Declared “a strong new voice in Australian queer cinema” by The Guardian, filmmaker Craig Boreham’s debut feature Teenage Kicks premiered at the 2016 Sydney Film Festival, where it was an Audience Award runner-up. It went on to win two Iris Prize trophies and saw Boreham nominated for an Australian Directors Guild Award. The writer-director’s remarkable sophomore feature Lonesome is a sexually unapologetic, visually stunning, brooding instant queer Australian indie classic. It features a captivating central performance by Josh Lavery as a queer cowboy, Casey, who escapes from the countryside for Sydney, where (with some help from Grindr) his life soon becomes entwined with Tib’s (a fantastic Daniel Gabriel), another queer twenty-something who is wrestling with his own scars of isolation in the city.
With Lonesome now available on demand and digital in the US from Dark Star Pictures—on Blu-ray, DVD and on demand in the UK via Peccadillo, and currently in cinemas in Australia—The Queer Review’s editor James Kleinmann had an exclusive conversation with Craig Boreham about the film’s exploration of sex and Sydney’s gay scene, his eclectic cinematic references, why he wanted to cast queer performers, and his own favourite LGBTQ+ film.
James Kleinmann, The Queer Review: before we get on to the film itself, I’d love to get an insight into the draw of filmmaking for you as a storytelling form. I know you have a background as a hairdresser and then in theatre production design, so when did film come in?
Craig Boreham: “It came in politically for me. I was involved for quite a long time in the decriminalization movement. I’m from Queensland and when I came out it was still illegal to to be gay. So a big motivation for me to tell queer stories was the lack of them here in Australia and also the illegality of our very being. I’m still in film to tell queer stories primarily, that’s what motivates me when I write.”
“I took this very strange path. I did a hairdressing apprenticeship when I finished school because when I came out that’s what you were supposed to do back then. Then I went into working in styling and production design in theatre. It was there that I came to a crossroads where I was deciding between following that path or making my own stories. I decided to go to film school and that’s where it all started.”
With Lonesome, I believe your two central characters, Casey and Tib, started out in separate screenplays. What excited you about putting them together in the same in the same movie?
“I just really liked the characters, they were both so dynamic. I met up with the producers from Breathless Films who wanted to do a slate of indie projects. They were fishing for ideas and I had both of those scripts, but they were only half written, I hadn’t really nailed them yet. So I thought, what would happen if these two collided? What would that look like? The script flew out of that idea really easily. It’s quite a minimal story, it’s not a “plotty” film. It’s more about the nuance and the little cracks in these people’s masks. That’s what drove me when I was writing it.”
It makes a lot of sense that the lead characters came together that way because essentially that’s what happens when we meet someone in real life, suddenly two worlds collide.
“Especially in Australia, where it’s such a big country with lots of space. The people who live in the regions are very removed from the urban queer experience. I know it’s a story that we’ve seen before, but it’s still a very relevant story and one that resonates with a lot of people. There are still a lot of country queers coming into the city. We’ve actually had a lot of moments in Q&As where people have become quite emotional about seeing that story because it reflects their own experience and they relate to it very personally.”
It’s a stunning, fearless central performance by Josh Lavery. It feels like he threw himself into the role completely.
“Yeah, he really did. I wanted the cast to be as queer as possible and to find people from the community. Not that I think great actors can’t play queer characters, I think they can, but with Lonesome we were delving into such a specific part of our community’s world that it just made sense that queer people would really get it, they’d immediately understand it. So I was using every means possible to cast. It was during lockdown in Sydney so we couldn’t go out and meet people, but I was trawling through Grindr and Instagram, and all over the Inernet. I actually found Josh through a short documentary piece that he’d done, where he talked about growing up in the country and moving to Melbourne. That’s very much his own experience. I got in touch with Josh via Instagram and funnily enough, his Instagram account got booted the very next day because he posted some racy content and got banned! So we lost contact, but fortunately we’d exchanged names and we managed to get back in touch.”
“We didn’t have a lot of time to rehearse, but did a lot of stuff via zoom, just chatting about the film. Josh came up to Sydney about three weeks before we shot and we really dove into it then. A lot of that rehearsal time was about focusing on the physicality of the character and putting Daniel and Josh together to build a rapport between them. It was pretty fearless, as you said. Josh was excited about the film and very keen to put honest representations of our sex and sexuality on screen. I wanted the actors to feel comfortable with the material because it’s pretty racy content. It was spelled out on the page, what the audience was seeing and what’s going on, so no one was ever going to read a line that said “they make love”. It was also clear that there were emotional beats happening within the sex scenes.”
