An Interview with Stephen Kijak, writer and director of "Never Met Picasso"
by Stephen Garrett
Having completed its tour of gay and lesbian film festivals in San Francisco,
Washington, D.C., Chicago, Philadelphia, Los Angeles and New York, Stephen
Kijak's writing and directing debut, "Never Met Picasso" now heads towards its
commercial release thanks to the San Francisco-based specialty distributor
Turbulent Arts. Slated to open this Friday in Boston and Los Angeles, with
New York and San Francisco dates planned for January, the low-budget (under
$150,000) film stars Alexis Arquette as a Boston-based young gay painter
stymied by an artistic block which he felt could be only be cured by a
pipe-dream pilgrimage to Africa. Helping him through this creative
constipation are his performance-art mother (Margot Kidder), his childhood
best friend Lucy (Georgia Ragsdale), who is also a gay artist whose
girlfriend Ingrid (Omewenne) channels the spirits of dead artists as
inspiration for her work, and his gay uncle (Don McKellar), a painter
himself, haunted by a mysterious past.
indieWIRE: You filmed "Never Met Picasso" in Boston. What's the independent
film scene like in that city?
Stephen Kijak: Boston is a very big commercial town, and it's, like, a
backlot [for Hollywood]: big movies come and shoot there, and then take off.
It has also always had a very strong documentary tradition, because of
public TV. It was funny, because I was living in San Francisco, I was
thinking of making ["Picasso"] out there, but it just never felt right because
the film is so much about roots and home and family, which is why I had to
go back home, essentially, to get this thing going -- and that's where it
all started and happened. So I really wasn't part of any independent scene
up until that point -- I really didn't know. I kind of went back and got
back in touch with Angelica Brisk, who was the film's editor, and her husband
Thomas Trumbull -- we had gone to school together -- and relied on them to
find out what was up in Boston, because we had to make a movie -- how do we
go about it? What do we do? And we really just kind of forged our own
little independent scene. Because people were starting to do stuff -- we
were making our film right around when Rob Patton Spruill was making "Squeeze". So here we are with, like, the "queer art movie" and he had the "kids on the
street with drugs and guns" movie -- so we had both ends of the spectrum
covered. And I think because of what we did, we helped to really kick-start
Boston's indie scene. SAG told us that we caused a total avalanche. They
had never done the limited exhibition contract [in Boston]. We did the first
one, really, that that office had ever done before. We felt like we were the
only people doing it. But "The Darian Gap" had been made, and there were films
being made. But it felt kind of cool because we felt like we were really
making this Indie thing happen in Boston.
iW: It's funny -- it's such a huge college town, and yet there's no film
school there, is there?
Kijak: Not of great prominence, but Boston University's film program is becoming
so much more respected and well attended. Rob Patton Spruill came out of the
program, Hillary Weisman who made an indie called "Life's Too Good" who is now
living in Boston -- she has a company called Firefly Films. And they just
produced a short film with my editor Angelica called "Sex Without Love" --
women poetry shorts. And that film is going to screen before "Picasso" during
the Boston run. But what happens in Boston is that people graduate and
leave. That's the problem. So how do you keep a creative pool of people
living and working there? Because it such a student community. I mean, I'm
living in New York right now; but I've always been a bit of a gypsy. But
going home to make ["Picasso"] was very important.
iW: What's the gay and lesbian scene in Boston like?
Kijak: It's not San Francisco, it's not New York, but it's pretty vibrant. It's
just like Boston itself: it feels like it's a little more conservative, but
that's the nature of the Northeast. But it was where we found our support --
we were, like, the first queer film to be made in Boston. So from investors
to restaurants, volunteers, everything: the support was outpouring. The
typical story of "the whole community came together" -- it really did. We
had a great experience. And the gay community is very active and very
political. Massachusetts has some of the more liberal gay rights legislation
in the country. And some of the best gay newspapers, I think. It's weird.
You'd think that New York would be on the edge -- and it is in a lot of
ways. But Boston is -- it's smaller but it's a very tight community, I
iW: Your film is equally a queer film as much as it is a film about artists.
Did you feel very strongly that for your first film you wanted to make them
both a strong focus? How do you see this film?
Kijak: For me, it's about cinema. I'm a film nut. I'm very concerned with the
process and the art and the technique of film. And that is the foremost
thing for me. To be true to myself as a writer and as a filmmaker, I'm going
to reflect the world that I live in. And by doing that, it's going to become
a queer film. I'm not saying it's a "queer film." Of course, it has gay and
lesbian characters in it, and of course it is much more along those lines.
But it's not like that was an intention. It's just that I have these nutty
ideas about history and art and family and the past and the dead supporting
the ideas of the living -- that was much more the focus. We would always
joke at festivals that our motto was, "putting the 'art' back in 'art fag'."
That's it! That was what we want to do. Being gay is just one other
function of who these characters are, and maybe I'm trying to be more
political by that very fact: not ignoring it, but making it so normal, and
it's not really an issue because it shouldn't be.
iW: It's nice, too. You get a sense of -- maybe tradition is too strong a
word -- but you get a sense of continuity. Because you have the uncle who
has his own gay world that he brings to the film. And you get a sense of
history, in a sense. And the woman channeling the spirits of dead artists --
iW: From both ends, from the gay and lesbian side and then also the art side
you get a sense of tradition which is really strong.
Kijak: That's basically it, in a nutshell. That what I was trying to portray.
And I think it's very important for not only just young gay people but
especially young gay artists and filmmakers to have a knowledge and a respect
for their history. Because a lot of what you see right now -- what is
considered the "gay culture," or whatever -- seems very recent. It seems
very body-oriented, it seems very style and fashion-oriented. And we kind of
forget. You go to maybe Stonewall as a benchmark of the beginning -- but go
beyond that. It's such a rich, diverse history in and of itself, not only
with that but in our contribution to the arts, which is staggering.
[Stephen Garrett, a frequent contributor to indieWIRE, is a writer and editor
based in Los Angeles.]