and it’s hard to wrestle with that. This will be the first time a movie like this is entering popular culture. Many will think that this is the only way to be intersex, but that’s not the case, actually. 

I’m optimistic that people are going to be obsessed and love the movie, and that they’re going to learn about an experience of humanity that hasn’t been touched on. Hopefully that will lead to more stories like this being told, but I’m having more grace with myself around the fact that it is impossible for me to bear the weight, trauma and pain of the silencing of an entire community. As much as I want to highlight this as a celebration of what it means to find acceptance in this identity, I’m just now discovering that Ponyboi being intersex is actually the gateway to his own self-actualization. 

Esteban and I were talking yesterday about how his manager called him crying. He saw the movie, and he is—correct me if I’m wrong, but a cis white man?

Arango: [nods] A Jewish-American white man. 

Gallo: Okay, got it [laughs]. And he was talking about how much the movie resonated for him because of identifying with being an outsider. And I think the experience of being an outsider is a universal one. Everyone knows a Ponyboi, everyone maybe is a Ponyboi. But it’s about looking inside and seeing those parts of yourself that you don’t like or you don’t really quite understand and making peace with them.

Filmmaker: I’ve been dying to talk about the New Jersey specifics of the film, especially because I’m a Jersey girl myself. 

Gallo: Oh my God, you should have led with that! 

Filmmaker: I knew we would have never talked about anything else if I did! First, I want to ask about location scouting for the film. I notice that Point Pleasant and the Jersey Shore are named in particular, which was super exciting for me as someone who still has Jenkinson’s arcade tickets and ventured to Seaside Heights for after-prom weekend. What made you focus on the shore, and how did you end up choosing the other filming locations? 

Gallo: I’m a Jersey girl. I love New Jersey. I will live, ride and probably die in New Jersey if all things go well. Like you, I spent a lot of time at the Jersey Shore—there was after-prom, and I would also go to Belmar with my dad and my sister when we were younger. The Jersey Shore, to me, has always represented summertime, fun and freedom. It’s only an hour and a half away from where we lived, but it felt like worlds away. It was like you were in paradise, and it’s funny saying that. It had significance in the writing because Ponyboi is a dreamer, and I think Ponyboi dreams of leaving New Jersey. He dreams of getting married in Vegas, but he grew up on the shore and has this nostalgia for his family and roots. Part of why I set his hometown down the shore was because I wanted for him to realize that home is where your paradise is. You don’t have to go to Vegas to find a piece of paradise. There’s that saying, “Wherever you go, there you are.” A lot of people have this idea of like, “If I can get away, if I can get out, I will leave my problems,” but they just go with you. Ponyboi chooses to go back to the Jersey Shore where his parents live and mends that relationship. The feeling of belonging itself feels like paradise.

Arango: To piggyback off of River, a year went by before we did the actual location scouting, but we both went [to New Jersey] together to do a little bit of reconnaissance around different areas close to New York, and then we went to the shore. We also ate at a diner and roamed around Union City and experienced the places where immigrants live. During that trip, we found the location for the laundromat, and we both were like, “My gosh, we need to shoot here.” Later, when we were doing the actual location scout, we must have seen like 20 different laundromats, but none of them came even close. It became a whole ordeal trying to get the one we originally wanted, but, thankfully, we did.

Filmmaker: Esteban, you said you weren’t super familiar with Jersey before you came onto this project, but were there any conversations you had with cinematographer Ed Wu, who I know you previously worked with on Blast Beat, when it came to capturing the Garden State? How did you both work to employ this familiar gaze on a landscape that you didn’t grow up in? 

Arango: First of all, shoutout to Ed. He’s a homie, he’s my brother. I love him to death. We always saw this movie as a “neon noir” film that is centered around a character who’s a dreamer, so we had three different spaces that we used to fill out the whole narrative. There’s the space inside of Ponyboi’s head that feels very nostalgic, dreamy and optimistic. There is the crime world underbelly of New Jersey. Then there is the neon that washes over Ponyboi’s daily activities.

For the first space, which was the world inside Ponyboi’s head, a big influence for us was William Eggleston’s photography as well as Todd Hido’s. I also always keep referencing this fashion photographer Sarah Moon, which is a style of photography that feels very much like “shoot from your head.” It feels very immediate, filled with aberrations and mistakes that give it a lot of character. Of course, William Eggleston is so iconic for his take on Americana and places that feel left and forgotten, filled with grit, grime and cracks. It’s so striking. For the neon world of it all, we wanted to riff on this modern genre of “neon noir” with references like Zola, Drive and Gaspar Noé’s movies like Enter the Void. Those films feel very sleek, but also very textured.

For the world of New Jersey, when we’re experiencing the movie but we’re not with Ponyboi, we wanted to have a sort of proscenium objectivity. So, we went around New Jersey taking pictures at night, finding some locations that really struck us. On a surface level, it feels like you don’t want to be there. The side of the turnpike is filled with trucks, mud, grime and factories. It’s cold, there’s a lot of rusted-over iron. But when you take a picture, it’s hazy and you get all these highlights and textures. It felt a lot like some of the movies that I love the most visually, like Fight Club, where every single inch of the image has texture and just communicates a world that you don’t necessarily want to be in physically, but that you can’t really take your eye off of.

Filmmaker: Finally, I wanted to highlight that the film does actually appear to be a period piece. I notice during the opening scene that the radio announcer discusses Mayor Giuliani’s plan to construct the 9/11 memorial. What made you want to set the film during this particular period? I will say that it does also add to The Sopranos vibe I gleaned as a viewer. 

Gallo: I think when I wrote the script, I wanted to remove certain parts of a conversation that could have been had around gender. To set it 20 years ago means that the language wasn’t there, so the struggle was harder to talk about. That’s the time period when I was reckoning—well, maybe that’s probably the real reason why I set it during that time, because when I was 12/13, I was first starting to go through hormone therapy and my body started changing. That was in the early 2000s. It makes it a little bit harder for someone to be at odds with who they are, because they don’t have the proper tools, language or community.

Also, stylistically, it was just fun and could add to a more playful tone. You know, taking subtle jabs of the style of the time, and The Sopranos references as well. It just made the movie more fun but also brought up more questions around the challenges that people experienced around gender during that time. We have the language now, and you would think it’d be easier, but the struggle transcends time periods.

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