Despite a substantial effort to integrate gays into mainstream America, anti-homosexual violence continues for those who don't conform to this country's far too conservative attitudes. Though it's hard to believe that it continues, bullying still spurs teen suicides in a country charged by tea party extremism.
So first-time director Abe Sylvia used his juvenile experiences as a gay kid growing up in 1980s Norman, Oklahoma, as a starting point for his debut feature, Dirty Girl to inform us about his efforts to escape such abuse. His comedic search for identity and the redemptive power of friendship provides a context to illustrate the effect of such repression and the will to escape it.
The "dirty girl" of Norman High School, Danielle (Juno Temple) sluts her way through high school but her misbehavior gets her banished to special ed. There she teams up with innocent but abused closet-case Clarke (Jeremy Dozier). Together they head out on an illicit road trip to escape the repression and discover themselves through their unexpected and funn friendship.
Coming from an English showbiz family -- mom is producer Amanda Temple and dad is director Julien Temple -- the younger Temple has been a schooled actress since elementary school. Relative newcomer Dozier has only done a few shorts but shares in Sylvia's experience growing up in conservative small town Texas.
Though Sylvia began his career in NYC as a Broadway hoofer working with such talents as directors Susan Stroman, Mel Brooks, and Tommy Tune, the grind took its toll and he turned to film, television and commercial work in 2001.
After graduating from UCLA's film school, Sylvia's four short films have screened in over 100 international festivals; he's also won several awards including the Jack Nicholson Distinguished Director Award, the James Bridges Prize in directing and was a finalist in the 2006 Chrysler Film Project. Through Paris Films and Christine Vachon's Killer Films, Dirty Girl did the festival circuit including Toronto FF 2010 and is now being released this October. The following Q&A is culled from a recent roundtable with Temple and Dozier.
Q: Much has changed in society since 1987 so what did you learn about the time period and what were your impressions?
JT: We had to do a lot of research on the music and stuff.
JD: I really hadn't listened to Melissa Manchester or anybody like that, and she's this icon for Clarke. So I did a lot of research and watched her YouTube videos. I found it fascinating how powerful she was on stage.
I also did lots of research on the time period, on the clothes and everything, which was a lot of fun. It was a time when being gay wasn't really talked about so I think that's changed a lot since then, thank God.
We'd walk onto set and everything would be decked out in '80s gear. It was so much fun walking into this different world.
JT: it was like walking into a new world in a puff of smoke.
Q: Did you ask your older cast members such as William H. Macy or Milla Jovovich to give you some tips or references for the '80s?
JT: Kind of. But we're a different generation to them in the movie, too. My parents were a big part of the '80s rock and roll music scene, so I know quite a lot about that part of the '80s.
So this was like a whole new part of the '80s in that we're listening to this great power ballad, music you can't help but move your body to.
JD: What was great about working with Abe [Sylvia, the director] is that he grew up in that time period and had so many references for us. Movies like The Breakfast Club and different movies for us to watch.
JT: We watched some good movies.
JD: The music plays a huge part of the movie, and he knew what songs he was going to play over which scene before we started.
JT: We were given the soundtrack before.
JD: That helped us inform the scenes and get the tone [right].
Q: You have your come-on line, which is "Are those Bugle Boy jeans?" I hadn't heard that in so long.
JD: I thought that was such a weird line. I shot the entire movie not knowing where that came from. Just last week, Abe posted the commercial on Facebook and I was like, "It all makes sense now."
Q: Any other references from the '80s that you didn't know about?
JT: There was a line that was cut out where Clarke says to Danielle, "Let's sing 'Don't Cry Out Loud,'" and I'm like, "I'm more of a White Snake girl."
That was the kind of vibe that Danielle is more into, like hair metal. The thing I loved about Danielle was that she was kind of '70s in this '80s world.
She got all her mum's hand-me-downs, so she's in these little rompers and fur coats and '70s platform heels. She looks like even more of a misfit. She doesn't get so '80s until the end, with the polo neck and the camel toe shorts.
It was interesting because also it's so Abe's world -- it's based on his childhood story. He written the bible for you in that situation because he knows it better than anybody else.[He‛s] a man you trust so dearly that he opens your eyes to this whole new world and you just become lost in it. So [we spent] a lot of time talking with Abe.
I grew up having a really vivid imagination. So when you have a director that has this incredible vision that he's just giving to you, it's like walking through the Narnia closet or something, like walking through a whole new doorway.
Even before we got on set, we did dance and singing rehearsals. We grew up going out dancing, and it's like you just wriggle a bit, you don't really have proper dance routines. So you get there and are learning how to do all these crazy moves that you haven't seen since an '80s music video.
That was so fun, taking you to a whole new part of your brain that you haven't really ever accessed before.
Q: Did you keep any of the clothes?
JT: I wanted the Laura romper that Abe actually had bought years ago for the movie and brought it in -- it was a perfect fit. It's pale beige. It was kind of Cinderella-esqe. It's the one in the campfire scene. Unfortunately it was sent to a Universal storage lot.
But it was meant to be mine. One day I'll get it back. It's very hard to find a good velour romper that suits you and fits the right areas correctly, I guarantee you.
Q: How would you describe this film's tone?
JD: This movie is like a roller coaster. There are really emotional scenes and then there are comedy scenes, so there's something for everybody. There's singing, dancing, and it deals with a lot of issues that are pertinent today.
JT: It's timeless, I think.
JD: It's a movie set in the '80s but it is so important to today, especially in today's climate. With all the gay teen suicides and all of that, learning to love yourself and coming into your own and figuring out who you are -- It's a great message movie.
JT: Yeah. It's "don't judge a book by its cover” -- that's the best thing you can tell people, because it's the worst thing you can possibly do. You miss out on so much when you just judge someone by their cover.
Q: Is it hard for you to believe that after all this time since '87, there are still these teen suicides because people are hassling others for being gay?
JD: It's crazy.
JT: It's ridiculous, to be quite honest with you. We still haven't been able to find out a way to be okay with letting people be what they want to be. I think it's part of the reason why you get angry.
But whatever happens, I think in high school there's going to be something that someone's going to get bullied about -- like the size of someone's nostrils, or whether they have a weird toenail on their big toe.
People find the weirdest stuff to destroy children's lives about. That's why I think this is such a great message, because it's really like, "look beyond that."
When you first meet Clarke and Danielle in the movie, you wouldn't picture them being best friends at all. It's this weird chemistry that just explodes. Because actually, for the first time, they meet someone [who] wants to listen to them. They meet someone who wants to be around them, someone who thinks they're so great for who they are, and to help entice that out of them.
That’s something that people should so look for in high school. If you don't get on with everybody, you don't get on with everybody -- you're not going to. But when you find the people that really get you and just love you for who you are, then everything kind of figures itself out and falls into place. I think that's such a good message to be sending.
JD: Bullying ultimately comes out of ignorance.
JT: And jealousy.
JD: I think we've made a lot of progress, but there's still a lot of progress to go.
Q: It‛s amazing how people in high school or in junior high will type each other and then suddenly a year or two later they become best friends because they have more in common.
JD: It's the message of this story too. It's so about becoming who you want to be versus what you're labeled as in high school, and that's exactly what these characters are doing over the course of the film.
JT: Life’s so much bigger than that.
For an extended version of this story and others by Brad Balfour go to: filmfestivaltraveler.com