Queerty Exclusive

Happy 20th: How Greg Berlanti’s ‘The Broken Hearts Club’ changed the course of queer cinema

Greg Berlanti (left) on set with the cast

“A lot of people ask me when I first knew I was gay. Fact is, I don’t know.”–The character Kevin in The Broken Hearts Club

How did LGBTQ people—once erased or denigrated as villains—make so much progress in Hollywood in just two decades?

Think of the shows and personalities that dominate today’s television–Ellen, Queer Eye, RuPaul’s Drag Race, Pose, CNN’s Anderson Cooper and Don Lemon, MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow, to name just a few–and how stark a contrast that situation is from the 1980s and even well into the 1990s.

Will & Grace would not premiere until 1998, and sitcom star Ellen DeGeneres wouldn’t come out (“Yep, I’m gay,” blared Time magazine’s profile) until 1997, at the cost of her popular series, ABC’s Ellen.

That same year, a young college graduate named Greg Berlanti sat down to write a script and get it filmed, somehow. What began as an exercise in self-reflection on his own search for friendship and love in West Hollywood soon took on a life of its own. A low-budget, art-house film with a cast comprised of mostly unknowns would become a showcase of young actors on the rise, and an affirmation for an oppressed community desperate to see itself on-screen. It would change the way audiences understood gay life in America.

It would also announce the arrival of a young writer/director as one of the most influential filmmakers of his era, a producer who would change the way Americans viewed the LGBTQ community.

This is the story of The Broken Hearts Club.

Matt McGrath & John Mahoney

Gay Men’s Therapy

Tall, lean with dark hair and blue eyes, the then 25-year-old Greg Berlanti hailed from an Italian-American family in New Jersey. By 1997, he’d come out as gay, graduated from Northwestern University, and transplanted himself to West Hollywood with ambitions to write for the screen. Like many starving screenwriters landing in Los Angeles, Berlanti found few career opportunities in his first couple of years. He spent his time churning out “commercial” spec scripts in hopes of capturing the attention of producers.

Moving to West Hollywood—a growing hotbed for LGBTQ culture—provided Berlanti with a surrogate family of close gay friends who could offer him support and suggestions in his original scripts.

“When I developed the group of gay friends I had out here,” Berlanti recalls, “that was the moment. It was the first time I felt like I would be alright.”

Frustrated with attempts to go mainstream, Berlanti decided to look inward instead.

“I had written a lot,” Berlanti says. “I hadn’t written anything this personal. I started writing about myself. I’d always loved the movie Diner. I remember thinking there’s no movie like that for all of us [queer people]. So rather than sit down to write the script that all my friends told me would finally get me a job, I wrote something personal to me. I forget how long it took to write around then, but I was definitely trying to capture the spirit of what it felt like to be one of my group of friends in Los Angeles in the late ’90s.”

Berlanti began working on a script about a group of young gay men living in Los Angeles and playing on the same local gay softball team. Together, they would confront existential questions about love, relationships, insecurities and redefining gay identity after the trauma of the AIDS epidemic. In other words: they would become a surrogate family. The young writer poured his heart into the story, taking snapshots from his own dating experiences alongside images of life in Los Angeles.

Greg’s own love life would also suggest the script’s title. As he had a penchant for falling for aspiring actors, which his sister nicknamed his “8x10s”—another name for an actor’s headshot.

The process of writing and self-reflection offered catharsis.

“I definitely at the time didn’t think my dealing with my sexuality would help me be a better writer,” he admits. “I had segregated those things in my mind. I focused on scriptwriting and, finally, was inspired to write about everything I went through and the friendships I developed. I learned a lot about myself in the process.”

Timothy Olyphant, Zach Braff, Matt McGrath & Billy Porter

The ultimate script—now titled 8x10s—comprised a collage of Berlanti’s life, integrating the personalities of his friends as well as much of their verbal shorthand.

“We had language,” Berlanti notes. “Certain dialogue. Some were things we said, some I made up. But [my objective] was to create the spirit of being part of this little club, part of these guys. Diner, in particular, has its own vernacular in the 50s. American Graffiti was another.”

That vernacular would become part of the script’s hallmark humor, dividing it into five acts, each introduced by mock definitions from the “gay dictionary.” Terms like “meanwhile” (a term used by friends to indicate the presence of someone attractive), “newbie” (a newly out of the closet person, usually emotionally vulnerable and facing heartbreak) and “guy” (a method of characterizing a person by their most apparent attribute; i.e. “muscle guy”) would become the movie’s lexicon and, eventually, part of its legacy.

With 8x10s taking shape, Berlanti again looked to his friends for inspiration, and a bit of help.

“I worked on the script with two of my close friends who were very instrumental in developing the material, and who have gone on to great success themselves: Julie Plec and Ryan Murphy,” Berlanti says. “Both really helped me develop it.”

Plec became a talented writer/producer herself, creating the long-running series The Vampire Diaries for The CW. Ryan Murphy, who needs no introduction, would go on to become one of the most successful writer/producers in television history, creating the shows Popular, American Horror Story, Pose, Feud, Nip/Tuck and Ratched, among many others.

Still, the comedy and warmth of 8x10s masked the ongoing struggle of Berlanti’s life as a starving writer. “When I finished the script,” he sighs, “I think my car got booted the next day. I had to borrow a bunch of money from a friend to pay to get my car out. I was a script or two away from heading back home. I had a negative bank account.”

Desperate, Berlanti handed the script off to Plec, who, at the time, worked as the assistant to horror director Wes Craven. Craven had scored a major hit with Scream in the early 1990s. By the time 1997 rolled around and Craven began work on Scream 2, Plec found herself promoted to an associate producer position on the film. Impressed with the quality of Greg’s final draft of 8x10s, Plec passed the script to Scream 2 writer Kevin Williamson.

Williamson loved it and called Berlanti.

