Need to Know: Silas Howard
By Alex Panisch
You’d think making a movie on a shoestring budget would be confining. In ways it is: There’s no money for elaborate sets, explosive stunts, or massive advertising campaigns. Being free of studio money and the innumerous strings attached to it can also be freeing. When you do it yourself, there’s no need to appeal to the mainstream, to tweens, to males 18 to 35. Sunset Stories, directed by filmmakers Silas Howard and Ernesto Foronda, basks in this freedom, celebrating the outsiders, nonconformists of all kinds, and queerness in general.
The film follows a very type-A transplant nurse, May (Monique Gabriela Curnen), and her ex-fiancé (Sung Kang) as they search Los Angeles for a stolen cooler of bone marrow. On the way, they encounter a motley cast of characters, including a transgender chanteuse (Justin Vivian Bond), a surly motorcycle mechanic (Sandy Martin), and a wannabe lothario (Joshua Leonard). Sunset Stories screens next July 14 at the Redcat Theater for Outfest in Los Angeles. We caught up with Silas Howard and talked queerness, fairytales, and doing it on the cheap.
Out: So your film, Sunset Stories, is rather unconventional.
Silas Howard: It’s a very different type of film. I co-directed it with Ernesto, but it really came out of an interesting mixture of he and I both coming from the Queercore music scene in the mid-'90s. So, at the beginning of this we wanted to have this be Queercore and D.I.Y.
We didn’t want to wait around for studio money and permission to make a film that didn’t feel was a super-little film. We also wanted to play with the whole fairytale structure and the different faces in that world, so there’s a real accessibility to it. It was fun to play with that particular cast of characters.
You say it’s very D.I.Y. What was that like when you were shooting the film?
Yeah it was. There are definitely some very seasoned actors in the film, but the budget for the film wasn’t any bigger than the budget of my first feature, which was made 10 years ago. But the production value—in terms of all the people willing to work with us—was extraordinary, especially in terms of the cinematographer, PJ Raval.
But it was very micro-budget. Our changing room and the trailer for the actors was basically Huang’s car. We shot a lot at night, and L.A.’s cold at night; it’s a desert, so they’d be staying warm in his car, with the heat on, and we're also changing in the backroom of the motorcycle shop. We basically shot all of it in the Echo Park and Silver Lake area. The whole thing was mostly shot in a one-mile radius.
The restaurant we shot at: We just ate there, and they let us shoot for free and the other one let us shoot for free too, which was kind of amazing. To do that in Los Angeles is pretty hard to pull off.
Everyone was really committed and willing to just jump onboard and do this with us. It was no frills at all; it was very much a labor of love.
What were your influences for this film?
I think films like, After Hours and Desperately Seeking Susan. The whole weird awkwardness of human interaction. I think [our film] is more whimsical in terms of tone, with this 24-hour ticking clock. It also plays on the idea of interconnectivity. I think that does happen in L.A. Those run-ins with that one person you really don’t want to see.
I think our film is saying, “Don’t be afraid to wear your heart on your sleeve” and “Take your fate into your own hands.” I think it has a kind of earnestness as well; it’s not very ironic. It doesn’t have that kind of satire. It’s more straightforward than that.
Why the fairytale structure?
Well, my first band and the film I did with Harriet Dodge, By Hook or by Crook, were both odd. The band was very odd, and the film had a very nontraditional narrative. Both things didn’t attempt to explain or even marginalize themselves. With that in mind, I think the very diverse cast of our film was very intentional. Having a diverse cast and set of characters and not necessarily making that the conflict. Justin Vivian Bond’s character is trans—but that’s not necessarily the issue that we’re wrestling with. The fact that the cast of the film is very multiracial is a fact in the story but not the central conflict. It’s not taking away from all that, but it’s the world that we live in. That’s why I feel the fairytale structure was very appealing to us. In a fairytale, you don’t need to explain why there’s a Pegasus in the woods, it’s just there.
How do you think the queer sensibility influences the film?
This film is about outsider narratives, which is inherently queer. It is about resisting white heteronormative/ patriarchal narratives, which is inherently queer. The film works to bring these communities which many try to divide and conquer but are really in the same boat, especially with what’s going to happen in this election year.
What are you doing next?
I’m developing an adaptation of Michelle Tea’s novel, Chelsea Whistle, and Ernesto’s working on an adaptation of Scott Heim’s We Disappear.
Sunset Stories screens as part of Outfest on July 14.