Interview: Stephen Dunn and Closet Monster—
In the history of LGBT cinema, there hasn’t been a lead character quite like Oscar. Played by the extremely talented Connor Jessup – you may recognise him as the equally messed up lead of American Crime’s superb second season – Oscar witnessed a horrific crime in his childhood and now as he shuffles between his divorced parents’ homes in Newfoundland, Canada, he begins an obsession with ghoulish horror movie makeup as well as the new curly-haired boy at work while living in a fantasy world (or is it?) aided by his talking hamster.
Closet Monster is a vibrant breath of fresh air among a sea of coming out tales – it is not the same old story. Colourfully designed and with more than a hint of weirdness, Stephen Dunn’s unique and acclaimed film comes to Melbourne from its premiere at the Toronto Film Festival where it won the Best Canadian Feature Film prize.
We were lucky to get an Australian exclusive interview with Dunn, who is currently busy working in London. We spoke about Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Xavier Dolan, and, of course, Isabella Rossellini as a talking hamster…
I should start with the most logical question—how on Earth did you come up with your lead character, Oscar, having a talking hamster voiced by Isabella Rossellini?
Stephen Dunn: In the script stage, Buffy the Hamster was supposed to be voiced by the robotic iPhone Siri voice, but when we began assembling the film we found that, while it was very funny, the maternal aspects of the character weren’t coming through. Oscar’s hamster begins speaking just as his feelings of abandonment set in following the announcement of his parents’ divorce, so it was important that Buffy become somewhat of a maternal figure for him.
I’m a huge fan of Isabella’s work, and have been since I was a kid, but I got the idea to approach her while re-watching her series, Green Porno, a brilliant Sundance series about the sexual reproduction of animals where she plays every animal. In one of the episodes she plays a hamster. We had no money at the time, but with our executive producer Niv Fichman, we approached her, hat in hand, and sent her a rough cut of the film. To our luck she agreed almost right away, thrilled to be offered the role of a talking hamster. I couldn’t believe it.
Just how much do you love Buffy the Vampire Slayer? There’s the obvious Buffy the Hamster, but there’s also wooden stakes, cemeteries, demonic makeup, and many more subtle nods to the TV show so I am going to guess it’s a lot!
Never heard of it! [Laughs]
Yeah, I have to admit it was a pretty influential show for me growing up. I’ve always been drawn to the supernatural and magic realism, but there was never a true hero that resonated with me quite like Buffy did. The most compelling aspect of the show for me was the dynamic way Joss Whedon shaped the growing pains and horrors of growing up and channelled them into literal monsters that could be battled. The show became so much more intelligent and thought provoking than I think a lot of people realised.
The film opens with a disturbing scene of a gay bashing that is witnessed by our main character as a child. Were you trying to say something about the effect of homophobia on impressionable queer youth and how did your forays into almost Cronenbergian body-horror help to compliment this?
Unfortunately, that crime was loosely based on a real hate crime that happened behind the graveyard in my school growing up in Newfoundland. The event was so disturbing and had an extremely suffocating effect on my sexuality. It instilled a fear in me that became linked to my sexuality; ultimately it became a fear of myself. That’s where the idea for Closet Monster actually came from. It was my search to overcome that fear.
The body-horror elements evolved pretty organically. I wanted to visually and psychologically interpret the feelings of internalised homophobia in a way that could be physically overcome, yes, sort of like in Buffy. Oscar’s internalised homophobia manifests into an ulcer, a bulge, and essentially an alien he must remove from his body in order to heal, in order to love himself. The pain of coming out and accepting who you are is very powerful, but there’s nothing more liberating than the moments afterwards when you can finally be yourself.
Have you seen Connor Jessup’s work on American Crime? Can you tell us about casting him and how fortuitous it was to cast him on the verge of his breakthrough?
Yes, I have seen American Crime and continue to be in constant awe of Connor. He’s one of the most serious and hard-working performers I’ve ever come across and he literally puts his heart into his work. I couldn’t be more proud to see him soar. He’s also a very talented director himself and I’m excited to see what he cooks up next.
Were you at all aware of casting Aliocha Schneider, given his brother had played the curly-haired object of affection in Xavier Dolan’s I Killed My Mother and Heartbeats? The two look very alike!
I actually didn’t connect the two until after the second time Aliocha and I met. We met through my agent, who connected us while he was living in Paris. We skyped and then I flew to Montreal later to meet him and immediately knew that he was the right person for the role.
Speaking of Xavier Dolan, was his work or that of any other contemporary queer filmmakers a key inspiration for the film in any way?
I’ve been getting a lot of references to Xavier Dolan and Gregg Araki, who coincidentally directed Connor in American Crime, and while I hold both of their work in great admiration the inspiration for Closet Monster came entirely from within. It’s a very personal story, something I needed to get off my chest.
The music in Closet Monster is particularly great and features incredible music by the likes of Ladytron, Allie X, Nils Frahm, and more. How did you go about collating that soundtrack?
Thank you. Most of the music was written into the film at script stage. I wrote the entire screenplay listening to most of those songs. I was very fortunate to then collaborate with Maya Postepski from one of my favourite bands, Austra, and Todor Kobakov who created an incredible ambient electronic score that fit within the world of the music Oscar was listening too.
You previously worked on a project called Pop-Up Porno, which is quite wonderful and is about awkward sexual encounters. I’d really like to hear your thoughts on why it is that gay artists find it so easy to confront the giddiness, the confusion, the power, and the embarrassment of sex full on. Would you say it is because to be openly gay we have to, I guess, unshackle ourselves from shame?
That’s a very interesting question, and to be honest, I don’t quite know the answer. Closet Monster is essentially about just that, a story about unshackling oneself from the shame of sexuality, whereas Pop-Up Porno is a raw and explicit account of people’s true embarrassing sexual moments, shared in a cheeky and graphic children’s pop-up book. I guess, in a way my, intention with that project was to create something that normalised the modern landscape of online dating and talk about sex in a way that allows us to step back and look at ourselves without judgement or criticism.