“[Kevin] said it was really good and asked if I had other movie ideas,” Berlanti says. “So I started writing another movie for him. In the midst of that, he asked if I wanted to write on this TV show that hadn’t premiered yet. So I started to write on that TV show.”

Matt McGrath

The show would at last offer Berlanti an income. When it premiered, it scored the highest ratings in the history of its fledgling network, The WB. Critics praised it for its frank and sexualized depiction of teenagers, and it developed an immediate following.

It was called Dawson’s Creek.

The success of Dawson’s Creek’s first season earned Berlanti an office space on the Sony lot and a steady writing gig in 1998. In the meantime, he circulated 8X10s in hopes of finding a director. According to Berlanti, agents and studio executives loved it, but often advised him that it would never get made into a film.

Other high-profile gay movies of the era focused on coming out (Beautiful Thing), the spectre of AIDS (Love! Valor! Compassion!) or bordered on softcore pornography (Nowhere). 8x10s took the radical step of focusing on LGBTQ people as people who cared about friendship and community rather than sensationalized and scandalous tabloid fodder. Hollywood, at the time, didn’t believe there was an audience for such a film despite the success of television adaptations of Armistead Maupin’s beautiful Tales of the City, which had a similarly heartfelt community vibe.

“It was doing its job,” Berlanti observes of 8X10‘s growing notoriety. “I kept getting meeting after meeting. I kept talking about the quality of the writing. It announced me as a writer. Anything beyond that was a gift.”

Berlanti chose to focus on writing for Dawson’s Creek and put 8x10s on the back burner.

As it turned out, it wouldn’t stay there for long.

Timothy Olyphant and Andrew Keegan

The Producer Guy

Down the hall from the Dawson’s Creek offices, producer Mickey Liddell had set up shop at Sony. The blue-eyed, sandy headed Liddell had earned his own office space after producing a series of commercial and critical hit indie films, including Traveler, which starred a then-untested actor named Mark Whalberg, and Telling Lies in America for writer Joe Eszterhas—the highest paid screenwriter of the 1990s.

“I was more of an independent producer, and I’d made four or five films at that time,” Liddell reminisces. “Then I made [the quasi gay-themed] Go, and Sony bought it [midway through production]. So I was in the Sony world at the time. I met Greg, and he was working with Kevin Williamson on Dawson’s Creek. I didn’t really know TV at the time; so I just knew he was a young writer around the office.”

Despite the gulf between the television and film worlds—not to mention the excessive workloads of both men—the pair struck up a friendship. Liddell told Berlanti about Go—an ensemble film that featured a number of up-and-coming stars including Sarah Polly, Jay Mohr, Scott Wolf and Dawson’s Creek star Katie Holmes. Perhaps because of the Holmes connection, or maybe just the shared office space, a copy of 8x10s ended up on Liddell’s desk. Liddell recognized Berlanti’s name, and read it.

“I had been sent a lot of scripts—there were so many in the ’80s and ’90s—about AIDS and dying,” Liddell recollects. “Those were brilliant movies, classics. But that wasn’t my story. We were coming out of that. I remember thinking [8x10s was] so light and romantic and fun. And it fell in my lap at the right time.”

For Liddell, a gay, Midwestern transplant himself, the script struck an immediate chord. “It was more the world I was living in LA at the time,” he says. “It was gay guys hanging out and going to parties and having friends and all that. Obviously, this was before apps. You had to make friends and family in a big city. You just tried to find your group. I know Greg and I talked about that a lot. We’d both had that experience. He came from New Jersey. I came from Oklahoma. We came here without knowing anybody. If you had two, three, four really good friends, they became your life.”

Jennifer Coolidge and Timothy Olyphant

The morning after Liddell read 8x10s, he ran into Berlanti. “I remember being in the elevator and we were talking,” Liddell notes. “I said ‘I just read your script. I really liked it.’ And he said ‘Why don’t you make it?’ But I was right in the middle of Go at the time. We were shooting nights. So I said ‘Maybe. I’ll talk to you when it’s done.’”

Liddell went on to complete Go, which would become a critical and commercial sleeper hit in the summer of 1999. Berlanti continued to enjoy his own success on Dawson’s Creek, taking on duties as showrunner for the show’s second season—a feat almost unheard of for a writer so early in his career. A year after their chance meeting in the elevator, with the release of Go and the second season of Dawson’s Creek impending, Liddell asked Berlanti to dinner. He had one thing on his mind.

Unbeknownst to Berlanti, Liddell had already begun developing a plan to get 8x10s funded. The producer appealed to a young actor from Go that he might want to play a part in the potential film. His name: Timothy Olyphant.

Timothy Olyphant in ‘Go’

“I went to Tim, and asked if he would read the script,” Liddell admits. “He did and said ‘I love it. I’ll play any part.’ So I said ‘What about the lead?’ He was like ok.”

Over dinner, Liddell informed Berlanti that he believed he could get the movie funded with Olyphant’s interest. Then the producer dropped a bombshell.

“I said ‘Greg, you should direct this,’” Liddell sighs, his words still echoing the shockwave that every aspiring Hollywood creative wants to hear.

Liddell’s words stunned Berlanti. “I had just gotten my first job as a writer,” he remembers. “I had directed plays in college, but not a movie, not even a short film. [Mickey] said ‘I believe you are supposed to be the director.’ He had the utmost faith in me.”

Liddell admits to making Berlanti his dream offer, though for less romantic reasons. “The truth was I knew I didn’t have the budget to hire a real director,” Liddell confesses. In the end, however, Berlanti’s enthusiasm and evident dedication won him the job. “I think that’s why I asked Greg to direct it,” the producer opines. “It was personal. It was his story. Greg knew how [the characters] should sound. He knew the humor. He knew how to do it.”

