Local filmmaker Yen Tan’s latest gay movie, ‘Ciao,’ premieres at AFI
It usually takes a few years for an event like a film festival to catch on. But when the American Film Institute attached its name to a new Dallas festival of international film just two years ago, all that slow development was skipped over. Only in its second year, AFI Dallas is already a hit with mucho celebrities and big premieres in the works.
So when Dallas filmmaker Yen Tan submitted his third feature, "Ciao," to the festival, he didn’t have many expectations.
"The two things I was surprised by about getting into AFI were, first getting in at all, and second, having them put me in the competition category for Texas films," says Yen.
Indeed, an intimate, star-free, dialogue-heavy character study about two gay men — one from Italy, one from Dallas — who form a tentative friendship when the man they had both dated dies hardly evokes the stereotype of testosterone-laden silent cowboys that Hollywood usually thinks of when the word "Texas" comes up.
"Going by the program last year, there was hardly any gay content" at AFI, Tan notes. So how did he swing this unlikely coup?
It started almost five years ago.
In 2003, a Web designer named Alessandro Calza happened to see one of Tan’s prior films, "Happy Birthday," in Italy. Calza liked the film so much, he e-mailed Tan to express his fondness for it. Over the course of the next year, the two became ‘net buddies.
"We had very similar tastes and sensibilities," Tan says, and the idea for a film about two gay men from different countries began to germinate. In 2004, Tan wrote an initial draft of a script, which looks today very different than the finished film.
"Subconscious-ly, I was writing a character just because of what I knew of [Calza]," he says. "The original script was more of a stereotypical romantic comedy — an Italian guy comes to Dallas and hijinks ensure. But at some point as we started working on it we brought in more serious elements. As I was fine-tuning the script, I started to write about what I was personally drawn to instead of something I thought would sell."
Eleven drafts later, with Calza now credited as co-author, "Ciao" was born.
On paper, at least. A film is only a screenplay until someone shoots it. And finding financing proved to be more difficult that Tan had imagined.
"Fundraising was a pain in the ass," he says bluntly. "With all our fundraising attempts in L.A. and New York, nothing panned out at all — and all our contacts were gay-friendly. Most were not responding to the script, which I get, but the script isn’t really the film."
Eventually, the film was mostly self-financed between Tan, his producer and a private investor who donated "a big chunk" to the production cost.
Filmed in Dallas in the summer of 2006, Tan screened a rough cut of "Ciao" last June, tinkering with it more through the early fall. Then he began the process of submitting it to film festivals.
Although Tan had experience in that department — both "Happy Birthday" and his other feature, "Deadroom," had been on the festival circuit — "Ciao" proved more difficult to market.
"The film is caught in that really weird area where it may not be gay enough for the gays and too gay for the straights," he says. He submitted it to Sundance, but there were no nibbles. Then he had to decide between the Los Angeles Film Festival and OutFest, L.A.’s gay-specific festival.
"That was something we looked into — do we do L.A. or OutFest; we decided to do OutFest. Both are good, but for getting the most bang for your buck in terms of exposure, OutFest made more sense." He made a similar decision in Philadelphia, going with the gay fest instead of the mainstream version. "Ciao" has also been picked up by Fort Worth’s Q Cinema and Miami’s Gay and Lesbian Film Festival.
"Festival selection is a really baffling process — it’s so easy to get lost in the submission process, and we can’t really control what people do with it," he says. "The most important thing I learned is, it’s important to get the programmers aware of your film — let them know a year before so it’s on their radar, even if it’s not done."
His submission to AFI Dallas was done almost as a lark. In fact, getting his gay film screened in a largely straight fest posed some issues for Tan.
"One of the things I was faced with was notifying friends about AFI. A lot of people in my office know what I’m doing even though I keep it on the DL. Some people are cool with it, but some are conservative Christians. Then I was like: as gay person, I am charged with enlightening people about homosexuality. So I said, ‘Oh, fuck it — I’ll send it out. If they see it, I may change their views.’"
Even so, Tan marketed "Ciao" to AFI differently than he did OutFest — so it surprised him when organizers chose a photo of two men hugging on a bed for inclusion in the program.
"I thought they’d go for one of the more neutral pics, but they used that one. At the kickoff party, people were coming up to me saying, ‘Oh, you made the movie with two guys on the bed.’"
So will that help or hurt Tan’s chances of winning the Texas filmmakers’ competition, which comes with a $20,000 cash prize? Neither, he says.
"I seriously doubt I’ll win, though I’m not bitter about it. I’m up against several documentaries. When I go to festivals I rarely see a bad documentary. And gay documentaries tend to cross over better than gay narratives. They have human-interest value instead of looking at it as sexual orientation. I don’t really think I stand a chance."
Still, he’s not writing it off completely. If this process has taught Tan anything, it’s that show business is full of surprises.
A.F.I. = G.A.Y? WHAT TO LOOK FOR
AFI Dallas, which runs March 27â€“April 6, has more gay content this year than last. In addition to "Ciao" (which screens at the Angelika Film Center on March 30 at 7:15 p.m. and at the Magnolia on April 5 at 10:30 p.m.), here are some films of interest to gay moviegoers:
"Derek," a documentary about late queer filmmaker Derek Jarman ("Edward II," "Caravaggio").
"Pageant," a documentary about female impersonators competing for Miss Gay America.
"Bigger, Faster, Stronger" and "Afghan Muscles," two documentaries concerned with male bodybuilding.
"Nim’s Island," a family adventure film starring Jodie Foster.
Films screen at the Angelika, Magnolia, NorthPark and other venues. Most screenings cost $8.50. For more information and a complete schedule, visit AFIDallas.com.
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition, March 21, 2008.