Surrealism and Hyperrrealism
Interview with Jon Shear
interview by
Cynthia Fuchs, 10 November 2000

Jon Shear grew up in New York City. He sees his debut feature, Urbania, as reflecting a "New York state of mind," and was glad to return to the city and hunt down locations that reproduced the scenes he had imagined while co-adapting the script with Daniel Reitz, on whose play the film is based. Made for only $225,000 and shot in 18 days, Urbania tells the story of a young man, Charlie (Dan Futterman), recovering from a terrible trauma, trying to make sense of the loss of control that he's feeling, and for Shear, New York offered appropriate mystery, randomness, and danger.

Cynthia Fuchs: How did you come up with the particular look of the film, so immediate, so skritchy and color-saturated at the same time?

Jon Shear: A lot of it is that we used processes that no one has used before. We shot our movie in Super-16mm. We did it because I like the way it looks and you can shoot fairly economically, though it's just as expensive ultimately because of what you have to do in post[-production]. [Stanley] Kubrick and Lars von Trier and others have spent a lot of money to make their films look like they've been shot in Super-16, because that's how the world looks to us right now, like a surreal documentary. What's great about urban legends is that they blend surrealism and hyperrrealism: it feels like it should be true when you know it can't possibly be. And that's Charlie's mindset, he's in a heightened state, both completely in love and mourning the loss of that love. The world looks different, and in Super-16 you get that difference, the colors are saturated but the grain is slightly heightened. Events appear at a distance, but emotions are right up close, stylization and immediacy at the same time. Then we put every frame of the film into a digital matrix to edit: Star Wars: [Episode 1 - The] Phantom Menace was the first film to do that, we're the second, the Coen brothers' O Brother, Where Art Thou? is the third. For us, it was all to give you the feeling that Charlie has of the world. 

CF: The film takes you inside Charlie's mind and sensibility, which can be dicey with a character who's on edge, whom viewers might not like all the time.

JS: Dan Futterman helps enormously. Even though Charlie is in freefall, I wanted you to be able to look in the actor's eyes and you're inside him, you can't help it. Danny is so grounded as a person, that when he's in freefall, you have both: you know that it's his circumstances rather than his general make-up. He's so alive to the world, so open to it, so you can connect. Then, where it does get dicey is when you watch a character that you don't really know masturbate. The movie is asking you to identify with this person doing something that you have trouble identifying with yourself when you're doing it. This pushes a button with people: it's not played for humor like in American Beauty. And that is the challenge: let's throw as many gauntlets down as possible, to say, you may not want to follow this man. Depending on what people read before they see the movie -- I've heard gasps when he reveals that [he's gay], when we're already twenty minutes into the movie. And the movie asks, does it make a difference [whether or when you know that]? The audience has the same experience that other characters are having, trying to place him. Is he not gay enough? Is he too gay? Every other character is in a different place on the continuum. But that excited me, to make a character who, just as you begin to bond with him, keeps moving. He does things that are not the way a hero should respond to a situation.

CF: It seems like you're asking viewers to be responsible for what they bring to a movie, to think about the viewing process.

JS: And to think about how you see people. We don't all wear badges. And what saddens me is when reviews don't explore the way the movie's built, how it addresses those questions in its structures. One review was completely positive, said it was one of the best movies of the year, but in the first paragraph described the entire plot, so that the way the movie is built obviously had no bearing on the way that person was understanding it. I do think it's a movie to be experienced, not to be told.

CF: That's an interesting and inevitable problem though: it's how the industry works. And asking reviewers to write in specific ways, to not give away plots, can make them cranky. Distributors or filmmakers ask you to not "reveal the ending"; The Crying Game is a famous example, and von Trier's Dancer in the Dark more recently. When Pay It Forward's promoters made the same plea, it was too much, because the ending is what's most egregious about it. At least one major reviewer -- for Entertainment Weekly -- announced spoilers partway through his review and gave it all away, to make the point that the ending was manipulative and trite. Point being, that once your film is in the mix, you can't control how viewers or reviewers will respond. It sounds like you read reviews carefully and see your movies with audiences to gauge responses: how does that affect your understanding of your own work? How much control can you have?

