It’s not easy being ‘Green’

First-time filmmaker Steve Williford teams with the Verizon Guy (seriously!) for ‘The Green,’ a movie about homophobia and suspicion

Jason_Butler_Harner_and_Cheyenne_Jackson
IDYLLS OF THE QUEENS | A quiet couple (Dallas theater veteran Jason Butler Harner and ‘30 Rock’s’ Cheyenne Jackson) becomes immersed in controversy when one is accused of an affair with a teen in the USA Film Festival entry ‘The Green.’

MARK LOWRY  | Special Contributor
marklowry@theaterjones.com

Although Steve Williford never felt any homophobia directed at him when he lived in southwestern Indiana, his perception of what others thought of him as a gay man was something that stuck with him for many years. At dinner parties and social events, his sexuality was a subject that came up often, usually as a result of others’ curiosity.

“Months went by and I started to wonder if I was the poster boy for gay,” he says. “I always wondered what would happen if something in my life happened that brought my sexuality to the forefront, like if I was at a party and kissed my partner.”

That question would eventually lead him to his first feature film as a director, The Green, currently on the festival circuit and screening at USA Film Festival Saturday. The screenplay is written by Paul Marcarelli, best known as Verizon’s “can you hear me now?” guy, who recently came out publicly.

The story they ended up with concerns a high school teacher, played by Jason Butler Harner, who is accused of an inappropriate relationship with a male student. It causes tension with the teacher’s partner, played by out Broadway hunk Cheyenne Jackson (also known for his recurring roles on 30 Rock and Glee), and in the community.

Williford directed nearly 150 episodes of the recently axed soap opera All My Children from 2004 to 2011, but his background is in theater (he directed a production of Driving Miss Daisy in the early 1990s at Dallas’ Park Cities Playhouse, back when it was called the Plaza Theatre). So it’s not surprising that his cast is filled with actors who come from the theater world, too — not just Jackson, but Harner, who played Hamlet at the Dallas Theater Center in 2003. That may explain why Williford’s film has something in common with several plays, notably Lillian Hellman’s The Children’s Hour, Arthur Miller’s The Crucible and John Patrick Shanley’s Doubt.

Screen shot 2011-04-28 at 5.27.05 PM“We’re a proud cousin of all of those works,” Williford says. “We are trying to examine a situation that can illustrate to us how slippery truth and clarity really is and how quickly it can slip away from us.”

“Paul and I are both big lovers of ambiguity to a certain degree,” he adds. “I had always modeled this story in my heart and mind on what I love about the Chekhov short stories: We leave certain things open and free to be interpreted. For the bulk of the story, you’re really not sure if he has done what he’s being accused of, but there are some significant issues that do get resolved, quite clearly I think.”

And of course, he knows the audience won’t trust if they don’t believe in the relationship as portrayed by Harner and Jackson, and takes a dramatic turn from the comic roles he has done on TV.

“I completely believe in Jason and Cheyenne as a couple. That’s one of my complaints when I see LGBT couples represented in film: I feel like there’s a link missing a little bit. I don’t feel that way about them, in the work environment or what has come together for the film.”

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition April 29, 2011.

—  Kevin Thomas

Top 10: Controversy brewed success for ‘TOTWK’

TOTWK
UNDER ATTACK | Director Israel Luna, center, is shown with Jenna Skyy, left, and Krystal Summers, two of the stars of his ‘Ticked-Off Trannies with Knives.’

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Gay Dallas filmmaker Israel Luna has been building his reputation behind the camera since he wrote and directed his first feature film, Str8 Up, in 2001. His subsequent films — including The Deadbeat Club, RU Invited and Fright Flick — secured his place in the Dallas filmmaking community and made him a regular on the independent film festival circuit.

But it wasn’t until the early part 2010 and the release of his latest, the “transploitation” flick Ticked-Off Trannies With Knives, that Luna got a taste of the kind of fame that filmmakers long for. And it was due, in large part, to the protests of an angry transgender activist with nothing good to say about either Luna or his movie.

If Luna wanted attention, he got it, especially from local trans activist Kelli Busey, who at first protested the use of the word “trannies” — a word considered by many to be a pejorative term for trans women — but soon expanded her objections to include the movie’s content, which includes have trans women who have been bashed taking their revenge in a most brutal fashion.
Busey, who acknowledged never having watched the movie and refused Luna’s invitations to attend a screening, said the film painted trans women as psychotic killers who all have silly names, engage in campy dialog and work as “drag” performers. She said the film’s transphobic attitude was a reflection of Luna’s — and many gay men’s — own transphobia.

When, in mid-March, Luna announced that TOTWK had been chosen for the prestigious TriBeCa Film Festival in New York, Busey turned to the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation for help in spreading protests against the film. GLAAD soon called for a boycott of Luna’s movie, and called on officials with TriBeCa to rescind their invitation.

TriBeCa officials responded with a reasonably polite but thoroughly firm “no” to GLAAD’s demands, and screenings of TOTWK at the festival not only drew sell-out crowds but received, for the most part, positive reviews — despite protests staged outside the screenings by transgender activists.

In June, Fort Worth’s Q Cinema film fest also screened TOTWK, and again, the movie drew protesters, this time led by Busey herself.

Yet again, though, the screenings sold out, and Q Cinema organizers put together a panel discussion of trans issues after one of them.

The panel included Fort Worth trans woman Tori Van Fleet who had initially agreed with Busey and was opposed to the movie.

Van Fleet, however, agreed to watch the movie before forming an opinion, and she came out of the first Q Cinema screening as a fan of both TOTWK and filmmaker Luna.

Luna’s movie went on to win spots in numerous festivals — including Seattle International Film Festival, Philadelphia Q Fest and Telluride Horror Shows — and audience favorite awards at many of those screenings.

As icing on the cake, in late July Luna reached a distribution deal with Breaking Glass Pictures that put the film on even more big screens through a limited theatrical run of midnight screenings that began in October, and a DVD release in November.

Earlier in the year, Busey turned her attention to an eventually successful effort to convince Dallas Area Rapid Transit to extend protections to its transgender workers, and she continues her trans advocacy online.

— Tammye Nash

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition December 31, 2010.

—  Kevin Thomas