GLBT film festivals regularly provide a showcase for works by first-time directors, writers and actors. However, one such movie and its creator, Brian Pera, made a more auspicious debut than usual at the Los Angeles Gay & Lesbian Film Festival, Outfest, this past July.
The Way I See Things isn't just the first film directed by Pera. It also represents his first screenplay, which Pera adapted from his novel Freefall, as well as his first time acting. Oh, he produced, co-edited and designed sound for the movie too. So impressive is Pera's achievement that The Way I See Things was highlighted at Outfest as one of only four features by first-time directors deserving of special attention.
As noted in my previous review, the film tells a quirky, non-linear and quite metaphysical story about a young man, Otto (played by Pera), who is still grieving the unexpected death of his partner one year earlier. Barely able to get out of bed, Otto is abducted one morning by his friend Rob (the talented Jonathan Ashford, who performs multiple roles). Rob takes Otto on a road trip in an effort to help him get over the loss.
Suffice to say, Rob's plan doesn't work very well. Otto escapes and falls in with a quasi-cult. The commune members, intent on their leader's goal to help them "separate the 'I' from the 'me'," take Otto in, but also grow increasingly suspicious as to whether he's fully investing himself in the process. But it is also at the commune that Otto falls in love with a member who looks identical to his former partner. Has he been reincarnated? Did he even really die? Has Otto somehow resurrected his partner in order to say good-bye properly? Has Otto lost his mind completely?
I had the privilege of speaking with Pera during Outfest, and was pleased to learn the intelligence and soulfulness he radiates on screen are genuine. His performance in The Way I See Things is so good, I was startled to learn he'd never acted before, not even in a high school play.
"I acted in the movie because I couldn't afford to pay anyone," Pera told me, also mentioning his film had a budget "significantly less" than a million dollars. "I had no reason to think I could act, and it was pretty naive to think I could do that and direct at the same time, so I've been surprised at how well-received the performance has been."
The genesis of The Way I See Things began in 2000, when several deaths in Pera's family and among his friends converged with the publication of his first novel, Troublemaker.Freefall and the screenplay Pera adapted from it grew out of "an opportunity to further explore the effects of grief on identity, the way mind and memory are affected by the loss of a person whose presence has become an integral part of one's self-definition."
Pera further explained, "Otto is sort of an emotional analogue for my experience of loss. He embodies what loss feels like for me, so he's a fantasy figure to some degree. I wanted sometimes to shut down and cut myself off when someone I love died, but you have to keep going."
Despite its serious origins, The Way I See Things is often very funny when depicting Otto's attempts to re-connect with life and develop connections with the other characters. "You learn who you are through your interactions and relationships with other people," Pera said, "and you have a harder time figuring out who you are without someone to bounce off of, especially someone you were used to bouncing off of. It's sort of like losing a barometer or a gauge for what your identity is."
The movie is also quite sexy, especially during an intimate moment between Otto and commune member Pherber. "When you lose someone close to you, you kind of look for them in other people; other people remind you of them," according to Pera. "Since Otto's partner died, he hasn't been intimate with anyone. When Otto does get close to someone, he sees him through the prism of a past relationship, so he's not really experiencing the guy genuinely but through this filter, getting just a fraction of who he is. He brings all his baggage into it with him."
Pera's own life experiences and resulting wisdom permeates his writing. He had set out to become a filmmaker before he became a novelist and had worked on one film crew, so I assumed Pera felt qualified to make The Way I See Things. He replied, "No, I wasn't ... but I didn't tell anybody that. I bluffed myself, just like I bluffed myself with acting. A shot list was the closest I got to conventional filmmaking."
While there aren't yet definite plans for a theatrical or DVD release of his film, Pera has no intention of resting on his laurels. He's already writing a new screenplay from his home in Memphis, Tennessee.
"I consider myself an availabilist," Pera said. "I don't believe in waiting for people to give you opportunities but in creating them for yourself." With such a philosophy and his abundant talent, I expect we'll be seeing, reading and/or hearing a lot more of Brian Pera.
Interview by Rev. Chris Carpenter, resident film critic of Movie Dearest and the Orange County and Long Beach Blade.