Living in the truth

Mark Slutsky and Sarah Watts on religion, romance and You Can Live Forever

by Jennie Kermode

You Can Live Forever
You Can Live Forever

The story of two teenage girls from different backgrounds who fall in love and have to make some difficult decisions as a result, You Can Live Forever is one of the most thoughtful films focused on young people to be screening at this year’s Outfest Los Angeles. It stars Anwen O’Driscoll as Jaime, who goes to stay with her aunt following a family crisis and has to adjust to life within a Jehovah’s Witness community – though one which treats her with kindness and is never pushy about trying to convert her. There she meets Marike, played by June Laporte, and the feelings which develop between them force the Jehovah’s witness girl to struggle with the irreconcilability of her sexuality and her faith.

The film was written and directed by Mark Slutsky and Sarah Watts, and I connected with them early on in the festival to ask them how the film developed.

“Sarah and I were really good friends, and we went out for a drink one night and she started telling me stories about growing up as a Jehovah's Witness,” Mark explains. “And the stories were so interesting, and the people described were so fascinating, and just, you know, all the moments she described, the uncertainty, the agonies of growing up as a Jehovah's Witness, I thought, ‘We have to make a movie of this’, because it was so powerful to me. So, eight years later...”

“I didn’t think of it as an unusual belief system,” Sarah explains. “To me, it was just how I grew up, but Mark was like, ‘This is pretty fascinating.’” She laughs.

I ask if it was difficult for her to figure out which parts of it were unusual or worthy of comment, not having anything else to relate it to.

“It was actually, because I really never felt like I was a part of it,” she says. “Even though I was raised in it, I really felt like an outsider. I was never baptised. So I don’t know if I’m an official Jehovah’s Witness, but I spent my entire childhood in that religion. So I had no birthdays or Christmas or anything like that. So I was on the outside enough to be able to think critically on it.”

Mark nods.” You know, there were so many moments, when we were writing the film, where Sarah would just offhandedly mentioned something like, ‘Oh, you know, if a parent is disfellowshiped then the kids have to pretend that they're dead.’ And I was just, like, ‘What?’ I just couldn't, you know – stuff that maybe you took for granted or didn’t even realise the emotional impact that might have. That was really a big part of the process of writing, just trying to find those moments and also turn them into fiction, which is, you know, challenging.”

One of the things I liked about the film, I say, is that despite issues like that coming up, the Jehovah’s Witness characters are never presented as monsters. Was that important to them when developing the story?

“Very much so,” says Sarah. “We really wanted to portray these people as human beings, and it's really their doctrine and their beliefs that are damaging moreso than human beings themselves. I think we wanted to really strike a balance with, you know, they’re warm people, Jaime’s aunt and uncle are warm, even Marike’s family is. They're just guided by their belief system that they've known their entire lives. We really did want to create a separation between the person and the beliefs.”

All this is complicated by the fact that, at the start of the film, Jaime is grieving over the loss of her father and is in need of comfort.

“I feel like it was going to be a realistic thing for a teenager to do when grieving, to sort of distract themselves,” says Sarah. “The opportunity presented itself and she was able to focus her grief on something entirely new and take that energy that she was probably bottling up and suffering through later, and focus it on this girl.”

“Yeah, I think I think it's important to have her at a vulnerable point in the story begins in terms of her taking the step into a world that she clearly does not belong to,” adds Mark.

The film goes on to put Marike in a difficult position when she feels forced to choose between her love and her faith.

“As a gay woman who grew up in that religion, I have lost most of my family members on that side. They're not allowed to speak to me. We definitely infused a lot of that personal grief into the story,” says Sarah.

“In the writing phase, we definitely had some readers say ‘I don't understand. How does Marike resolve the fact that she's gay with the religion?’” says Mark. “And the point is she doesn't, and that cognitive dissonance is so harmful, and causes her to act in ways that she doesn't even understand herself. That’s what we were trying to portray, because I think a lot of people live in that space of unresolved belief.”

We discuss some of the observations which the film makes about the expectations of girls more generally.

“It's not uncommon for people to get married young,” says Sarah. “It’s not child marriage, but yeah, I think a lot of these Christian sects promote starting a family early, getting as many arrows in the quiver as they can.”

How did you go about casting the two leading roles?

“We had an excellent casting agent, Jesse Griffiths, who was on board quite early in the process,” says Sarah. “I think we started the casting process ten months, maybe, before we went to camera.”

“Not entirely intentionally, because we had a Covid delay,” Mark explains. “But we did figure it would take a while to find the right people. I mean, we talked about this for years leading up to the film, that we'd have to find the right people for these roles. We knew that that was probably the most important creative decisions we'd have to make.

