Writer-director-editor Goran Stolevski’s achingly romantic and emotionally potent sophomore feature, Of An Age, opened Queer Screen’s 30th Mardi Gras Film Festival this week and is playing in US cinemas from today. The Macedonian-born, Australian-raised queer filmmaker followed his Sundance award-winning short, Would You Look At Her, by directing several episodes of the fourth season of Nowhere Boys and his acclaimed feature debut, starring Noomi Rapace and Alice Englert, You Won’t Be Alone which premiered in competition at Sundance. His next feature, Housekeeping for Beginners, which follows a queer woman who is forced to raise her partner’s daughter, will be released later this year.
Of An Age, hailed in our ★★★★★ review as “an instant queer classic”, is set in suburban Melbourne during the summer of 1999 over a life-changing 24 hours for Serbian immigrant Kol (Elias Anton). On the cusp of turning 18, his plan to take part in the Australian Dance finals are in put jeopardy when his best friend and dance partner Ebony (Hattie Hook) wakes up on an unknown beach miles away from the venue on the morning of the event. On a frantic mission to retrieve her and get her to the hall on time, Kol gets into the car of her older brother Adam (Thom Green) and an unexpected and intense connection between the young men quickly forms. A decade on, the characters are reunited.
Filmmaker Goran Stolevski spoke exclusively with The Queer Review’s editor James Kleinmann about his inspiration for the film, the essence of what he wanted to capture, the casting process, and working with his lead actors who play their characters at both ages.
James Kleinmann, The Queer Review: congratulations on this beautiful film. I found it profoundly moving and needed a hug afterwards.
Goran Stolevski: “That’s what we were aiming for.”
I was broken, but also healed.
“That’s great to hear. I think those are the exact words I would have used in the pitch!”
I came out to my mother at the end of 1999, at pretty much exactly the time when the first part of the film is set, and I lived in Melbourne for a while too, so I had a few personal connections to it.
“That’s amazing. I just spoke to someone whose birthday is the same as the main character. I’m loving all of these connections.”
All planned when you wrote it of course.
“Yes, it was strategic!”
So take me back to the writing process, what inspired you and how autobiographical is the screenplay?
“It’s more emotionally autobiographical than literal. The events in it didn’t happen to me and I’m not a dancer. Actually, I generally try not to dance at all. When I do, it’s under pressure and very badly! I’ve never been to Argentina. So there are a lot of differences between me and both of the lead characters. I didn’t want it to be about me or my own life. As much as I’m a narcissist in real life, I try not to impose that on innocent viewers in cinemas!”
“I was reading a short story late one night that was about something else, but at one point a high school boy goes to his first ever party. I got to a particular point where he steps into the party and then I couldn’t finish the paragraph because suddenly all these memories started flooding back to me of the one time—literally one time—that I went to a school party. It wasn’t so much about what happened, it was a pretty nondescript party, but more about the mindset of who I was as a 16 or 17 year old kid. I had such a vivid memory of that time, which I’d never really thought back on before. Even when I was living in it, I wasn’t thinking about where I was. I was much more interested in the rest of the world that I thought was being kept away from me. As those feelings and that mindset start flooding back in the context of who I became later on, I thought I’d love to capture those feelings. Suddenly the image of two guys in a car talking came to me.”
“As a teenager in Australia you spent a lot of time being driven around because it’s the only way to get anywhere and you can’t have a license until you’re 18. The script just flooded out of me and a lot of the dialogue came to me that one night. I ran out of bed and started typing frantically to keep up with the lines as they were coming at me. A week later the script was finished, which is insane. Even though I am a fast writer, that was a record for me. I wanted to tap into this very raw feeling. I think you either produce it quickly, so it keeps the rawness and cohesion, or I’m not sure it would ever be finished in the right way.”
I love that car journey and the way you capture Kol’s experience through the POV shots, all these things that he’s taking in. It’s very delicate. There’s a lot going on between them and the attraction is much more than a physical thing, isn’t it? It got me thinking about gay relationships and attraction, particularly when I was Kol’s age. Adam, the slightly older man, is perhaps a version of who the younger one can be. He’s more liberated as a gay man, while Adam probably recognizes something of himself in the younger Kol. Anyway, I’ should let you answer because I could talk for hours about it.
“I live to hear these things. I get really frustrated when interviews are just about ‘tell me things’, because I’m much more interested in your thoughts. You’re totally on the money with that. The writing was coming out of this feeling of who I am now and I was fascinated with this feeling of not really knowing your sexuality while it’s living inside you and shaping you. Then when you see someone that recognizes that, watching them inevitably brings up feelings of remembering being that kid. I was very different from Kol. He’s closer to who I was when I was 14. At 17 I was already militantly out and I was a very different kid. But 14 year old me was very similar to him.”
“I never actually met another queer person until later, but I was curious how it would have happened if I had—not even in a romantic sense—but just me being exposed to another gay person at a time when I thought gays were only on television, not in suburban Melbourne. How would I have responded before I even knew myself? I could imagine being unconsciously attracted to someone, and it kind of building and building, then suddenly they tell you that they’re gay and it’s like the rug gets pulled from under you.”
