‘Last Summer’ — The Gay Film That Made 5 Straight Dudes Cry Posted by: Aaron Stearns | 0 Comments
Bourbon & Boots visits with Arkansas filmmaker Mark Thiedeman about the world premiere of Last Summer, a Southern love story and a new take on gay cinema. He’s candid about filming a gay movie in the South, his Arkansan cast and crew, and the script that made five straight dudes cry.
On a sticky September night, I met Mark Thiedeman on the porch of the big downtown home he shared with several young Little Rock artists and musicians. I quickly learned he was an earnest filmmaker putting the finishing touches on a very personal, incredibly brave project — a coming-of-age love story about two young boys in the South. Wanting a fresh set of eyes to study his latest edits to a trailer for Last Summer, he sat me in front of his computer and played the well-crafted peek into an innocent, enviable romance, cast in the warm glow of sunlight flittering through leaves, filled with dreamy shadows and set to soft, classical piano. “What do you think?” Thiedeman asked. Still spellbound, I could only utter one word. “Beautiful.”
I wasn’t the only one enchanted by Thiedeman’s film. Mark said Last Summer already has a fan base and even a fan-made YouTube video. And its world premiere will be at this year’s Little Rock Film Festival, where it will be screened at 8:30 p.m. today at the Argenta Community Theater and again at 4 p.m. on Sunday at the Dundee Building.
You are originally from New Orleans and you studied at NYU. How did you land in Little Rock?
I actually moved to Arkansas when I was 12 and lived here until I went to NYU, and I decided to move back largely because I wanted to make Last Summer. Since it’s a movie about young love and the feeling of moving away from a small town, I thought it was fitting to film the movie here, where all of my high school memories are based.
Without revealing too much, will you let us in on a little of the story within Last Summer?
It’s a very simple story, really. Luke and Jonah are a couple of high school boys who have known each other since they were 4 years old. They’re very opposite. Luke is athletic and kind of an underachiever. Jonah is very sensitive, quiet and feels out of place in his small town. But opposites attract, and as the boys grew up, they fell in love. Last Summer follows their final few months together before Jonah leaves to explore the world outside of the South, leaving Luke behind.
It’s a story of growing up and falling in love for the first time — one that anyone can relate to. What made you choose to make the lead characters gay?
I think in some ways Last Summer isn’t what you’d expect from a gay love story. You’ll never hear the word “gay” mentioned in the film. There are no big coming out scenes. The boys don’t get beaten up by bullies. Their families know about their relationship and support it. Maybe it’s a bit of a fantasy, but this is how I see the world. There’s no difference between gay relationships and straight relationships as far as I’m concerned. I hope that Last Summer in some ways challenges notions of homosexuality and how gay people fit into the fabric of a community. It’s important for me to show that these boys are just like anyone else. They ride bikes, they go to church, they find their parents annoying and their hearts break just like anyone else’s.
The film takes place in rural America and was shot in Arkansas. Why is a Southern setting important to the film?
Well, if you’re going to tell a story about two boys in love who never suffer opposition from their families or their community, the obvious place to set the movie is a conservative red state, right?
Did you cast Southern or Arkansan actors?
All of the actors are from Arkansas, and I’m so proud of them. I love my cast. I was worried at first that I would have to import actors to play Luke and Jonah. I wanted the film to be shot in the South, but I was extremely picky about how those two characters would look, sound and act. Meeting Sam [Pettit] and Sean [Rose] was a kind of miracle as far as I’m concerned. Not only do they look exactly like they were described on the page, they were already best friends; so when you watch the movie, it feels like they’ve known each other forever. I had been writing Last Summer on and off since 2005. Seven years later, these characters I had grown to love on the page became real people.
How many hats did you wear when producing the film?
Too many. I wrote it, directed it and edited it. I did the sound design, costume design and art direction, and I think I was a boom operator once or twice. It was a lot of work, but I like it that way. My crew was very small but spectacular. David Goodman is a mind-reader of a photographer. He captured the tone of the film perfectly. Elizabeth Strandberg was a wonderful producer — so organized and so helpful. John Willis performed the music for the film, and it’s lovely. And my friends Johnnie Brannon and Keith Hudson were on board to do whatever else was needed, whether it was holding a microphone or picking up lunch. And that’s it. We made it work, and, honestly, it was the least stressful shoot I’ve ever had.
Last Summer was at least partially crowd-funded, right? And you surpassed your $5,000 goal? Why do you think people were so supportive of this film? What were some of the motivating things you heard along the way?
It was partially crowd-funded, and, yes, people were really supportive, which means so much to me. I think it may have something to do with the fact that stories like this are rarely told. Gay-themed films don’t often appeal to a universal audience, and I think people wanted to see one that did. There have been a lot of great motivators. People in Little Rock were incredible. I really didn’t expect to find a lot of support here, both because I make films about gay characters and also because my work is a bit challenging sometimes, a little experimental. But the encouragement I’ve received from our local film community has been overwhelming and humbling, and it really proved to me that the South is ready for this kind of material. One of my favorite moments working on the film, though, is something completely random: someone I don’t know, who doesn’t even live in the South, took all the footage from our trailers and re-edited it into a fan video. It’s on YouTube. That made me really happy.
Did the script really make five straight guys cry?
It did. Most of my best friends are straight guys. I think they relate to Luke somehow, and maybe it’s fitting that I cast a straight guy as Luke. I always saw him as your average, all-American kid. And it’s actually kind of unusual, I think, to watch a teen romance that’s about a guy’s feelings. You don’t see too many stories about the pain a boy goes through when he’s in love.
The Little Rock Film Festival runs through Sunday. Click for a full schedule of screenings.
When she’s not writing, Stacey Bowers is hiking, climbing and exploring her home state of Arkansas and (poorly) planning her next adventure. She is currently the associate editor at Little Rock-based AY Magazine.