Exclusive Interview: teen comedy Dramarama filmmaker Jonathan Wysocki – “I feel like there’s a secret society of us.”

One of the best films so far at this year’s Outfest Los Angeles LGBTQ Film Festival is Dramarama, a sweet comedy about five drama club friends getting together for one last murder-mystery dinner party before they all go off to college. It’s an unconventional teen flick, one where the characters are largely resistant to change instead of rushing headlong into adulthood, eschewing genre conventions like sex, drinking, and partying in favor of elaborate literary costumes, silly rhyming clues, and Sondheim references. Still, Dramarama has a solid emotional core, thanks in part to the heartfelt screenplay by writer-director Jonathan Wysocki, making his feature debut, as well as the emotionally nuanced performances from a talented young cast. Gene (Nick Pugliese) has convinced himself that this will finally be the night that he tells his largely Christian friends that he’s gay, and as the night spins out of his control, he must find a way to prove to himself and them that he’s still the person they know and love.

Gene (Nick Pugliese) in Dramarama / courtesy Jonathan Wysocki

Ahead of the Dramarama’s Outfest run — which will involve three days of on-demand streaming, from August 22nd-24th, as well as a closing-night spot at the Outfest Drive-in in Malibu on August 30th — The Queer Review contributor Eric Langberg had an exclusive chat with Jonathan Wysocki about crowd-funding, working with the cast, and the importance of telling honest stories on screen.

Eric Langberg, TheQueerReview: Congratulations on the film, I loved it. I’m sure people tell you this all the time, but this feels like it was made specifically for me and my experience. I was definitely that drama kid having the murder-mystery parties, so this was great to watch.

Jonathan Wysocki: “Oh, that’s fantastic. It’s funny, I feel like there’s a secret society of us, so it makes me really, really happy when I find someone else that had a similar experience to mine, so that’s really awesome to hear.”

Three of the drama club friends (Anna Grace Barlow, Nico Greetham, and Danielle Kay) play around with a video camera / courtesy Jonathan Wysocki

I’m sure people are going find this movie, and you’re gonna find those people. So let’s start with how the movie came together. I know you used Kickstarter. Why did you decide to go that route and what made that beneficial?

“I had a number of feature projects that I tried to get made, and they had fallen apart. They were all healthier budgets than a micro-budget film. I watched so many friends, most of them queer like me, who crowdfunded their features, like Andrew Ahn with Spa Night and James Sweeney with Straight Up. They knew that their material was difficult to have some production company swoop in and hand them money, so they crowdfunded it themselves. I finally was like, ‘All right, I’m gonna write this thing to make it small enough in budget that I can go the crowdfunding route.’ And I’m glad I did, because I found the base of my audience for it in doing that. And I made the movie that I wanted to make. The production companies I did speak to, they were like, ‘You can’t have Christian themes and gay themes in the same movie.’”

Well why not?

“Well, yeah, exactly! So I was like, all right, I understand that from a marketing perspective, but I think it will work. And so, just being able to not be beholden to anybody in terms of that made the Kickstarter route make sense.”

Ally, Claire, Gene, and Oscar as the murder mystery begins / courtesy Jonathan Wysocki

I read that this is semi-autobiographical, but to what extent? Which parts are true-to-life?

“God, a lot of it! I would say that the details of my high school friends and my own life are deeply embedded in the film. The references, the dreams and desires, all of that stuff. I put us all in a blender and then fit everything into a script that is a little more entertaining than literally recreating real life. Because that can be boring, right? The secrets and the things that people don’t want to tell each other on their last night, those things that come out, all of that is more on the fictional side. But I was definitely in love with another friend of mine in our friend group. Another friend was gay, and I was gay, but we were both in the closet at the same time and didn’t talk to each other about it, cause it was 1994. There was nobody in our high school who came out. Everybody came out in college or even later than that, so that aspect is also something I wanted to capture; two closeted gay teens who are at very different stages in their coming out journeys. So I would say it’s a complicated mix of fact and fiction, but the essence of who we were as hyper-energetic, book-savvy, sexually-repressed, Christian theater kids, that is exactly who we were.”

That’s great, that’s exactly what rang true to me too. We had five or six of us who were all close, and all in the closet all throughout high school, and we’re all out and proud now, but none of us knew it about each other at the time.

“Did you also grow up in a more conservative environment, or was it just the time, the era that you feel kept everybody back?”

A bit of both, yeah. It was very small-town Pennsylvania, a closed-off sort of society.

“It’s so interesting how great it is for so many people now, it’s not an issue in high school anymore. I’ll never forget the first time I was teaching, I met a student and they referenced their Gay-Straight Alliance on campus, and I almost fell out of my chair. Your what on campus?”

My high school has one now! I’m like…really?!

“Exactly!”

Ally (Danielle Kay) comforts Gene (Nick Pugliese) / courtesy Jonathan Wysocki

One of my favorite aspects of the film aside from the relatability was the cast of characters, and how they‘re all so recognizable. Like Ally, played by Danielle Kay… I definitely had that friend who was maybe a little too wise for us, who saw us all better than we saw ourselves. Could you talk about that character? Where did she come from?

