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‘G.B.F’ Director Darren Stein On Teen Movies and Gay Protagonists

‘Jawbreaker’ Director Darren Stein returns to the high school satire genre with ‘G.B.F.,’ starring Megan Mullally, Rebecca Gayheart, Natasha Lyonne, Sasha Pieterse and newcomer Michael J. Willett.

Tribeca: Tell us a little about G.B.F. What inspired you to tell this story?

Darren Stein: I’m a huge fan of teen films - Fast Times at Ridgemont High, Dazed and Confused, Sixteen Candles, Heathers. It’s that time in your life when you’re formed as a person. It can be painful when it’s happening but it’s something we can be nostalgic about in the movies. The high school years are when we discovered our music, our style, our desires, our place in the world. Teen movies are a way to enjoy an idealized or heightened version of that experience. Many subcultures coexist in high school, but that popular group that everyone wants to part of is a constant.

In George Northy’s script, the gay boy begins as an outsider but then becomes the must-have accessory, the G.B.F. for the inevitable group of popular kids who seek him out. I thought it was such a smart way to introduce a gay protagonist into a teen comedy movie.  In TV shows, there are plenty of adult gay characters, but having the gay kid as the lead in a teen movie feels like something you haven’t seen. The teen genre is such an American institution, going back to Rebel Without a Cause and Grease, then, of course, the genre ruled the 80s and 90s with the John Hughes classics, Heathers, and Clueless. It’s about time a gay kid took his place in the pantheon.

Tribeca: The last time you directed a feature about high school you gave us the now-classic Jawbreaker (a film that is very different from G.B.F., obviously). What drew you to George Northy’s script in particular? Can you talk about your collaborative process?

DS: George’s script sprang to life on the page for me – it’s rare to laugh out loud when you’re reading a script. The G.B.F. concept felt so smart and new, but it was told in recognizable teen movie language. I loved the idea of making a teen comedy in which the queen bees are fighting for the G.B.F. It’s ultimately the story of a school accepting a gay kid on his terms. I also loved the way George employed all the teen movie tropes, from the post-make-over Tanner to the slow motion strut from Jawbreaker. George was open to my contributions to the script, and I welcomed his input on set. It was one of those rare and special collaborations.  It’s like we were separated at birth or something.

Tribeca: In addition to stellar veterans such as Megan Mullally, Natasha Lyonne and Jawbreaker’s Rebecca Gayheart, your incredible cast is made up of relative newcomers like Sasha Pieterse, Paul Iacono, Evanna Lynch, and Molly Tarlov. What were the challenges of casting such a large ensemble? Can you share a few stories of how these talented actors came to the project?

DS: George and I are pop-culture hounds, so between the two of us, we knew many of the newcomers from their TV shows. I had met Paul Iacono, and he did a reading of the script in New York. His upbeat personality is just infectious, and the fact that he came out a couple years back made his casting that much more special.  Sasha Pieterse happened to be represented by the same management company as me. I loved the idea of casting one of the girls from "Pretty Little Liars" as the Queen of the school.  Natasha Lyonne had starred in a film I produced called All About Evil – she’s hilarious and strange in the best way – there’s no one like her. 

I had to have one of the Jawbreaker girls make a cameo, and Rebecca Gayheart was perfect as Tanner’s step-mom. Megan Mullally really got the material, and it felt like a natural evolution for ‘Karen’ from Will and Grace to play a gay boy’s Mom. George and I both loved Molly Tarlov as the mean girl Sadie Saxton from MTV’s Awkward. The idea of casting Luna Lovegood in an American teen movie was fun.  Also, Xosia Roquemore, “Fluorescent Beige” Joanna from Precious, sent in the most incredible audition tape. She went to a private high school in the valley but was raised in Compton, so she brought a real a nice ‘Valley Home girl’ vibe to Caprice.

I’d love for G.B.F. to be a cinematic step in the direction of tolerance.

Tribeca: I do want to take a moment and single out Michael J. Willett, who gave an incredibly nuanced performance as Tanner, aka the G.B.F, in this high school satire. Did he audition for the role? How did you know he could handle the coveted G.B.F role?

DS: I was familiar with Michael from The United States of Tara, and he did a couple of readings for us.  He has that perfect combination of sweetness and vulnerability that made him perfect for Tanner. He’s adorable but also unassuming enough to fly under the radar if he wants.  Part of the beauty of Tanner is that he’s gay, but he doesn’t relate to the cultural clichés of gay culture.

We played with the idea of casting a bigger name in the role, but we realized with bigger names surrounding him, we could cast a truly special actor in the lead. His performance has flashes of Matthew Broderick’s Ferris, but he’s definitely a character on his own. It’s like discovering Molly Ringwald in Sixteen Candles or John Cryer in Pretty in Pink.

Tribeca: The costumes in G.B.F. are outrageous. Each character stands out in his or her own distinctive way. How did you collaborate with costume designer Kit ‘Pistol’ Scarbo? Is there any character in particular whose style you’d want to steal?

DS: Kit has the most amazing style.  She’s Goth at heart, but in a fashion-forward way, and you’re constantly surprised by what she’s wearing. I wanted G.B.F. to have a high fashion look that felt modern-day but also had certain timelessness about it. We wanted elements from the 80s, 90s, even 40s and 50s: bold colors, patterns, textures, and distinctive designs that area bit over-the-top and tongue-in-cheek. 

This was Kit’s first movie, and she pulled in every favor and contact she had from working as a stylist and designer. Even her Project Runway contacts paid off and she was able to get Fawcett’s Prom dress made by Christian Siriano. Part of the allure of the John Hughes films was how well accessorized his characters were. I wanted to bring back that attention to detail.

Tribeca: What's the craziest thing (or "lightning strikes" moment) that happened during production (for better or worse)?

DS: The discovery of the high school we shot in was a great moment. So much of the film takes place at the school and I really wanted the campus to be another character in the film.  It has a colorful, loft-like feel with lots of windows and foliage, a very indoor/outdoor feeling.  It was a great backdrop for all the fashion in the movie.

Tribeca: It’s so refreshing to see a teen movie with a gay protagonist (and hero!), an unfortunately rare occurrence. What do you hope audiences take away from G.B.F?

DS: I hope this movie helps people realize that a character’s sexuality shouldn’t determine whether he can be the hero of a movie. I’m hoping this is the first of many films with a gay protagonist. Kids are coming out of the closet at younger and younger ages, and it is looking like gay marriage will be legal in my lifetime. That’s something I didn’t expect ten years ago. I’d love for G.B.F. to be a cinematic step in the direction of tolerance.

The teen genre is an American institution.

Tribeca: What are you most looking forward to at Tribeca?

DS: I’m looking forward to seeing the film with an audience! It’s also great to meet other filmmakers and see their films. I love that kinship and camaraderie. And of course being in New York City in the spring is always a good thing.

Tribeca: What makes G.B.F a Tribeca must-see?

DS: It’s the first mainstream teen comedy with a gay lead and a great time at the movies.

G.B.F. premieres Friday, April 19, at the Clearview Cinemas Chelsea. For more information and additional showtimes, please visit our Film Guide listing



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