Four tells the story of four intersecting lives during one fateful Fourth of July night in suburban Connecticut. June, a young gay teen who has yet to come out to anyone, meets up with an older married man he's been chatting with on the internet. Meanwhile, Abigayle is trying to resist the advances of Dexter, a young, smooth-talking drug dealer. What follows is both sexy and uncomfortable, conflicting and magnetic. Joshua Sanchez's feature film debut is a beautiful portrait of intimacy and alientation set against a very American landscape. It is an impressive film by a filmmaker that everyone should keep their eyes on. We spoke with Sanchez about his film, which opens this year's NewFest: The NYC LGBT Film Festival on Friday:
Four director Joshua Sanchez.
How did you become involved with adapting Christopher Shinn’s play for the screen? What drew you to this project?
Well, I got involved with this mostly because I was a fan of his work. I had seen some of his other plays on the stage and was just kind of following him as a writer. We became friends because we both live in New York and we are both around the same age and have similar interests. That was right around the time I was finishing film school. I was reading a lot of his early plays and came across this one, Four, and it really spoke to me. It was a very familiar, kind of suburban environment that I had grown up in and it felt like a very visually compelling story that would make a good film.
Had you seen Four produced for the stage?
No, I've actually never seen a production of it. It had a run in New York in the late 90s and in the early 2000s, but that was before I became aware of his work. So I’ve never seen it before, but I think it sort of worked. I don’t think any of us that made the film were interested in making a word-for-word adaptation of the play. We very much wanted it to stand alone as a film and be its own entity.
What does it mean to you to have your directorial debut opening Newfest?
Some of my short films have screened at NewFest before and I was actually on the shorts screening committee a few years back so I have a history with the festival, but it’s a great honor for me this year in particular because it seems like it’s a transitional year for NewFest. I think there are some really exciting things happening with their collaboration with OutFest and it’s also a really cool thing that they’re doing it at Lincoln Center this year. I went to film school down the street from there at Columbia and so I spent so much time at the Walter Reade. It's a great honor for me to play there and New York is our hometown so it's also great to be screening at the theater for friends and family and for the New York audience that's going to come see it. I couldn’t be more happy with it.
June (Emory Cohen) and Joe (Wendell Pierce) in a scene from Four.
June and Joe both struggle with their sexuality and keeping it a secret from their loved ones. Was it your intention to show that coming to terms with one’s own sexuality is a struggle at any age, no matter your race sex or creed?
I suppose that is part of the thematic thread of the movie, but I think it's, from my perspective, more about the particular aspects of their experiences that were keeping them both in the closet, so to speak. They are both faced with a situation in their lives where they are coming to terms with this or denying it. I think that's probably what Chris was writing about, how your past experiences can inform what your choices are in terms of forming an identity with your sexuality and, in particular, gay men and the difficulties they may have in that situation.
I think that, generationally, Joe and June have a very different experience, but I also think it’s an incredibly common experience that gay men share a sense of feeling unsafe, feeling that the people you love are going to reject you and you’ll end up being some sort of pariah. But I also feel like it’s very much something that is changing in our world. Christopher Shinn wrote this play in the early 90s, but we set it in contemporary America and I think it’s really interesting that the story of Joe and June can be sort of timeless. For as far as we've come as a society in accepting homosexuality and assimilating it into our culture, to a certain degree it will always be an outsider situation. It was interesting for me, as a director, to think about those things and to try to illuminate the complexity of that situation as best as I could in the movie.
Why do you believe Joe is pushing June to come out? Do you think that he is living vicariously through June?
Sure. From my point of view he absolutely is. Part of the interesting dynamic in their relationship is that Joe sees a lot of himself in June. I think that there is a certain kind of mentorship that happens in situations with older and younger gay men. Often times it can be about the projection of the older man onto the younger one and seeing what they want for themselves, but can’t articulate. The film itself asks the audience to fill in the blanks a lot about why theses characters do what they do. That's part of what I like about the material. It's a piece that really drops the audience into the lives of these characters over the course of a night. As these characters are asking themselves questions about what they are doing, hopefully we are as well. Hopefully we can reflect on what we are projecting on these characters as an audience. So I think that is definitely a theme throughout the film. Part of what I think is so sad about Joe's character is that he is trying to illuminate for June that he could perhaps never illuminate for himself.
June (Emory Cohen) in a scene from Four.
What do you make of June's attitude? Could you relate to his adolescent frustrations and angst at all?
Certainly, yeah! I think there's part of me that thinks I was him when I was that age. Not literally, in terms of the situation, but certainly feeling the angst that the character feels. I think that that's an angst that a lot of teenage kids feel. Not even just gay ones, but teenagers in general when they are forming their identity. Oftentimes they can be very withholding and very pensive. That's part of what it really means to be a teenager. I’ve been asked a lot before how I think June ends up at the end of the movie. To me, I don't really think it's a thing he’s going to struggle with forever. I don't feel like we leave him and he's going to be stuck in that situation. I think you can oftentimes get a sense of what someone is capable of over the course of one night, and where we find him is in a state of questioning the boundaries of his life in a healthy way.
