Must-See: Those People Realistically Portrays Unrequited Love & Gay Sex (Finally!)

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Rarely do we come across a sweeping gay love story set in New York City (and made by an American director). Those People is just that. Directed and written by Joey Kuhn, who used the film as his graduate thesis project, Those People feels effortlessly inspired by metropolitan legends like Annie Hall and the soon-to-be classic Love Is Strange, but also excels into new and welcome terrain—one that inspires its queer audience as equally as its straight counterpart. Amidst the over-saturated, LGBT market of indie web productions and hastily filmed features, Those People is striking to look at and actually really, really good.

Those People follows twentysomething Charlie—a wide-eyed painter who’s never told anyone off in his life—as he falls deeper in love with his emotionally troubled, but thoroughly charming best friend, Sebastian. As Charlie helps Sebastian through a difficult family drama, he meets Tim, an older musician, who may actually love Charlie back. It’s a timeless tale of unrequited love that is challenged and reversed as Charlie discovers selfhood and Sebastian finds selflessness. 

We chatted with Kuhn about Those People and how he wrote characters who exist in all of our lives in one form or another. Above all else, we were deeply curious how Kuhn managed to craft a gay love story that is poignant to every kind of audience—male and female, straight, gay, or somewhere in between.

Out: What inspired Those People?

Joey Kuhn: In college I fell in love with my gay best friend. I kept it a secret from him for years. I was affraid it’d ruin the friendship, I was afraid of rejection. Though it sucked at the time—and it went on for like five years—it provided this endless well of creative inspiration for the script. I actually made a short film about him in grad school and that’s how I revealed my feelings for him. 

Are you guys still friends? 

Yes, well, we don’t see each other as much anymore. We never got together or hooked up or anything. He moved back to India, where he’s from, two years after college ended and I went to visit him. Two days before the trip ended, I showed him the short and I was like, “Surprise! I’m in love with you.” 

What were your expectations going into that big reveal? 

I don’t know what I expected at the time. He lived in India and I lived in New York. There was really no way for it to work and in my head I knew it’d be a bad relationship anyway. So I went in with the expectation that this was how I was going to get it off my chest, like when a guy writes a song for a girl he likes in high school. It gave me a deadline for coming out to him about my feelings. Then a couple years later, when I sat down to write this feature, I hadn’t really moved past him. So I used the script as therapy. Why was I hanging on to these feelings? Why was I in love with this guy who would never love me back? 

There’s a Sebastian in everyone’s life—gay or straight. 

Yes! I always like to write characters with someone’s voice in my head and Sebastian’s ostentatious voice is based on that guy and how he speaks.   

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Left: Charlie (Jonathan Gordon); Right: Sebastian (Jason Ralph)

I know you’re a fan of musicals, and you even threw in some "Seasons of Love" into the background of a scene, but the soundtrack for the film as a whole is stunning. Was sound important to your storytelling?

I knew that I wanted the film to have its own soundtrack. Woody Allen’s Manhattan is set to jazz and I wanted my New York to have this classical feeling to it that would match all of the locations, wardrobe, and melodrama of the movie. In sixth grade, I was in a Gilbert and Sullivan production and ever since then I’ve been obsessed with them. All Gilbert and Sullivan music is public domain, so their songs were in the script. Then we experimented with overtures over some of the montages and had an original score composed by Adam Crystal. I wanted something classical and piano-driven, and I think he did a beautiful job.

Music can also lend a timelessness to movies. Though your movie is set in contemporary New York City, it also felt like it could be any decade really.

That’s exactly what I wanted to do. I wanted it to feel like it could be any time, from the 1970s to 10 years from now. I didn’t want many cellphones, or ring tones, or computers. I love films that create their own timeless bubbles. 

Would you say this is a story of unrequited love or something a bit more complicated? 

Unrequited love is a huge emotional component of this movie. It’s what thrusts the movie into motion. But for me, the film is a coming of age story for Charlie and all the characters. You watch Charlie put others before himself—and define himself by others—and then learn to put himself first and find out who he is. I made him a painter so we could track his growth outwardly. You can see he’s painting Sebastian and not himself, that he can’t paint himself. Sebastian is the opposite of Charlie. He puts himself before everyone and then by the end he puts others first.

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Left: Charlie (Jonathan Gordon); Right: Tim (Haaz Sleiman)

So there’s one sex scene in this movie, between Tim and Charlie and it’s toward the end. I just want to say how refreshing it was to see two men having sex facing one another on screen. Like, has that ever been done before? 

I know! Brokeback Mountain really fucked it up for us. Straight people think gay men just spit on their dicks and do it doggy style. 

Yas! Multiple straight friends have asked me, “So, can you guys even look at each other?” And I’m just like, le sigh.

In the script stage, I knew they’d be having sex facing each other. It was incredibly important to me and to put in the movie. I wanted straight people to see it and learn how gay men can have sex.

Let’s compare Tim and Sebastian a bit. What would their Instagram profiles look like?

[Laughs] Well, I don’t think Sebastian would have Instagram because he’s really living outside the bubble of technology. But if he did, I think it’d be extremely well-curated with lots of fabulous outfits. 

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Left: Sebastian (Jason Ralph); Right: Tim (Haaz Sleiman)

I could just see him in formal wear in a room with beautiful molding.

Oh yeah. Then Tim’s Instagram would just be a lot of pictures of Charlie. I think Tim is a humble guy, but he knows what he likes and goes after it. 

If Those People imparted one or two sentences of life wisdom to its viewers, what would it be?

I would say, “Don’t hold your feelings inside because expressing them is extremely important.” And, “It’s much better to say the thing that is weighing heavily on you than to keep it in and torture yourself.” I don’t know if it’s advice, per say, but I love that this group of friends finds family in each other. Finding family is important.

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How do you see this film fitting into the queer landscape?

I think audiences and filmmakers have matured, and now our generation can tell stories about characters who just happen to be gay. Now if you want to see yourself reflected on screen, you can pick up a camera and make something. I hope this film is a part of that conversation, a part of this movement of new LGBT cinema. That’s where I want Those People to live.

Those People opens May 6 at Cinema Village in NYC and at Arena Cinemas in LA. It will also be available on DVD/VOD on June 14Watch the trailer below:

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