Director Stephen Cone & Actor Cole Doman on Their New Queer Coming of Age Film

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Updated from BAMcinemaFest 2015 in celebration of the film’s run at IFP.

“They’re experiencing intense spirituality through the church and also having orgasms for the first time—that’s wild,” says director Stephen Cone about the teenagers in his new film Henry Gamble’s Birthday Party, which has its New York theatrical run beginning tonight at IFP. As the Chicago-based filmmaker’s seventh feature, we again see Cone excavating the emotional experiences of his own past to explore the complex dichotomy between spirituality and sexuality. Starring fantastic newcomer Cole Dolman, Henry Gamble centers on 24 hours in its titular character’s life. As a 17-year-old preacher’s son, Henry navigates the crossroads of living in an evangelical household while discovering who he is on his own terms.

As we noted in our BAMcinemaFest roundup:

 A rare and genuine sincerity lies at the heart of Henry Gamble’s Birthday Party. As one of the most interesting films of the festival, Cone’s latest explores everything from sex, religion, and the intersection of private and public life to the suffocating pressure of adulthood and the confounding experience of being a teenager—all set within one day at a suburban pool party. The event brings together his parents, who’ve grown emotionally adrift from one another, and the religious community of adults and teens around them. The ensemble drama meets coming-of-age story is a beautifully crafted and compassionate portrait of one specific community yet feels universal in its themes and struggles, thanks to Cone’s acute dramatic and emotional understanding. 

To celebrate the film’s screening, we chatted with Cone and Dolman to get a closer look at how the story evolved for both of them, the ecstasy of music and its relation to God, and mining the depths of the past.

Stephen, where did this story begin for you and how did it evolve from your past work?

Stephen Cone: I’d written a screenplay called Porn Ministry about two southern ministers who travel to the San Fernando Valley to spread the gospel to the adult entertainment industry. It wasn’t a very good script, but it culminated in a ten-page pool party sequence back at home, in which a crowd of evangelical Christians gathered to take their clothes off, which is the irony at the core of most of what I’ve made thus far. I think I saw in this an opportunity to confront this world again in a more direct and intimate way, and wondered if this party could be an entire movie. 

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How did you go about casting and did your idea of the characters change once you met actors like Cole or Pat Healy?

SC: It was a lot of people I knew before but never worked with and other people I had never met before, but it’s all a really exciting process because if you’re open to it, an actor can give you a different idea and a different texture to a character. It’s the cliché of the editing being the final rewrite, but I would add that casting is kind of a final rewrite because when people give their own ideas of characters it becomes a whole different world and makes the movie so much more interesting. You just have to be open to all these beautiful people coming in and seeing not only what they can do for you, but how they can make this story come to life. 

Cole Doman: I was actually not called in to audition for the role of John, the more religious guy, but after I went in, Stephen asked me to read for Henry and I was relieved. I instantly felt a connection to Stephen, which is rare for me and especially in an audition setting. It felt really warm, but that’s also how I felt throughout the entire shooting process. It was my first feature, and I’d never acted on camera before or seen myself on camera, but this was really comfortable and I was really stoked. 

Can you tell me about bringing Henry to life and how you two worked together to shape who he was?

CD: After being cast, Stephen emailed me some videos and recommended some movies for me to watch. His father was a minister and I was raised in an Irish Catholic family and went to Catholic school, so he also showed me a lot of videos about commercialized churches. We also talked a lot in terms of sexuality and religion, which is something I’ve had my own struggle with before. But then what was really helpful for me was the music he sent me that he thought Henry would love. Henry’s music is a gateway into a world he knows he belongs in but doesn’t live in. The things that Henry is going through in this movie, in the 24 hour period at his age, I may have been going through those things a few years before Henry, but it’s familiar territory for me and Stephen as well.

SC: The only time in my life that I was as obsessed with pop music as I was with film was between the ages of 12 and 15. I used to just go into my room and plant a chair in front of the radio, and sometimes I would do my own radio station or I would just play music and listen without doing anything else. That was almost a primary inspiration that I’d kind of forgotten about. So music was huge, but it also goes back to ecstasy. As a young Christian teenager, you almost experience ecstasy through music first, and it also makes it harder to feel God because music’s so exciting. So I did think about that in making the film too, in terms of Henry having a duty to go to church three times a week and be a good Christian boy but also wanting to just go to his room and listen to music—that’s real ecstasy, that’s heaven.

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Stephen,  about this story did you connect with most?