With Berlanti agreeing to take on the directorial duties, Timothy Olyphant’s agreement to play the lead, and the buzz around Go building, Mickey Liddell managed to leverage a deal with Sony to fund and distribute 8x10s on a modest budget, assuming the pair could convince enough “name” actors to appear in it. Given the attitudes of the late 1990s about LGBTQ people, they had their work cut out for them.

Zach Braf, Matt McGrath, Timothy Olyphant & Ben Weber

Meanwhile

Though Mickey Liddell had total confidence in Greg Berlanti’s ability to direct 8x10s, the producer had no illusions about the production ahead. Filmmaking poses countless potential hazards, even for experienced directors. With a neophyte at the helm—albeit one of obvious talent and dedication—Liddell knew he needed to prepare as much as possible.

“Everything that goes wrong falls on your plate,” Liddell says of his role as producer. “You’re protecting the director a lot. It was Greg’s first time, and these were young actors. He moved up a lot more in the television world. His responsibilities became much bigger.”

To help guide Berlanti through the shoot, Liddell hired veteran cinematographer Paul Elliott to film the production. He also called in casting director Joseph Middleton, who had cast Go, to produce as well and help the team over the next enormous obstacle on the path to production.

It may seem absurd now at a time when actors fight over who should have the honor of playing a queer character on the screen and when LGBTQ stories often bait major awards, but in the late 90s, playing a gay character was still seen as dangerous for a performer. Ellen DeGeneres had come out of the closet in 1997 only to see her once-popular sitcom tank in the ratings and meet with cancellation just a year later. When Will & Grace premiered in 1998, ratings were soft, and male stars Eric McCormick and Sean Hayes had to endure extremely personal questions from reporters about their own sexual orientations.

“At the time, most guys thought if they played gay in a movie it would ding their career,” Berlanti recalls. “If they weren’t thinking it, their agents were thinking it. There were more closeted actors than out actors. I remember dinner parties where the subject would come up. It was a hot-button issue. There were definitely a lot of gay men who felt that other gay men shouldn’t come out.”

Dean Cain

Liddell agrees. “It was hard to get actors at the time. It wasn’t just like we’re making a gay movie! We definitely got pushback. We got a lot of passes.” The producer decided to leverage his own success as much as he could in hopes of convincing actors—gay, straight or otherwise—to read the script.

“In my head, it was like, How do you make people think this is cool?” Liddell remembers. “Because I had just done Go with Jay Mohr and Scott Wolf [playing gay characters], who are both straight, I think that was half of my pitch. It was time. It was cool to do it. I said ‘Look at Greg, our director. He’s going to be huge.’ I think it was mostly bullshit, but you fake it to make it. I talked to all these people, as did Joseph [Middleton], along with agents and managers.”

Berlanti and Liddell began by casting Timothy Olyphant as Dennis, an aspiring photographer searching for his artistic voice, only to find it in his relationships with his friends. Throughout 8x10s, Dennis wrestles with his feelings of inadequacy, especially when compared to another member of the group: Cole, an aspiring actor and waiter. Cole would spend most of the film’s runtime enchanting men with his handsome charisma and hiding an affair with a closeted co-star. Therefore, the actor playing him needed to have a certain look.

“We had to get someone so good looking that it made Tim Olyphant go I can never look like that,” Liddell recalls. Middleton came back with a surprising suggestion: Dean Cain.

Cain had spent most of the 1990s lauded as one of the sexiest men alive, having landed the lead on the popular nighttime romance, Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman. That show had wrapped in 1997, and apart from a few TV movies, Cain hadn’t had luck in landing a feature. Much to the surprise of Berlanti and Liddell, Cain agreed to a chemistry reading with Olyphant. Producer & director offered, and Cain took the part.

Ben Weber

From there, the creative team began an aggressive search to find the rest of the cast that would secure the budget from Sony. For the role of Patrick, a sweet, if slightly nerdy member of the group, Middleton reached out to a young actor named Ben Weber. Weber had attracted attention the year before as the curly-haired, lovable schlub Skipper on a fledgling cable comedy called Sex & the City.

“I was living in New York at the time,” Weber now recalls. “I was kind of on my own. I had done the pilot for Sex & the City in 1998. I had worked with Tim Olyphant in episode three or four [of the series], so when I heard he was circling the project, I could see where they were going with casting.”

Because of the Olyphant connection, Weber decided to have a look at the script. Much to his surprise, he found it delightful.

“I really responded to the material,” Weber says. “I was such a Patrick. I was such a loser. The thing about Greg’s work is that he makes these beautiful losers with these great friends that get them through all these things. That was what I responded to: I was always the butt of the joke, I could respond to that in the character.”

Patrick’s storyline in the film saw him dueling his own cynicism and low self-esteem. He also battled his lesbian sister, Anne, and her longtime girlfriend Leslie. Together, the couple lobby Patrick to act as a sperm donor for their desired children. Besides examining same-sex parenting—still a new, hot button concept in the 90s—the lesbian couple added a feminine balance to the otherwise all-male story. Liddell and Berlanti also saw the roles as an opportunity to cast established actresses, which would help keep Sony from cutting their funding. To cast the couple, Joe Middleton turned to two up-and-coming bombshell starlets, Nia Long and Mary McCormack.

Nia Long

Long, a luminous beauty who rose to fame as Will Smith’s on-screen girlfriend in The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, began to eye the role of Leslie.

“The script came to my agent and I remember thinking, ‘Wow, what a cool project,’” says Long today. “I’m always attracted to telling stories about the underdog. I remember really liking Greg. He commands respect. He knows what he wants. He’s a character development genius. But he’s also so gentle, which created a super safe space to do the work. I was young. I was open to trying new things. My character, Leslie, was a woman I had met many times in my life, but never had a chance to portray on film. That’s why I chose to take the role.”

