Two best friends – one straight, one bisexual/gay – hook up just before the straight guy gets married. It’s the start of a decade long affair where the guys meet for one night a year to have sex, catch up and let loose. However what should be a secret but simple bit of fun soon becomes something more complicated for both of them.
That’s the set-up for writer/director Mark Bessenger’s The Last Straight Man, which shows us five of the mens’trysts over a 12-year period. With the film coming to DVD (it’s out this week in both the US and UK), we took the opportunity to chat to Bessenger about his movie, how the actors dealt with the sex and nudity, and whether gay people have a double standard about ‘straight’ men having same sex affairs.
Where did the idea for The Last Straight Man come from?
I wish I could say it was autobiographical, but it actually sprang from the budget. I knew my next feature would have to keep costs down, so I began to wonder if I could set a movie in one location and keep it interesting for ninety minutes. From there, it just built itself up: a hotel suite…one night every year afforded the opportunity to let characters grow…two men…best friends…one straight and one gay would provide the drama…unrequited love and sexual curiosity would provide the conflict…and there it was.
Have you ever fallen for a straight friend yourself?
I’ve had some pretty hard crushes on some of my straight guy friends, but yes, there was one that I was on the verge of falling in love with. Thank goodness it never happened. He was married with kids and it would have been a disaster. But, if he had been gay, it would have been glorious. We got along so well.
How did the main actors, Mark Cirillo and Scott Sell, get involved?
Scott was the first actor cast. When I was writing the script, I happened to see Scott in an episode of a local web show from Detroit, Michigan. It was a horror series, and Scott was great and had the perfect look for the Cooper character. I contacted him on Facebook, struck up a conversation and when the script was completed, I sent it to him to see if there was any interest. He wanted to try out, and I video auditioned him. He did a great job, and that was that.
Another actor had initially been cast as Lewis, the gay guy, but a month before the start of production, he backed out—a director’s nightmare. Several other good actors were contacted, including some who had originally auditioned for the part, but they turned it down, mostly because of the nudity and sex. One turned it down because of the “dirty bottom” joke! Producer Benjamin Lutz suggested I auditioned Mark Cirillo. They were friends because they had both been in another movie together (The Men Next Door), and Mark had done comedy and nudity in that film. So we brought Mark in, and he was great, so the two leads were complete.
Is it true that you initially thought about having different actors playing the two main characters at each of their meetings? Why was that scrapped?
Yes. Originally, I thought it would be fun to have different actors play the same characters every time they met. Maybe even actors of diverse races. It would give me the opportunity to work with more good people and add an interesting spin to the film, but the producers discussed it with me, and we ultimately decided it was too gimmicky an idea. The audience would have to get acquainted with the characters anew each time which would make it harder to build upon their story arcs. Plus, each concurrent set of actors would have to work within ever-tightening parameters, as they could only perform within the boundaries set by the preceding actors, which wouldn’t be as much fun. So we scrapped the idea.
Due to the setup of showing us some of the men’s yearly meeting, there’s a fair amount of nudity and sexual situations. Was that difficult to handle on set? Were the actors concerned about it at first?
Mark Cirillo had done nudity in previous films so it wasn’t a big deal to him (although now that the movie is done, he has told me he’s amazed at how much skin and sex there is in it), and when we were recording the audio commentary for the DVD, Scott revealed that ‘those’ scenes had almost prevented him from accepting the role. Both actors were very brave, but I have to give special props to Scott, who basically flew across the country to meet a group of people he didn’t know and get comfortable enough around us to take off his clothes and show butt and peen.
We rehearsed the scenes (clothed) extensively before we began filming, so the actors were relaxed and familiar with each other’s bodies, so I think that made it easier for them. And while we shot with a small crew, it was still difficult to get people to work on the film, due to the fact that it was GAY sex and MALE nudity. Even the women on the shoot were, I was told, uncomfortable. But I am always about challenging boundaries, so I take that as a badge of honor. And everyone behaved professionally. Even the telling of dirty jokes on set was practically nonexistent.
How much of a challenge was writing the script? You want us to get to know these men, but you are seeing them in quite limited periods. Was it difficult to keep it natural but still fully flesh out the characters?
Not at all. It was probably one of the easiest scripts I’ve ever written. Once I knew who these two guys were, and what I wanted each annual reunion to be about, the creation of the script just flew. I believe once the outline was done, I wrote it in a week. There was a very minimal rewrite after I let a few friends read it.
The film deals with the complexities of sexuality. It can often be a tangled thing with many people having different ideas about how peoples’ sexuality works and how/whether it can change. As the movie deals with people whose sexuality is being challenged or changing (at least in their own minds), how did you ensure that felt real?
I think a person’s sexuality is pretty much set at a young age with fuzzy borders. When I was a kid, I knew I didn’t feel the same way about girls as I did about boys, but I still thought I would get married to a woman some day and have kids. This was the ‘Barbie Dream House’ fantasy, and I didn’t realize it was really a gay fantasy. In high school and college, I became convinced I was bisexual and even bedded several women in an attempt to prove it to myself, but it was never as satisfying as it was when I had sex with men. Finally, I decided to just admit the truth to myself and came out as gay. So, did my sexuality change? No. Just my own interpretation (or frantic attempt at labelings) of what I thought I was, not what I really was.
