In dreams

River Gallo on Ponyboi, telling intersex stories and the importance of fantasies

by Jennie Kermode

River Gallo in Ponyboi
River Gallo in Ponyboi Photo: Maddie Leach

One of the most talked-about shorts at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival, River Gallo’s Ponyboi is the story of a sex worker looking for love in urban New Jersey, a story that blends reality and dreams as its hero builds the confidence necessary to change his life. It’s also one off the first ever films about an intersex person written and directed by an intersex person, with an intersex producer also on board. River, who directed the film and plays its central character, talked to me about how it feels to be involved with something of such importance.

“I feel excited and honoured and humbled but at the same time it’s quite frightening, you know?” he says. “For most of my life this was something that I kept a secret from myself and from my family, and then slowly I talked about it but it was always within the realm of ‘this is a secret medical condition’ as opposed to an identity that I could own. So it means a lot to me to show the story so that other intersex people or people that feel like outsiders can come to terms with pats of themselves that maybe they feel some sort of shame or trauma around and realise that, you know, it could actually be your greatest gift to share that with the world.”

One of the interesting things about the film is that we only learn about the struggles Ponyboi has experienced due to being intersex in flashback.

Ponyboi is already an award winner
Ponyboi is already an award winner

“For me the narrative was always the present narrative where Ponyboi is kind of in this run-down life, he’s doing sex work, he’s not fulfilling his highest potential in life. that was always at the forefront... but I think that people’s dreams and nightmares and traumas influence them so much that I wanted the audience to lean into that background a little bit. I was very conscious of not wanting to make the intersex narrative like a PSA or something that took away from the presentness of his current realty. Even though being intersex is something that really influences his day to day life.”

Does he think that a bigger issue for Ponyboi, at the point when we meet him, is how lonely he feels?

“Right. exactly. I kind of wanted to show something that haunted him and the consequences of being haunted by something for so long. initially, actually, I was very candid about putting in the intersex narrative and I actually had professors at school who said ‘You know, maybe you don’t want to do that,’ or ‘You’re just going to complicate the story a little bit more,’ and I’m glad I didn’t listen to those people because it became part of the story that makes it so unique and that’s part of why it’s getting all the attention that it is.

“It’s time for intersex narratives to be told, and told in this way as opposed to constantly [being] seen as a medical subject.”

I suggest that it’s also good to see an intersex person presented as desirable, even if Ponyboi has been unlucky in love, and he agrees. We go on to talk about the importance of fantasy in the film and the way that it helps the hero work towards a different future.

“For me as a person and an artist, I’ve always been a daydreamer,” says River. “I’ve always found that hope is something that drives my work and as a person, because sometimes life can be so cruel and situations can be so bad that in order to survive you have to kind of fantasise and dream about what could be as opposed to what is. So for me, that was part of what I was playing with in that blurring of reality, because I feel like dreams sometimes – when they’re integrated into your day to day life – that becomes part of your reality as well. For Ponyboi, he daydreams and fantasises as a form of survival.

“On this particular day, those dream manifested in a very surreal, magical way and kind of wove into his actual life and then in the end... It’s like, how did this happen? And I love that people have those questions about it. I think it’s really cool to leave the audience questioning.”

The white Mustang featured in the film is a classic symbol of American masculinity. Is there an overlap, for Ponyboi, between what he desires and what he might like to be?

The cowboy
The cowboy Photo: Maddie Leach

“Exactly. To me it felt like the symbol of the car and the symbol of the cowboy, I think maybe he thinks ‘I would have power if I embodied myself in that way or if I was more masculine or if I was one thing as opposed to being an in between thing.’ I think that’s a lot of what that American mentality is, to be really that one thing, whatever that one thing is. I think there’s often little room for the grey area, for the inbetweenness or for ambiguity.”

River’s visual techniques are very distinctive and contribute to the sense of a world full of contrasts where fantasy and reality still have the potential to blur.

“Something that I really wanted to convey was the dualities and contradictions between the dream – you know, that neon colour and the dreamy aspect – and also that gritty, kind of in your face, kind of harsh texture to show the balance of those two worlds kind of lived in each other.”

Then there’s the lover already in Ponyboi’s life, who seems to represent a different kind of American masculinity.

“Right, like a more sinister image of American masculinity. Wow, you really watched the movie!”

We both laugh.

“You know,” River says, “when you write the movie, you make it, you edit it and you’re in it, it becomes so much of a second nature kind of thing and I forget that there are these things that I put in that people can actually look at critically.”

There are a lot of ideas in he film overall, for a short.

“It’s funny. Yesterday I was showing it at a university in Sacramento in California and yeah, one of the qualities that I like about the film the most is that it feels very still, like when the end is happening you don’t even realise that you got there. It’s like an even pace. It’s so exciting when that dream ends and you’re kind of like ‘Wait a minute, what kind of a journey was I just on?’

“I’m really pleased that all these people are getting it. I mean as a filmmaker that’s all you can really hope for is that people like it but also that they understand all the symbols and all the small nuances that are in there.”

We talk about festivals. He’s excited about Tribeca and has a couple of other big name ones lined up which can’t yet be revealed. His next big goal, however, is to draw on the short to make a feature.

Hoping for something better
Hoping for something better Photo: Maddie Leach

“Right now I’m in the middle of writing this and just locking myself away, taking a break from all forms of social media so I’m really focused and can really make sure that this feature gets written, because it’s something that, well, it’s not only that this is my livelihood and I want to have another job but on the other hand, showing the film at all these festivals it’s clear to me how many people want more, how this story is just the tip of the iceberg. Like yes, the short is a work in itself but there’s so much more to explore with Ponyboi’s backstory, with the intersex narrative and all of these characters, the landscape of New Jersey. So it really feels like this short was a little bit of a gold mine and there’s just so much more to play with. So my goal is to write the feature within this next month and then hopefully find investors and find a production company that wants to do this and then start shooting by early next year.”

Does it feel very different, writing it as a feature?

“Yeah. You know, when I was writing the short I kept thinking ‘I wish this was a feature,’ and now that I’m writing the feature I keep thinking that there are so many things in the short that I just love – can’t I just do the short? The feature is challenging because the intersex narrative is something that I want to push even further and really see how he got there, so in the feature that I’m working on right now essentially it’s the same situation, Ponyboi’s a sex worker in a laundromat in New Jersey. His sister, who he hasn’t seen in ten years, pays him a visit and tells him that his father is on his last days and she doesn’t think he’ll make it through the night, and has requested Ponyboi to come see him before he passes away. And Ponyboi has a lot of resentment and anger towards him and doesn’t want to but through various circumstances decides ‘I need to do this tonight.’”

Along the way, he explains, Ponyboi meets another character from the short who helps him on his journey.

“It’s going to tap into more of my relationship with my dad and my relationship with my family and my experience of growing up intersex in a household that didn’t really understand that and didn’t really understand being queer in general. So for me think, emotionally, that’s kind of the hardest part but I just feel called to further do this because I” – he hesitates – “I don’t see another option actually. I put myself in a corner and it’ll be a good corner to come out of with my début feature after this. So yeah, it’s a good challenge, but it’s a challenge nonetheless.”

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