Like many kids, Joey Kuhn was known to bug his parents to go Disney World when he was growing up, but rather than beg to go on the rides or have his picture taken with Mickey, his desire to go to Florida was driven by being able to see the animators at work.
“I’ve always loved art and filmmaking feels like the ultimate expression of art,” says Kuhn. “It’s a way that you get to create an all-encompassing world. You get to make these other characters do whatever you want and create beautiful images. I’m lucky because my parents encouraged it.”
Kuhn had thought he was going to be an actor, possibly in musical theater, before puberty changed his voice, but to go by his silky feature debut “Those People,” one could argue he has found a way to sing once more – or at least his images do, as the film scored with Gilbert and Sullivan and other sumptuous sounds plays out as symphonically visually as it does sonically. In fact, so lush you could easily imagine the tony Upper East Siders that populate it actually going to see it as their evening out, “Those People” treads the line admirably between the high class its characters have become accustomed to since birth and the type of gossip they indulge in behind closed doors as it tells the story of Charlie (Jonathan Gordon), a burgeoning artist whose unrequited love for his childhood friend Sebastian (Jason Ralph) all but blinds him from seeing the possibilities in front of him, whether in terms of his creative capabilities or a potential new beau (Haaz Sleiman).
Although lovingly lensed to conjure a nostalgia for New York that doesn’t exist in time but in memory, “Those People” is also a film that feels boldly progressive, transcending the oft-used narrative of coming out as a formative experience to create a big, sweeping romance that suggests that what comes after is equally if not more important. While its characters still may be figuring out who they are, the same can’t be said for Kuhn as a filmmaker, who’s as confident as they come and seems genuinely invigorated by every technical nuance available to him in his medium of choice. Just a little shy of the one-year anniversary of the film’s premiere at the Seattle Film Festival, “Those People” will be hitting theaters and Kuhn graciously took the time to speak about his inspirations, getting the most out of a limited budget, filming in the freezing cold and the importance of being a holistic filmmaker.
I knew for my first feature that I wanted to tell a gay coming-of-age story for someone who had to figure out who he was before he could actually open himself up to love and I had this gay best friend whom I fell in love with accidentally in college and didn’t tell him for years. I knew that [experience] would help me write the central friendship in the movie, to be able to draw on those emotions and frankly, when I first started writing it, I still wasn’t over the guy, so it was a way for me to work through those feelings and figure out why I was holding on this infatuation for this guy who would never love me back and probably never turn into a relationship. The guy was a little bit of an asshole too, so I was able to use his voice as an inspiration.
I also didn’t want the film to feel small, so I wanted to set it against a larger socio-political backdrop, and a year or two before I started writing the film, the fallout from the Bernie Madoff scandal was still happening. I knew quite a few people who lost their money in it and I found myself drawn to the story of Mark Madoff, who had killed himself after his father was arrested, because here was this guy whose life was ruined for something he didn’t do, presumably. It’s not that I sympathized with him, but I thought, “What does that character look like through the eyes of someone who loves him?” I really like difficult characters in film, so I thought by putting that inspiration together with my gay best friend that I was in love with, it could be an interesting mix and of course, I’m always inspired by Sebastian Flyte from “Brideshead Revisited” and characters who speak in a flowery, charming way, so that’s how it came about.
You allude to one of my very favorite things about the film when mentioning it doesn’t feel small, but it does feel intimate, which partially I think has to do with the locations. Because I imagine you were working with a tight budget, how did that dictate what you were going to do with this? For instance, you have a synagogue and a concert hall full of people.
It was very important – and the budget was very tight – because we see a lot of slice of life, Brooklyn-set indie dramas where the stories can feel quite small and contained and I’ve never really seen a sweeping, grand, gay romance, so I wanted to make one for myself and people who would like that sort of thing. I wrote it pretending like I had no budget because I just felt like just shoot for the stars, then figure out how to make it happen. I had some ideas of how I would get the locations to work.
I have some friends and family who have very nice apartments, so I begged them to shoot there for a little bit. Then the synagogue was my own synagogue, Temple Israel with my real Rabbi. The High Line let us shoot for pretty much free. They just had to be open at the time [of shooting] and there were a bunch of rules. We could only have up to 10 people there and the reason that it looks like it’s closed and it’s empty is because we shot in November in the last two hours before it closed, so it was freezing out – the actors were wearing two layers of long underwear under their tuxedos and we would wrap them with blankets between takes. Several of these other locations like the cemetery or the United Palace Theater, which is where the concert scene takes place, the people were very generous and gave us these locations for very little money. The film is actually my thesis film from NYU Tisch, the graduate film program, so by telling people that it was my thesis film, which is true, they were like, “Oh, student film? Of course, I’ll help you out.” That’s how I secured a lot of large locations.
