A Suburban Megachurch in John Hughes Territory: Stephen Cone on Henry Gamble’s Birthday Party
Simultaneously a rebellious yell against Christian authority and an appreciation for growing up with evangelical values, Stephen Cone’s Henry Gamble’s Birthday Party is neither religious condemnation nor agitprop. Its title character is a gay teenager celebrating his birthday with friends and family; the film, unfolding over 24 hours, keenly observes how temptation and buried secrets can rise to the surface when theological and political debates make their presence known. A rather sexy movie — in part because premarital sex is presented as something risqué or taboo — Henry Gamble’s Birthday Party is a beautifully rendered, impeccably scored experience that makes a profound, heady impact. There’s an interesting moment featuring a conversation over how Christian colleges cover, or do not cover, evolution, and it’s a more layered discussion than you may initially expect.
As the film gets set to open in IFP’s Screen Forward series, I spoke with Cone about the popularity of Christian films, youth sexuality, and the narrative appropriateness of revolving a story around a pool party.
Filmmaker: This isn’t a question I normally ask to start off a conversation, but could you tell me a little about your religious background?
Cone: I grew up in and around the Carolinas (mainly South Carolina), and my dad, for the first part of my life, was a minister of music in the Southern Baptist church. He was a choir director and all that kind of stuff. Around the time I was 12 years old, he became a full-time pastor. He had been a minister of some sort in the Southern Baptist Church for all of my life — and still is — so I grew up going to church three times a week in South Carolina. That’s the world I came up in. I founded a Christian Bible Study club in my high school, running Bible Study on Tuesday mornings while simultaneously grappling with an emerging queer identity. All of the stuff in the film is at least semi-autobiographical, but none of it is super directly autobiographical.
Filmmaker: With Henry Gamble’s Birthday Party, were you looking to make a film that merges Christian identity with queer identity?
Cone: I made a film back in 2010 called The Wise Kids. The film took place in South Carolina and was about a few high school graduates who had been raised in the church and were now going out on their own. They were struggling with faith and doubt. One of them was struggling with sexuality. That was a movie very much set in the world I grew up in. I guess I had a gnawing desire to keep exploring and go a little deeper, to make something more directly about sexuality, human passion and desire. The Wise Kids is sort of a serene examination of different aspects of struggle in that world. It was intended to be a more direct confrontation with sexuality. Rather than stick within that same landscape, I decided to move my next film into midwestern megachurch territory. That isn’t what I grew up in but it’s where I chose to tell this story.
Filmmaker: What are your views of the recent wave of popular Christian films? There are many which make a killing at the box office, dabbling in preachy messaging and religious propaganda.
Cone: Well, propaganda is the enemy of art, and so I’m not sure if those movies function entirely as fully realized, three-dimensional art. On the other hand, there are a lot of people that consider Triumph of the Will to be a great film, so maybe in some parallel dimension there’s a very evangelical movie out there that’s actually good. For me, looking at that world through a more humanist lens is more interesting and it subsequently keeps the story a little more objective. I should also say that I’m just as angered by the condescending portraits of evangelicals in American independent and Hollywood films as I am, if not more so, by the big Christian movies. Both ends are misguided. If people chilled out and realized that evangelicals are human beings with brains and hearts and sexual identities and passions, then maybe the end products would be better.
Filmmaker: Henry Gamble begins with an extended opening sequence featuring Henry and his friend lying in bed together, masturbating as they fantasize about sleeping with a young woman. The film begins with the camera on its side, criss-crossing between the point-of-view of the two boys lying down next to each other. The film concludes with a conversation in bed shot much the same way. What made you want to introduce the viewer to your title character in such a unique style?
Cone: I wanted to start the film in a secret place, not unlike how we set up the underwater footage later in the film. When you’re growing up in that world, there are these safe, secret spots where you can let your desires out. Late at night at a sleepover is one of those spots. I wanted to start in a very direct, vulnerable place where Henry was safe to experiment before the broad light of day hits and these things have to be pushed back beneath the surface. It was a little inspired by Jonathan Demme’s direct-to-camera choices, which he does a lot, and I like starting in a place with great immediacy and sensuality and intensity. Staring right into Cole Doman’s face at the top of a film is not a weak place to start.
Filmmaker: The film is almost angelically lit, the brightness of the image creating a false sense of purity (or purity about to be disrupted). Is that what you and your DP Jason Chiu were going for?
