Writer-director mocks melodramas with "is he or isn't he" comedy
Tommy O'Haver recently got his first big-time Hollywood paycheck -- and he used it to put a down payment on a new Volvo.
Not a Porsche. Not a Range Rover. A four-door Volvo sedan. Not exactly the funky or stylish ride you'd expect the current darling of gay cinema to be driving.
But O'Haver, who is the writer-director of the just-released "Billy's Hollywood Screen Kiss" -- sort of a modernized mock melodrama with a insecure gay guy in the Doris Day role -- is really excited about his new wheels.
"It's totally a family car! I like it that way," he chirps with a smile broadening across his five o'clock shadow that suggests he's having a new-car-smell sense memory. Then he reveals the real reason he opted for soccer mom transportation.
"Actually, I'm gonna get Jennifer Lopez pregnant. I'm in love with her after 'Out of Sight.'"
Get in line, pal.
Lopez probably isn't aware of this, but to hear O'Haver tell it, she's poised to become the next femme de jour of the gay community.
"She's...the new Sharon Stone," the director gushes.
That big-time paycheck came courtesy of Universal Pictures, which hired him to write and direct a big screen treatment of the "Archie" comic books after studio executives saw "Billy," his feature debut.
"Billy's Hollywood Screen Kiss" stars Sean P. Hayes, a slightly effeminate Jon Cryer kind of guy, as Billy, an unemployed, unlucky-in-love Los Angeles photographer. The film borrows many story and stylistic elements from 1950s "women's movies," then adds ironic winks here and there.
It's the tale of Billy's frustrating conundrum of a crush on a delicately handsome, sexually ambiguous waiter-turned-model named Gabriel (Brad Rowe), who may or may not be gay. Hayes plays Billy as a vulnerable Everyman, easily garnering empathy from anyone who has been in love with a person who is not forthcoming about where the relationship stands.
"On the page, I was a little bit scared that Billy might come off as little annoying, because he is a little self-loathing," O'Haver explains. "But because Sean is so bright and cheery, but at the same time being a little neurotic and paranoid, I think it worked perfectly."
Billy recounts his youth in a voice-over illustrated with a series of Polaroid pictures as the film opens, and O'Haver admits much of Billy's background is "pretty autobiographical."
He grew up in very heterosexual Indiana and says a story Billy tells in the movie's most unguarded moment -- about being excluded from a friend's birthday party after saying he liked to look at naked men -- is from his own childhood.
"I remember that was the first time I really said anything to anybody (about being gay). I must have been about 8 or 9 years old."
After that, the director says, he completely repressed his feelings. "It wasn't until college when I started to think maybe it's about time I slept with men," he laughs.
He didn't come out to his parents for years after that, and says "they're still not all the way there."
"I was talking to my mom today because it's her birthday, and I was saying that I was being out in these interviews," he recounts. "And she goes (affecting a motherly, nasal tone), 'Well that doesn't mean you have to be a spokesperson for all gay people.'"
But O'Haver says his folks are happy for his success. "They're really proud and excited. They're a little bit nervous, but they're doing, actually, really well, considering."
After graduation, O'Haver was planning on a career as a movie critic. But while working in the mail room at New Line Cinema he took a screenwriting class and began producing short films, one of which was "Catalina," a five-minute unrequited love story that became the foundation for "Billy."
Enamored with classic melodramas, he says his story was inspired, in part, by William Wyler's "The Heiress," about a plain-looking rich girl, played by Olivia de Havilland who falls for a man of questionable motives, just as Billy falls for Gabriel, a man of conflicted sexuality.
"The Montgomery Clift character," O'Haver waxes with adoration, "you're never quite sure what's going on with him."
To enhance the connection with the films that inspired him, O'Haver decided to shot "Billy" in Cinemascope -- extremely unusual for an independent film -- after a meeting with his cinematographer two years before the movie started filming.
"He had come out to L.A. from North Carolina to pick up this Panavision camera with these anamorphic lenses. I went over to his house to look at the camera, and I knew right away that the movie was going to be shot on that camera. Because I like a good Cinemascope movie. A movie should be a movie, you know?"
With a look steeped in Technicolor hues and soundtrack littered with Xavier Cugat riffs, O'Haver also infuses "Billy" with elements of B-movies camp and European art film technique.
He acknowledges a debt to Dutch director Lars Von Trier for the look of several dream sequences, in which Billy's anxieties and fantasies are played out in front of a backdrop scene projected in black and white.
In part because of these fantasy sequences, "Billy's Hollywood Screen Kiss" has also been likened to "Jeffrey," a 1995 sleeper comedy, about a gay New Yorker abstaining from sex for fear of AIDS, that features several zany fantasy moments. But O'Haver bristles a little at the comparison.
"Well, 'Jeffrey' does have a good campy aesthetic to it," he says. "But I hope not everyone says that."
What would O'Haver prefer to compare the film to then?
"I would say it's 'The Heiress' meets 'Beyond the Valley of the Dolls,'" he says with an implied rimshot.
Now that "Billy" is opening in theaters, O'Haver is ready to focus on the "Archie" movie. He recently finished the first draft of the script, which he describes as "a lot like 'Billy's,' but without drag queens," and he hopes to infuse his first big budget studio effort with the same wit and style.
"It's going to be very hyper-real with, again, another kind of melodramatic love story at the heart," he says, pausing with a slightly cheshire grin, "...and a few musical numbers."