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As You Like It

Seeing as how Charlie's still away, and is currently at risk, it seems, of being kept away by an irate Icelandic volcano god, I thought I'd slip in another post to help tide things over, maybe riff off something I touched on at the end of the previous entry, and in a couple of comments after. Cause, yeah, another of my current madcap schemes is the screenplay I'm trying to sell for a high school movie based on As You Like It, with the female character of Rosalind changed to a male character, Ross. Is that a sellable proposition? I ask myself. I don't know. One commenter rightly points to the success of Brokeback Mountain. Another points to Glee. And both of these are pertinent. But maybe, I think, it's worth expanding on the backstory of how the script came about to give a sense of why -- as much as I wish it were otherwise -- those two examples don't entirely assuage my doubts. Not that I think it's entirely hopeless.

So, OK, it all began with a happenstance encounter via Wikipedia with a cool little movie called The Curiosity of Chance, starring Tad Hilgenbrinck. The actor was entirely unfamiliar to me from his roles in sequels to American Pie and The Lost Boys but, hey, he was clearly a hottie, so I was intrigued enough to track down a copy. Set in the 80s, it's a straight-up high school movie in the mold of Ferris Bueller's Day Off, by turns comedic and dramatic, a thoroughbred of its genre right down to the Battle of the Bands denouement. There are two differences though: 1) Hilgenbrinck's main character, Chance Marquis, is openly gay, so the whole thwarted-love rom-com plot is about this quirky outsider having the hots for the jock next door; 2) It's set in an international high school in Belgium.

The latter is visibly a constraint of budget and funding, (the indie production had to actually go there to find the damn money and willpower to get the film made) with the largely Belgian cast performing characters with names like Hank and Brad. It jars at first, and there's a few of the supporting cast that don't quite pull it off, but I found once I got past that initial discord, I fell in love with the movie. A bona fide high school movie with a gay kid as the protagonist? Awesome! And it is, I think, a little gem of a piece in terms of a script that sings and zings, and wonderful performances from Hilgenbrinck and Chris Mulcahy as his military father. (One of the things I love most about it is the way Mulcahy's character slips out of the overbearing, homophobic dictator dad cliche into something much more subtle and ultimately sympathetic.) Anyway, I blogged about it here so I won't go on.

A little while later I caught another movie set in a high school, again with a gay protagonist at its heart, another indie flick called Were The World Mine. And better still, this one's a musical, and better still a musical based on A Midsummer Night's Dream. It's rougher around the edges than TCoC, I think, but again I found myself having a lot of love for it. So again I blogged about it, though the entry linked is less a review and more of a fanciful riff on the fact I couldn't help but see parallels between the leads in this movie and two characters I use a lot in my own fiction. (So, yeah, quite possibly meaningless to those unfamiliar with my stuff.) In the comments thread to that entry though, a reader grumped that this was patently escapist fluff when compared to something like The History Boys. Do we really need the banality of a Gay High School Musical, for crying out loud? was the general sentiment.

This is, I reckon, a very bad comparison, the music in WtWM being way more interesting than the sort of treacly trite Disney nonsense that, trust me, gives me the boak as much as anyone. But my main argument wasn't to defend WtWM -- or TCoC for that matter -- as serious cinema, especially when that runs the risk of derailing into arguments over idioms like the musical or the high school movie which some are going to disregard as essentially populist low art whatever you say. No, my argument was simply that we do indeed need exactly those popcorn flicks. Brokeback Mountain is a great movie, but does this serious, worthy movie actually offer much to a fourteen year old kid? To a not particularly precocious teen who doesn't want to see a ponderous tale of the human condition, just the same sort of fun popcorn flicks his mates are going to... but one where it's his story being told, not theirs, not always, always theirs? For all that Brokeback Mountain was groundbreaking, My Beautiful Launderette broke that same ground over twenty years previous; and being there at the time, as a gay high school kid, you know, I didn't really want to see something sophisticated and sensitive and blah blah fucking blah. Booooooring!

I wanted Grease with Danny Zucco as a deviant, Star Wars with Han Solo as a homo, Raiders of the Lost Ark with Indie as an invert. (It's not a Harrison Ford thing; he was never my type. Those are just the first examples that spring to mind. Just saying.) What I mean is, as a kid I wanted John Hughes to have made something like The Curiosity of Chance, so I didn't have to project a queer reading onto Some Kind of Wonderful by pretending that Watts was not just a tomboy but an actual boy boy. And as a writer now, that's the sort of shit that drives me to create works that might hopefully fill that niche for others. I see movies like The Curiosity of Chance or Were the World Mine as important steps beyond where we are today, where you can, yes, have a gay protagonist in serious cinema with mainstream backing, but when it comes to the popcorn flicks the fags are relegated to supporting roles. Glee has been superlative in the storylines it's allotted to the Kurt character, but he is still secondary. Rachel and Finn, Schue and Sylvester -- that's where the core stories are at.