“When I started sculpting the script, I was interested in the majority of the characters being afraid of change, and being afraid of adulthood and holding back the hands of time. But I definitely designed the Ally character to be someone who was ready to break free and make some choices to move on in the film itself. Not everybody is held back by the end of the film. Claire, Rose and Oscar brag about how they’re going off to new places and they’re going to do all these things, but they’re clearly not ready. I definitely wanted Ally to be a counterpoint to that, someone who was ready to change her own story and was ready to embrace change, and maybe try to coax the others to do the same, particularly in that last scene. That she was going to act as that wise safety net for Gene, and recognize things that maybe the other characters don’t even see in themselves.”

My other favorite was Oscar. I thought that character was so sweet, especially Nico Greetham’s performance. I actually also just saw him in Dinner in America, which premiered at Fantasia Festival, and it’s such a completely different character, such a different performance, so I was shocked when I realized that it was the same guy. What was he like to work with?

“He was actually a joy. His background is all dance, as you know because he was on So You Think You Can Dance, and then when he was on Broadway in Newsies, he was really there to dance, he wasn’t really there to act. So he’s fairly new to acting, and what’s so great about him is that he’s willing to do whatever you want him to do. I was very adamant on day one — because it’s a friend group, and they improv at the drop of a hat — I was adamant about making sure that he felt comfortable to be as playful as possible, because I could tell that he inherently as a person is playful. I wanted him to feel the freedom to just try things out whenever he wanted to, rather than feel restricted by, ‘This is how you’re going to act for this film.’ It’s a testament to him that he jumped in, hook, line, and sinker. Even though his background is not in theater, he could improv just as well as all the theater trained actors on set. He’s just really talented, and he’s a nice person to boot, and I think that also comes across in the film, that he’s just a warm person.”

Gene (Nick Pugliese, R) tries not to watch as Oscar (NIco Greetham) changes for the night. / courtesy Jonathan Wysocki

He’s very not warm in Dinner in America. Quite the opposite!

“Yeah, I’ve seen him in some other small roles, where he gets cast as a jock, or just a dick kind of character, and I think it’s his look a bit, if that makes sense. He kind of looks like a jock, and so I was definitely trying to make him play against type in this film.”

– Warning: Potential Spoilers Below

Something that really struck me was the decision to not have Gene, ultimately, come out. I’ve been really interested, post-“It Gets Better,” to watch how the “coming-out film” has changed. Love, Simon or Alex Strangelove really work overtime to insist that coming out is still a difficult thing, even if society is, quote-unquote, “better.” So to see a film that doesn’t have that catharsis, where they choose to “stay in,” rang really true to me. Personally my “party” experience like Gene’s was during freshman year of college. I was out at college, and went back to my hometown. I had a boyfriend, all that kind of stuff… and I went back to this sleepover party planning to tell all my high school friends, and I just couldn’t do it. So, why was that important to you, to have this be a “staying-in” film instead of a “coming-out” film?

“Two reasons. One is that I had the exact same experience as you. And I feel like I almost never see that in films, where you’re just there in front of the people who love you the most, and you’re so afraid. I remember that feeling so much. I was so afraid that things would change in a negative way, and that I would be treated differently, and that fear was so high that I was clearly not in a safe space yet. And so it’s unconventional, but I was very insistent on showing a trajectory where there wasn’t some big…where that moment didn’t happen, but you could still tell that it would in the future. This was just not the right time and place.”

Gene (Nick Pugliese) practices coming out to his friends. / courtesy Jonathan Wysocki

The scene that really hits home is when they’re in the car together, and it would have been the perfect moment to come out, but you find out that Gene has been keeping a mental list of all the times his friends have said stuff that made him think they wouldn’t be accepting…

“Yeah, I did the same thing. I totally kept that list. And the more contemporary side of it is, as far as we’ve come, I mean, you look at the statistics in terms of the amount of LGBTQ+ teens that are homeless, which is so disproportionate to the amount of actual self-identifying LGBTQ+ teens that are in the world. That homelessness has to come from a place where these kids have been thrown out of their house, or they know that their environment is so bad that they can’t stay in it anymore. And I just worry sometimes that the stories that we’re putting out there are a little too candy-coated, when the statistics don’t show that we’re at some level of equality that we want to be at, if that makes sense. It’s not to discount how far we’ve come; we’ve come so, so far. Pete Buttigieg talking about his husband at the convention is mind-blowing… If you and I could have seen that when we were teenagers, I think it would have blown our minds. So I felt like it was something that was true to my past, and it was something that I felt like would add a little diversity to coming out stories in the present.”

Finally, we like to end interviews at The Queer Review by asking for your favorite piece of queer media… can be a book, movie, TV show, music, anything you’d like to recommend to our readers.

I would say Alison Bechdel’s graphic novel Fun Home is an inspiration. It’s just full of so many queer things I love best: humor, creativity, literature, ennui, love, and heartbreak.”

Check out TheQueerReview’s full ★★★★ review of Dramarama here.

Dramarama is available to stream as part of Outfest 2020. Find it, along with a cast and filmmaker Q&A, at OutfestLA2020.com, now through August 24th. The film will also play the closing night at the Outfest Drive-In in Malibu on August 30th.

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