“We had every possible obstacle during development, which was waiting for money. rewriting the script – a lot of it was rewriting, and trying to get it right, and not feeling like we were quite there yet. And then also, in the development and production process, especially in Canada, where there's a lot of public funding, it's like, there's a lot of times when you apply for something and you don't get it, and by the time we finally don't get it, a year has passed, and then you reapply, and then another year passes. So there weren't eight years of non stop work.

“For our big chunk of funding, which came from the provincial government, we got it on our third try. And that's actually very common here is that you get on your third one. So that's three years that you burn, or a year and a half, sometimes, just waiting. And we were playing around with so many different ideas and so many different ways to frame the story. When does the story start? Where does it start? We always knew when it ended, but figuring out exactly how much we wanted to show of Jamie's life before the story started...there was a lot of, I think, pretty important stuff that actually came in fairly late into the writing process.”

It was important to them to approach the romantic relationship between the girls slowly.

“I think that's how it is,” says Sarah. “I think people aren't quite sure who the other person is, I think that kind of slow burn, figuring each other out, circling each other a little bit, testing the waters is sometimes how it goes. And it's the build up that makes it better.”

“So much of what we wanted to do with this movie, and so much of the moments I wanted to capture, were those moments of uncertainty,” says Mark. “A hand brushing against a hand, and lying in bed and wondering ‘Who is this person? Do they like me? Can they even conceive of being attracted to me?’ There’s so much emotional texture and complexity there. That that is another reason why we wanted to linger in that for so long, because it was that sense of yearning that you don't really see in a lot of films that just want to get the main characters together quickly as possible, or get them together and tear them apart and get them together and tear them apart again. I think there’s something beautiful in those teenage moments of agony.”

“ We never wanted the audience to think, ‘I wonder if these two like each other?’” says Sarah. “It's pretty clear from this. So it's more about watching them figure it out, when it's clear to all of us.”

“What we really did not want to make was a movie about the cool girl who comes into town and blows, the religious girl's mind and introduces her to all this stuff,” says Mark. “We wondered, actually, ‘Can it be interestingly reversed?’ Marike is the more aggressive one and was leading everything and pulling Jaime towards her, rather than the other way around. I just thought that was a much more fascinating dynamic. And for that to be intermingled with the religion and the faith and all that, which is something we were really interested in.”

Jaime seems to me to be very wary, not wanting to challenge Marike’s religious values, I suggest.

“Yeah,” says Sarah. “She’s got an extra sense of caution. Young LGBT people do have that built into them, where everything has a sharper lens on it because you're constantly making sure you're not being found out.”

“And she's been sent here and she's still grieving,” says Mark. “She's not in a position where she's going to act out and rock the boat. She's also feeling really unmoored herself. So that, I think was part of putting her in this place where she was a little more thoughtful and a little more cautious than she might otherwise have been.”

So after all of this preparation, what was the actual shoot like?

“We had a really great group who were just a joy to work, who we love so much,” says Mark. “And to work with Gayle Yee, who was our cinematographer, who was just brilliant and so energetic and so got what we were trying to do.”

It was really important to them to have an inclusive environment on set, Sarah explains.

“There were a lot of women in there, there were a lot of LGBT people in there, just to create an atmosphere of inclusivity and open conversation. I think everybody really felt like it was a safe set where everybody's ideas could be heard, and the cast really appreciated that, and I think it came through in their performances. Everyone in the cast is incredible, and especially the two who had to carry pretty much the entire film. You know, they were such professionals.”

“We've always dreamed of playing at Outfest,” says Mark, as we discuss what has happened to the film since work on it was completed, but he explains that something else has happened recently which surprised them.

“We had our film playing at Frameline. They have at home screenings, and somebody managed to like pirate a stream, I guess probably by doing a screen capture. And the film made it out into the world in a way that we hadn't planned, starting in the Brazilian internet. Within a day, someone had translated and subtitled it, and it made it to the Chinese internet as well. There's clips going on TikTok. People are making super cuts to Taylor Swift songs. People are going crazy about it on Twitter, in a way that we never expected, because this is all pirated. But the reaction has been incredible.

“It seems like hundreds of thousands of people have watched it and are making memes. We got a message saying ‘People in China love your movie.’ All of a sudden, our Google Alerts started showing up on all these Chinese language webpages. So it's been a really interesting and completely unexpected reaction to a film that has not been released yet. But you know, in some ways, I think we're really happy to see that we have an audience out there and that people want to see the film and are posting about watching the film four times in a row. We’re particularly pleased that people in areas of the world, or even in maybe families or communities, where seeing a gay film might not be a safe thing to openly do, have been able to watch the film. There are countries where I just don't think that they'll ever show because of its content, and if teenagers can see it there and if it is meaningful for them and can have an impact on them, then I'm happy for them to see it any way they can. So it's been a really crazy weekend.”

You Can Live Forever screens at Outfest on 24 July.

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