It took Jonathan Wysocki a long time to go back to high school.
The longtime professor of film at prestigious secondary schools including Chapman University, Occidental College, and Cal State Long Beach, has spent most of his career getting to this point. After a decade directing short films, Wysocki finally landed his dream gig: directing a semiautobiographical feature about a group of Catholic high school drama nerds on their last night together. The movie, titled Dramarama, plays at the virtual Outfest film festival August 22-25.
Set in 1994, Dramarama chronicles the dynamic of a group of theatre kids on the verge of becoming theatre adults. For the shy Gene (Nick Pugliese), that means finally coming out as gay to his friends and revealing his longtime crush on the handsome Oscar (Nico Greetham). Over the course of a single night, tensions flare and buried secrets surface. Gene and his fellow nerds want to believe they’ll stay friends forever, but it becomes clear their friendships may not even last the night.
Queerty made some time to chat with Wysocki about his odyssey to make the film and the point where fact and fiction meet. Dramarama plays at Outfest August 22-25.
So how long was this odyssey for you?
The script and all the drafts weren’t actually as long as some of the other projects I’ve tried to get made. From coming up with the idea until I had a locked draft was about a year. Then it was maybe half a year until we started principal photography, which is, in my experience, short. Maybe it helps that it’s not the first script that I’ve written. I’ve been around for a while and tried to get many a feature off the ground. So I’m used to the process of writing and rewriting. That muscle, I guess, was stronger than maybe it would have been.
But I sort of see it as a much longer process, not just with this project, but getting a feature made. When I think about when I started film school, that was a really long time ago. It took a lot of shorts and ups and downs to get a feature made.
Was the story a tough sell?
Oh, 100%. I kind of simultaneously went out to production companies at the same time I had a crowdfunding plan in place knowing it might be a tough sell. And it was a tough sell. Production companies were like this is really well written, but there is no market for this. There’s a world for Christian films, and a world for queer films. There’s no world, according to them, for theatre films. I felt that with the theatre angle, every single high school has one handful of die-hard drama kids. But if you add up those passionate people—even people who don’t go on to do drama later in life—you’re kind of that person for the rest of your life. So I knew it was niche, but I had a strong feeling there were quite a few people who would relate to drama geeks.
I think so.
I suspected that I would have to forge my own path, and that turned out to be the case. I hope there’s a bridge between Christian viewers and queer viewers as well.
Well, I want to get to that in a moment. How did you support yourself in the meantime?
I have been an adjunct professor for a very long time. So I’m a jack of all trades of teaching. I teach everything from film theory to screenwriting to production all over the place.
How closely does the script mimic your own life?
I had a positive experience with a previous short called Adjust a Dream that was based off something that really happened. In the writing process, I put it in the blender and added some more ideas to make it fiction. I found that the actors put their spin on it, the editor puts her own spin on it. It’s this amazing mixture of fact and fiction, but a kernel of it still has a hint of what really happened.
I did the same thing with this script. I re-read my high school diary, which was the most cringey thing on the planet. But I knew there was truth in there. And I looked at me and my friends that I’m still friends with from high school, and I took all of the very specific details of our lives as the base. And I put it in a blender and added fiction to make it more interesting. So it’s complicated. There are some really, really specific autobiographical details in the film. And there are completely fictitious details as well. It’s a complicated blend of the two.
I’ll not ask what the autobiographical details are.
You know, weirdly enough, things become—paradoxically–more universal when they’re more specific.
So I felt like, you know, some of the really weird, insider stuff for these kids—I felt like it would land because it would translate as a tight friend group. Which, you know, sometimes there are people you can relate to. You relate to each other so well you have this insider language between you. Those kind of details will actually translate into something universal that you can tap into, even if the specific details make no sense to you.
That was my hope.
To that point, the key to making the film work is the ensemble cast; they have to have a certain camaraderie. The rapport feels so real. Did you cast them as a group?
No. I didn’t have the money to do that. So they were cast individually. They never met during auditions. It was really up to the casting director and I to pick actors that were not only perfect for their roles, but that when we imagined them together, they had the chops to create chemistry, whether or not they liked each other. Weirdly enough, you can kind of bank on that after just 10 minutes in the room with somebody. You kind of get their energy and see how open they are to taking direction and being improvisational—just being an open person.
I just rolled the die and hoped it would work on screen. Not only did they get on like gangbusters, but they are actually extremely close now. They hang out once a week.
They’ve kind of become the people in the film, which blows my mind.
How did you help them build that rapport on set? That’s so key here where their performances have to carry everything.
I think part of it is making sure everybody feels comfortable, and that there’s permission to be loose with the material. The script was very specifically written, and I’d given everybody an annotated version of the script. It was this PDF document that was sort of the Bible of it. But, then on set, they knew they, as creative people, could bring their own ideas and creativity to what they do with that material. Part of that is a volume knob on each of your actors. When you want to let them control the volume and when you have to step in and control it: that’s the alchemy that has to happen. It’s a mutual learning process. You know day-by-day when you can let someone free, and when you need to give them a little more guidance.
That makes sense.
