Why He's On Our Radar: Director Jonathan Lisecki has had great success on the festival circuit with his shorts "Woman in Burka" and "Gayby." His feature debut, a longform version of "Gayby," in which he also plays a supporting role as a catty best friend, made its debut earlier this year at SXSW, and has gone on to play Provincetown, Frameline, and the Los Angeles Film Festival. The film follows thirty-something friends from college Matt (Wilkas) and Jenn (Harris) as they decide they want to bring a baby into the world the old-fashioned way. The couple continues to navigate the daunting New York dating scene throughout their trials and tribulations at attempting pregnancy, and much interpersonal strife and hilarity ensues.
This LGBT Pride weekend in New York, the film will play at Rooftop Films and BAMcinemaFest. His films and his mere presence in a room inspire belly laughs. Lisecki is the rare indie director who will brave the comedy genre — and he's here to stay.
How have people been responding to the film?
People respond to the film really well. In a number of audiences, people burst into applause. You never really think that's going to happen when you're making the film. On the festival circuit, it's getting great reactions from people all over. At the Castro [Theater in San Francisco], the audience was primarily LGBT; in Seattle in the day, it was mostly people who were retired. It's interesting to see it was being enjoyed by a variety of people, which is what my intention was, but you never know if that's going to happen.
I don't care, I like all the audiences. It's super fun to see it with a gay audience, because they get the stuff in a different way than a straight audience. I loved when a befuddled straight man admitted he liked my movie without knowing why. I just like to make things that I think I will enjoy and I hope other people will like them too.
[When I called Jonathan for the interview, he had just Tweeted the following: "dear straight people, it's ok for gay people to act REALLY GAY! we have earned that right. not all of us want to be butch/pretend straight."] I just saw your tweet. It seems like there's a certain response that some people have when gay men in television and film are feminine. It's become controversial to defend Jack on "Will & Grace."
It's a specific kind of person that criticizes it. They're usually heterosexual. People have the right to nitpick: "Those characters are gay." They say it like it's bad to be gay. I'm sorry, it's fine to be gay. I have a certain set of friends that I hang out with and we get really queeny. I'm not ashamed I'm not acting like a butch straight-acting guy. My sense of humor developed as a defense mechanism. Being funny protected me and many others from getting beat up. Jack Ferver and I can sometimes be like that. We play queeny characters in the film. We're not playing ourselves but we're playing people that exist. Gay people who act over the top exist, I hate to break it to you. I don't think people realize that this is how we protected ourself. I never watched "Will & Grace," but there's something in film criticism where, for some critics, if your film is funny, you get accused of being too sitcom, like it's a bad thing. To me, being funny is great as long as you're not dumbing it down. I don't feel like the script dumbs anything down. A gay person says what Matt and Jenn try to do is ludicrous — because I want that voice to be heard too.
So how does "Gayby" fit in with what's going on in LGBT film right now?
I get this kind of question a lot. Gay film in general now is not just gay film, it's just film, so that's good. There are certainly people who are making films more or less for a gay audience. I titled it "Gayby" so that we would keep away people who wouldn't be into that to begin with. But this film is half about Jenn and half about Matt, told in my voice, the voice of a gay men. There's a lot of quality gay cinema being made that is being seen by a wide audience, and that's a good thing.
How did you become funny?
[As the question is asked, Lisecki happens to be playing with his butter knife, sliding it through his hair like it's a hair clip.] It's trying to do stuff like that, seeing if it works. Somebody asked me that at Castro. I was feeling tired and it was at the end of the Q&A, so I snapped, "Did you not hear me say I grew up gay in the Bronx?" I learned to act out of the birth canal: From the beginning I was all [takes on a deep voice], "Hey, what's up! I'm straight" But it came from my family. They're crazy, Irish-y, Bronx drunk types. They're all naturally storytellers. I'm probably the only one who's pursuing it hard core, as a full-time career. In an environment like that, you had to be loud to be noticed. It's something about growing up poor in a neighborhood that's not the best, you have to spin things as comedy.
There's a difference between kids who grew up with money and go to get their MFA in Film and make depressing movies. People like me see too much early. You learn how to re-interpret things that are too much. Native New Yorkers are storytellers in their own way. They try to top each other with the stories they tell. We were all natural embellishers.
How did you become a filmmaker then?
I went to school for theater, I did a lot of downtown theater. But after a while, spaces were not affordable. I was doing very independent theater. We put so much work into these pieces, but after three or four weeks, your run would be over and you wouldn't have anything to show for it. We did take one play to LA and then to an HBO theater festival. We tried to sell that as a pilot. The audience becomes very limited. More people saw my first short film that have ever seen my plays. I shot it myself, recorded it myself, me and Sarita [the actress in "Woman in Burka"] made it up as we go along. I was gonna go to grad school, but I realized it would be smarter for me to teach myself along the way. I have access to production equipment to practice around with at my day job [working in actors' management]. It certainly helped me make the short. It helps to have a day job.
I know you worked with a lot of your friends in this film, a lot of people who you worked with over the years, in theater and elsewhere. Is it important to you to know who you're working with?
I have to make films with people I enjoy being around. I didn't want to be surprised in a negative way. I've done plays with a number of people in the cast. There's something to be said for the people who know that acting is a job. My crew was made up completely of other filmmakers who were doing jobs they no longer had to do because they had become more successful. Everyone on the crew was amazing, and everyone on the cast was amazing. It's something really important and I'd like to replicate it each time. It was super important for this, and I got really lucky. I do like actors who are in it for the love of the craft instead of just to be famous or to be in that kind of movie, but these are the kind of people I know. I know the kind of person who are so poor they won't eat well for a month just to stay doing the kind of work they want to do. As a performer, I needed to have people around who I can trust. You can direct your friends and you can tweak and adjust. They already know your voice and the kind of tone you want. Christopher Guest is like the dream mentor, because he has all those amazing people who he always works with who are just so hilarious. I'd like to keep working with the people I've worked with.
And what's next?
I want an HBO show called "Gays." I want Adam Driver [who plays Lena Dunham's hot-and-cold boyfriend on "Girls" and has a role in "Gayby"] to play my boyfriend. I discovered him! [laughs]
I have a script that I wrote before this, that I think I'm going to go back and work on. I think because I have to promote this film and go along with it on the festival circuit, it's so a part of the job, you can't do anything else for the rest of the summer. We're probably gonna have a limited release and the plan is to have it all out by the end of the year. For now, we continue on the path on "Gayby."