The quartet of characters are all seeking two things: company and sex. But once they get what they desired, none seem any more satisfied or fulfilled. Can you elaborate on this idea?
A lot of the film is about people who are searching for a type of emotional fulfillment that they lack in their lives. They are trying to reach out for some kind of temporary fulfillment that won't necessarily do it in the long run. From my point of view, I so related to that perspective of family dynamics. I think we also live in a world where we are taught to seek out fulfillment in very material ways. We are very much bombarded as young American people to think that the surface of life is going to be the thing that fulfills us. If we can only have the cool body, or the cool haircut, or the cool girlfriend or boyfriend or car, it's going to make us happy, but I think it's very much the opposite. In the case of June and Abigayle, I think we're seeing two very bright kids that are feeling incredibly spiteful towards their surroundings and I think that's probably the way a lot of people feel with their lives. I think it's a theme in Christopher Shinn's works to show the lasting effects of dysfunctional family dynamics and the kind of toll it can take on your spirit if it's not exorcised.
Do you feel the source of Abigayle's unhappiness is her problems with her family or the difficulty of being a young black woman in what seems like a fairly typical, mainly white suburban town?
I think it's probably one and the same as far as she is concerned. We pick up with her at a moment in her life where her relationship with people around her, including her father and her mother, is starting to crack. I think it probably has a lot to do with her surroundings as well. Feeling like she doesn't have an outlet to be who she wants to be and she doesn't have the type of support around her to break out of her shell, so to speak. She is trying, over the course of this night, to feel some sort of connection with people. I think it's probably all of those things you just said. If you grow up in a situation where you feel disconnected and like you're not a part of it, it can carry a heavy toll with you. I think that's exacerbated for her because of a very complicated family dynamic.
Abigayle (Aja Naomi King) and Dexter (E.J. Bonilla) in a scene from Four.
Joe's wife / Abigayle's mother is bed-ridden and only described as ill. Are we to imagine her specific ailment is or is she meant to be seen as the physical manifestation of Joe and Abigayle's fear of vulnerability and fear of life and their emotional short comings? Or is she just another character in this play?
I think the way you put it just now, of her being this representation of the damaged soul of this family, is probably the best way that I’ve heard anyone put it. That's the question that I get asked most often about the movie and it's obviously a question that is incredibly difficult to answer because it's very much left to the audience's interpretation of what's happening with her. I think that that character, for as little screen-time as she has, casts a very large shadow over this film. And I think there is good reason for that. I think a lot of people could interpret her as HIV positive, a lot of people see her as depressed, a lot of people see a combination of those things. I feel like she is probably not totally aware of it and neither is her family. I think it touches on a lot of cultural boundaries, as they're an African American family, and what does that mean for an African American HIV-positive gay man's wife to be indisposed, so to speak. As difficult as it is for people to process the complexity of that situation, I think that that it's why I felt compelled to show that character and at least be able to see her one time. I felt like, as an audience, we had to be privy to what was behind that door.
With so few actors at the focal point of the film was it hard to keep the film feeling fresh and honest throughout? Did you make a conscious effort to make the mise-en-scène feel as real and relatable as possible?
I'd like to think I tried to. What I tried to do in the casting process was get to know the actors as much as possible and what they brought to the characters and how they could relate the characters' experiences to their own. Once I was good with that, I really handed it over to them. There wasn't much I could tell them that they didn't already know about the characters. We had a very down and dirty shoot where we didn't get a lot of time to think about what we were doing. It was my job to create a safe space where they felt comfortable with what they needed to do with the characters.
What is the message you wish for your viewers to take away from the film?
You know, I thought about this a lot and I don't know that there's one particular message that I want to send home. I don't really believe the films I've found to be powerful and affecting in my life have one particular concerted message to offer. I think what I wanted was for a sixteen year old to watch this movie and feel the way I have felt when watching a movie that reflected my own experience. Often times you don't have time or the words to articulate what your soul is feeling at the time, but I think in the best circumstances people go to the movies and they see something that reflects back to them something that they can't really articulate about themselves. It can make you see your life differently. When I was a kid, I went to the movies for those experiences and I wanted to have them again and again and again because I felt like I was alive. I suppose that’s kind of a lofty ambition for something like this, but when I was reading Christopher Shinn's work I think that's part of why I was attracted to it. I felt like it had the potential to do that and I might be able to add something to that experience as a filmmaker. Hopefully the audience agrees.
Four is the Opening Night film of this year's NewFest, New York's premier LGBT Film Festival. Director Joshua Sanchez, playwright Christopher Shinn, and actor E.J. Bonilla will be in person for a Q&A at the 7:00pm showing on July 27! NewFest runs from July 27 – 31 at Film Society of Lincoln Center.