But here's the thing. As I was making this argument in the comments, saying how I saw this as an absence begging to be filled, I wanted to ensure that I wasn't painting a bleaker picture of reality than was fair. The Curiosity of Chance exists, after all. Were the World Mine exists. These are indie flicks made on shoestring budgets, labours of love the both of them, but they are out there. And maybe I was just ignorant. Maybe I'd just missed the movies I was looking for. So, in the interests of fairness, I did a quick Google on "gay kid" and "high school movie". The result at that time was my post on The Curiosity of Chance as the top hit.

That floored me. I wrote it into my response -- so ironically the page that comes top now is the one where I comment on it. I twittered about it. I realised Google might be doing something weird algorithmically just for me, so I signed out and tried again. Same response. I'm still half-convinced there's something I've missed, but I've talked about it on numerous occasions and I'm yet to get someone coming back with, "No, I get something else entirely." And I know my hit stats. I know how low a profile my blog has. I'm staggered at the idea that nowhere on the whole internet are those phrases used together on a page that trumps me. They're not that idiosyncratic, surely. Gay kid. High school movie. How can these phrases not be popping up together all over the place?

And the answer seems to be because the movie that would have that effect doesn't exist. While The Curiosity of Chance and Were the World Mine are out there, they didn't get to sit at the big table with the grown-ups. They didn't get backed by major studios. They didn't get Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal. They didn't get Ang Lee. They didn't get the serious PR that comes with all of that, the hype that's only boosted by the fact that -- holy fuck! -- it's as big a movie as you can get in terms of investment and it's a motherfucking gay love story.

That's the movie I want to see.

Forget Brokeback Mountain. Forget Glee. Or better still, think of what I want as the fusion of the two. With the big studio budget and support of something like 10 Things I Hate About You, The Curiosity of Chance or Were the World Mine could have been, I think, game-changers in Hollywood. There was a time when Hollywood still baulked at the notion of a black lead in a popcorn flick, a good old-fashioned blockbuster. Now all such nonsense notions can be quashed with two words: Will Smith. Would a gay lead in a popcorn flick really be surefire box office disaster? What is the target demographic of your average high school movie as, in many respects, a rom-com for teens? What proportion of that prospective audience is female? How many men who actually want to see 10 Things I Hate About You are contrarily going to refuse to see something comparable just because the lead character's queer?

Did whites stay away in droves from I Am Legend because they, like, just couldn't relate to Will Smith?

If you think that comparison is a stretch, this is the same issue that's beset another movie, Falling For Grace, as pointed out by the Interstitial Arts Foundation. That movie is a straight-up romantic comedy, written and directed by Fay Ann Lee, who also stars in it. As the name might suggest, Lee is Chinese-American. Which apparently means "no movie studio, no TV channel, and barely any theaters will pick up this film." Lee has been told in no uncertain terms that the movie can't be marketed as the rom-com it is, only as an "Asian-American film."

Imagine: "I'm sorry, Mr Smith. We couldn't possibly sell I Am Legend as a sci-fi action/adventure blockbuster. With a black guy in the lead role, we could only ever market it as a Black film."

How fucked up would that be? But that does seem to be the logic at play here for Falling from Grace. I can't help but think the same is true for the high school movie I want to see with a gay kid as a protagonist, and I suspect it will hold until such time as the game-changing movie comes along that smashes through the craven cowardice. Being an ambitious and contrarian son-of-a-bitch, of course, seeing that woeful state of affairs, getting that gobsmacking Google result thrown back in my face, didn't make me simply bemoan the stark reality. Bollocks to that. As I sat there, trying to put into words my sheer shock at being the top hit for a string combination like "gay kid" and "high school movie," I found myself basically saying, oh fuck, if the movie I'm looking for doesn't exist, the only thing I can do about this is try and fucking write it.

And thus was born Whatever the Fuck You Want.

It's a simple premise. If you've read As You Like It, it's based on that, pretty much scene for scene. Even the dialogue, while modernised and freely fucked around with, is largely riffing off Shakespeare's original text. The big change -- switching Rosalind's gender -- is actually, I think, in keeping with a quite radical subtext to this play, an update of a feisty queer spirit I see in it. You know that in Shakespeare's day the female parts would have been played by a boy, right? Well, the main plot of AYLI revolves around Orlando meeting and falling in love with Rosalind early on. Almost immediately though, she has to go on the lam disguised as a boy, calling herself Ganymede (ahem!) When they meet up again, he doesn't recognise her. As Orlando moons over this Rosalind girl, "Ganymede" offers to help him practise his courtship skills by pretending to be her. So we end up with Orlando pretending to woo a girl who, he thinks, is really a boy, who is really a girl, who is really, in reality, a boy. Dig? Shakespeare's gender-bending is, I think, so consciously playing with this that modern performances with Rosalind played by a woman erase a fundamental import. Because she -- no, he -- no, she -- no, he -- is actually the person Orlando loves, only he doesn't realise it. Hmmmmm.

