STRAIGHT UP, the feature film debut from writer/director James Sweeney, will screen as the “Breakthrough Centerpiece” at Outfest, the Los Angeles LGBTQ Film Festival. The screenings will take place on July 23rd and July 24th at TCL Chinese 6 Theatres.
By Oliver Carnay
STRAIGHT UP stars James Sweeney, opposite Katie Findlay (“How to Get Away with Murder”), Randall Park (“Fresh Off the Boat”), Betsy Brandt (“Life in Pieces”), Tracie Thoms (Rent), James Scully (Paramount TV’s “Heathers”), Dana Drori (“Taken”), Brendan Scannell (Netflix’s Bonding), and Joshua Diaz (Fantasy Island). The film is produced by David Carrico, Ross Putman, and James Sweeney.
STRAIGHT UP is a modern screwball comedy that questions if love can last when it’s all talk and no touch. Todd (Sweeney) is a persnickety half-virgin diagnosed with OCD who thinks maybe he was socially conditioned to be gay. Rory (Findlay) is a whip-smart aspiring actress with her own set of insecurities, sexual and otherwise. Over time, Rory’s stagnant career and Todd’s self-doubt begins to dismantle their odd couple routine, despite their unwillingness to let each other go.
Here’s an excerpt of writer/director and star of the film, James Sweeney’s recent interview:
How did you come up with the idea for Straight Up? Is it autobiographical?
James : When I was 21, I calculated a mathematical breakdown of why I was still single. (Hint: that should have been the answer). Basic arithmetic—queer people have fewer chances of finding love because there are less options. And most of our generation is driven by a very westernized notion of soul mates—that a partner has to complete you emotionally, sexually, and intellectually. ‘You can do better’ is an American catchphrase. But what if someone can’t do better? I was inspired to bring two characters together who align perfectly, minus the sex. Straight Up is personal, but not strictly autobiographical.
Why did you cast yourself? Were you easy to direct or difficult to control?
James: I wrote the role for myself, but that proved to be the largest obstacle in attracting producers and financing for obvious reasons. That said, I felt it was vital that Todd be played by a gay actor because if an audience knows they’re watching a straight actor pretending to be gay pretending to be straight, it would color the chemistry and comedy differently. Also, the dialogue has a specific rhythm and I didn’t want to give line readings for how I would say things. Just let me say the things. Eventually I convinced enough people to allow it to happen; but acting and directing (and producing and location managing and you get the picture) was rough. In a case of life imitating art, I developed stress-induced hand eczema that still hasn’t fully gone away.
What about Katie Findlay? Were you friends beforehand, or how did you cast her?
James: Nope, Katie was new to my life. I worked in casting for a few years and I do believe that is 90% of directing. Jessica—our casting director, who stepped up at the eleventh hour—gave me my first job in LA, and now Straight Up is her first feature credit, so it was very kismet how it all worked out. She really vouched for me. Anyway, for Rory—we put out a breakdown for “Female in her 20’s, struggling actress” and of course received over 3000 submissions. Katie was not one of them but I had her on a list. I always have lists. She taped from Vancouver and then we skyped and it was immediately clear she was my woman. Honestly, this whole cast was a blessing and I couldn’t be happier. The one upside of being so low budget is that everyone on set wants to be there.
Did you have a rehearsal process?
As much as we could afford, which was limited. Before production, I flew to Vancouver to rehearse with Katie; and it was instrumental in breeding familiarity, but it wasn’t ‘performance ready’ and I was still futzing with the script. So I was feeling insecure come Day 1 of principal which was six pages of dialogue. The very first shot we filmed was the library scene where Todd and Rory meet. And thankfully, it clicked. Afterwards, Katie tells me: “See? It’s going to be okay.” And we ended up using that take, so for that three-minute shot, you’re actually witnessing the first time we ever acted on camera together. Also, in Los Angeles, we had a one day rehearsal/wardrobe fitting at my apartment with Katie, Dana [Meg], Scully [Ryder], and Josh [Zane]. Clothes and scripts everywhere. It was chaos. I kind of miss it.
Do you think you a relationship without sex is sustainable?
Yes. There are studies that show couples with healthy sex lives are happier, so I don’t mean to discount the importance of sex and physical intimacy, but I do think we have a tendency to shame people, especially young adults, who aren’t ‘getting any’. Not everyone chooses to have sex. Aesexuality is the last letter in LGBTQIA, if included at all. As for Todd and Rory–they both have their own reasons for commiting to a non-physical relationship. For Todd, his OCD is primarily the culprit, and that’s pretty constant. However, we see Rory crave heteronormativity the more she falls in love with him, so as her needs change, what once was perfect is no longer enough.
Romantic comedies are making a comeback, and Straight Up is certainly a twist on the genre. What are your film influences?
James: I say it’s a modern Kissing Jessica Stein, but we have different references for different reasons. Wedding Banquet and Chasing Amy for sexual politics, Silver Linings Playbook and As Good As It Gets for mental health within comedy, Ida and Columbus for cinematography, Bringing Up Baby for blocking, 500 Days of Summer for general style, and “Gilmore Girls” for never lingering on a joke or pop culture allusion.
Why did you choose to shoot in 4:3 aspect ratio?
James: Everything old is new again. Partially an homage to the screwball comedy greats, we wanted the cinematography and the film by extension to feel classic yet modern. We address dating and sexuality in a frank, progressive manner, and yet Todd and Rory’s aesexal partnership in some ways feels like a film plot stolen from the Hays Code era. Thematically, the aspect ratio accentuates this idea of not fitting the current standard; Todd and Rory are living in a box. They want to be normal, but their relationship has limits. And aesthetically, 4:3 lends itself to the obsessive symmetry and balanced composition that we wanted.
Lastly: are Randall Park and Betsy Brandt really old enough to be your parents?
James: It was a teen pregnancy situation.
JAMES SWEENEY BIO
Bred in Alaska, James is an actor-turned-playwright-turned-filmmaker. His short, Normal Doors, was developed as a proof-of-concept for FOX Digital Studios based on the Straight Up feature script; it was a Vimeo Staff Pick and amassed 300K+ views. In 2017, James sold a pilot to SONY venture Astronauts Wanted, and directed a segment (“Long Time Distance”) of the anthology, Bushwick Beats starring Justine Lupe and Ronen Rubinstein, produced by Tandem Pictures and Circle of Confusion. His works have premiered at Frameline, Mill Valley Film Festival, and on Short of the Week.
STRAIGHT UP had its World Premiere as part of Frameline43 at the Castro Theatre last June 24th. You can catch the movie at the upcoming OUTFEST screenings on July 23 and 24. For tickets, please go to this link: https://festival.outfest.org/2019/movies/straight-up/