The part of Anne, Patrick’s sister, would go to blond-headed, blue-eyed Mary McCormack, a name on the rise thanks to her acclaimed turns in Private Parts opposite Howard Stern, and in the critically lauded ABC drama Murder One. For McCormack, the offer required no hesitation.

“I was living in LA,” McCormack reminisces. “It was one job to the next. I spent the late 90s in West Hollywood dancing with the gay boys. It was my community.” She said yes immediately.

With Olyphant, Cain, Weber, Long, and McCormack aboard, Sony moved closer to a final greenlight.

Finding the rest of the cast suddenly had a new urgency about it, as the creative team continued to look for men willing to play incidentally gay characters. They cast a wide net looking for actors to play two key roles: Howie, a neurotic psychology student in a dysfunctional relationship, and Taylor, a middle-aged interior decorator recently dumped by his boyfriend.

Mary McCormack

The team decided to approach actor Dan Futterman for the role of Howie. Futterman had appeared as the son of Nathan Lane and Robin Williams in The Birdcage just two years earlier. At the time of casting 8x10s, he had landed a role in a production of A Fair Country in Lincoln Center. One of his co-stars in the show was an actor named Matt McGrath, who had begun acting in his teens and already amassed a long resume of stage and film work. One night, Futterman invited McGrath out on the town.

“Dan had this friend who was doing a play downtown at Playwright’s Horizons, Tim Olyphant, who was also asked to do the film,” McGrath remembers. “So the two of them were like, ‘Let’s go hang between shows.’ And they said ‘We’ve been asked to do this movie, but we think you would be great for this part. Read it. We want to talk to Greg.’ So they kind of ganged up on Greg to at least see me for the part. We set up a meeting in New York. I auditioned, and it worked out really well.”

Handsome, bespectacled and with pale skin to contrast against his dark hair and hazel eyes, McGrath felt an immediate connection with the material. He’d come out as gay himself the year before to friends and family, who accepted him with open arms. His agents at the time, on the other hand, had a very different reaction, especially when he began to show an interest in playing gay roles.

Matt McGrath

“I had left an agency over a number of reasons,” McGrath explains. “There was a very well-known gay movie that I was offered. I opted to do the movie, but my agents said ‘too gay.’ I luckily had this choice to make between that movie and [The Impostors] that I ended up doing. So moving on from that agency, I never forgot hearing ‘it’s too gay.’” For McGrath, his moment of vindication had finally arrived.

When Berlanti sat down to write 8x10s, he’d made a deliberate choice not to specify the race of any given character, save one. The writer had based the interior decorator Taylor directly on a personal friend. As such, the script described him as middle-aged, white and blond. But, as the old saying goes, there’s no stopping a force of nature. Back in Los Angeles, Berlanti, Liddell and Middleton were about to confront just that.

“I was the least known in that movie at the time,” recalls Billy Porter, the towering, statuesque actor whose star turn in Pose made him a household name. “I was juicier, before I lost my baby fat. I was like 29. [The film] started it all for me. Because I wasn’t a name at the time, people very often don’t even remember that it’s me.”

Like McGrath, Porter had come up through the New York theatre scene, landing parts in popular musicals including Grease, Smokey Joe’s Cafe, and the original cast of Miss Saigon. His powerful vocals earned him a recording contract, and it seemed like stardom lay just ahead. Then Porter hit a snag: he refused to conceal his identity as a gay man.

“I’ve been out pretty much my entire career,” Porter explains. “There was a ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ policy. But I wasn’t hiding anything. I wasn’t acting like I had girlfriends. You didn’t talk about it out loud, especially in the music business. I also was not lying about it. The choice was already made by the people in positions of power that I wasn’t masculine enough to get straight parts.”

Doors in New York slammed on Porter as quickly as they’d opened. “By 2000 I had moved to Los Angeles. I had done a couple movies, so I thought I’ll move to Los Angeles, maybe try my hand. My agent-now-manager Bill Butler, had read the script. He thought I was right for it.”

Billy Porter

Porter showed an immediate interest in the role of Taylor, despite the specification that the character would be played by an older, white man. Berlanti invited Porter to audition based on his theatrical resume.

“I assumed he was based on a friend because what was there was so specific,” Porter says of his character. “But when I got there, I just did what I do. I went to meet Greg. He let me imbue the character with heart and something real, which was what was so great about that original script. And he was like ‘Oh you’re right. You are Taylor.’ So they gave me the part.”

Casting continued, as Liddell and Berlanti plucked one up-and-coming actor up after another to round out their cast. The role of the party boy Benji went to a spikey-haired, blue-eyed upstart named Zach Braff. The part of the newly-out 20-something Kevin went to teen heartthrob Andrew Keegan, known for the primetime soap Party of Five.

That left one part left to fill, and with Sony still waffling on a final budget and green light, casting it would prove essential. When Berlanti had begun writing 8x10s, he’d created an older character not inspired by anyone he knew so much as an imagined friend he wished he’d had. In the story, the younger men all turn to the character of Jack, the group’s softball coach, and the owner of the restaurant where Cole, Taylor, Patrick, and Dennis all have their day jobs. Jack acts as the moral guide and role model to the other characters throughout the film, not to mention a connection to an earlier generation of LGBTQ people.

“It was wish fulfillment for me” Berlanti admits of Jack’s character. “It was the one thing my group of young friends didn’t have. Truthfully, the generation I’m a part of that was just coming out at that time: AIDS had wiped out most of the generation above us. You really felt the void of not having a lot of role models, or the sense of tradition to be passed.”

Andrew Keegan

Sony had initially pushed Berlanti to consider a number of respected, high-profile character actors for the part, including some Oscar-winners. All the studio suggestions either balked at the proposed salary, the subject matter, or both. Fortunately, that left Berlanti in a desirable position. From the outset, he had only one actor on his list.

