Closet Monster (2016) isn't a coming-of-age film. It is a coming-to-terms-with-sexuality film, tinged with fantasy. (The main character's best friend is a talking hamster named Buffy.) Magical realism sets the stage for 18-year-old Oscar Madly to accept his sexuality. ScreenPrism spoke to director/writer/producer Stephen Dunn before the film's premiere in TIFF and Telefilm Canada's See the North.
An aspiring practical effects artist, Oscar (Connor Jessup) is desperate to leave his small Newfoundland town. He's suffocating due to loneliness, his parents' turbulent separation, his repressed sexuality and the haunting memories of a brutal hate crime against a gay teenager that Oscar witnessed when was just 8 years old. His spirit animal, hamster Buffy, is constantly by his side spouting dry and soberingly honest revelations to guide him. Oscar spends his time preparing his portfolio for arts school in New York, using Newfoundland's nooks and crannies as a backdrop to take pictures of his best friend Gemma (who cheerfully dons plenty of monster horns or full-body makeup), tolerating his father's bouts of alcoholism and his mother's forced cheer, and working at the local hardware store. It's at the hardware store that he falls for co-worker Wilder, a lithe, tattooed, chain-smoking newcomer from Montreal, and his imagination takes off.
In order to be truly happy, Oscar needs to break free from the internalized homophobia that has kept him from embracing his full self, as well as the toxic relationship he has with his father, a relationship that started out full of love and support.
ScreenPrism spoke with 27-year-old director/writer/producer Stephen Dunn a few days before the premiere of Closet Monster on April 1 at TIFF & Telefilm Canada present See the North, a selection of the best new Canadian films.
ScreenPrism: I have to say: I had no idea you were only 27 years old.
Stephen Dunn: [laughs] Oh well, I appreciate it, thank you.
SP: The main character’s name is Oscar and then his crush’s name is Wilder. Did you do that on purpose?
SD: That was actually a complete accident. It wasn’t even intentional, but I’m glad you noticed. It just kind of fit, and at some point, I couldn’t change the name. I was debating changing Wilder’s name, especially because Wilder is not a French name. It’s a German name, but we decided that there was no other name for this character. I was like, “Okay, fuck it. They’ll just be Oscar Wilder.” Good eye, or good ear.
Closet Monster (2016)
SP: The casting of Wilder was perfect. He’s the unattainable, ethereal boy that I myself crushed on when I was younger.
SD: Aliocha [Schneider] is an amazing actor. We actually searched for quite a long time. That was the hardest role to cast because there’s not a lot of people out there who have the right look or the right confidence that is required for such a role. We looked for a long time. He was the last role we cast and we were really happy when we found him. We were like, “Great! We can make the movie now.”
SP: You start the film with stories of vampires and, then, there’s the talking hamster. Where did the surreal atmosphere come from?
SD: The fantasy elements were present from the very beginning of the script stage. The entire idea of the film came down to the one image of Oscar removing fear – removing some form of fear – like a weapon from his stomach. At the climax of the film, he removes the assault weapon that he’s had in his head, which is a symbol of his fear of his own sexuality that’s plagued him from his adolescence.
The entire film was based around that idea, of a young man removing fear from his body. I worked backwards from there and sculpted the entire film around that idea. And so the elements, like, the hamster and the obsession with Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1997-2003), was a plain one. They were another way of overcoming obstacles and fear, and it kind of evolved naturally. The fantasy elements were ingrained very firmly from the beginning of the process.
SP: Let’s talk about Buffy [the hamster]. It’s amazing that Isabella Rossellini voiced the hamster.
SD: It’s kind of a funny story. We had completely shot the film. We were finished with production and had a rough cut of the film assembled. In the script stage, the hamster’s voice was supposed to be Siri, like the iPhone Siri. It was really funny, and we had it and it worked. But it didn’t have the right maternal quality that I needed Buffy to have. We get the hamster when Oscar’s mother is leaving, and the hamster is given a voice when [Oscar] feels the most alone.
So I needed a maternal nature for the hamster with a sense of humor, and I thought about who can do it: who has the quirk, the sense of humor, the darkness, the maternal nature, to pull off this weird idea? I was like, “Isabella Rossellini!” I was a fan of her Green Porno series, which is a series about the sexual reproduction of animals, where she plays all the animals. One of them was a hamster, so I texted [the idea] to my producers, thinking they would laugh me out of the office. But they loved the idea, and they had worked with her before, had a relationship with her, and these producers asked her to do the film.
She got back to us right away; we sent her a rough cut of the film and she was immediately on board. I was so excited to do something [with her] so strange and personal. Before I knew it, I was in NY, on her farm, and I met her bees and goats. She’s amazing. She’s an animal lover. So yeah, it was one thing after another, and bam, we were there. It was probably the most incredible thing that’s ever happened. I still can’t believe I got to work with her. She’s such a massive hero of mine, and I love her so much. It was such a big honor to direct her.
SP: We eventually find out that Buffy is actually a male hamster – why this revelation?
SD: It’s actually kind of important in a subtle way. The film is about sexual fluidity, in a way. Wilder’s sexuality is irrelevant to this story. This story is about Oscar coming to terms with his own identity, and I wanted to show fluidity in Oscar’s own perspective of his own sexuality and his own identity. The film leads up to him feeling clothes in his mother’s closet; he’s not necessarily cross-dressing in such an explicit way, but it’s about him expressing femininity and expressing sexuality inside you. That’s something his hamster is also figuring out. Ultimately it’s about figuring things out. But she [the hamster] is kind of going through a similar change.