JS: It's a really good question. And my thinking about it has to do with having been an actor, and grown up with crazy parents, meaning that I've been in lots of situations where I have no control. And the movie is to a certain extent about that: Charlie is trying to regain control over his own life and learning the limits of his ability to do that. At Sundance, it was our only chance to see the movie with an audience who knew nothing about it, because literally the movie was picked up from the lab and brought to Sundance that day. I'd never seen it with anyone else, so I wanted that for myself, and to learn from that. And the Q&As have been trippy: people stand up and testify, this happened to me, or I've never known anybody who's gay -- the most extreme responses. It's been great, especially for women, and they get most concretely what I think is the core of the movie, its emotional challenges, its focus on a man who feels dislocated, enraged, and helpless. It's not enough just to make a movie for yourself. Part of the deal is, is your sensibility reaching other people? That's the most lucky thing for any storyteller, and I think it's the difference between Hollywood and independent film, in that when you see an independent film, you sense that there's something personal at stake for the filmmaker. When you see a Hollywood film, you know that you're always in their heads, that the movie is made for a specific effect. What I love about [Urbania] is that everyone comes away with a different reaction, loving or disliking different things. If everybody said, "I didn't need to see 'this'," I'd have to take that into account. I could say to myself that great art is always ahead of the curve, but the fact is that we're lucky that the responses have been varied. Some people hate the folktales, others say that's the only reason they can stay with the movie, they help you understand how [Charlie] sees things.

CF: The urban legends idea is interesting to me, because I love horror and slasher films, and so far, they've been the only films to do something compelling or ambitious and messy or whatever, with urban legends. One thing they do is provoke questions concerning what's real and not real.

JS: I usually hate that in movies. Where I like it is what I hope happens in our movie: events happen in your life that take you outside your life. When your blood sugar is low, or you fall in love, everything around you changes. You see the person you're in love with everywhere, your nerve endings start shooting, even though your head tells you it's not that person. It happens when you lose control, good and bad, the world is thrown for a loop, your equilibrium changes. I wanted you to see the world the way he sees the world, without it being that obvious. And the folktales were the most fun way to do that. When we meet people or think about ourselves, we tend to think in terms of the myths we know: I am the victim or I am the hero. Charlie wants to be the hero of his own life. The folktales are also a way of getting to a zeitgeist that's going on at a certain time, what the culture's scared of. Right now it's sexuality and many of the folktales are about homophobia. The removing the kidney story started as women were beginning to break through the glass ceiling, and usually it's a woman who removes the kidney, but the rest of the stories are very much about homophobia. The message in the mirror is the clearest one: you don't have to do much translating from "Welcome to the world of AIDS," and the toothbrush story expressed fears of penetration. But to get you into Charlie's head and to answer your question more specifically, the folktales illustrate how he's not sure if he's responding to something real or something not. He's so influenced by what has happened to him that his sense of dealing with people as they really are or as they aren't has shifted. And so the movie sort of becomes its own urban legend, and people leave, arguing over what really happened. Again, women get it more often, what it means to call someone's answering machine just to hear the voice on tape, over and over. Women are more used to not having control, or even the illusion of it.

CF: In that sense, it seems that the movie evokes what it feels like to live in a homophobic world, where every gesture, every look you cast in the street, can be out of your control, in the way it's read or responded to.

JS: And that's why we keep seeing those moments, that Charlie goes back to in his head -- when Charlie's on the street with [Chris (Matt Keeslar)], wondering whether to hold his hand or not -- those are the moments when there's a question of what to do.

CF: Or that there's a right or wrong thing to do, that you can control someone's reaction.

JS: Absolutely. I grew up in a bad neighborhood, and I was mugged and worse, and you have to ask: do you spend your day looking around, thinking that it could be your fault if or when something happens, that you do have control? But while the movie is true to a gay perspective and is specific to that, it also resonates in other places. We all have these experiences. I was offered a lot of money to make it a woman's story, and then it would have been a more commercial movie.

CF: That's another issue, the concern that a "gay movie" should offer a "positive" representation, or that a "gay movie" is always something specific. And Urbania doesn't really give you that something.

JS: To a certain extent, when you first find out that Charlie is gay, you are in a typical "gay movie," for the next fifteen minutes. So you assume Charlie's gay and that you're at a gay film, we give you that film: he visits Alan Cumming's character, and there's the party scene, and then we pull the rug out from under you. This is only part of his life, but it's not his life. To Alan Cumming's character, Charlie isn't gay enough, which makes you aware that you're in a very idiosyncratic movie, between a lot of genres. And we're learning now that we do well with critics almost everywhere, but the cities where we do best with audiences, are those where the critics don't talk about it as a "gay movie." So audiences from all sides walk in with their eyes open and see something they've never seen.

CF: The urban audiences question is important too, because of the way that hate crimes, hate crime legislation, and gay-bashing are circulating as concepts and experiences. Though it's certainly the case that urban crime persists, the more spectacularized, media-worthy crimes -- those called hate crimes, or those that involve a perpetrator's sense of persecution, as in the white high school shootings -- are not urban anymore, but rural and suburban. I was listening to LL Cool J's new CD on the way over here, and he has a track ["Homicide"], where he says, "Columbine happens in the ghetto everyday," but it's expected, so it's not newsworthy. I'm wondering how you see the urban legends as a way to re-situate those horrors in the city, where bad things are expected to happen.

