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Spotlight on Young Queer Filmmakers: Tommy Craven’s ‘Getting Off’

Spotlight on Young Queer Filmmakers: Tommy Craven’s 'Getting Off'

The queer cinema legacy is long and rich. As film historian and
AIDS activist Vito Russo will tell you in his seminal classic The Celluloid Closet, queer cinema
stretches nearly as far back as narrative feature films. In black and white or
in color, with coded comedic riffs on homosexuality and explicit sex between
non-heterosexual partners, there is much to see, offensive or not, from the
decades of queer film offered up to audiences around the world.

Young queer filmmakers are given a unique opportunity, then. Take
and learn. Take from your own favorite queer filmmakers and their many gifts
and perspectives. Learn from the disappointments and mistakes they have made
along the way, whether bending for the MPAA’s harsh rules against explicit gay
content or going too broad with stereotypes, plot points, etc…Take advantage
of what they have learned, and learn about what it has taken to achieve the
diversity and wealth of modern queer cinema.

It should be noted that today’s queer filmmakers also have
progress and history on their side. As LGBT rights become a greater reality in
America, and around the world (with notable and disturbing exceptions, of
course), promotion of queer work is likewise a greater reality. As technology
advances and audiences become linked through high-speed internet rather than a
weekend trip to the megaplex, young queer filmmakers have the opportunity to
present their work to a select group of people through platforms like Vimeo.
The move away from network television toward online platforms like Amazon Prime
and Netflix also allows for loosened content restrictions, pushing beyond what
many (including Vito Russo) thought possible in representation of queer
individuals.

In short, it is an exciting time to be making films as a queer
person, about queer people, and for queer audiences. Just ask Tommy Craven, a
senior at New York University and a deeply personal filmmaker taking advantage
of that historical perspective and technological advancement.

Craven’s latest project, Getting
Off
, serves as his senior thesis. In that sense it is an apotheosis, the
apex of course work in film production, sexuality studies, and media that he
has been mastering throughout his college career, and his life. Out at a young
age, Craven identifies strongly with the LGBTQ community, and all of his work
is focused there in some way. Whether fighting the powers that be at his local
rural Indiana public high school to create a Gay-Straight Alliance (he
partnered with the ACLU!) or harnessing past experiences to create authentic,
and highly socially-conscious cinematic work, Tommy is never less than proud of
his identity. 

His often experimental, always compelling short films have found
an audience online, but Getting Off is
a different beast altogether. For the first time, Craven’s had to reach out and
crowd source his film through an Indiegogo campaign; you can donate here.

Synopsis: In Getting Off, Dane, a recent college
graduate in New York City, reflects on his time working as an escort to pay his
way through school as he prepares to take his first real job in another city.
Before he leaves, Dane decides to pay his dearest client, Harris, one last
visit. Harris, a sweet middle aged man, has been paying Dane for sex and
companionship during Dane’s time in school, and as the reality of their last
time together sets in, the two recount their history together and discover that
getting off to a new start apart might be more difficult than they thought.

I sat down with Tommy and chatted about what it means to be a
young queer filmmaker today, what he admires about queer artists, and how Getting Off is situated in his
filmography.

Bent: Where do you
draw inspiration from?

Tommy: A lot, if not
all of my writing comes from personal experiences and finding a compelling way
to talk about them that would make people actually want to watch and listen.
Last year, I dug deep into my soul to tell the story of my molestation when I
was younger. I dwelled for a long time about how to talk about it and whether
film was really the best way to go about it. I started writing, and the topic
felt urgent. But my words felt melodramatic and way too personal to put out
there for others. Using that urgency, I decided to tell a fictional story about
what I felt I might do if the person who molested me were to be on trial for
another crime. This allowed me to explore my emotions and tell my story while
also giving an audience a clear, concise story.

I’ve done that with this film, and I always, always have to tell
a story or portray characters that don’t ever get the time. You’ll never see me
write something about a white woman struggling to overcome a demon…it’s just
not my thing, and I’m inspired when I hear and see people that are rarely given
a platform.

Of course visually, I look at Instagram, art porn, Vimeo, and the
streets of New York City to pull [inspiration].

Bent: What, if
anything, do you think young queer filmmakers have to offer that people of an
older generation did not?

Tommy: Well I think
young queer filmmakers are much more able to tell their stories than ever
before, and there’s a lot of reasons for that. One is pretty obvious, but
there’s just way better technology and way more platforms to utilize. I mean, I
upload a film to Vimeo, I have 1,000 views in a few days, and suddenly I have a
community that wants my work and actually watches it. That’s huge for a
filmmaker to have support like that, and what makes it more huge, is that I’m
not some Cinderella story. This is the case for so many young filmmakers who
use online platforms and social media to build an audience. It’s easy.

