People are properly amazed at what “Moonlight” was able to accomplish with its small $1.5 million budget, but consider this: That’s 75 times what writer/director John G. Young had to work with for his latest feature, “bwoy.”
The tale of an upstate New York man who, after tragically losing his young son, escapes into his first gay relationship with a much younger Jamaican man he meets online, “bwoy” will open on Friday, March 31 at the Laemmle’s Music Hall for its first limited engagement run. Young will be on hand for Q&A sessions about the film and its production process after the 7:30 p.m. screening on March 31, and after the 9:55 p.m. showing on April 1.
“bwoy” is Young’s fourth feature, and his first since 2009’s “Rivers Wash Over Me.” The Village Voice hailed Young’s first movie, 1995’s “Parallel Sons,” as one of the most promising independent films of the decade.
We spoke to Young about his latest, and the challenges of working on a shoestring.
Los Angeles Blade: What inspired the story for ‘bwoy’?
Young: It was inspired by several ideas. First, that online relationships allow us to mold how we present ourselves to each other, that it can be about omitting information as much as outright lying. Second, how a virtual relationship can still have intimacy, that real feelings and affection can develop for people without ever meeting physically. And finally, how people who are dealing with grief and denial can use anything to distract themselves from dealing with who they are and what they’re really feeling.
Blade: Where did the title come from?
Young: It refers to the Jamaican patois for “boy.” But often “bwoy” is used in conjunction with “batty bwoy,” a derogatory phrase used against gay men in Jamaica.
Blade: Have you had a long-distance online relationship like the one in the film?
Young: I’ve certainly had long distance relationships as well as online friendships. It doesn’t take much imagination to combine the two. With the Internet you can put yourself anywhere in the world — which means you can flirt with others as if you’re living anywhere, even if you’ve never been there.
Blade: Your films have all focused on biracial relationships. Assuming it’s no coincidence, why is that an important element in your work?
Young: I’m definitely interested in the way race, ethnicity, sexuality and privilege work. Of course as I’ve matured — “Parallel Sons,” my first feature, was made over 20 years ago! — my vantage point has changed. Yet I’m still interested in these themes, because they’re often the fabric, however unacknowledged, of our lives. Why and how do we objectify the “other”? How do we act out unconsciously with and towards others? How does sex interrupt and confuse these questions? What does it mean to have privilege in the LGBTQ community?
Blade: Upstate New York also seems to always feature in your films — do you live there? What makes the area a good film location?
Young: I was raised in upstate New York and have a weekend house there, so for me the area is a great location, because I have a strong emotional connection to it. I’ve also always been fascinated with the fact that you can have areas of New York State that are only several hours from NYC, but feel more like rural Kansas. In “bwoy,” I wanted to capture the gray bleakness of winter upstate, something I know well, and how it can contribute to isolation and loneliness, another theme in the film.
Blade: Do you tend to use local actors?
Young: Sometimes I use local actors in small parts, but I really believe in finding the best actors for the role in question. I’d much rather find an actor who can really inhabit the character, even if they don’t entirely fit the physical description.
Blade: Have you spent much time in Jamaica, and do you feel connected to the plight of gay people there?
Young: I’d like to think that I feel connected to the plight of marginalized and persecuted people anywhere, but for LGBTQ folks in Jamaica it’s still especially dangerous: Consensual sex between men can still be punished with up to ten years of hard labor. Of course, Jamaica sells itself as a paradise, an idea that appeals to Brad, the lead character in my film, who’s desperate to escape his life. The question in the film is: Who is a Jamaica a paradise for? The wealthy tourists who often don’t leave the resorts they visit, or the homeless gay teenagers who are forced to live under bridges and in gullies?
Blade: I’ve read that you made ‘bwoy’ with just $20,000, is that right? How were you able to do it so cheaply? How does that compare to the budgets you’ve had for other films?
Young: Yes, bwoy was made for 20K. All of my films have been made with what is considered “micro budgets.” For this film I worked backwards, looking at the physical resources I had and the money I could raise. I then developed a story around those resources. With budgets this small, I look at the story itself as the actual production value — of course along with the acting! Human pain can be explored just as easily and just as profoundly on the set of a multimillion-dollar blockbuster as across a kitchen table in a no-budget indie. Luckily, I was able to work with Novo Novus Productions on this — they have a great track record of producing super-low-budget films, and are committed to creating movies which feature stories about LGBTQ people of color.
Blade: Do you prefer working with small budgets? Are there things you would’ve done differently in bwoy if your budget had been larger?
Young: Every indie filmmaker will tell you that the most important thing money buys you is time. So there are probably a few things that I would have done differently had I had more money, but mostly for me it would have been having a few extra days to shoot. On a 10-day schedule, two extra days can make a big difference.
Blade: What have some of your own favorite films been recently?
Young: Ahhhh! So many good films! I really appreciated Moonlight of course, especially because of the conversation it’s created between LGBTQ people of color and those who don’t identify as such. I’m fascinated by what constitutes a “gay” film and what doesn’t. Does it matter in this case if most of the actors and director identify as straight? How do the characters in Moonlight both reinforce stereotypes and push back against them? It’s been a long time since any film, let alone a Best Picture winner, has created a place for this kind of self-probing conversation. I do want to mention that I think the film owes a debt of gratitude to queer filmmakers of color who’ve come before, including Nisha Ganatra, Stephen Winter, Marlon Riggs, Cheryl Dunye, Rodney Evans, Dee Rees and Patrik-Ian Polk, to just name a few.
Blade: What do you do besides making films?
Young: I teach screenwriting and film production at Purchase College in Westchester, New York. But, I also love to build things with my hands. Because making a film can take years, I really enjoy the immediacy of creating an object in several hours or days, and then being able to have the results.
Blade: What’s your next project?
Young: I’ve been working on a longtime labor-of-love project that chronicles the relationship between Juan Dubose and Keith Haring during the heyday of New York’s East Village art scene.