Jesse Rosen’s directorial debut, “The Art of Being Straight,” follows 23-year old Jon (played by Rosen), who has just moved to Los Angeles from New York, ostensibly “taking a break” from his longtime girlfriend. Jon is hardly comfortable discussing his shifting Kinsien scale placement, and his new job as bottom-rung gofer at a major ad agency is fraught with sexual tension as a studly boss (Johnny Ray Rodriguez) barrages him with thinly veiled come-ons. Infamous among his buddies as a womanizer, Jon is more surprised than anyone when he ultimately falls for his boss’ seductive charms, which sends him spiraling into a world of sexual confusion. indieWIRE talked to Rosen about the film, which screened last summer at Frameline and the Philadelphia International Gay and Lesbian Film Festival, and won the audience award at the Dublin Gay & Lesbian Film Festival. It opens this Friday in select cities through Regent Releasing, day and date with its availability on here! television.
Please tell us about yourself…
I grew up in Freehold, NJ, and went to Emerson College, graduating with a B.F.A. in writing literature and publishing. This is my first feature film.
What initially attracted you to filmmaking, and how has that interest evolved during your career?
I grew up at the movies. It was a real bonding experience to go with my father. I fell in love with Woody Allen and other greats that way. (Although, I did make him sit through a lot of my choices as well, mostly early Jim Carrey).
I liked how daring movies were and always have to be. They lure all these strangers into the dark and often try to keep them there. At the same time, it’s this communal feeling that I fell in love with. I began to realize movies always have the potential to be events… and that’s fairly attractive.
Are there other aspects of filmmaking that you would still like to explore?
I don’t think so. Writing, directing, and attempting to act should keep me busy for awhile.
Please talk about how the initial idea for “The Art of Being Straight” came about?
The initial idea for the film came not only from personal experience, but from conversations over the years with so many of those in my generation who had experienced similar things. I despised (and still do) how in some places it’s actually okay to be gay but not to question your sexuality – anything in between the extremes and unable to be labeled wasn’t/isn’t really acceptable. This was fuel to the fire. I also felt that there wasn’t a film that spoke of same-sex experiences in a way that I understood. I kept searching the aisles of the video store…
Please elaborate a bit on your approach to making the film, including your influences…
My approach was “you ain’t got nothin’, if you got nothin’ to lose” so in that respect, Dylan is always an influence. I wrote the film in a way that always kept it makeable, that was my approach. This way, no bitter, old Hollywood bastard could tell me it was impossible – despite their attempts. I came across Joe Swanberg and the Duplass Brothers’ films and they were a definite inspiration in the DIY-tradition and they were making such honest films to boot. It was an honor that they offered to help.
My goal for the project was simply for people to see the film, but more importantly, the right people.
What were some of the biggest challenges you faced in either developing the project?
Writing a script is one thing; getting people to quit their jobs and come work for free for you is another. That was a challenge. Amy Wasserman, one of the producers, did that and I think she’s still pissed at me.
Writing, directing and acting was a definite challenge but was never my intention. Our lead dropped out 3 days before shooting, and when there was talk of putting the film on hold, I said no, we are making this *&^% film, and I stepped in. It wasn’t as difficult as you’d think when you have such passionate, creative people surrounding you. I remember shooting a gay sex scene and when I called cut, and asked those at the monitor how it looked, the gaffer (who happened to be gay) yelled out that it “didn’t look real enough.”
We had very little money and time too (I think we shot 16 pages one day), so tuning out people who said we couldn’t do it was difficult too. They can be loud… and really annoying. People in LA talk about making movies a lot, but rarely make anything. I wanted to change that.
When making the film and seeking distribution, it was really important that the film reach beyond just a ‘gay’ audience. Regent Releasing was a real opportunity for the film to get out there.
How did the financing and casting for the film come together?
The film was financed by panhandling. Not really, but in actuality not too far from the truth. I knocked on every door I saw, one of which left a nice check in a microwave on his doorstep. But I finally got to some private investing that got us through initial production. Laurence Ducceschi, our executive producer, was a savior, and helped us through the post-production process. We would have been lost without him.
Casting was done in my apartment with a mini-dv camera. Amy and I did it. I remember once she couldn’t make it. We were casting Paul, and I had all these strange, older men showing up at my apartment, just me and my video camera. That was odd. But that’s also how I met Johnny.
Who are some of the creative influences that have had the biggest impact on you?
Godard, Dylan, Ginsberg, Woody Allen, Spielberg, Springsteen, Ives.
What is your next project?
I’ve got my next few projects in a row, and I don’t think any of them are of the same genre necessarily. My next project which I’m gearing up for is a father-son story, set mostly in present-day New Orleans…
What is your definition of “independent film,” and has that changed at all since you first started working?
Independent film is film with an independent mind.
And no, I don’t think so.
What are some of your all-time favorite films, and why?
“Braveheart” for its score, “Good Will Hunting” for its smarts, Baz’s “Romeo & Juliet” for its scale, “Breathless” for its eternal qualities, and “E.T.,” because it’s the best movie ever made. In the last few years, I loved “Old Joy,” “The Diving Bell & The Butterfly” and “Wall-E.” Most recently, I surprisingly dug “Adventureland.”
What are your interests outside of film?
I’m currently looking for band members.
What general advice would you impart to emerging filmmakers?
I was hoping they’d give me advice, but if you’re asking me I’d say, don’t listen to anyone and go make your movie, even if you have to use your beat-up, broken 8mm.
Will you please share with us an achievement from your career so far that you are most proud of?
The premiere in San Francisco was a real thrill for all of us. It was a 12pm showing on a Friday so I think we were just expecting some friends. We got there and there was a line down the block. When I asked someone what they were waiting for and they said AOBS, I was like… “Why?” Ha. I might have broke the seat I was sitting in gripping so hard, but I think we were all really proud that it was getting seen, hard-work paying off. Also, my dad had shown up in San Francisco as a surprise. This is not to say I recommend making films where you have sex and invite your whole family, that’s a whole other experience, but I was really proud to have him there.