Actor John Barrymore supposedly said, “Happiness often sneaks in through a door you didn’t know you left open.” Rob Williams and Rodney Johnson are partners in more ways than you’d expect: in 2005, they began a production company together called Guest House Films. And in a door they never imagined, they were able to use personal experiences and their love in making great film. With their first picture released in 2007, Rodney and Rob began creating gay themed romantic movies that defied traditional romantic comedy standards and stereotypes.
How so? In Long Term Relationship, the main character Glenn shuts down the “all gays are promiscuous” stereotype with a film all about getting serious with the one. In Back Soon, a white man begins a relationship with a Hispanic former drug dealer who cleaned up his life, learning how you can fall for someone with a completely opposite life. And in Make the Yultide Gay, Olaf, a typical Midwestern guy wearing Old Navy clothes, someone whom no one back home at Christmas thinks could ever be gay, has to figure out how to please his parents setting him up with a girl.
Obviously, your goal is for your movies to be seen by everyone. What can straight people take away from your films?
ROB: I know I’ve done my job when straight people say, “The problems facing the gay couple in your movie are just like the problems I face in my relationships!” We want people to realize that we all struggle with the same issues – finding love, finding acceptance, finding success – and a gay movie can simply provide a different point of view.
When you are working on your movies, how do you develop characters so that they are seen as strong, positive LGBT people but not defined by their sexuality to where it’s the only thing about them? How do you create characters who are relevant, but also realistic people who don’t care about politically correct story lines? A lot of shows and movies struggle in that area by making gay characters too cliched and/or one dimensional.
ROB: When we started Guest House Films, our mission was to make films about “gay people being,” not about “people being gay.” To us, the distinction is that while the stories revolve around gay characters, the movies aren’t necessarily about the struggle of being gay or issues that only relate to the LGBT community. We want to make films that show our universal problems, but we also want to make films that offer hope and inspiration and the possibility of a happy ending – and sometimes, just having a character be openly gay and having that not be an issue can be an extremely positive role model.
How and when do you think LGBT film will go mainstream? The only film in recent memory to do this well was Brokeback Mountain.
RODNEY: Personally, I don’t think the LGBT film will ever go “mainstream,” per se. I believe that it will become much more of a defined – and popular – genre in and of itself, much like the way “horror” or “rom com” define the story being told. As a filmmaker who happens to be gay, I think we should remove words like “mainstream” from our creative vocabulary and focus on making movies that strengthen the gay “genre” into a popular, substantial and commercially viable choice for moviegoers.
ROB: I think we will have achieved a major milestone when mainstream moviegoers embrace a gay-themed film with a happy ending. As much as we all love Brokeback Mountain, it’s still a tragedy where gay characters die in the end. I can’t wait for there to be a big-budget Hollywood romantic comedy featuring two gay main characters that finds commercial success.
Where do you get the inspiration for your stories? Do people ever ask you to write about them in a screenplay?
ROB: Inspiration can come from anywhere – our lives, our friends’ lives, current events, hope for future events, etc. Make The Yuletide Gay started from my desire to make a gay Christmas movie, while Role/Play grew out of my frustration with how the gay media covered gay celebrities. No one has ever asked me to write about them, and luckily, no one has recognized themselves in some of the characters that are “inspired” by real people!
Last year, you expanded Guest House Films into a distributor of LGBT films as well. You seem to be the first production company to go this route. What do you hope to bring to the table as a distributor? What other films have you released under this new label?
ROB: We started our distribution operations with our fifth feature film, Role/Play, then continued with two short-film compilations (Black Briefs and Blue Briefs), followed by an Australian documentary called The Doctor’s Wife, and most recently, our sixth production, The Men Next Door.
RODNEY: As distributors, we’re really striving to become partners with the filmmakers we sign – much more than what is currently happening within the world of indie distribution. We don’t view our filmmakers as merely revenue generators, but fellow artists who have a unique voice and perspective that we want to share with the world. Furthermore, they made the art so they should benefit MORE from the commerce it generates. There are very few distribution opportunites out there for the LGBT film, but with Guest House Films, we’re hoping that, given time, they will see more of the revenue back to them in the long run.
Out of the six films you have released since 2005 (pretty prolific, might I say?), which one are you each most proud of and why?
ROB: I’m going to say Make The Yuletide Gay because it generated the most amazing responses from viewers. We received a lot of messages from gay students and teens who said that the movie gave them the inspiration and courage to come out to their parents – it doesn’t get any better than that.
RODNEY: For me, it would be a tie between Make The Yuletide Gay and Back Soon. Back Soon is such a quiet movie, but with a profound theme – that true love sometimes is based on something more than just gender. I think the film looks beautiful, and you can’t beat the score, from Grammy nominated Austin Wintory (making history this year with the first ever video game score nomination). I think it’s one of the best gay movies ever made. But that’s just me.
Rob, last year you were invited to attend the Mumbai Queer International Film Festival in India, where you were honored with a career retrospective. How did it feel to be recognized in this way?
ROB: It was a huge honor for me – not just to be recognized for my body of work, but also to get the opportunity to visit India for the first time. The people there were incredible, and it really reinforced the importance of gay film festivals to me, because most people I talked to said that they wouldn’t ever be able to view gay-themed films outside of the film festival.
Your most recent film, “The Men Next Door,” tells a story of a middle-aged man who falls in love with a father and son, and must choose between the two of them. A gay “Sophie’s Choice,” if you will. Was any of this storyline derived from personal experiences?
ROB: Absolutely not! The idea was to explore dating people of different ages in the gay community, and it evolved into The Men Next Door. If anything, it’s based on what we see with our friends and in the community. As you get older, the idea of dating someone in a different age bracket seems to become less of an issue. It’s all about finding a connection, and I hope that’s what The Men Next Door shows.
Is it ever hard to produce movies with someone you are in a relationship with?
ROB: It’s hard to make movies, period – with anyone! But we have been together nearly 19 years and make six movies together (so far), so we’ve pretty much worked out a lot of the kinks and issues. We know what each other is good at doing, and we know how to divide the responsibilities so that every step of production runs as smoothly as possible.
RODNEY: Well, since the entirety of our movie producing experience has been as a team, I have to wonder if it’s easy (easier?) producing a movie with someone who’s not your partner. To echo Rob’s point of view, producing a low-budget indie is going to be extremely difficult at the best of times. But I have to imagine that it is MORE difficult producing with your life partner. Since we are both passionate about what we do – as with any creative endeavor – there will always be times when we passionately disagree. Especially during a shoot. But we’re still going home together – which makes a “cooling off” period rather difficult to achieve. But we do. We’ve learned to compartmentalize our life together to a certain extent. And that helps. So does wine.
What are you going to be working on in 2013?
ROB: Good question! We’re in pre-production on our next feature film now, and we plan to release another short-film compilation this year. Hopefully, there will be more releases on the distribution side, as well.
RODNEY: We just announced the launch of Guest House Theaters at Krave Massive in Las Vegas, two theaters that will show LGBT films exclusively. Rob and I are thrilled to be programming and screening films in (what we believe to be) the only LGBT-focused theater in the country. Securing a theatrical run for the gay indie film is nearly impossible, so we can’t wait to start this new venture and get some of the best in LGBT movies up on the big screen. Guest House Theaters at Krave Massive is looking at opening its doors this spring.