SIFF 2023 Interview: Andy Vallentine on Picturing the Future in “The Mattachine Family”

The title card “A Vallentine Family Film” only comes up at the end of “The Mattachine Family” by which time you know that even more than most, the filmmakers have earned it. One can tell from the nuances of how Thomas (Nico Tortorella) and Oscar (Juan Pablo Di Pace) come to a decision about starting a family together after recently getting married and in the prime of their careers were the result of difficult conversations between writer Danny Valentine and director Andy Valentine well before ever considering that they could make for an interesting movie. With the film’s title taken from the famous steps near the filmmakers’ home in Los Angeles, the comedy charts the mountain of complexities that face a gay couple wanting to have children, wit Thomas and Oscar crestfallen from their first attempt in which they took in a foster kid temporarily before his mother changed her mind. The experience of bonding with the child and having to let him go has led to second thoughts as well for Thomas, who lost his father before he could really get to know him and placed a premium of making the most of his youth, while Oscar remains eager to become a parent, though his work as an actor has taken him to a location shoot in Michigan where he is scarcely available and leaves his husband to deal with the fallout from the foster situation alone.

Refreshingly skipping past the usual drama of bureaucratic red tape or what societal prejudice remains, “The Mattachine Family” finds all the intrigue it needs from the anguish, absurdity and ultimately all the love that makes Thomas and Oscar’s predicament so trying, watching as Thomas grows distant from Oscar even without the miles between them when they have such different attitudes about the future they want, but grows even closer to friends such as Leah (Emily Hampshire) and Jamie (Jake Choi) who may distract him with fabulous parties, but come to form a support system that is as strong a clan as he could ever ask for. Although the film ably depicts the struggle between maintaining a prosperous career and starting a family, the Vallentines show no such difficulty in marrying these different parts of their life together and by investing one side with the other have come up with a real heartwarmer. On the eve of the film’s premiere at the Seattle Film Festival, the film’s director spoke about finding inspiration in his personal experience for his feature debut, letting the actors loose based on their own connection to the material and how to throw a cinematically memorable party.

This is clearly a personal story, but what made you want to make a film of it?

It was brought to life out of real conversations I had with my husband Danny Valentine, my husband who wrote the movie. We’ve been together for 13 years now and after we got married, we had that conversation of like, “What do we do next? Do we start a family? What do we want?” And I fell into the category of wanting to put career first and to save to buy a house and all of those type of things, and Danny wanted to like have a child as soon as possible. But we had gotten to the point where it had been like many years of waiting to see what happened with the career. Hollywood is rough and it is full of rejection. I was very close a number of times [to making films] and it got to the point where my mind changed and I was like, “I want to have kids, so let’s do this now. It is interesting to go back [now] and when I watch the movie, seeing some of those discussions between the characters, it throws me back to eight years ago with my husband. It’s wild.

Even though the story was so close to you, was it tough to figure out a structure? It’s a film about family, but it has to be told almost strictly through Thomas’ eyes.

It was, because we don’t really see Oscar, Juan Pablo Di Pace’s character, until later on or sprinkled throughout, so that was definitely a challenge. We had some flashbacks that happened throughout that helped bring [out] that these two characters really had love for one another and that they were trying to bring both of their best lives together, but the structure was definitely difficult trying to figure out with those flashbacks at the beginning, showing that they’re in love.

That opening sequence really comes at you, introducing Thomas and how the family he grew up with has shaped ideas of the family he wants to have for himself all told in family photos. What was that like to put together?

Yeah, it was really fun to find all those photos. Everybody has this perception of what a gay or queer or LGBTQ+ person is, and we wanted to shake that up a little bit, so we started at the beginning of the movie where you have these photos [where] you were like, “Okay, well that person obviously is queer,” but then your perspective on the community might change throughout the film. I feel like that was also a fun anecdote that a lot of queer people have those photos — I feel like there’s like a constantly a viral story every three years [where someone says], “This is when I knew I was gay,” and it’s something flamboyant — you know, arms up or whatever, so I loved bringing that to the movie.

How did you get all those still photographs?

We had a wonderful photographer, Sean Cook, who was my roommate from Michigan State and he was Thomas’s eye for 10 days on set. I really wanted somebody different than me because I felt like I was the eyes for the cinema camera, so I wanted somebody else to be come in and be Thomas’s perspective who could go and take all of these beautiful photos. They can tell such an important [part] about Thomas’s backstory, and what happened to him and to his family beforehand.

What sold you on Nico to play Thomas?

I had always been like a fan of Nico’s. I had watched “Younger,” and [before that] “The Following” on Fox, so I always followed Nico. And I just like, you know, enjoyed having our conversations at the beginning. You know, he read the script and wanted to reach out. And, he shared his story of becoming a father as well — he just welcomed a child a few months ago, so he connected to the story and he had the acting chops to be able to pull off this character. Thomas is very much an artist at heart, very expressive, and he wears his emotions on his sleeve, which is similar to Nico, so he really brought Thomas to life.

And all of the actors who were in the film — and they’re all fabulous actors — for them to want to do the project for a first-time filmmaker, they really had to have a personal connection to the story, so a lot of them eithe had gone through that process of how to create families or really understood the theme of a chosen family within the LGBTQ community. It isn’t [true] for everybody, but for a lot of people, we get to pick our families because of rejection and whatnot.

Was there anything that happened during the filming that you might not have been expecting, but made it into the film and you really like about it now?

I was very much open to embracing the actors like ad-libbing and adding moments to scenes, so there’s many moments in the movie where the script has ended and then the actors ad-libbed for five or seven lines.Those are some of the funnier moments[where] there’s these tail- ends of little jokes maybe [when] we pull out to a wide shot, yet we still hear a joke, and it transitions us over [to the next scene]. That was all Emily Hampshire and Nico Tortorella. That was wonderful.

What was it like to preside over those big party scenes?

They were fun, and the party scene was one of those moments that I had in my mind how I wanted to shoot that for three years. I wanted it to be one shot where we like come in through the door and circle around, so it was a very emotional day for me. It’s a big moment in the film, but just for me as a filmmaker to see something that like I had envisioned in my head and had translated to storyboards and presented [as] these animatics to the executive producers, and [then] to bring all of the cast together to shoot something that I had just wanted to do, it was an incredible experience.

What’s it like getting to this point where you’re about to unveil the film to the public for the first time in Seattle?

I am so excited to play Seattle this week. I’m also absolutely terrified of how the audience will react. When you’re making a movie, it can be a very personal journey of working with my producers at my production company, and we did this all very much in-house, so there wasn’t this big group of people. There wasn’t studio executives giving notes on the process or test audiences. We had a small screening that we showed the film to and I got notes from trusted friends and collaborators, but it’ll be a little nerve wracking on Friday night to see how an audience responds. But that’s good. I’m very excited and terrified.

“The Mattachine Family” will screen at the Seattle Film Festival on May 12th at 6:30 pm at the Egyptian Theater, May 13th at AMC Pacific Place at 1 pm and be available to stream via SIFF Streaming from May 22nd through 28th anywhere in the U.S.

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