Cone: We talked a lot with the actors about how when you’re growing up you’re listening to these notions of passion and ecstasy at church, but yet you’re experiencing them at home with friends and within pop culture. My DP and I talked a lot about this quality of heaven on earth and how, whether they knew it or not, these characters were experiencing ecstasy at this pool party. All of the intense feelings that were talked about at church were being experienced in a secular environment. We talked about Terrence Malick and The Tree of Life a little bit and how we could blend heaven and earth, making it this kind of limbo space where people were negotiating between different sides of themselves.
Filmmaker: What’s also striking is the pristine cleanliness and untouched feel of the furniture in the Gamble household. The Gamble home gives off the impression it hasn’t been lived in, as if it were preparing for its spread in the next issue of Better Homes and Gardens.
Cone: On one hand, the boring explanation for this is that you’re always at the mercy of the locations you can find. [laughs] The other answer is that all four of these family members are on their own. I don’t know how lived in the house is or how much time they spend together. I always envisioned them in a boat drifting through foggy waters. There’s a lack of physical engagement at the house that probably lends itself to that quality. A lot of our job was practical and we so found a house that was perhaps a little too nice for our needs and tried to dress it down a little bit. What you’re seeing is residue of production logistics and practical issues.
Filmmaker: Did you always want to shoot the film in Illinois?
Cone: Yeah, I live in Chicago and wanted it to be local. I love the actors there. My last film was shot in Charleston, South Carolina even though I was living in Chicago. I took some actors and crew down and had a big, old, fun South Carolina/Chicago hybrid production. For Henry Gamble, I wanted to stick around Illinois and utilize the actors and crew there. This is John Hughes territory. Shooting a story about a suburban megachurch’s pastor in the land of Ordinary People and Ferris Bueller and Home Alone felt right. It felt good.
Filmmaker: The birthday party brings about a full cast of characters, with the pool providing the appropriate town hall meeting space and Henry as the warm interlocutor. What struck you about featuring the pool so prominently?
Cone: In many ways, my whole body of work up until now is about Christians and religious people living inside physical bodies. This great paradox of a bunch of Christians gathering to take off all of their clothes is the thrust of the film and its central irony. It’s an interesting thing to experience growing up too, especially in South Carolina where a lot of people had pools. You’re being told to abstain from sexual activity and yet occasionally you get together with your friends and take off your shirt and clothes. It presents a very interesting tension. The film was always going to feature a pool party and was never going to be about any other kind of party.
Filmmaker: Whether it be the admiring of a stripped-down partygoer’s well-fit body as they ready to jump into the pool, or a cold, knowing stare Henry’s mother provides her husband with, you employ a judgmental gaze for both man and woman, each character sizing up one another.
Cone: Some of the characters are more judgmental than others. I think that more often than not the characters are just trying to process [their situation]. There’s really only three or four characters out of the twenty that are blatantly judgmental. For the most part, these glances are about registering and negotiating what your body is feeling and what you’ve been taught in a more intellectual and religious capacity. I guess they are judgmental, but it’s one of the many qualities, both positive and negative, that the community holds. People tend to judge and police other people, especially when it comes to sexual behavior. I would argue, however, that the film is split between judgers and those who are trying to figure out how to [get by].
Filmmaker: There’s a sense of mourning apparent as Henry’s birthday cake is brought out to the partygoers. You slow the image down as if to provide a somber moment of introspection for Henry as well as for the viewer. What went into crafting that integral moment?
Cone: That was always there in the script. When you make a birthday party movie or sequence, much of the challenge comes from avoiding clichés in moments that you’ve seen in other films. I didn’t want the actual “Happy Birthday” song in the scene. What I was trying to capture there was that amidst the tension and judgment and secrets, young evangelicals actually have moments of pure excitement and joy in their lives. I was trying to freeze that moment in time, and was trying to do something similar with the following sequence of the opening of the presents. Those are very happy moments for a young person, even if they are confused and struggling a little bit.
Filmmaker: At one point a conversation breaks out amongst the adults regarding U.S. sex trafficking, pornography, and the “American sexual condition.” We begin to see how a lack of understanding leads to fear and disgust. One character even gets accused of turning into a Democrat. How did you write the characters of the parents without turning them into one-dimensional caricatures?