JS: Again, it depends on where you find the center of the movie, and to me, the center is the experience of living in the city. What is central to city life, is dealing with strangers, which opens you up so much more to randomness and lack of control. In horror movies, hell is other people and in love stories, heaven is other people, and in living in the city, it's both. Charlie is many things for many people: straight, gay, top, or bottom. And he will go anywhere he needs to, to get control back, but he's constantly projected upon. The violence is the same thing: your life is taken away from you constantly. Out in the country, you can maintain the myth that you are in control of your life; the Other has all of its rightful power in a small town area. If you're gay or a strong woman or anything that doesn't fit traditional ideals, it has greater weight there. Violence is in greater relief there because the myth is so much stronger. No matter how extreme your experience, it's still part of a flow of experience, and so the disruption is easier to take in a city, where there's so much more to experience. For Charlie, it's still impossible to put in perspective, but in a city, I think you're supposed to.

CF: I'm wondering how you were thinking about the characters who are represented, more or less, as bi, [Ron (Gabriel Olds)], the actor with his own pictures all over his apartment, who is clearly more interested in himself than anyone else, or the guy Dean [Samuel Ball] with the blond girlfriend. Both come on to Charlie but they don't connect; in both cases Charlie becomes aggressive and threatening. The two guys, though, are hardly "positive" characters, and given the bi-phobia that comes from both "sides," do you see them as representative?

JS: Most people see bisexuality as fear of being gay. I don't think the movie sees them that way. I think there are a lot of men who haven't had that dialogue with themselves, who are so starved for intimacy with other men, that it hasn't even gotten as far as whether they want to have sex with them. There's such a stigma against being intimate with other men and there are so many ways to be intimate. And crime, to me, is a lack of empathy, making people into "Others." All the characters exist between these two extremes. And it's possible that a viewer will get something that an actor or a director doesn't. So I can see somebody saying of either of those characters, "He's not bisexual at all," or "He really wants to jump Charlie's bones." There's very little in the movie that says either of these is true or not. That's one of the things that's "mythic" about the movie: viewers project onto the characters. That can sound like I'm being coy, but I think that the best thing about acting -- and also viewing -- is that you can identify with people unlike yourself.

CF: How do you understand this phenomenon, that "women" respond strongly to the movie?

JS: Being a fairly fluid man myself, I think women are more able to see what Charlie's going through, because they're not as concerned with drawing distinctions between themselves and the world. I think it's primarily an emotional movie, even while part of it is playing head games, and getting you to figure out a puzzle. So many women have said to me something that most men haven't, which is that I wish that somebody loved me as much as Charlie loved Chris. They see past the specifics, past the anger in it, to the fact that it really is Orpheus and Eurydice, an epic love story. That excites me. I think that being both so close to something (because you've bonded so closely with Charlie) and so far away from something (because you've bonded with Charlie and then seen him do something with which you're really uncomfortable) -- these can be equally distancing from the movie itself. I hope this resonates the way a folktale does, that there is a bigger energy in the toothbrush story: it works on its own as a story, but something else is going on there. It's important to me that it resonates, very intimately, for people who don't share Charlie's experiences. That's the movie's question: why can't you connect with people who are different from you? That might sound very high-falutin', or in a sense very "liberal." So I wanted to create a movie that has that in it structurally, so it's not a message movie. It puts you in the position of what it's about, losing control.

CF: Do you think that this movie -- that cuts across genres, that's not only a gay movie, that's not very "nice" -- is possible at this moment because of the mainstreaming of gayness as easily identifiable or "nice" images, say, gay ensemble movies or Will & Grace, which normalizes gayness in Will, or hystericizes it in Jack?

JS: I hope that the answer is yes. We at first had trouble financing it because studios thought it was gay pornography, and they're still locked into the need to be "nice." I think Charlie's a role model, because he's complicated like straight characters can be and the movie is as complicated structurally as The Usual Suspects. I think there's a generational thing happening: there was not a question from any of the actors about what they were to do in the film. They don't care if people think they're gay. Hopefully, we can move beyond the ensemble movies, and gay audiences are no longer only looking for positive confirmation, or a Q-Tip experience, seeing a movie about them, made by and for people just like them, a homogenized community. So I'm actually grateful for those "nicer" images. We're allowed to occupy the ground we have, because that other ground is taken, and viewers are tired of it or satisfied with it and they're not asking us to carry the burden. 

Click here to read Cynthia Fuch's review.



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