“I very rarely have actors in mind when I’m writing stuff,” Berlanti confesses. “But, John Mahoney I did have in mind. So when I finished the script and Mickey said we would make it, I wrote him a letter. And he said ‘I’d love to sit down with you.’”

John Mahoney had emigrated to the US from Britain as a child and grown up in Illinois. As an adult, he joined Chicago’s prestigious Steppenwolf Theatre company before launching a long and successful career as a character actor, picking up a Tony Award in 1986 for the play The House of Blue Leaves. By 1999, however, most of the world had come to know him as Martin Crane, the cantankerous father of Frasier and Niles Crane on the NBC sitcom Frasier. Off-screen, Mahoney seldom discussed his personal life in any detail, in part because doing so could have harmed his career. As a gay man himself, Mahoney saw the character of Jack as a way to acknowledge his own sexuality in a subtle way without having to surrender the whole of his privacy.

“[John] was the character from the movie,” Berlanti affirms. “He would hold court off-camera. He wasn’t a showy person. He would do it in a quiet way. But he was the sun people would orbit. He was kind and genteel, and he set the tone for everybody. He was like an angel for the movie: everything you wanted to be when you grew up.”

John Mahoney

Sony loved the casting of Mahoney, a major television star at the time. The studio finally gave the production the go-ahead on a $1 million budget—a modest price tag for an ensemble film at the time, especially one with such high-profile actors. Their cast finally assembled, Berlanti and Liddell could finally move forward with shooting in Los Angeles in October of 1999. Around the same time, Berlanti decided the film should have a less obtuse title, and borrowed the name of the main characters’ the softball team as the new moniker. Thus did 8x10s become The Broken Hearts Club.

But, for Greg Berlanti, writing and casting The Broken Hearts Club was little more than an overture. The real test lay ahead.

Andrew Keegan

The Newbie

As production on The Broken Hearts Club ramped up in September 1999, Greg Berlanti had his work cut out for him. He’d begun showrunning on Dawson’s Creek, which would mean that he had to split his time between both projects, rehearsing his cast and working with Director of Photography Paul Elliott to develop the visual style of the film over a three week period. On breaks, or in the evenings, Berlanti would have to oversee work on Dawson’s, often penning new scenes during lulls. The young director also went about building a rapport among his cast, showing them around West Hollywood to get a sense of the lives they would have to embody.

“We had a fun rehearsal period,” says Ben Weber. “We went to gay nightclubs and met all the real people that inspired the movie. Spending time around his friends, seeing how much love there was, how much support they had. These were friendships that had pre-dated Hollywood and gone though different states of coming out. It was interesting to see characters who were making up for lost time, who came out late. That was something I had no idea—it makes all the sense in the world.”

Says Matt McGrath: “It’s very much an LA story. Coming from New York, being a New York actor, I had to play catch up. West Hollywood, especially at that time, was its own beast. It was the Mecca of being young and gay at that time. It was becoming a desirable place to live. There was a lot of nightlife. What Greg wanted to do was have me meet his friends. Getting to know these guys and how they moved through the world—they were very very talented, and like Greg, were striving to take over the town. I see them around still. They’re writers and producers and executives. It was a special group that this was written about.”

Shooting on a modest budget also meant the production would have to consolidate where possible and call in a few favors.

“Every one of those apartments: Those were my friends’ houses,” Mickey Liddell admits. “We were living that life anyway, and it was easy. We could grab all those places. We knew what a club would look like on a Saturday. It was easy production-wise to do to.”

For the cast, that also meant becoming unusually close.

“At the time, Matt McGrath was living with me, sleeping on my couch,” Mary McCormack reminisces.

“I lived with Greg while we were shooting the movie, at his place in West Hollywood,” Weber offers. “It was the first time I’d spent extended time in LA. One of the first nights I was there, there was an earthquake. I was in my room and came running down the hallway and into Greg’s arms. He was like, ‘It’s OK! It’s OK!’ All these complex emotions of if I could trust my director have answered right away.”

The trust came in handy when shooting commenced in early October. To complete the film on time and on budget, Berlanti and Liddell would have to move at a breakneck pace.

“It was really helpful that I didn’t know much,” confesses Berlanti. “I got a great DP. And I kept doing things that, after the fact, [the crew] would say ‘I didn’t think we’d do the whole movie that way, but it worked. We were shooting 8-9 pages a day.” For anyone keeping track, most productions shoot 2-3 pages in a standard day.

“We were on a moving train,” McGrath analogizes.

“It was really fast,” Billy Porter remembers. “We knew we were making something really special, so we just went in and did it. I don’t even think we had trailers. It was independent filmmaking guerrilla fast. It’s so interesting. It’s so long ago—20 years. I remember the energy. I get flashes of where we were and how fun it was. It was great.”

For Liddell, watching Berlanti on set for the first time brought out the best in the young director. The director adopted a policy of keeping cameras running between takes to capture spontaneous moments between the cast members. The approach integrated the off-camera rapport of his cast which he could then edit into the final movie, underlining the friendship among the group. Berlanti also allowed his own extended family to appear in several scenes—a clever way to grant them a cameo in the movie and to fill out group scenes without having to pay for additional extras.

“Greg’s naturally really great with actors,” Liddell observes. “He knew he had little time. He was great at prep. We didn’t have the time or money to get a second chance on anything.”

Despite the pace, Berlanti found time to listen to and guide his actors, allowing them to ad-lib and find their characters in an organic way.

“I love when somebody is a killer writer,” Weber observes, “but he says ‘These are just the words. You don’t have to stick to what I’ve written.’ I love that. It makes you feel like there is nothing standing between you and what he wants to do.”

Perhaps because of his receptiveness, the cast didn’t mind Berlanti’s occasionally unorthodox approach to shooting, even for a veteran like John Mahoney.