Cone: Well, they’re inspired, at least partially, by real people. I’m not starting from a type or an argument. I’m taking people I knew and loved a lot (even though they had some crazy ideas) and am writing them. There’s never the question of how do I convey this person. It starts from reality and the contradictions that I continue to see in that world. At the end of the day, some of the less appealing characters in the film are based on people I really liked hanging out with growing up. When you’re young, you don’t necessarily know all of the problems [they may have] and just see them as cool, funny people.
Filmmaker: When the sun goes down, secrets and primal needs rise to the surface: sex before marriage, infidelity, masturbation, the coveting of another man’s wife, attempted suicide…Setting the film over twenty-four hours allows you to indicate the rising of temptations at an accelerated rate. How did you work to create a structure to fit that model?
Cone: I knew that I wanted a midnight-to-midnight structure. That was there from the beginning, as was the use of a single location. A lot of people thought I made that choice for budgetary reasons, but it wasn’t any cheaper than anything else I’ve done. I chose the single location and twenty-four hour structure because I found it exciting cinematically. My first drafts are usually from the gut and on instinct. It’s just going over it and revising and reading, making sure that characters are arriving at a point that could determine some of the structure. Paying attention to when a certain character is arriving and if it’s better if he arrives at a specific place in the script so that we can start a new arc, etc. It’s similar to the process of ironing a shirt, just going over it to make sure that everything is clicking.
Filmmaker: The soundtrack seems influenced by ’80s pop and techno/club music, echoing in the background like an unsettling fever dream before bursting unexpectedly to the forefront. I’m admittedly not very well-versed when it comes to discussing music, but the soundtrack has a very addictive quality to it.
Cone: There’s a Spotify playlist for it! In terms of the tone, I wanted to bridge the generations a little bit. I was interested in Henry as a character who sought solace and ecstasy in pop music. That’s something that’s a little autobiographical, especially when I was between twelve and sixteen years old. I would be listening to all kinds of music and it really helped me get through adolescence. I was interested in characters that were interested [in all kinds of music] and not just the Top 40, i.e. when Henry gets the Duran Duran album from his mom and they share a moment of bonding.
For my rough cut I had a temp track featuring a bunch of famous bands like Vampire Weekend, Arcade Fire and M83, but we obviously couldn’t afford to use those. We premiered the film in May at the Maryland Film Festival, and so I spent all of February, March and early April listening to local Chicago bands. My sister is a Brooklyn-based artist and her work is in there a little too. I listened to probably 100 to 150 bands and 300 to 400 songs to try to replace all of the temp music. I loved that part of the process, even though it was really difficult. I had a big spreadsheet helping me list Option #1, Option #2 and so on. It was just me listening to music in my room, trying to figure it out for two months.
Filmmaker: You mentioned the Maryland Film Festival earlier. The film had its world premiere there, even though it’s not typically known as a festival that features those. What lead to you to premiering there?
Cone: We started sending out rough cuts in the fall and were turned down by some of the majors, some of which I have good relationships with and some of which have never given me the time of day. Some of the rejections were very gracious and personal, which I always appreciate. For the past five years I’ve really respected the spring wave of festivals that start around Sarasota and go into Maryland and Wisconsin and all the way to BAMcinemaFest and sometimes even to Locarno. I really pay attention to that spring wave of festivals that swoop in and, for example, rescued Alex Ross Perry from The Color Wheel’s SXSW rejection. There’s a great interview with Perry by Michael Tully in which he talks about the importance of springtime festivals for a lot of filmmakers who aren’t let into the traditional first-tier ones.
I’d actually sent to Maryland before and was rejected. I always thought about one of those festivals as a potential premiere location if the fall and winter ones didn’t work out. Honestly, I wouldn’t have had it any other way. David Lowery saw the film at Maryland and became a champion of the movie. That lead to BAMcinemaFest hearing about it. We were the only narrative world premiere at Maryland, and [that helped us stand out]. Simultaneously, the film was playing the gay circuit at festivals like Frameline and Newfest, and then I went back to my old stomping grounds like the Sidewalk Film Festival in Birmingham and Cucalorus in Wilmington with it. Having all of these festivals embrace the film in the spring and the summer did so much more for the film than if we had been a small fish in one of the big ponds. I’m very grateful for having premiered at Maryland and to Eric Allen Hatch for embracing the film.