And I believe this is true for a lot of people. One ‘straight’ male friend and fuck buddy told me that he considered himself totally heterosexual…he just liked to suck dick once in a while. To me, that is not straight, but to HIM, it absolutely is. So was his sexuality changing? I don’t think so. I think he was bisexual with a preference for women, but if he had come to this realization, his sexuality wouldn’t change, just his interpretation of it. And I found this fascinating and tried to incorporate this into Cooper’s character to help give him that authenticity.
I was also interested in how the guys’ meetings are supposed to be about escape and fun for both of them, but it quickly becomes apparent that there’s more to it than that. Do you think people can have ‘friends with benefits’ relationships that don’t get more complicated?
I really don’t. Sex, even if it’s originally just for fun, implies a certain amount of intimacy between the people involved. Now, I’m talking about ongoing sexual relationship, not going to a bathhouse or a sex club. When we have sex, we are revealing ourselves to another person in many ways. We are exposing our bodies, our pleasures, our fetishes, our psyches…everything that makes us who we are. I don’t think you can expose those aspects of ourselves to each other and not have it emotionally take hold somewhere.
It’s often difficult to get gay-themed films made. How did you go about getting financing the film?
I wish I could say I sold my body for a night to an Arabian prince and raised the entire budget by morning, but in actuality, we approached distributors, friends and investors but no one wanted to bite. Even a couple of porn companies. My biggest surprise was how many ‘out and proud’ homosexual men were actually afraid to put money into a gay production because their families and friends might disapprove. We tried an IndieGoGo campaign that failed miserably. Ultimately, a production company came through for us after reading the script and thinking it was great. Who was I to disagree?
I’m often intrigued when watching movies in which married men have an affair with another guy, whether the ‘cheating’ character would seem as sympathetic if he was having an affair with a woman. Do you think that’s true and that perhaps gay-themed cinema has a bit of a double-standard on that issue?
It is a double-standard, because cheating on a committed partner IS cheating. But I think we are more apt to forgive a married man sleeping with a gay man because men cheat to fulfill something they’re not getting in their normal relationships. If he’s having hetero sex at home and seeks out other hetero sex, it’s harder to forgive, because he’s looking for more of what he’s already getting. But if a married man is seeking out gay sex, we believe (or often WANT to believe) that it’s because he’s searching for something more than just sex. He’s looking to fulfill some part of his makeup that his wife, or any woman for that matter, isn’t satisfying. And so he finds it with other men. For a lot of gay men, we understand that search, since so many of us have experienced it ourselves, and so, we’re more willing to forgive that transgression. But if we were to see a movie about a married gay couple in a committed relationship and one of them cheats on his spouse with another gay man, I don’t think it would be as well-received.
The film seems to have had a great reaction at film festivals. Are you pleased with how audiences have reacted to the movie?
Yes. I was surprised at how few GLBT festivals in the U.S. wouldn’t take the film. When you’re rejected, you don’t get an explanation. But I was always told that it could be for any reason: too long of a running time, not funny enough, a festival programmer was feeling particularly unattractive that day and didn’t want to book a film where someone else found love…anything. But I always had a feeling the sexual frankness of the film scared some of them off. Even GLBT fests in the Bible Belt can be pretty conservative.
Are you a fan of gay-themed cinema yourself? What are some of your favourites?
Yes, I love gay cinema. I love movies in general, but gay cinema feels like it speaks more to me than other genres (except horror, but that’s an essay in itself) because it’s easier to see myself on the screen. I could name several films, but I’m going to restrict myself to two, both by the same director: Joseph Graham. This guy is such a good filmmaker, it hurts. His first film, Strapped, is a character study of people living in an apartment building as they encounter a male escort who has just had a client and cannot find the exit. After working his way through the literal and figurative maze-like hallways, he learns something about himself. It’s a beautiful piece of work. Now, Joe has a new film coming out called Beautiful Something. He’s putting the finishing touches on it right now. He graciously asked me to watch it…and it’s simply brilliant. It’s about our relationship with art and how that effects all aspects of our lives. It’s gorgeous, sexy, amazingly directed and the acting is devastatingly wonderful. Keep an eye out for that one. It’s flat-out my favorite gay film to date.
Are you working on anything new. Is there anything you can tell us about it?
Oh yes, things have been very busy at the Bessenger film factory. Currently, an older feature I directed and was thought lost has been rediscovered. It’s called Rhapsody and is available for streaming and download on amazon.com, or for purchase on Blu-ray on eBay. It was my first gay feature, shot in Chicago in 1994. When it was found, we remastered the footage, re-scored the music and re-edited the picture. There were a LOT of montages. A LOT, lol. Anyway, it’s recently been made available.
The very first feature film I ever directed, a horror/comedy/action/martial arts film called Ninja Zombie may be finally seeing the light of day next year. I was told it was too ‘mean-spirited’ by a distributor and so let it collect dust in my garage until recently someone came calling for it. Look for that one early in 2016.
And currently, I am in the middle of production on a new project called Confession. It’s a 16-scene anthology made up of gay male monologues in which each character confesses a secret to someone; sometimes a friend, sometimes directly to us. Each piece differs from the rest in tone or genre. One is a comedy, one is horror, one is romantic, one is disturbing, a few are erotic, there is a concert film, dancing and puppets; some are dark, some are light…I hope all are entertaining. And yes, there’s sex and nudity, lol.
We should finish post by the end of April and will be making the film festival circuit this year while seeking distribution.
I hope these films will appeal to ‘our’ audience, and that your readers will seek them out and enjoy them!