But wait, you might say, isn't that last "no, he" stepping out of the story? Like, the base character is still a girl, it's just the actor would have been a boy, so there's that whole fourth wall between her and him, no? But Shakespeare breaks the fourth wall.

In the epilogue to that play, the actor playing Rosalind addresses the audience directly, first with an excuse for the irregularity of having a woman speak the epilogue. But, hey, if it's fine for a man to do the prologue, she says, why shouldn't a woman do the epilogue? The usual elicitations of indulgence are made: we tried our best; give us a break if it wasn't your cup of tea. But then something interesting happens. All you women in the audience, Rosalind says, for the sake of the love you bear to men, I ask you to like this play... as much as it pleases you. (I'm paraphrasing here.) All you men in the audience, for the sake of the love you bear women -- and we know you do cause you spend so much time whining about them -- maybe "between you and the women the play may please." Which rather reads to me as if Shakespeare knows fine well that your average red-blooded male may suffer "chick flicks" only for the sake of his girlfriend. So you don't like rom-coms? Be happy that you're making her happy, by being here with her. Find the pleasure in sharing this experience between you.

And then comes the kicker.

"If I were a woman..." says Rosalind. And where is the stress in that? "If I were a woman..." If it were me at your side. "If I were a woman..." But I'm not. "If I were a woman, I would kiss as many of you as had beards that pleased me, complexions that liked me, and breaths that I defied not..." I'd kiss all you fine specimens of manhood, with your manly beards, your smooth skin, your sweet breath. If I were a woman, that is. You hunks, you.

There's a blatant flirtation here, as I see it, a feisty faggotry that demands to be acted with desire. I've read at least one commentary that posited the actor's removal of his wig as part of the performance. With the explicit admission of gender -- that he is not a woman -- the character is being abandoned, the pretence stripped away. To remove the wig at this key point while carrying on the coy plea for indulgence, to stand revealed as a boy while still coquettishly teasing the men in the audience... this is, I think, queer theatre in action. It is defiantly deviant, an inversion of the play's "truth" -- that Ganymede is really Rosalind. No, it's saying, Rosalind is really Ganymede.

Granted, it's fairly coy for the most part, almost everything in the subtext. We're not talking a bad boy like Marlowe here, happy to break a few noses on his path to an early death, picking Edward II as subject -- the king who, for his sexual sins, got a red-hot poker up where the sun don't shine. But does Shakespeare worry that all the straight boys will have their masculinity so threatened by a hint of Teh Gayz that they'll stay away in droves? Does he chicken out from what, if played just so, could well have been pretty much in-your-face faggotry, for fear that it'll make men run a mile? No, "for the love you bear to women" Rosalind says to the men. Enjoy it for her sake. Don't get all gruff and manly man heteronormative about it. "If I were a woman, I would kiss as many of you as had beards that pleased me..." You're too handsome to be a homophobe, honey.

I studied the play at uni, and loved it for that from the off. Part of me wonders if Shakespeare was deliberately writing it for the queers on the stage and the queers in the audience, to give the actors a chance to play lovers without one of them in a dress, to give the audience that sight. To give them a scene where a boy dressed as a boy stands on stage and, as other characters proclaim the passions of love, that love is this and that and the other, and that this is how they feel for such-and-such and so-and-so, he repeatedly echoes: And I for no woman.

And I for no woman.

One might well read that as an assertion of sexual identity. One might well read Shakespeare's title as a response.

So as I got to thinking about the high school movie I wanted to see, with films like 10 Things I Hate About You in mind, it occurred to me that As You Like It might well stand a similar treatment. And could you switch the gender of Rosalind to take it back to its bolshie roots? It turns out you can. It changes the whole dynamic to have Orlando and Ross first meet while Ross is dressed up as a girl, to have their mock courtship charged with Ross's knowledge that the girl Orlando claims to love doesn't actually exist. But it changes it in, I think, a kinda interesting way. And there are so many features of the play that transfer so neatly to the high school movie idiom that a large part of the writing process consisted of me wetting myself at how naturally it all clicked into place.

Will it work for a reader who's seen screenplay after screenplay? Have I fucked up in some way that I, as a novice in this field, just don't see? Fucked if I know; my literary agent liked it enough to pass it on in the right direction, but there's every possibility it's not at all what anyone in the right place is looking for, purely on the screenplay level. And even if it does work as a script, is such a story sellable in Hollywood right now? I hope it is. It'd be cool for such a movie to be made outside the gay/indie ghetto, to get a seat at the big table. And for it to be one that lays its cards on that table in the title, if one does take it as a comment on the queer desires that ripple through the subtext: As you like it. Whatever the fuck you want.