“There was a scene [Jack] has with Patrick in a kitchen,” Berlanti explains. “He tells him, ‘Not everybody is the same, Patrick. Because we’re different, we’re stronger.’ It was one of the longer, trickier scenes to do, so we did it in pieces. At the end, he came over to me and said, ‘I’ve never done a scene like that before.’ I was like, ‘Why didn’t you tell me?!’ And he said, ‘Because then I wouldn’t have learned something.’ He was so gracious.”

John Mahoney

For the actors, Mahoney’s graciousness only added to the joy of the experience, and underlined his role in the film as a moral guide.

“John was the movie,” Weber assures. “He was looking out for us and taking care of us and speaking truths. I remember shooting that scene where he’s putting on drag. It was one of those days where you don’t want it to end. There was a funny thing about him. There was a quiz going around how you can tell someone’s gay, and it was all these musical theatre songs. He answered like 20 out of 20 or something. I was really lucky to work with him.”

Matt McGrath weeps when discussing his co-star.

“Coming up in New York,” McGrath explains, “there were a couple of close calls that I had to working with John Mahoney. I really wanted to work with that guy. When I got to work with him, it was a dream come true. He was an inspiration. Working with him was energetic and fun. It made the movie for me.” He pauses a moment. “I get goosebumps thinking about him.”

Likewise, for Billy Porter, seeing a successful, gay actor thriving on set brought him hope for his own future.

“He was just like the gay godfather, the gay granddad,” Porter says of Mahoney. “It was a time where everybody knew that he was gay, everyone in the business knew, but he was a character actor, and he was older. So it didn’t matter. That was really inspiring for me. I was not interested in lying. Here was a person sitting in front of me who never lied. He always told the truth about his life. It just so happened that because of the kind of actor he was, nobody cared about who he was f*cking. There was an example for me. I could be the kind of actor who nobody cares who he’s f*cking. He cracked open a space for me. It helped me not give up.”

Matt McGrath, Billy Porter, Ben Weber

For all Mahoney’s warmth and poise, however, for the cast, Porter became the breakout star on the set.

“I just remember Billy,” Nia Long reflects. “I would sit and watch him, and I was always mesmerized by his energy. He walks into a room and owns it every single time. It wasn’t like wow, this guy is going to be a huge star. It was like this guy loves himself. Here’s an actor who truly accepts himself.”

“Billy was this magical creature,” Weber giggles. “He was opening up and beginning to thrive. He was the soul of that movie. You had straight guys playing gay guys, and gay guys playing gay guys. But Billy was the DNA of the whole movie.”

Porter, for his part, downplays his on-set outrageousness. “This was my second film,” he offers. “I just wanted to show up and land the jokes.”

As shooting wrapped up, Weber decided to arrange a parting gift for the rest of the main cast, something that would forever pay homage to Porter’s larger-than-life presence.

“I remember making wrap gifts for everybody,” he chuckles. “I was fooling around with different ideas, and I ended up making different T-shirts at the Kinko’s down the street. It just had a slogan with Billy Porter’s floating face on it. I remember trying to describe it to the Kinko’s guy, and he was like, you want to do what!?

“It was so funny,” he adds.” When I gave it to Mary McCormack, she was like You must be a big stoner. This makes no sense!

Matt McGrath, Ben Weber, Andrew Keegan

Coffee Pot Eyes

When shooting wrapped in October 1999, the cast scattered to their respective homes and future jobs. Berlanti and Liddell, meanwhile, began editing the film back at Sony. Despite the studio’s earlier confidence in the project—and that Berlanti had brought the shoot in on time—studio executives began to get nervous over the impending release of the film, and if a movie about a group of gay characters could find enough of an audience to recoup its cost.

Fearing Sony wouldn’t make its money back, the studio began to pressure Berlanti to shorten the film to allow for more daily screenings—a tried and true method of selling more tickets. The process forced the director to drop several scenes fleshing out Keegan and Porter’s characters, as well as a key moment of reconciliation between Weber’s Patrick and Long’s Leslie.

Even then, the cuts did not satisfy the movie bosses. The studio also decided that The Broken Hearts Club would not hit theatres under the Sony brand. Rather, it would see release under Screen Gems/Sony Pictures Classics, the company’s subsidiary.

“[Execs at Sony] wanted to put it on 2,000 screens,” Berlanti explains. “For a minute, it felt like we were going to be the widest-released film at the time where all the characters were gay since Boys in the Band. What happened was that we got moved over to more of an art-house division. We had to fight for every screen we were on.”

Zach Braff

As the hand wringing over the edit continued, an unexpected opportunity landed in Berlanti’s lap.

“We finished that movie in October,” Berlanti recalls. “The next month, someone said if I did a rough cut of the film and sent it to Sundance, we could get a slot. So we did. We sent the first 40 minutes.” Much to the shock of all involved, the movie landed a coveted spot at the festival. Suddenly, the pressure was on Berlanti to complete the film in just under two months.

Post-production on The Broken Hearts Club plowed ahead to have the film ready for the January premiere at Sundance. Berlanti had originally intended to feature the music of The Carpenters at several key moments in the story, the tenderness of the songs meant to underline the emotions of the scenes. The director found he didn’t have the money to afford the original recordings, so he called in a friend from his days at Northwestern, Mary Beth Maziarz, to create similar cover versions.

Then, another snag: the MPAA slapped the film with the dreaded R-rating, a death knell for a light, ensemble comedy. In 2020, it’s almost inconceivable to think that a movie with no nudity, no graphic sex, no hardcore drug use and no violence of any kind would land an R-rating. In 2000, however, the sight of two men kissing, holding hands or showing affection was considered incendiary, offensive to some. The apparent ridiculousness of ranking a romantic comedy as an adult film didn’t go unnoticed, however. Just five years later, the film version of the Broadway musical Rent, also produced through a Sony subsidiary, and which did feature hardcore drug use, same-sex coupling and sexual situations, would earn a PG-13.

