Born and raised in New York City, writer/director Joey Kuhn makes films that draw inspiration from the nexus of fine art and pop culture. Joey's short films Thinly Veiled (2010) and Now Here (2011) have played at festivals around the world. In addition to his work as a writer/director, Joey is an editor and a still photographer. He graduated from Brown University in 2007 with a B.A. in Art-Semiotics and graduated with an M.F.A. from NYU's Graduate Film Program in May 2014. THOSE PEOPLE is his first feature film. Joey had a conversation with Art Shrian, about the film, New York City and other stuff. Here are the excerpts:
What was your inspiration for this story?
For my first feature, I knew I wanted to tell a coming of age story for a young, gay man who meets the man of his dreams, but can’t let go of a lifelong infatuation with his best friend. In college, I accidentally fell in love with my gay best friend and kept it secret from him for years, afraid of ruining the friendship (and of rejection). I based Charlie and Sebastian’s friendship on the longstanding unrequited love I had for my friend, because I hadn’t been able to move past my “Sebastian.” I thought that exploring these emotions through the writing and directing of the film could help me get over him for good. Sebastian’s ostentatious voice is based on my friend, but his unique situation came from another source. I was drawn to the story of Mark Madoff, Bernie Madoff’s son who killed himself two years after his father went to prison – a man whose life was ruined for something he presumably did not do. I like difficult characters in film, but I knew I didn’t want to make Sebastian the main character. Instead, I wanted to explore that character through the eyes of someone who loved him. It was also important to me to make a movie with authentic representations of gay men my age, which I rarely see onscreen. I didn’t want to tell another coming out story.
Why choose NYC as the backdrop of your story?
I’m a lifelong New Yorker (born and raised), so the city is incredibly important to me. It’s part of my identity. There was never a question that my first feature would be set anywhere else. I wanted to make my own love letter to the city, full of locations that were both cinematic and meaningful. From a storytelling perspective, I like romantic films that have a larger sociopolitical backdrop, and I knew that setting the film on the Upper East Side in the aftermath of a financial scandal would raise all the stakes. I didn’t want the movie to feel small.
What was the toughest thing about making this film? And what is the most rewarding thing to see this film completed?
One of the challenging aspects of making this film was deciding where to put the line of unlikeability with the character of Sebastian. I wanted him to be a bit of an asshole, who could say offensive, albeit charming things, but I wanted him to have a growth arc. He has to learn throughout the course of the film how to put others before himself, which is the opposite of Charlie’s arc. So in both the writing stage and the editing stage, I would track how the audience was reacting to the character, and when, if ever, they started to like Sebastian. I would change or edit out a few lines here and there, and people’s reactions would shift drastically. But I know that Sebastian is not for everyone. Some people love him, and some people hate him. Personally, I have great affection for his character, flaws and all, and he was the most fun to write. But I have had to learn how to be okay with some people hating him, and sometimes, because of that, the movie. ...But trying to shoot the climactic roof scene outside during a huge, unexpected blizzard was not a walk in the park either.
The most rewarding thing has definitely been hearing from audiences who love the film, who connect with it emotionally, and see their own experiences reflected onscreen. So many people, both gay and straight, have told me the story of their “Sebastian.” I love that.
How important is it for storytellers to tell meaningful stories that can make a difference?
I think it’s important to always have the audience in mind when you’re making a film. I would love to be able to make a difference with my films, but for now I’m happy if I make something that touches people emotionally. I saw an interview with Dustin Lance Black, wherein he said that before he writes a script, he thinks about how he wants to “move the needle” in society. That’s a lot of pressure! I do feel a personal responsibility to create authentic representations of our community. I didn’t set out to make an overtly political film with Those People, but I do hope that people outside the LGBTQA community see the film and realize how similar we all are. People are people.
What are your favorite NYC based movies & TV shows? And why?
I love almost anything by Woody Allen. I’m a neurotic, Jewish, New Yorker, so I connect very deeply with his sense of humor and general neurosis about everyday life. Manhattan, for me, is the ultimate New York movie. Gordon Willis’ cinematography is just perfect. I watched that movie so many times for inspiration while writing Those People, even studying its narrative structure. I also love Hannah and Her Sisters, Bullets Over Broadway, and Interiors. Breakfast at Tiffany’s is another one of my favorite NYC movies. My mom watched that while she was in labor with me (which may explain why I’m gay). I want to cry everytime I hear “Moon River.” Paris is Burning is another one of my favorites - It’s incredible how so much of our gay slang today comes from that movie. I love the texture of the film, and how it captured the energy of the time. I think about the queens in that movie a lot, and how profound they were.
On the television front, nothing beats Felicity. I have such nostalgia for pre-cellphone New York. I was in high school when that was on, and I just wanted my college experience to feel like that. The first season is also beautifully shot, back when they used 16mm film. And Keri Russell is perfect. I was also a huge Will & Grace fan. I think the character of Will Truman was the first time I felt like I saw myself reflected onscreen, even as a closeted teenager. Gay characters on TV had mostly been the flouncing other until then, and that character truly helped “move the needle,” as DLB would say. When I came out of the closet to my family in 2003, my younger brother Jake, who was 12 at the time, exclaimed, “You’re just like Will from Will & Grace!”
THOSE PEOPLE presents a complicated gay love triangle, brimming with erotic tension, and opens a fascinating window into upper crust, young Manhattanites struggling to find themselves amidst a myriad of moral, emotional, and erotic choices.
On Manhattan's gilded Upper East Side, an impressionable young painter, Charlie (Jonathan Gordon), finds the man of his dreams in an older pianist from across the globe, Tim (Haaz Sleiman, 'The Visitor"). Unfortunately, Charlie is also consumed with desire and love for his manipulative best friend, Sebastian (Jason Ralph, "The Magicians"), who is embroiled in a Bernie Madoff-esque family financial scandal. Sebastian's coping mechanism is non-stop moneyed hedonism, and he insists Charlie join him on his self-destructive streak of sex, drinking and partying at his father's massive penthouse. In the wake of Sebastian's dangerous downward spiral, their tight-knit group of friends must confront the new realities of adulthood. Manhattan's Upper East Side provides the backdrop for a riveting tale of entitlement, privilege, loyalty, and their complicated effect on a young man's chance at love.
Beautifully shot, and capturing in fine detail a morally suspect world of elite Manhattan's young and rich, THOSE PEOPLE creates an unforgettable sense of place, mood, and time to tell an erotic story of the ethics of desperation disguised as desire. An award-winning debut feature from young, NYC raised writer/director Joey Kuhn.
Written, Directed, Produced by: Joey Kuhn
Starring: Jonathan Gordon, Jason Ralph (The Magicians), Haaz Sleiman (The Visitor), Britt Lower
Distributed by: Wolfe Video