SC: I think about that a lot. There’s the young, queer teenager in The Wise Kids, but there’s also the preacher’s daughter, and in a weird way, in that film I felt closer to her and that character. But I don’t know, what does that say about mining your past? My dad wasn’t a pastor of a mega church, so it’s interesting because you’re mining elements of your past and bringing in fictional elements to the past. I was really interested in trying to get inside the emotional state of everything that swirls around you when you’re 15, 16 or 17 years old. Music is changing your life and you’re going to church and hearing about Jesus Christ and eternal paradise, and then you’re going to movies, and you’re feeling all these sensations, so life is entirely spirituality and cultural sensation. I wanted to get inside that and really try to relay what tht feels like and that community, that Evangelical community and these characters who were forced to go on living despite themselves. There’s so much going on and there are so many internal and external forces, and heaven and earth and body and soul, and just the  constant navigating of forces. I just wanted to get inside it with an intensity and do something that evokes the sensation and feeling of living in that time and that world, but it’s challenge to do that.

I read an interview where you talked about loving Jonathan Demme’s films for their sincerity, which I found interesting because it’s the sincerity that I like so much about Henry Gamble. What other directors do you look to for inspiration or reflection of your own sensibility as a filmmaker?

SC: My two or three major influences I think of all the time are John Cassavetes, Jean Renoir, and George Cukor. Those are some pretty sincere filmmakers who just stared others in the face—whether it was in a scared way or a defiant way, it was never insincere. So I would say those guys. I also like Terrence Malick, but I also tend to go back to Arnaud Desplechin’s A Christmas Tale, which I actually think is sort of more applicable to this film. There’s a theme of freedom and a bunch of people living their own lives, so he’s a big deal to me. For this film I was trying to think of filmmakers who tend to shoot the interior, and that was a film that I think magically related. 

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How did you approach the film stylistically? Were you more concerned about the aesthetic elements in this film more than in your previous work?

SC: I’ve had kind of a reluctant aversion to stylization over the last few years, which was part of the reason why I wanted to embrace stylization and with a new intensity. I also switched cinematographers for the first time, so that was a conscious choice to just do something new too. It’s not that there wasn’t a cinematic sensibility behind the earlier movies, it’s just that I’ve always been careful to not draw attention to the choices, to not make it about the choices. I like when you can feel a cinematic presence, because that’s Geroge Cukor, who I think is really formally exciting but if you don’t look closely it seems to be just photographing actors. If you really look closely there is an exciting formal presence behind The Philadelphia Story but the actors are so great and it’s so pleasurable to watch that you can go back and miss it very easily. So that’s what I was attempting to do with the earlier things. But then I’d hear things like, “You should do TV,” like it’s supposed to be a compliment. So with this, I just wanted to go full on and fire on all cylinders and try something new. I don’t why it took me ten years to realize this, but you get to a point where you understand that just because you’re making stylistic choice doesn’t mean that it’s automatically drawing attention to itself. So it can be a really lovely harmony and unity in the making of the thing.

Was there anything you looked to specifically for inspiration on this?

SC: Totally, the influences ran the gamut. Some movies were just personal, and some jumped around in tone. So in the beginning, I actually thought about The Ice Storm a lot in terms of the private experience of family. Every time I went to an 80s party movie to look at I just got bored, even with the act of thinking about it. The first movie I ever thought of, and this is going to sound really strange because it could not be further from Henry Gamble, but I thought a lot about Paranoid Park. I thought about how it alternated between internal experience and external experience, and also how Gus van Sant filmed bodies in that movie is really interesting to me. I also thought a lot about John Houston’s The DeadBoogie Nights, and Olivier Assayas’ Cold Water. In the back of my mind the whole time, even thought I never referenced it overtly, was Rachel Getting Married.

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Cole, how did you feel when you watched the film and saw yourself on screen for the first time?

CD: I was really nervous. The cast got together to watch it, and we were all really nervous. I’d never seen myself as a character on screen before so I was especially nervous and was really emotional, more emotional than I thought I was going to get. When the cake came out and everyone was singing “Happy Birthday” I was really crying hard. I’m an emotional person to begin with, but I was brought back to that experience, what I shared with all these people, where I was now, and being and being proud of that. Of course there are some moments where I watch it and cringe, but that’s completely normal. It was a learning experience; you just learn more and more. 

Stephen, are you working on something else now? 

SC: Yeah, I am, but in the old days I’d would probably try to figure out some small movie to make this summer in the absence of the money or energy to do something bigger. But I’m finally at a point where I can take a deep breath and say, let’s work on something for next year, which I’ve never been good at. It sounds obvious, it’s how most people work, but I’ve always been in a hurry to make the next thing, which has its ups and downs and its pros and its cons. In some ways I feel like my film education wouldn’t have been as slow if I actually slowed down.

But yeah, I’m writing something, it’s a female-centric coming of age movie—again, that’s accidental. I really love Esther Kahn and I want to make a female-centric coming of age movie with a really interesting, strong 18-year-old girl and this thing I’m writing is set in the mountains in North Carolina and she’s a projectionist at a movie theater. It’s a small town love story about a young lady and boys and cinephilia all that stuff.