The cast and crew reunited in January 2000 in Park City, Utah for the Sundance premiere, with a few notable exceptions: McGrath and McCormack both had prior commitments to stage shows that prevented them from attending. Nia Long could not attend either, having just given birth to her son.

“I had just finished the film about four days before,” Berlanti says of the Sundance premiere. “I was a nervous wreck.”

The Broken Hearts Club premiered before a sold-out house. When asked about the audience’s response, Berlanti is succinct.

“We got a standing ovation.”

“I was so proud,” Liddell boasts. “Just like with Go, I think we got opening night. It was really amazing. I remember thinking this is a really big deal for a small gay movie. We were being treated like a big movie there. I couldn’t wrap my head around it. We were more accessible than I thought we ever could be.” He pauses a moment, then adds: “But that’s Greg. He understood how to make it open.”

Justin Theroux and Matt McGrath

For the young cast—and for the film’s director—it was a Hollywood dream come true.

“I stayed with Billy Porter and my wife,” Weber remembers. “It was the dream way to go to Sundance. We wrapped in October and a few months later we were at Sundance! There are so many people that toil for years, so that was the best way to go. We did a premiere in LA, but going to Sundance was the best Sundance possible.”

“It was fun,” Porter says. “It was like a big party, a big showbiz party. So to go see a bunch of movies, it was magical. It’s a very magical place. I haven’t been invited back since, so hopefully I’ll go back at some point.”

When asked why the film resonated as it did with the Sundance crowd, Porter offers a thoughtful explanation. “It was a time where queer narratives were still few and far between,” he observes. “The ‘day in the life’ kind of crossover narratives were not at the forefront. This was really special because it was a rom-com. It’s what Greg is known for now. I do believe as artists we imitate life. That’s the whole point.”

Nine months later, The Broken Hearts Club would go into wide release. Critics, for the most part, praised it. Roger Ebert, the leading film critic of the day, wrote “The movie is so likable, we go with it on its chosen level…The movie’s buried message celebrates the arrival of gays into the mainstream. That key line (“I’m 28 years old and all I’m good at is being gay”) is like an announcement liberating gay movies from an exclusive preoccupation with sexuality.”

Ironically, Berlanti recalls that the harshest criticisms of the film came from within the queer community itself. “I’ve realized with a lot of LGBTQ content I’ve made since, you can’t make everyone happy,” he observes. “There’s a lot of pressure from the community for it to be as reflective as their own experience.”

Still, despite the criticism, the film became an immediate hit with audiences. Matt McGrath remembers seeing the film with an audience for the first time.

“Greg came into [New York] and definitely wanted to go to a screening in Chelsea,” McGrath chuckles. “We went to 23rd street, one of the only cinemas showing the movie. And the place was more raucous than a nightclub. One aisle went from the back of the house to the screen. It became a constant runway of people doing runway modeling in their outfits they’d worn for the night, and with big tubs of popcorn. That tickled us to death. The only time they stopped doing the runway was when a kiss happened. They just screamed ‘Kiss that boy!’ It was like nothing else I’ve ever experienced.”

Berlanti, Liddell and the cast & crew of The Broken Hearts Club had succeeded in doing something no one else had before: They’d made a movie about gay people for a broad audience. The film took the extraordinary step of treating LGBTQ characters as ordinary people looking for love and friendship rather than victims or sex addicts. The characters of the film weren’t trying to struggle with shame or survive HIV; they were just people trying to live and face their own inadequacies—kind of like everybody else.

Matt McGrath, Ben Weber, Zach Braff

240 Months Later

The Broken Hearts Club helped lite a fuse that would change TV forever. It was one of the breakthrough films or shows that led to an explosion of cross-over LGBTQ content, and to the affirmation that mainstream audiences could relate to and enjoy queer characters. In Fall of 2000, with The Broken Hearts Club still on screens, the sitcom Will & Grace returned for a third season. Though it had met with negative reviews when it debuted and struggled in the ratings for its first two seasons, the Season 3 debut saw an additional 5 million viewers tune in, placing the sitcom in the Top 20 shows on television.

That December, Showtime unveiled the nighttime drama Queer as Folk, a series about an all-gay cast of characters. The L Word and Noah’s Arc would follow thereafter. Queer cinema would continue to flourish on the indie film circuit for the next few years until 2005 when Brokeback Mountain would again elevate LGBTQ stories to a new level of regard among audiences.

For the cast and the crew, the after-effects of the film still resonate 20 years on.

“I enjoy it more now than I did then,” Nia Long says. “We were part of a movement. We were part of helping the world understand gay & lesbian people. My fanbase grew. I would travel and get off the plane and young white guys would come up to me and say ‘I loved you in Broken Hearts Club.’ I started to have conversations with people that may not have known my body of work until Broken Hearts Club.

Long pauses, then adds: “As wrap gifts, we got travel bags that said The Broken Hearts Club. I still have mine. I still travel with it.”

Long has worked nonstop since The Broken Hearts Club appearing in the hit Big Mamma’s House films, and in a litany of television projects including Judging Amy, NCIS: Los Angeles, Third Watch, and Empire, racking up three NAACP Image Awards in the process.

Ben Weber & Nia Long

“I feel so proud to have been in it,” Mary McCormack reflects, “and I feel silly saying that because at the time I think I was so busy and my life was so hectic. That was my community. It’s hard to understand where something fits in in terms of a big picture of a social movement when you’re in it. It’s a really beautiful movie. It’s a step in the direction of justice. I feel so proud to be in it now.”

Like Long, McCormack has found roles nonstop over the past two decades, with roles in K-Pax, The West Wing, and as the lead on the long-running series In Plain Sight.

“I was with my son at the Hollywood Farmer’s Market last year,” Ben Weber remembers, “and some kid came up to me and said ‘You’re in Broken Hearts Club.’ I was like oh my God, that’s awesome. It’s a cool thing to be recognized with my son, it made me proud.”