The sex scenes are beautifully orchestrated and it does feel very real and unapologetic. It’s great to look at in itself, but as you say there are always things going on with the characters too, which enriches it.
“That was important. Often we see a sex scene in a film and it’s just a montage of body parts and movement. I really wanted to explore the dynamics of those situations. Even in a random hookup there is some kind of exchange happening emotionally or some power play or tension.”
So you cast Josh and then found Daniel. What excited you about putting them together, what did you see happening when you did that?
“I cast Daniel because they understood the material so well and brought all these exciting ideas to it. Daniel was based in Sydney during the lockdown, so we were able to catch up and go for walks in the park and talk about the character. They understood Tib and the mask that he’s wearing. Bringing them together as actors was really about finding an ease between them. The thing that I loved about watching them is that they bounced off each other really beautifully. They loved each other the moment that they met, which was great because I’d been talking to them separately during pre-production and then when they came together I was nervous. But they got on like a house on fire and they were really supportive and protective of each other which was important with this kind of material that’s pretty intimate and raw. They were a little unit of support for each other which was beautiful.”
What were some of the things that you wanted to explore about the gay scene in Sydney?
“When the Sydney gay scene is represented on screen it’s often very glossy, very Eastern suburbs, and has a very Darlinghurst gay ghetto kind of vibe to it, which is great, it’s fantastic. But I wanted to look outside of that and go a little little further out into the West and look at those characters that maybe aren’t part of that glossy rainbow community, the other queers on the edges of the suburbs. I wanted to look at Sydney in a way that we didn’t normally see it, so it’s more rooftops and back alleys than beautiful shots of the Opera House.”
I don’t think we see the bridge or the Opera House at all do we?
“No. In fact, we did have one really beautiful shot and our DOP Dean Francis was furious at me because I cut it out!”
Talking about your cinematographer, what was your approach for the look of the film and did you have any specific references in mind?
“We looked at a lot of old classic westerns, at the way that they handled landscapes and put solitary cowboy figures in them. We wanted to riff on that and put it in an urban environment. So there’s a lot of that playing out. You get these really beautiful landscape moments in the film as well, even though it’s quite urban. We were looking at 80s and 90s queer camp cinema as we were developing our color palette. We have this evolving color palette that goes from country and naturalistic, but still a bit saturated, into more a hyper neon city palette, which was a nice progression.”
“We were also looking at the way that Italian neorealists shot in the street, often putting the camera in a place where people were unaware of it. You get this vibrancy that you don’t get when you shut down streets or when you’re really visible. We did a lot of that on Lonesome and I think that gives it an organic energy in some of those cityscape scenes. It was funny because we were often shooting on a long lens and the camera would be really far away, so there would just be Josh as a shirtless cowboy windscreen wiping cars in the street. People had no idea that he was in a film. We had our cars that were part of the film that he was washing, but we didn’t stop anything, so the world was just happening around him. A couple of people did ask him to wash their windscreens!”
I have to ask you about Casey’s hat. I feel like the film wouldn’t be the same without it. Was it in your original draft of the screenplay?
“The hat was always in there. I’m originally from western Queensland and I have family members who cannot be removed from their hats and I wanted to play with that. The hat itself was a mission to find because when we were looking for costumes it was just after the first major lockdown and there hadn’t been a lot of stuff coming into the country so there was a real shortage of hats. I was trawling every vintage Western shop looking for one, because it had to be the right hat. Eventually we found it. I was like, ‘this is the one!’ It was important because it’s iconic and Casey’s such an iconic cowboy figure. We needed to find the right one that looked great on Josh. It helped Josh too. The moment that Josh put the hat on it was like Casey was there.”
Did you only have one or did you have a standby in case you needed to replace it?
“No, there was only one hat which was terrifying because the hat went through a lot!”
Where’s the hat now, did Josh get to keep it?
“It’s actually here in my place on my hatstand. I kept it in case we had to do reshoots, but now it’s like a little Casey shrine in the hallway!”
When it comes to your locations, was the beach scene shot on the nude gay beach at Watsons Bay, Lady Jane?