SP: You start the film with a close father/son relationship, and then the film ends with the mother as the one who ultimately gives Oscar the support he needs. What were your intentions behind the parent-child relationships?
SD: I wanted to make a film about the moment when you discover that your parents aren’t the superheroes that you thought they were. That’s an important part of the film. But [the film’s] really about the dynamic between the father and the son. We were really focusing on their relationship: the father, Peter, does really, truly love his child but he’s ultimately not mature enough to be the father that Oscar needs him to be. Peter’s own deluded and internalized homophobia keep him from properly protecting his son.
But I wanted to show that there are two sides of that coin, that there is no villain, so there is no monster in the film. The monster in the film is so many different things; it’s about internalized hate, really, in Oscar’s own life. I didn’t want to paint Peter as just a homophobic dad. I wanted Peter to be a father who does loves his son, but ultimately his own insecurities and fear cause him to be an unstable character, which causes the division between father and son. At his core, he’s not a bad guy. He’s a good person; he’s not right for Oscar’s development at this moment.
That’s why I wanted to end the film on a moment of hope, when we finally see him imagining, in the Fogo Islands, the artist’s residence, haunted by his family, by the hope of things working out.
And then the mother character, Brin, is someone who had to leave. She wasn’t happy in the marriage, and the father made it too complicated [for her] to maintain a healthy relationship with the family. She had to leave and start a new family. I essentially wanted to show that the support from the family is always there, even though they can’t show it at every moment, that they will love you.
Closet Monster (2016)
SP: The scene when Oscar locks his dad in the house with the metal rod he’s torn out of his stomach – does that really happen or is it an extended hallucination?
SD: [laughs] I can’t really answer that. I think, to Oscar, it does. Everything is extremely real. When I was talking with Connor to develop this story, there was never this great question about the reality of the fantasies. When you’re approaching a fantasy-type film or a film that has elements of magic realism, the only way to address them is to make them real. So in the movie, yes, he does pull the rod out of his stomach and ties it around the door, to lock his father in the house, out of his life. To remove himself from that pain, he had to do that.
SP: Can you talk about the practical effects that made up that particular scene?
SD: I am really, and probably always will be, adamant about real, practical effects in order to convey [the story]. It adds a level of reality to a movie that you can’t always replace with digital effects. We actually created a mold of Connor’s body and used it to build and poke holes through. The mold could breathe, and Connor would fit into the mold and tear his stomach out. And [the mold] bumped and burst and moved. There was one effect that didn’t work out, so we did have to layer in digital, but we did everything we could in a practical way, which is my favorite way to tell a story, because it’s so real. And that calls back to the way Oscar creates his own visual effects and monster creations.
SP: How did you choose the music?
SD: The music is made up of tracks that we licensed and an amazing original score that’s made up of Todor Kobakov and Maya [Postepski]. Maya is in a pretty well-known electronic band called Austra. We used a lot of their music in the film, and they were a pretty big inspiration for making and writing the movie. I wrote a lot to [their music]. It was really amazing to collaborate with her and Todor to create something original and fresh. I wanted to fit in with the world of music that Oscar listened to.
SP: The ending is very satisfying, even if he doesn't get everything we hope for. How did you arrive at the ending?
SD: I didn’t want to make a film that ended with the kid, who wanted to get out his small town, leaving his small town behind for New York for a better life. Because that’s not always – I don’t feel like abandoning your past and your problems to start fresh is the solution that you long for. I wanted to end in Newfoundland where [the film] began. Something I’ve learned, as someone who had to leave in order to work, I realized as soon as I left, how important Newfoundland is to me, and I go back to shoot my work. This project and my next project will be shot there as well. I just wanted to represent Newfoundland in a way that’s not about abandonment.
With that, I want this last moment between Oscar and his father because, unfortunately, things in real life don’t tie up as you’d like them to. There’s no clean ending. For Oscar, he gets resolution, but that resolution comes from within him. That’s more powerful for me, to find some hope in the complications of life and to show how good things come out of that. And how maybe his life doesn’t turn out exactly like he’d expects, but it’s going to be real special. That’s how I wanted to end the movie.
SP: What was a favorite scene of yours to film and what’s a favorite scene of yours to watch in the final product?
SD: The party [scene] was pretty fun to shoot. We ended up actually partying afterwards because it was so high intensity – and very exhausting, especially for Connor.
To choose my favorite scene in the movie… it has to be when Oscar breaks into his bedroom after his father destroys his room. Originally when we cut [the film] together, we made a score, and we were mixing the film. Suddenly the score we created dropped out for a minute, and all we could hear was this “boom, boom, boom, boom, boom, boom,” this rapid heartbeat that was coming from Connor’s lapel mike, on his chest, and we turned it up. We could hear, loud and clear, Connor’s heart beating and it was so incredible. We all knew how much Connor believed in the movie and was invested in the project, but it wasn’t until that moment that we realized how really, truly, he put his heart in the film.
So watching the film, that’s definitely my favorite scene. I really felt that Connor understood how important that moment was. I’m in awe of him in general. I think we’re only just about to hear about him, and I can’t wait to work with him again. I’m so proud of him, he’s doing such great work.