Weber and Long would both team with Greg Berlanti again on The CW soap Everwood, which Berlanti also created. Weber continues to work in film and television, having scored recurring parts in The West Wing and The Secret Life of the American Teenager.

Zach Braff & Matt McGrath

“It’s one of the most rewarding things of my career,” Matt McGrath sighs. “It’s something people can cite as something that had a real effect on their coming out or making them feel secure. They stop me on the street, in bookstores. There are moments where movies like this rattle the cage. People still say ‘meanwhile’ to me. It will stand the test of time.”

Since appearing in The Broken Hearts Club, McGrath has enjoyed a prolific career on stage, landing roles on Broadway in Cabaret, The Boys in the Band, and Girl From the North Country.

“It was interesting to watch so many of my co-stars from that film become stars,” Billy Porter says of his participation. “I was on the brink of obscurity for a very long time. That did not springboard me into much of anything.”

Fortunately, Porter’s fortunes would change. He scored Tony and Grammy Awards for his performance in the Broadway musical Kinky Boots. In 2018, he shot to the top of the industry as the lead on the television drama Pose, for which he won an Emmy in 2019, becoming the first openly gay, Black performer to win an Emmy for a leading role. Still, despite his success, he does not dismiss his work in The Broken Hearts Club.

Zach Braff & Billy Porter

“It’s a cult classic,” Porter adds. “Very often, I hear from queer people—mainly gay boys—who found it during their coming out processes.”

Porter will team up again with Greg Berlanti for an upcoming film remake of Little Shop of Horrors. Porter will voice the nefarious plant Audrey II opposite Chris Evans, Taron Egerton, and Scarlet Johansson.

After wowing audiences with his performance as Jack, the late John Mahoney continued his work on Frasier until the show wrapped in 2004. He worked consistently thereafter, appearing in the films Atlantis: The Lost Empire and Dan in Real Life, as well as in recurring television roles in In Treatment and Hot in Cleveland. He died of cancer in 2018, aged 77.

The rest of the cast continues to flourish as well. Zach Braff would go on to appear as a series regular in the sitcom Scrubs, as well as in the films OZ: The Great and Powerful, Chicken Little, and Garden State, which he also wrote and directed.

John Mahoney

Timothy Olyphant has appeared in the popular films The Incredible Hulk, Rango and Once Upon a Time…In Hollywood, as well as a series regular on Santa Clarita Diet, which he also produced.

Dean Cain appeared in a series of low-budget films and TV roles before reinventing himself as a political pundit and infomercial host. At present, he’s one of the most prolific actors to work in holiday films, having appeared in 16, including movies for The Hallmark Network.

Andrew Keegan continued to work in the independent films Cruel World and Dough Boys. In 2014, he founded his own spiritual commune located in Venice, California.

“That was the scariest time in my career, but the most exciting,” Mickey Liddell admits. “We were over a cliff. That was the only money I made that year, and it wasn’t much. Those years were really, really personal. You had no parachutes with this kind of movie. For me, it was an incredible experience. I met Greg. It got me into TV. I don’t think I would have taken that path.”

Liddell waded into television as well, executive producing the prime time drama Everwood. He also returned to independent film, producing dozens of movies including Ben is Back, Jackie, and recently Judy, for which actress Renee Zellweger won an Academy Award.

As for Berlanti, work just sped up from there. In addition to creating Everwood, he oversaw groundbreaking LGBTQ storylines in Dawson’s Creek, Dirty Sexy Money, and Brothers & Sisters. He also translated his love of comic books to the small screen, co-creating and executive producing the “Arrowverse” shows Arrow, The Flash, Legends of Tomorrow, and Supergirl as well as the popular teen soap Riverdale.

He would return to directing with the drama Life as we Know It in 2014, and would break more gay ground with Love, Simon, Hollywood’s first romantic comedy about gay teenagers. At present, he has a record-setting 18 television series on the air, making him one of the most successful writer/producers in television history.

Reflecting on the script that started it all, Berlanti opines with characteristic modesty. “Directing is similar to showrunning,” he says. “I want the audience to have the same emotional experience that I had in telling the story. I wasn’t trying to make it as a piece of art. I wanted to provide a window into what it meant to be a young gay person in West Hollywood at the time. The more you can dig for the truth in your own life, it’s beneficial. It’s helpful. And it developed wonderful relationships.”

Berlanti, on the set of ‘Love, Simon’

“[The Broken Hearts Club] is a tether to a moment in my life,” Berlanti observes. “I never thought I would be married [to former Soccer pro-Robbie Rogers] and have kids. My nieces just watched it the other day, they’re 15 and 19. They got a real sense of what my life was like then. It’s like having a scrapbook.”

“The movie didn’t do $30 million when it came out,” he continues, “but people have brought it up to me every year for the past 20 years. If you write something really truthful, it goes on its own journey. Sometimes that’s the journey to getting made, you have to go through a bunch of people. Sometimes it takes years. But I really believed—and still do—that if you put in the hard work that you think is honest and real, it will find the people it’s supposed to find.”

Twenty years later, that audience is still finding The Broken Hearts Club. The indie film represents a tipping point where gay and lesbian characters could live and love on the screen just like everybody else. For the general audience, the film is one of several that ushered queer people into the Hollywood mainstream.

For generations of LGBTQ viewers, for the past two decades, and beyond, The Broken Hearts Club has a more fundamental symbolism. Being gay didn’t automatically mean violence, death or victimhood. It meant joining a chosen family, a community, to face the world together and that maybe, everything would be ok after all.

Or, as Kevin observes in the film:

“But what I do remember, what I can recall, is when I first realized [being gay] was okay: It was when I met these guys. My friends.”

The Broken Hearts Club streams on Amazon, VUDU, iTunes & YouTube.