Monday, July 11, 2011

Reverend's Interview: Alan Brown Gives Shakespeare a Gay Twist with Private Romeo

There have been contemporary adaptations of Romeo and Juliet, Shakespeare's tragic saga of star-crossed young lovers from feuding families, notably Baz Luhrmann's 1995 movie version starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Claire Danes. There has even been a prior all-male stage version, the off-Broadway hit R & J. But Alan Brown's Private Romeo is the first film to combine a contemporary setting of the play with an all-male cast.  The film will screen this Friday as part of this year's Outfest, the Los Angeles Gay & Lesbian Film Festival.

In a recent phone conversation with the New York-based director, I asked Brown what were his sources of inspiration. "I lived in Japan for 8 years and taught my last two years there at a university using Franco Zeffirelli's (1968 film) Romeo and Juliet," Brown replied. "The Japanese love Shakespeare, but I also used the AIDS drama Longtime Companion and would have my students write plays based on those two movies. That's when I first made the connection between Romeo and Juliet and gay issues."

Brown had also seen R & J during its New York run, and was approached by the producers who held the rights to direct a film adaptation of it. That project failed to materialize, and Brown had moved on to studying soldiers' issues during the Iraq War. He met openly gay serviceman Daniel Choi and was inspired by the many stories he heard from GLBT troops. They served as fodder for Brown's 2007 film, Superheroes.


Growing calls for the repeal of the military's "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy as well as increasing incidents of bullying of GLBT young people ultimately led Brown to make Private Romeo. "I will feel good about the repeal of DADT when they implement it," the filmmaker says. "When Bush was re-elected in 2004, I felt like a lot of people I knew were depressed and felt we were powerless."

Brown continued, "I asked myself 'How can I contribute as a filmmaker to this issue?' I felt like what I learned then was 'Tend to your own garden,' so I made Superheroes and now Private Romeo." Most of Brown's new film was shot at the Maritime College of SUNI in the Bronx. Interestingly, some of it was filmed at a Catholic boys' high school on Long Island, which welcomed the production after a nearby public school withdrew their permission to shoot on campus due to a football hazing incident there.

Apart from his childhood years in Scranton, Pennsylvania ("I grew up Jewish in a very Catholic city," he said) and the time he spent in Japan, Brown is a longtime New Yorker. He started out as a journalist before deciding to pursue filmmaking full time. Brown has been partnered for 20 years with a Japanese man who works in the art world.


Brown had been planning to return to Japan to make what was supposed to be his next movie, Audrey Hepburn's Neck, based on his novel. Production has been postponed in the wake of the recent earthquake and tsunami that has devastated the country. "The story is set in Japan and is about cross-cultural, heterosexual sexual obsession," according to Brown, "but (the main male character's) best friend is a gay American in Japan who only dates Japanese men."

In the meantime, Brown has developed a music film, The Park. It will feature a large cast of diverse characters, some of them gay, who converge for a music festival in New York's Prospect Park. "It is Altman-esque, with overlapping stories all taking place in one day," Brown says. Shooting is to begin in October.

As one of a growing number of filmmakers dedicated to telling GLBTQ stories, Alan Brown and his Private Romeo represent Outfest at its best.

UPDATE: The US distribution rights for Private Romeo have been acquired by Wolfe Video. The film will be released theatrically this Fall in partnership with The Film Collaborative and debut on DVD/VOD in 2012.

Interview by Rev. Chris Carpenter, resident film critic of Movie Dearest and the Blade California.

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