“It wasn’t that one, it was Little Congwong Beach at La Perouse which is another iconic queer beach. It’s actually an unofficial nude beach and it’s belonged to the gays forever. So it’s a bit of an easter egg for people who know Sydney. It’s very similar to Lady Jane though, there’s a similar vibe. There are quite a few very specific queer spaces that we used as locations. I actually used to go to that beach all the time in the summer and that’s where I wrote a lot of the script for Lonesome, under that rock that you see in the film, with my iPad writing away. So I knew it was beautiful.”
Did you have any guys there who were disgruntled when you were filming because you were getting in the way of their cruising?
“The moment that the camera came out people scattered, but no one seemed to be bothered.”
We also get to see Sydney’s Stonewall bar on Oxford street, that I’ve spent many fun nights at. Do you remember going there for the first time when you arrived in Sydney? Was it one of the first queer places that you went to?
“I’m a bit older than that, so I can remember when it opened just over 20 years ago, but it’s an iconic queer bar. A lot of performances happen there and it’s one of the places that still does a lot of drag shows. There are fewer and fewer of those spaces in Sydney these days. Stonewall was great. They were really supportive of the project. We wanted to use that space because it’s so iconic and it’s also a great looking space.”
You mentioned that you were actively looking for queer performers for your two leads, but were you also looking for queer folks for the supporting roles as well?
“Yeah, as much as possible. It can be tricky to cast queer actors because often the casting agents are unaware of people’s sexuality and it’s not something that you can in a casting situation because it’s like a job interview. So I was using every means possible to find people and there are a lot of people in the film who aren’t from an acting background, but creatives who use queer material to ground their work. I pulled people from all over the place. For instance, Gareth Ernst is a painter who does a lot of amazing line art, very gay imagery. I approached him because I really love his work and he’s an enigmatic character. He ended up being one of the bears in the basement scene later in the film.”
“Then there were some actors that I worked with before like Ian Roberts who plays Pietro. He was in my feature Teenage Kicks and we also did a short film together years ago. It’s a really nice working relationship. So I wrote that part with him in mind and he loved it. He was really into the idea of playing a character who is a bit sketchy and had some stuff happening under the surface. So there’s a mix of all kinds of queer folks all over the place in the film.”
You mentioned that basement sex party sequence. Why was that a part of the gay scene that you wanted to explore?
“I was looking at the experience of coming to Sydney and negotiating the gay sex landscape in all its forms. Whether it be about relieving boredom or trying to find the connection or brutalizing yourself because you feel like you deserve it or something transactional. There are a lot of different moments that happen throughout the film in that way and that scene is a pretty big moment towards the end of the film so I won’t say too much about it.”
We hear the Grindr notification alert go off quite a lot throughout the film. Which partly feels like a reminder that sex can be very accessible, but that real intimacy is often not as easy to find. But it might well start from meeting through an app, you can find intimacy in unexpected places.
“It was great that Grindr gave us permission to use the sound. We’d actually started making our own fake hookup app for the film, but there’s something so iconic about that Grindr chirp, so I really wanted to use it if I could and they were really supportive of it. Actually, they’ve been great through the release of the film as well. They’ve got behind it, which is nice.”
I’m sure for a lot of folks watching it that sound will stir something in them and probably bring back some memories. You’ve probably got some people who are checking their phones, thinking they hadn’t silenced them!
“That’s the thing. It’s such a specific sound. Especially when you’re playing to an audience of gay men, like when we played at Frameline in San Francisco, the moment that first chirp happens everyone knows what’s going on!”
Have you started working on a new film?
“I’m working on an adaptation of the Peter Polites novel Down the Hume, which is a Western Sydney set Neo-noir novel. It’s very gay, with lots of sketchy gay dudes in the suburbs. It’s a lot of fun, so I’m really looking forward to shooting that one. I’m in the process of adapting it now with the novelist. It’s tricky because it’s a very internal book, so we’re having to do some muscle work to turn it into a more more external film space, but it’s coming together really well.”
Lastly, what’s your favorite piece of LGBTQ+ culture or a person who identifies as LGBTQ+; someone or something that’s had an impact on you and resonated with you over the years and why?
“The film that I often go back to and rewatch is Wong Kar-Wai’s Happy Together starring Leslie Cheung and Tony Leung. It’s so magic and beautiful. It’s kind of a love story, but it’s also an end of love story as well. It’s quite tragic and moving. It’s shot by Australian cinematographer Christopher Doyle, whose work I’m obsessed with. It’s an iconic piece of work which I love. If I had made that film, I’d be happy to retire and never make another film.”
By James Kleinmann