How did you get the look for it? It has this beautiful burnished quality.
I always want to be able to create all-encompassing worlds that you can dive into and live in and I actually was a cinematographer all through film school. I learned how to shoot movies on 16 millimeter film when I was 15, and I learned how to edit on a Steenbeck, like literally cutting and taping film together, so I’ve always fetishized film and we wanted to shoot “Those People” on film, but we didn’t have the budget for it, so we shot on the ARRI ALEXA, which is a fantastic camera. It emulates the look of film better than all the other digital cameras, but I didn’t want to use new lenses. Leonardo D’Antoni, my cinematographer, went to film school with me – we worked together lots of times in various crew positions and actually, the last short I had done in grad school – and he found this 1970s zoom lens that we just loved when he did the camera tests. It softened and blurred the edges of the frame, and we loved the way that the lens flare looked and how it reacted to light. It just makes everything look classic and timeless.
Our major visual inspirations was “Cabaret,” which is my favorite movie of all time. We watched that together in pre-production and we were both just loving the zooms that they did in camera, which is very typical of those ’70s films, so we were like, “Let’s be bold and let’s do zooms.” We also looked at a bunch of Woody Allen, who’s probably my favorite director, especially “Manhattan,” “Interiors” and “Hannah and Her Sisters,” just looking at the way that the camera moves through scenes. They used interesting master [shots] that develop instead of doing traditional Hollywood coverage, and it’s really one of the big reasons [“Those People”] looks more expensive than it is, because good lighting will do that.
Leonardo D’Antoni knows how to light better than anyone else. He was a union gaffer before he came to film school, so he just knows how to paint with light. We had a great production designer as well, so picking great locations and lighting them the proper way is why I think we were successful at pulling off the look and I feel like lighting is one of the first things to go in indie film when you don’t have time in your shooting day. I also think a lot of inexperienced cinematographers don’t know how to pull off a beautiful lighting setup, so we just worked together to create the most beautiful image that we could in the time we had with the budget we had.
Were you also thinking about that timeless quality in the writing of it? Because it seems like there are few, if any, contemporary markers.
Oh, yeah, I purposely didn’t include a lot of cell phones or computers in the script because I wanted this film to feel like it could take place any time from the ’70s until tomorrow. I wanted it to be able to last. I want you to be able to watch this movie in 20 years hopefully, and still connect with it. Our technology has changed so much. That’s why you don’t see a cell phone screen with a text message come up when Charlie’s at the synagogue. It’s just the buzz you hear. I just wanted the whole thing to feel like a timeless bubble.
At the premiere, you said that your leads Jonathan and Haaz surprised you during the first week of shooting. Did you recalibrate what you were doing based on what you saw once they were working together?
Like I said, “Brideshead” and “Manhattan” were inspirations and another big one was “St. Elmo’s Fire.” [because] going in, I didn’t know exactly where the tone would land performance-wise. I think we achieved something more real and emotional and Jonathan and Haaz are both such talented, natural actors that I felt lucky we ended up starting with their scenes together because of scheduling. All my actors across the board, I was blown away with their talent, but if we had started with the group scenes, I don’t necessarily know if the film would be the same.
Because Jonathan and Haaz were so great, I think I even subconsciously changed up the way I shot those scenes. I found that I had the camera be a bit more observational with them, shooting from a little bit of a distance or behind a doorway occasionally as if peering in on their relationship. I had a very clear idea of what I wanted this film to look and feel like emotionally, but all the actors surpassed my expectations and made my script sound more natural than I could have hoped. One of my other big inspirations was Andrew Haigh’s “Weekend,” which is so successful because it almost feels improvised, but it’s scripted all the way through, and I felt like I was getting those naturalistic vibes from my actors too. It just made me so incredibly happy.
It’s interesting because as you say, it’s about people who aren’t fully formed and yet they feel adult – was that a difficult thing to find in casting?
I don’t think it was difficult to find that. I don’t even know if I could put into words what it was I was looking for with each character, but I just know that when I’m in the room auditioning the actors, there’s a certain energy that I respond to – a certain heart and emotional intelligence – that just comes through. It’s not like the actor comes in and they just read the scenes. I love to talk to the actors before and after they read, just get a sense of them as people, because there’s the character on the page and then once you cast the actor, I think the character becomes something in between the real actor and the character that I’ve written, so I tend to make the character more like the actor and stop trying to force them to be something that I had written. So it wasn’t that hard. I knew casting was very important and it took a long time and I saw a lot of great people, but these people who I cast just had that natural intelligence about them.