That’s the most fun part of directing. I used to be an actor, so I feel like allowing a certain amount of freedom and collaboration will bring more joy to the set. That is going to allow your actors to do their best work.
The other big challenge here, from a directorial standpoint, is that the whole film is set in a house. And it’s a real house, not a set. When you have to shoot in a constrained location like the house, how do you consistently make your visual style interesting? How do you keep it from feeling claustrophobic?
That is a really lovely question. Thank you for noticing that!
Part of the reason I wrote the script the way I did—it’s kind of obvious. With no money, set everything in one location. But one location can get boring. You have so many limitations. Honestly, part of it was understanding the mood shifts of the story. Because these characters are teenagers and the stakes are high on their last night together, their emotions go through this rollercoaster throughout the evening. I knew the way we shot it had to mirror that rollercoaster in terms of when things were steady, when things were light, when things were dark. The cinematographer and I put together a plan to use the lighting and to shoot the separate rooms to match the mood in the story.
Luckily we kept making discoveries as we went along. Some days we would show up to set and say what can we do today that we haven’t done yet. And to me, it tied in thematically to these drama kinds who are always doing something knew and being creative. I felt if the camera work had the same amount of playfulness, it wouldn’t look like it was locked into one look.
You do a fantastic job of it. Little touches, like low angles or the shots through a VHS camera are so effective.
One thing I found quite moving in this is the chastity of it. It doesn’t suffer from Blue Lagoon syndrome, where we’re just waiting for the couple to do it. The emotional consummation of these relationships is what satisfies us. For Gene and Oscar, I think, that’s coming to a certain understanding. I’m curious—were you ever pressured to amp up the sex content? Tone it down?
I wasn’t. I think a large part of that was that this was completely independently financed. I wasn’t beholden to anyone. In terms of my experience, growing up, we were all virgins leaving high school.
That’s the reality of it. Straight or gay, we all left high school virginal because of our sheltered background. So every time I watch a coming of age movie and someone loses their virginity in it, I just couldn’t connect to it. I was always like gosh, I guess everybody had sex in high school. It’s so prevalent. It’s like the plot point in every coming of age movie, gay or straight. There’s gotta be more people out there who were late bloomers. So I was very adamant that this movie was going to be that chaste.
The funny flip side of it is that the amount of sex jokes we would make was so high. There was also this thing that I’ve never seen before—this complicated mix of repression and then it call comes out in joking about sex. You’re not having sex, but that sexual energy has to go somewhere. So it manifests in double entendres, or pretending you know what you’re talking about when you talk about sex. So that was the alchemy that I really wanted to show in the movie from the get-go. Again, it’s not commercial, but that was a big goal.
It’s an admirable one. I also think it’s closer to a real high school experience than many other movies I’ve seen.
One interesting touch in the film is that we don’t see many adults. When we do, we don’t see them head-on. Did you purposely avoid shooting the adult characters’ faces?
It wasn’t in the original draft of the script. We got a sense of the parents. Then a friend read a draft and was like you don’t need this stuff. It’s an insular world, and the stakes are so high. The adults diluted the script. I thought that was a great note, so I went full Charlie Brown to put you in the world of teens. Adult concerns are barely there.
I love that about it. Particularly, since they are sheltered, that’s a great way to unconsciously reinforce that to the audience. It would be interesting to follow these characters, to see how they cope with life in the world at large. Do you find yourself thinking about them? Do you think about what happens to them?
I do. It’s funny, because in this process, they have become very crystallized. I think about—I don’t know if “sequel” is the right word. I’m not sure it’s that kind of story. But I do think about their future because the characters are so fleshed out at this point. I do wonder what, post-college, a gathering looks like. I think a lot about it. I don’t know if I have answers to that, but they have become weirdly real.
Are you still in touch with your friends from your drama club? Have they seen the film?
I am, and they have. It was hard, because there were just so many details about who they are in the film. I think it went over well. It’s funny, because I think it’s rare for high school friend groups to be as close as we are this many years later. We still function like a dysfunctional family. We have highs and lows. But we’re like a family, because we’ve known each other since we were teenagers. If anything, it amuses me to see the parallels between microaggressions you see in the movie, and those in our real lives.
I hope that’s healthy.
When you become friends with people at that age, it’s more like a sibling relationship.
Making a movie is a big deal. You just made your first feature. It took you years to get to this point. What did you learn about yourself by making this film?
Gosh. What a tough, good question. I learned that, honestly, that I could pull it off. I learned I could have pulled it off a long time ago if I’d had more faith in myself.
That’s interesting. What was the faith you were lacking?
I think it was waiting for permission to jump off a cliff completely. There were projects that were too large to get off the ground, or that had other issues. But, like you hear from filmmakers all the time, you shouldn’t wait for permission. You shouldn’t wait for someone on a white horse to come in and say “This is amazing. I want to make it for you.” The reality is when you’re at this level of indie filmmaking, there is no one that is ever going to believe in it more than yourself. Especially when its personal like this. That’s not to discount the many, many people who helped me on this movie. But the engine always needed to be me.
If you could give Gene one bit of advice, what would you tell him then?
It’s so trite, but, it gets better. Because it really does.