Let the Right one In

Filmmaker Eytan Fox takes on the gay age gap in ‘Sublet’: “Gay was not an option”

Director Eytan Fox. Photo by Ronen Akerman

Eytan Fox comments on the quietness of the streets of Tel Aviv. Like the rest of the world, the city has gone under lockdown due to the COVID-19 outbreak.

That comes as a major disappointment to Fox; his latest film, Sublet, was to have its premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York.

Fox, of course, has earned a reputation as Israel’s foremost queer filmmaker. His films The Bubble, Yossi & Jagger, its sequel Yossi and Cupcakes all deal with LGBTQ life in the nation, and the cultural stigmas the community faces there. Now in his mid-50s, Fox returns to English language cinema with Sublet. The film follows a depressed journalist named Michael (John Benjamin Hickey) on a travelogue to Tel Aviv. While visiting, he rents an apartment from Tomer (Niv Nissim), a handsome gay Israeli man who’s life gravitates toward the messy. An unlikely bond develops between the two as they reflect on their experiences as gay men, and buried pain begins to surface.

Tribeca may have been canceled, but that didn’t stop us from seeing Sublet and falling in love with its tenderness and the performances by its two leads. We also scored some time with Fox to talk about his inspiration, his artistic interests, and his hopes for the future of queer people. Sublet is currently seeking distribution.

This is your first film as a writer/director since 2013. Why did this one take so long to gestate?

First of all, there was a big film I was supposed to do between Cupcake and Sublet. It was supposed to be my biggest film to date, and somehow, it collapsed a few months before we started shooting. It was a very difficult experience for me. Now that I’m thinking of it, one of the things about talking to someone like you is that suddenly you have to verbalize and crystalize your thoughts and feelings about your film. The film is about trauma and loss and overcoming that. Choosing life over death, hope over despair. Talking to you about why I haven’t made a film in a very long time—it’s because of a very, very bad experience. The film I didn’t make, I worked so hard on that. When it all collapsed, it was a loss for me in many ways. Coming out of that was a difficult process. Choosing to go forward, plunging on to the next thing—in many ways that relates to Michael’s process. He’s a person who has experienced loss. The process that he goes through in Tel Aviv allows him to restart his life a stronger, happier person.

That’s terrific that you found an outlet with this movie. This is an interesting companion piece to your film Yossi, in that it’s also about an older, damaged man falling for a younger one. What made you want to revisit similar territory? What is it about those themes that speak to you as an artist?

I think maybe getting older is probably part of that. Just dealing with aging. I’m not 20 anymore. Looking at younger people, specifically young gay men, and seeing how different their lives are. Thinking about how my life was when I was a teenager or young adult as a gay man in Israel, how difficult that was. And talking about trauma, how traumatic that was. We, of course, could not expose our true identity. We lived in secret. People, if you were gay, you wouldn’t have a long term relationship. You would not marry or have children. I think a lot of us from my generation internalized that homophobia we grew up with.

Sure.

John Benjamin Hickey in ‘Sublet’

I’m very close to Michael’s character. I’m 55, I’m a gay man. I’m married in a very long term relationship. I don’t have children. Looking at young people, young gay men, and trying to figure out who they are after everything that we’ve gone through, the things we fought for, the things we changed. They live a very different life. I’m sort of thinking out loud here…

Please, I love it.

Michael is childless, and he’s conflicted about the idea of having a child. He’s internalized the homophobia he grew up with. When he loses his child, he feels he shouldn’t have tried to become a parent from the start. That complicates his grieving process. Losing a child is a terrible thing; it doesn’t matter if you’re straight or gay. But, I think, when you’re gay—or at least for Michael—there’s the thought that he shouldn’t have tried to become a parent in the first place. It’s like a punishment or something. And I think maybe that sentiment is hidden somewhere in my soul as well.

That’s very interesting.

Yeah. I think, to some extent, that’s something I wanted to deal with. On the other hand, Tomer, who grows up without a father, feels he doesn’t need a family or a relationship. In some ways, Michael is a father figure to Tomer…

You’re getting ahead of me here! I want to talk about that too.

David, I put myself in your hands. You’re like a good shrink. Lead me through this. I’m verbalizing all these things for the first time.

[Laughter]

Don’t worry, my hands are clean. Now, the film basically rests on the shoulders of two actors, John Benjamin Hickey and Niv Nissim. John is an actor we don’t see enough in the movies. How did you arrive at him for the lead?

I agree with you about John. I think the world of him. He’s dream casting; I wrote the part with him in mind. I love his work. I saw him in Love! Valor! Compassion! Off-Broadway.

Wow.

That was before the show went to Broadway. I remember walking out of that play and feeling so startled and moved and empowered. John was amazing. So I followed John’s theatre career. Whenever I was in New York and he was on Broadway I went to see him. I saw him in The Normal Heart. Then I saw a play he did at Lincoln Center called Dad Woof Papa Hot. It was about two gay couples raising children, and all the issues of being gay parents. He was great. And everything connected. He’s 50-something, which is what I needed. He looks like he could work for The New York Times. He’s an intellectual, a person who has read a lot of books and knows about life. So everything fell into place. We met, talked, and everything felt good.