Hell, I just hope something like this is sellable. I want such a movie to get made whether it's mine or not. Cause if it's not, it seems like the whole "gay kid" and "high school movie" Google thing will just carry on being true. I'll keep on being the top hit for those strings. And that is frankly just fucked-up.

Although, hey... Charlie has much better traffic than me, so maybe from here I can knock myself off the top spot. Heh.

11 Comments

1:

Instead of google try using the tag system on IMDB. Google is still not very good at searching inside big sites like that I've found.

2:

I would totally see this.

3:

A big name for your "Will Smith" would probably be necessary for that kind of high-profile flick; somebody who's popular and 'out'. Neil Patrick Harris is too old for a teen movie, but I wonder, can that Adam Lambert kid act?

Hmmm...it isn't the story you're talking about selling on-screen, and you might see it as 'accomodationist', I don't know, but what about a movie a with dual leads, a couple of guys who happen to be friends, one gay and one straight, and run concurrent love stories? IANAW, so I don't know if this would be possible in the what?--two hours?--that seems to be the acceptible time limit for a movie these days, but maybe....?

4:

Omega, emma: Cheers, for the heads-up and support respectively.

cicely: Yep, absolutely. I sort of wonder if Chris Colfer would work, given the profile he's attained with Glee; he'd make a good Ross to my mind, and on a purely Hollywood PR level, you take the whole "such a good audition they wrote a part for him" story and add in the "first movie role and as *lead*"... it adds up to a really good narrative in that shameless marketing sense. I'd have no problem, personally, with high-profile straight actors playing the roles though. Hilgenbrinck, Ledger and Gyllenhaal did awesome jobs.

And actually, the dual relationship idea sounds quite workable to me, as long as the development process didn't slowly shift the focus and turn the gay relationship into a B Story. I think that would be the key risk there.

5:

Just don't pick a straight guy with iconic "straight guy" baggage! I remember the panicky squickiness a lot of guys seemed to feel (or at least, express) when Christopher Reeve, aka Supermanly-man, kissed a guy in another movie. (Deathtrap? It's been a long time.) I'm sure he was trying to avoid being typecast, but that isn't what makes it stick in my mind.

I'm hazy on what it is, exactly, that producers and directors do, with respect to storylines, but maybe if it were taken to one with sympathy specifically to your purpose, to help keep those plots on track?

6:

Dear Hal,

I would like to say, as a straight guy, that I don't feel a movie has to have straight people in it. Just make sure they're pretty (and some are clever or kind) and keep me guessing about who they will go home with. Besides, in High School I was identifying with the geeks, not the guys who were getting laid.

The other thing I'm wondering is, not having read the script yet, where are the Sparklyâ„¢ Unicorns? We know that Charlie is the absolute master at top-selling romance. If you want in, the best thing you can do is join the franchise. Also, I'm sick and tired of vampires in our High Schools seducing kids into creepy heterosexual relationships that aren't good for them. Let's see something better.

Regards,

0&

7:

I would definitely want to see that film.

8:

Hal@4, Cicely@5:

"We love it, but lose the Death angle"[1]

(Sadly, unless your film is being bankrolled by an individual rather than a studio, there seems to be a fairly high chance that even if you start out with sane sympathetic producer and director who want what you want, you'll wind up dealing with someone completely different who isn't interested in the author's viewpoint well before the end of the process.)

[1] "Whereupon," in the words of Sir pTerry, "they were told to keep on with the medication and come back in a hundred years". See here for the full story if you don't know it.

9:

Although, to be fair, the exact phrase "high school movie" returns surprisingly few matches on Google. Yes, the reported approximate count is 849,000, but in practice it only goes up to 718 results.

As is, I notice, "gay kid"; only 615 results? Really?

Not sure how those numbers are so low.

10:

Try gay high school movie as separate words and you get 23,700,000 hits. These start with imdb (Another Gay Movie) and a surprisingly extensive Yahoo Answers post.

If you call it "If You Like It" many people would immediately think "put a ring on it", a lovely implied innuendo.

11:

first: I've been reading your own blog for a while now, and really dig your essays here on Charlie's blog too. Always inspiring!

Your film project is something I'd watch, but I immediately had to think of that scene: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hZ_N_kDjwic

And re: gay kid in high school, I think one of the best portrayals was Justin in Ugly Betty, unfortunately the series has just ended after he came out:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xosekIA55Qk

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This page contains a single entry by Hal Duncan published on April 16, 2010 6:19 AM.

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