“On the flip side, Adam is not that much older, only by about five years, but what happens in those five years in recognizing that part of you? Especially in a place where it feels like there’s no one else like you. I think there was a special kind of loneliness if you were a gay kid anywhere in the suburbs at that time, before technology, where you couldn’t conceive of other people like you existing outside of television. Even when I came out, which was 2003 in my final year, I was the only openly queer kid in school. I came out partly so that someone would at least secretly tell me that they were also gay—not even looking for romance—but just someone who I could talk to about things. I think you recognize it in someone else and you don’t necessarily have to speak about it. I would actually feel uncomfortable speaking about it directly to someone like that, especially if they’re young and naive, but I was really fascinated by that feeling. I watch the film from both of their perspectives and it’s a very different experience in either direction.”
Your lead actors bring so much to the film. Tell me about casting them and whether it altered in any way what you’d originally envisaged in your screenplay.
“I’m rarely looking for actors to do exactly what’s written and I don’t think that ever works. You imagine someone abstract and that person doesn’t really exist in real life. I’m much more interested in finding someone like Elias Anton who I cast as Kol. He looked and sounded nothing like what was written on the page. When I first saw his tape, it was late in the process, but it was the first audition that got me going, ‘Who is this kid?!’ His eyes felt like they carried a life in them. He was willing to be open emotionally without even thinking about it. Vulnerability is his natural state as a person, but also as a performer, which is really rare.”
“Initially I thought Elias couldn’t play Kol because he has too many muscles, I wrote him as a skinny kid! Then I was like, okay, but look at the story and imagine it was this set of eyes and this voice and this face going through this journey. What adjustments do you have to make? It was a little different, but I was more interested in it. I no longer cared about the version that I wrote. I was like, no, this is the one that makes you feel that pressure in your chest. This is what I want to capture and preserve and document. When I decided that he was definitely going to play Kol it solved a lot of problems. Originally we thought it wouldn’t be possible to find someone who could play the character at both ages, so we were looking for to try to older and younger actors, which wasn’t easy. Australia is a very multicultural place, but the Australian arts are very much a rich white kid type of thing, so it’s really hard in general to find actors of any minority frankly, much less trying to cast the same character at different ages.”
“It was a case of meeting Elias and wondering if he could play the older Kol as well. That was a psychologically tougher thing to take on and I think both of us were like, let’s hope it works out because there’s no other option. Watching him evolve and grow and suddenly playing someone who is five years older than him and doing it so convincingly was incredible. I have a very parental relationship to all three of the actors. So I was like, ‘oh, my boy is growing up in front of my eyes!’ It was deeply moving.”
“When it came to finding Thom Green for Adam, I was doing my research on actors in Australia and I tracked down some clips of a performance that he gave in a film called Downriver. Even in the not so showy moments of him just doing ordinary things, like stepping off a bike or walking into a café, there was a natural magnetism, a movie star vibe, but it was also very naturalistic. He wasn’t putting on a selfie face, trying to present something. It felt like I was watching a person thinking and feeling and planning things. That’s quite a rare quality anywhere, but especially in Australian film and TV because it’s normally a very presentational style of acting. When I saw that footage, I frantically emailed my casting agent saying, ‘can we send the script to this kid? Don’t just send the scene, send the full screenplay and everything I’ve got.’ She was like, ‘Oh, his audition tape came in an hour ago’. It was the first one I watched and in this case it was actually the weirdest experience where I was like, this is exactly who I wrote. I didn’t picture Adam very vividly, it was just a set of eyes in an abstract personality, nothing else. But what Thom was doing with his eyes, what they were doing to the person who was reading opposite him even, was uncanny. He didn’t even need direction.”
“On set, I encouraged them to improvise, not to do the dialogue as written until they were feeling the particular feeling that was needed for the scene. So the camera would be running and then I’d be like, ‘we have to shoot the scene right now’. We were already rolling, so I asked them to live in the moment and see what came to them. Improvisation isn’t always verbal, sometimes it’s just about glances and moments of connection. They built on what was there and I think a lot of their own personalities come through which was what I really wanted. There’s an essence to them that you can’t really write in advance in the sense that you discover a human being when you cast.”
“With Hattie Hook who plays Ebony, a lot of her dialogue feels like it’s really well written, but she improvised it out of thin air. It’s her first ever role on screen. It’s just uncanny because she’s playing someone a quantitative degree removed from her actual personality. The fact that all three of them could work at both ages was amazing. There was only about five days between shooting those scenes and they just transformed so much internally. We only had those days to give the boys time to grow some facial hair, while we shot cutaways of boxes and roads. I was hoping and praying it would work out because we didn’t have a backup plan. I’d met some interesting actors, but they weren’t the right fit, so there was no one else who could interpret the roles if it wasn’t working out. I really lucked out quite significantly in the end.”
By James Kleinmann
Goran Stolevski’s Of An Age opens in US theaters on Friday, February 17th, 2023 from Focus Features, head here for local showtimes.