Then as a queer filmmaker, with LGBTQ rights escalating year
after year (with a ton more work to go) there’s an openness to talk about
issues and to have visibility and to take ownership of our histories.
Filmmakers have the opportunity to harness that and do really good work that
past generations may not have been able to do as easily or successfully.

Producers and filmmakers always talk about “getting access” being
one of the hardest parts of filmmaking; access to willing queer people and
LGBTQ stories has never been more viable than in 2015. That, along with
technology, is an exciting mix for queer filmmakers eager to fill the industry
with more and more visibility for queer people.

Bent: What about your
work is “queer” and do you appreciate that identification in your
work?

Tommy: I definitely
own the queer filmmaker title because it’s so much of what my art is about.
Most of my experiences involve being queer and most of the stories I want to
tell are about being queer, and I want to own that voice so people know I’m
serious about it. Sometimes there is controversy when a straight person or cisgender
person tries to tell a queer story or play a queer character, and I think a lot
of times it is very problematic. I think one of the best examples I’ve seen
lately where it actually works is Transparent,
and it’s because that production put so much emphasis on working with real
trans people and having them directly involved in the process. By giving myself
the queer filmmaker title, I feel more responsible and committed to telling a
queer narrative that is honest and calculated. It raises the stakes for me and
gives people who watch my films an expectation of me that I take seriously.

I have worked on non-queer material [as a producer], but I feel
that what I embody as a queer filmmaker goes beyond just talking about LGBTQ
issues. It gives me the ability to work with (not necessarily have full control
over) material that deals with people marginalized in other areas, such as
race, gender, religion, ethnicity, etc… I feel like my queer experience
brings me closer to being able to empathize with other stories and characters
and tell those stories accurately and compassionately as well. But like my
example with Transparent, working
with characters and stories that you don’t directly identify with takes extra
work and research along with a helping hand from those who do.

Bent: What do you see
as the biggest problem/difficulty with getting queer art produced in our
country?

Tommy: Progressive
material in general is hard, and people might say, “Well look at all the
gay/trans people on TV now.” And I’m like, yeah but look at the stories they
are telling. Every gay person gets bullied and then finds acceptance. Every
trans person goes through their transition then fizzles out. I know that’s not
really every character arc in mainstream TV and film right now, but it is very
close to the truth. LGBTQ representation is still controlled by the straight
gaze. What will the straight viewers find interesting and what will they be
able to handle? Definitely not sex or kissing except may once or twice. With
the straight gaze still very much in control, I think it is hard to get new
LGBTQ characters and stories into a mainstream platform that actually pushes
boundaries and paints more honest portrayals.

Right now, a lot of queer characters are just that gay uncle that
you like but don’t know if you agree with, and that’s hard to combat. Luckily,
we have platforms like Netflix and Amazon and Youtube and Vimeo where you can
access independent queer movies and TV—these platforms can bring the big city
film scene into the homes of struggling LGBTQ youth in the Midwest. That’s
something I hold on to as I make the films I want to make and not mainstream
media.

Bent: What do you
admire in other queer films/filmmakers, and do you try to inject that into your
own work?

Tommy: “Everyone is
just so brave” is my initial reaction, but then I think, “Well what choice do
we have?” For so long our community has been misrepresented, and we are the
only ones who can combat that and regain our voice and truth. So what I admire
is everyone in the queer film community’s mutual understanding of that. And
because of that mutual understanding, films just get made. Whether there’s
money, whether there’s time, whether there’s a place to show it, it doesn’t
matter. There’s such an urgency and commitment to being heard that good and
beautiful work just happens, and that dedication and resilience is so cool. And
of course I feel the same way, so I try to set similar goals of making sure I’m
always working on a project that’s important to me (or someone else) so I can
constantly be adding to this growing queer voice instead of letting someone
else tell me who I am.

Bent: How does Getting Off figure into your body of
work?

Tommy: Getting Off is my first time
writing/directing a film that I’m really putting in a pretty big chunk of money
to make. I want my cast to be as a strong as possible. I want my camera work
and art direction to be on point. I want the sound to be its own piece of art.
To do this I have to hire the best that I can, and unfortunately that takes
money. Now, we are still operating on a shoestring budget, but my other films
have been favors and volunteers with little money for props and costumes and
what not. And while I think that the heart of any movie is the story and the
characters, I wanted to see what my writing would sound like and what my
directing would look like if I upped the quality just a notch and put money in
appropriate places. Getting Off is
doing that for me while, at the end of the day, also telling one the best stories
I think I’ve written and showcasing a world and people I’ve wanted to talk
about for a long time.

To donate to the Getting
Off
Indiegogo campaign, check out the website here. And take a look at
Craven’s other work at www.tommycraven.com; highlights include Manifesto, Rivers and Parking Lots, and Captured.

 

This Article is related to: Features