John Benjamin Hickey & Niv Nissim in ‘Sublet’

That’s wonderful. One quality that John brings to the role that I really detected was a sense of protectiveness. His character, Michael, is someone dealing with pain, obviously. But he’s also someone, perhaps because of his pain, that has the urge to be protective. Does that come from pain? Or does that come from age?

I think there are a few things that work together here. He is a more of a father, and he’s able to be a father more than he knows. He has those qualities of a giving adult. But I think he doesn’t completely understand that. Partly, it’s the things we talked about before. He internalized his father saying “You, as a gay man, cannot be a father.” Then he has this blow with becoming a father, losing a child at birth.

Right.

Then, meeting this young man, he realizes that he can be a wonderful father. And I think John and Niv created a nice relationship. John being this wonderful actor, Niv just graduated from acting school. So Niv’s family adopted John. They brought him over for Friday Shabbat dinners. And Niv introduced John to young Tel Aviv. They really hit it off. So they were a very good couple.

They are.

And they’re both gay men, by the way. I’ve never made a film where both actors are openly gay. That was a very refreshing experience. It’s not about, as with a straight guy, where you have to calm him and explain that love is love, sex is sex, kissing is kissing.

Sure.

It was a really nice experience. All of us were openly gay men. Me, the director, my co-writer, both actors, one of our producers, so yeah. It felt very good.

Tomer is a character that rejects ideas about labels or monogamy. In essence, he doesn’t want to be anything. This is something we’re seeing with younger generations now—they don’t want to identify as anything. But, at the same time, labels do serve a practical purpose—one of communication. What is that about in the younger generations? Is that a fear of commitment in a sense?

That’s a very interesting question. They would say I want to label them because I’m an old guy from an old world where labels were important. And I’d say “Of course.” Nobody accepted us as gay. Gay was not an option. So I fought very hard just to see being gay was an option. Now that we’ve accomplished that, that people recognize we exist, that we deserve what anyone else deserves, young people are saying they don’t necessarily want that or need that. I read a survey in a British newspaper that said 40% of young people in the UK were saying they didn’t want to be labeled as gay or straight. They just want to be people. So in many ways, that is progress. But somehow, I look at these young people, and it seems like there are a lot of issues that aren’t dealt with. I think there is a lot of confusion. There is, as you say, a difficulty to commit, to say “I want to be this.” I’m not a sociologist…

Right, sure.

But Tomer has a lot of fear—fear of committing. He’s a fatherless child, and he pretends he doesn’t need anyone, and that everything is wonderful. But he does need guidance. He needs a hug. He needs a father. Once he allows himself to receive that from Michael, he can cry in his arms and metaphorically say “I need.” I hope that makes sense.

It does. And you make a great point in that the rejection of labels, or no longer needing them, is a sort of progress. But it leaves things so unclear sometimes that it’s counterproductive. It’s a complicated issue.

Your films often confront issues surrounding Israeli and Jewish identity, or about being a gay man. This one does too, though it’s far more about a certain generational divide between gay men. Tomer is very dismissive of monogamy and of the trauma of the AIDS crisis. You’re 56 now. What is it that you want younger gay men, or younger queer people more broadly, to know or understand?

[Long pause]

A young person might say “Why should I care? Why do you have to put it in my face? You’ve fought for us…thank you, but I don’t want to know about it.”

Right.

I personally am someone that thinks knowing history, knowing the history of your people, is important. It makes you a stronger person. If you know your history, you know the evolution of your people. Being a Jew, you’re introduced to the Holocaust, in Israel, from first grade, you’re breastfed Holocaust. Part of the reason I think it’s so important is because you learn from it. How do we prevent it from happening again? How do we learn to have empathy for minority groups? How do we confront evil when we recognize it…or a bad President?

Oh Lord. Yeah…

Or a bad Prime Minister like Bibi Netanyahu. I want young, gay men to realize that their wonderful situation was not always the case. And we have to be on the lookout for regressions. You always have to remember things can go backward. Homophobia is out there. I don’t want to seem paranoid, but you should know these things to recognize them.

I want to ask you a very difficult question about that, a delicate one. Obviously, as an Israeli, as a Jewish man, the Holocaust looms large in your consciousness, and plays a role in your self-image. I’ve heard and read a number of gay men who have likened the AIDS crisis to the Holocaust or even called it as much. Is the comparison apt?

You know, I don’t have the need to necessarily compare the two. I definitely think that the AIDS crisis, the epidemic, was a terrible tragedy that our people (though not only our people) went through. There were so many casualties. It’s a trauma. Michael does say that in Sublet: he had trauma, not just from the death of his baby, but from being a young adult, being confronted with the crisis of AIDS. It’s another layer of trauma. Trying to have a child is trying to fix that: to say I can create life and overcome trauma. I really hope that the journey he goes through in the film sends him back to America a stronger, healthier man that will become a father. That is my hope. He deserves to be a father.

Sublet is currently seeking distribution.