Jordan Firstman's new short film, Call Your Father, follows two gay men—one, a vapid, brash phone addict in his early twenties, the other a middle-aged, overly polite yes man—as they go on a date that leads them to shoplifting, screaming matches, and situations of life or death.
The film is a satirical take on the divide between two age groups within the gay community, and a glimpse into a world where everyone is driven to say exactly what they're really thinking. It's a hilarious and deeply saddening short that will leave you cringing in your seat and hungry for more of its brutal voice.
Firstman is a writer on TBS' Search Party and has created a number of short films in his career tackling themes of authenticity and gay intimacy. Below, we caught up with rising filmmaker about the difference between young and old gay men, escaping the trap of writing about gay struggle, and creating a world composed entirely of totally fucked up characters.
OUT: What was the story behind making this film?
Jordan Firstman: I wrote it right after I finished writing on the first season of Search Party, and I wanted to do something really personal and my own. It started out way more about age, and then it turned into a thing that dealt with gay intergenerational relationships. I had written both the characters as versions of myself. I’d just turned 25 and felt like I was over the phase of my life where I was a young, impulsive asshole making bad decisions all the time. But I wasn’t ready to be old and boring yet. so I wrote both characters as the worst case scenario of both those things.
I dated a lot of older guys in my twenties. And I began thinking that the way gay people are perceived—that we’re supposed to be a community, but there’s an ocean of difference between people who lived through AIDS and people who didn’t. We’re all expected to understand each other, but with straight people there isn’t that expectation—old and young straight people aren’t expected to get each other.
Do you still see yourself in both characters? The younger character, whom you play, is particularly hard to be in a room with.
He’s an amalgamation of people I know from the Internet, and people saying true things that are real with such a lack of empathy. I think our generation is smarter, more well-read, more knowledgable, but we can’t understand what anyone else has gone through. We only know our own experiences, but we’re thinking about the oppressors and the buzzwords of what’s going on right now.
I always think it’s fun to write really outspoken, annoying characters with deep insecurity and loneliness issues—to say the things I want to say, but I get to put a layer of 'they’re damaged, they’re fucked up, and I’m making fun of them.’ Filmmakers build worlds in their films. If Nancy Meyers’ world is all rich pretty white ladies with nice kitchens, the world I’m trying to build in my work is a world where everyone says exactly what they’re thinking. Because no one does, and I’ve always been a really honest person, and it continues to get me into trouble. And I do hurt people by telling the truth, because there’s nothing more hurtful than the truth.
Because you can’t deny it.
Right, and everyone is extremely flawed, including myself. I guess why I think I can do it in my work and call out the older character for his flaws is because the older character calls out the younger’s flaws, as well, in a more intense way. I think the key is being truthful about yourself, and being self-aware. If you can acknowledge your own faults and flaws, you can have more open conversations with people because they don’t feel attacked.
Is truthfulness a theme you want to bring to all your work?
I think I’ve subconsciously done it from the beginning. My first film was called The Disgustings, and it’s a similar thing where two really damaged people are shitting on the world. My second film is a similar concept, with a person speaking his mind. So it’s always been in my work, and people find it super uncomfortable to watch. But my tolerance for awkwardness is a little higher. I don’t find this film uncomfortable to watch, but I’ve seen it with so many audiences now, and people are definitely squirming a bit.
What shows do you look to for inspiration?
My number one is anything Mike White does. He’s truly why I write the way I do, and is such a huge, huge thing for me. I watched it all in a weekend in 2012, and it was a turning point. I didn’t know you could do that. I didn’t think these really complicated, flawed characters could be that funny and sad at the same time. So I’ve been working towards that since. I find him to be the most funny thing, because it’s real. My boyfriend’s characters—his point of view about the world is that everyone is insane. And my point of view is that everyone is sad. I think everyone has deep, deep sadness in them, and some people are willing to acknowledge it and see it as beautiful. People who don’t I can’t usually connect with.
I think both are true—everyone is insane and sad.
It’s good, though. I don’t like having a reductive view of the world—people who are just striving for happiness are often very uninteresting people. I hate when all those articles come out saying, Norway is the happiest place in the world, and then you meet someone from there and they’re boring and depressed. We live in such a complicated country that’s full of deep, deep pain and deep joy.
Without pain there really is no worthwhile art.
I completely agree. One thing I want to do with all my work, but especially with Call Your Father, is make a gay film that isn’t about the struggle and isn’t about empowerment. It’s just a story about flawed gay people.
It’s not trying to do something bigger than that.
I think the more specific and intimate you get, the bigger the internal life of something feels. I feel more watching something more like American Honey, that’s such a small story, than watching something about gay bashing or coming out to your parents. I think that’s a huge step we need to make in gay work. The things that become successful are about gay empowerment or gay struggle. It reduces us to those two things.
Because not every project has to speak for the whole community, either.
I played mostly straight festivals for the first four months, because I didn’t know if people would relate to it, but everyone really got it. People saw it more as a generational film. It answered people’s fears about aging, and growing up, and confronting your reality. The older character, I don’t really let him off the hook either. He’s unexamined, and his shyness and kindness is just an excuse to not have to look at what’s wrong with him.
How did you cast him?
I wrote it for him. He is this really great queer staple actor in the '90s Sundance world, and he did this movie called Swoon that’s really great. Then he continued to do gay indies in the '90s, and transitioned to writing, and wrote on True Blood, and now has a show at Amazon. He hadn’t acted in 10 or 15 years, and I said, I wrote this for you. You have to do it. No one else can do it. I think he’s so good in it. My friend was saying the film made her sad, and I asked her why, and she said, It’s just sad to see a middle-aged person be that real.
You don’t see that too often.
Especially in queer characters. I can’t think of many gay stories that take their characters seriously, and especially middle-aged characters. Do you feel like you related to one or the other?
I see parts of myself in both—the shy, overwhelmed quality of the middle-aged guy and the annoying qualities of the younger guy.
Not a lot of young gay people have seen this yet, so I’m interested to see their reaction once it’s out there. I thought older gay men might be offended by it, but I think a lot of them were happy to see themselves onscreen like this. I do think of it as a love letter to the older generation of gay men. I feel like we can’t possibly even comprehend what they went through, so even acknowledging that in something made them feel understood or heard in some way.