High school hijinks

Darren Stein and Michael J Willett on the making of G.B.F.

by Jennie Kermode

In with the in crowd.
In with the in crowd.

The story of a teenager for whom being outed as gay means becoming a must-have fashion accessory, G.B.F. was selected as part of this year’s BFI Flare festival (formerly the London Lesbian and Gay Film Festival). I caught up with director Darren Stein and star Michael J Willett whilst they were visiting London for the festival, and asked how they felt about being a part of it.

“I’m so excited!” Michael exclaimed. I love London. I love the history, I love the culture. I haven’t been here since I was in high school so to be back here now with my first movie, that feels really good.”

Darren showed similar enthusiasm, praising the festival and the team behind it. I asked him if he’s a longstanding fan of the high school movie genre.

Even popular girls get lonely.
Even popular girls get lonely.

“I am, I really am!” he responded. “I grew up in the San Fernando Valley in California, near the shopping mall where they shot Valley Girls, so I was raised around that whole teen movie, Valley Girl thing. Coupled with my own outsider status in high school it made me really appreciate the world of teen movies.” Heathers is his favourite, he says, and then he loves “campier stuff like Rock ‘N’ Roll high School, partly because that featured the Ramones who are one of my favourite groups, and then Dazed And Confused, in the early Nineties, because it perfectly captured Austin in the Seventies. That also exposed me to music, like Foghat and Black Sabbath, that I didn’t really know before, and there are all those Eighties bands in John Hughes movies. That’s part of what I think is great about them. You have fashion, music and adolescence and basically any story works there because it’s a microcosm of culture at large – that’s how Amy Heckerling was able to take Jane Austen – which one was it?”

Emma, I suggested.

“That’s it, Emma, and turn it into Clueless, and Heathers is basically like Bonnie and Clyde or whatever. I think George Northy, who wrote G.B.F., was inspired by things like Mean Girls.”

“I always loved Ferris Bueller and teen films like the ones John Hughes made,” said Michael, “but this [G.B.F.] is the kind of film I would have wanted to see in high school. I find it so relatable, so fun and colourful but still meaningful.” He also revealed a fondness for Pretty In Pink, The Goonies and “more boyish films, like The Outsiders and Stand By Me.”

G.B.F. poster
G.B.F. poster

I asked Darren if he’d seen anything he would class as a gay themed high school movie in the past or if he felt it was time to do something different.

“For sure it was time for something different,” he said. “I didn’t write it but when I read it I knew straight away that I really wanted to do it. I like that it puts gay characters in a world of regular high school that you see in most movies. It’s something that anyone can enjoy and relate to. George was inspired to write it years ago when he saw an article in Teen Vogue magazine...”

“So there really was a gay best friend article!” I exclaimed.

He laughed. “There really was.”

I asked if he thought the genre approach was a useful way to tackle remaining issues around homophobia without being too heavy handed.

“I think it’s a new way of getting that point across,” he responded. “In a way it’s a more provocative way. Everyone’s so used to seeing sad and serious gay movies come out about suicide and gay bashing and homophobia and this is fun to watch but it’s still just as serious about its messages.”

“I’m sick of seeing these gay tragedies,” Michael added, “so I think it’s important to show that this really isn’t an issue, it’s a non issue but still a problem because of how people react to it. In a way I think comedy is often the best way to reach people because they have fun and are laughing but then they realise oh, there’s a lot of serious stuff there.”

I congratulated Michael on making his character, Tanner, a rounded individual whom we still find interesting even though he’s not as dynamic and glamorous as the people around him.

“I knew that the character needed to be grounded in real life so that the other characters could be larger than life. I just tried to play the straight man, even though he’s a gay boy.” In developing the character, he says, he drew on his own physical insecurities and idiosyncrasies from when he was in high school. “Back then I was introverted and insecure, I had social anxieties... he’s basically just like a younger version of me. But also the writer, George Northby; a lot of Tanner is him from when he was that age.

Arriving at prom.
Arriving at prom.

“I think that teen movies show a fantasy version of high school. They’re based in real life but they have these heightened elements. They’re a kind of escapism and they let people relive their high school experience.”

Making the film was great fun, he said.

“We had a blast! because it was an indie movie everybody was there because they wanted to be. We didn’t get paid a lot but it was just a really good atmosphere and it was lots of fun.”

“It was so much fun to make!” says Darren. “We had the most wonderful ensemble of actors. Everybody was very committed to their characters and as is often the case with actors they were all close approximations of the characters in real life. That, and they were all really young. Michal was 21 or 22 at the time. So it was sort of like being in high school. Since it was an indie film there were no trailers and none of the infrastructure that bigger films have... Between scenes we were all in the same room, hanging out. Most of the actors brought some improvisation to their roles. I had writers on set every day so we could ask the actors what they thought about each scene and have lines cut or added.”

Putting together a film like this can’t have been easy financially. I asked Darren how the funding came together.

“It was all raised independently,” he said. “Initially we tried to bring it to studios but they all said ‘We don’t make teen movies any more, and even if we did it would be very difficult with a gay lead character. Sometimes you can’t find money for a film that way and you just have to do what you can. We still think the film could be a big success.”

Somebody always has to spoil the party.
Somebody always has to spoil the party.

Next up for him, he says, is writing for the stage and scripting a “morose, sad, incestuous” TV movie for the Lifetime Network. Then he’ll be starting work on another film, with Chloe Sevigny already attached and a story similar to that of Sunset Boulevard, but with a young transgender character added. “So I’m looking for a fabulous young actor who can go from being a 15 year old guy to a 25 year old woman.”

Michael, meanwhile, has just finished a shoot for the MTV series Faking It. “I play a guy called Shane who is a popular kid who kind of runs the school but who also happens to be gay. It’s set maybe about five years later than G.B.F. so the gay character is no longer the new thing, he’s just a standard cool kid. I end up nominating these two girls to be homecoming queens and they might or might not be faking being lesbians.”

He’s also releasing an album later this year (just under the name Willett), and has a single coming out, called Burning Desire.

G.B.F. can currently be seen in cinemas across the UK and will be available on DVD from the 14th of April.

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