“The Mikado” ends up playing a big role in this. How did it end up in the film?
When I was in sixth grade, every class at Horace Mann, where I went to elementary and high school, had to put on a production of a Gilbert and Sullivan operetta. My year, we put on “The Gondoliers” and I was cast as the Duke of Plaza-Toro. Since then, I have just been obsessed with the operettas of Gilbert and Sullivan, so I try to put in a bunch of songs from the movie because I love films that have their own sound and the music of Gilbert and Sullivan felt appropriately grand and classical to go along with the New York City, Upper East Side backdrop.
What’s great about the Gilbert and Sullivan music is that it’s in the public domain, so the publishing rights are free. You just have to license the recordings. This company gave us a great deal on a bunch of songs and they were recordings I’d been listening to growing up. My grandfather was also obsessed with Gilbert and Sullivan – it was something we really bonded over -and the first scene that I wrote with Gilbert and Sullivan was with “Three Little Maids” from “The Mikado,” where after Charlie leaves the group, there was a little bit of Sebastian, Ursula and Wyatt lip-syncing “Three Little Maids” and dancing around as Ursula and Wyatt are trying to make Sebastian feel better. It didn’t end up in the film.
Oh, totally. I always make a soundtrack for myself while I’m writing and I listened to so much Gilbert and Sullivan and classical music and that style of music definitely made its way in, both subconsciously and consciously. When I wrote montages in the scripts, I was listening to the songs that were going to be in the background. Then to go along with the Gilbert and Sullivan music, I knew that I wanted a similarly grand and classical-based score, so [composer] Adam Crystal came on in post to come up with this piano- and violin-driven score that I absolutely love and goes hand-in-hand with it.
Since this was your first, was doing a feature what you thought it would be?
It was even more amazing than I ever could have imagined. I have never been happier than those 22 days on set. Every day, waking up at like 4:30 in the morning, getting to set at 5 and just being around all these wonderful people who are helping you make that weird thing in your head come to life, it’s just a trip. We had like 40 crew members on set every day and I just loved spending time and working with actors and creating beautiful images. But you know what was very different about it? When I was making short films, especially in grad school, those two or three days that you’re making the short film, it felt like the most stressful, crazy days in the world. You’re like, “Oh God, how am I going to do it? I can’t do anything else in my life.” When you’re doing a feature, after the first couple of days, you realize you can have dinner and a glass of wine after and not feel like a crazy person because so much prep work has gone into it. There are so many ups and downs during the course of it and locations fall through, and actors’ schedules change. There’s not enough money for the things that you want to do with the camera or the production design, but there’s a groove that you settle into about a couple of days in, that I didn’t expect.
This is likely showing my ignorance of what happens at film school, but when you say this is a thesis film, it’s so much more accomplished than what the mind conjures – what happens when you drop this on your professors?
Well, NYU Tisch, the grad film program is unique in the sense that you end up with a lot of accomplished filmmakers. In my class of 34 people, twelve had made feature films for their thesis and they are all incredible features – I think four have gone to Sundance and two have been to Cannes, and I should say it’s my thesis film only in title because I’ve been out of classes for several years when I made it, and it’s not like NYU financed the film. I had to go out with my producers and raise money to make this, but the teachers definitely liked the film, though it’s not a surprise that someone made a film on this scale because so many in my year had done it.
Our class was one of the first that set this trend off about features because so much changed in my third year of film school. In our third year, Kickstarter launched and the Canon 5D Mark II camera came out, which was a relatively low budget prosumer camera that you could shoot features on. Lena Dunham’s “Tiny Furniture” came out the next year and here was this person who was a year or two younger than I am, making a feature and translating it into success. All these things were happening, and I think a bunch of us from our class were just like, “Well, we can do that too.” I’m very lucky to have a class that’s supportive — we all really love each other and crew on each other’s films. We all pushed each other to do this and with our program, I went for writing and directing, but you have to learn all aspects of filmmaking. In our program, I took cinematography, editing, sound, acting, aesthetics, writing, directing and the first year you have to do all these crew positions.
I’ve DP’ed a lot of films. I’ve been a gaffer on a film shoot, I’ve done sound. I actually know how to [be a] second [assistant camera on] 35 millimeter film. It’s a very special program, and it just makes you a better filmmaker when you can talk to your sound guys from an informed place about what kind of microphones you like and have informed conversations with your [cinematographer] about the type of lighting you like and what different lenses mean, so I’m incredibly grateful that NYU Tisch accepted me and that I went there and that I met all these wonderful fellow filmmakers and collaborators – my lead producer Kimberly Parker, my cinematographer Leo D’Antoni and my editor Sara Shaw all went to film school with me.