Plagued

One was shot. One was molested. How Sheldon Brown & Matt Fifer poured pain into art with ‘Cicada’.

Matt Fifer & Sheldon Brown in ‘Cicada’

As a type of locust, cicadas emerge from their subterranean nests every 13-17 years. Make a note: this will be important later.

For co-writers/costars/friends Matt Fifer and Sheldon Brown, the resurgence of the insect offered the perfect metaphor and jumping-off point for their first collaboration together. It also offered a title: Cicada plays the virtual Frameline44 this September 17-27.

Cicada tells the story of Ben (Fifer), a horny bisexual man always on the make for a new sexual encounter. When he crosses paths with the handsome Sam (Brown), a one-off hook up won’t do. Together, the two men begin to explore their attraction to one another, and discover deep and violent pain buried deep within themselves. Set firmly in 2013, Cicada meditates on a changing society: one in which the specter of the AIDS crisis has begun to fade, and in which the cries for racial justice have become renewed, sex crimes against boys have come to the fore, and masculinity remains an ever-fragile idiom.

We snagged some time to chat with Brown & Fifer about their unusual collaborative relationship, the pain of buried trauma and the place where fact and fiction blend together. Co-directed by Kieran Mulcare, Cicada plays Frameline44 September 17-27.

So I have to confess, given the way this breaks down, I’m not sure how to start this. So at what point did you guys decide to collaborate on this idea?

Matt Fifer: I was really depressed one year. I was living in my parents’ house, and I couldn’t shake the feeling that I had gone through all the motions of getting it out [coming out about being a victim of sexual molestation], telling my mom, feeling healed. I was in therapy, but there was something about it that I needed to get out of me.

So I started writing this. I had a first draft, and in February I texted Sheldon and said I had this project that I thought he’d be good for. I didn’t have any money. I didn’t know what I was doing, but I had Sheldon in mind from the very first page. He said, “I’m in New York doing a show. Want to grab a drink?” So we went to this little bar in Bushwick called Syndicated, and I don’t think we talked at all about the movie that night. But Sheldon seemed into it, so I sent him the script. Two months later he texted me that a tragic thing happened.

Sheldon Brown: Yeah. We talked a bit about the film, and two months later I was shot in a drive-by shooting in Chicago.

Sheldon Brown

Dear Lord.

SB: Yeah. I was walking home one night. I was in the hospital for a month. Just figuring out what was going to happen was very stressful. So I reached out to Matt to let him know I didn’t think it was going to happen for me. I didn’t know my recovery time. I didn’t know if I could do a movie or act. At the time, I was using a walker and could barely walk.

Wow.

SB: He said “I very much want you to be part of the film. If you’re willing, we can shoot this summer.” And he gave me permission to include my story and include things that had happened to me at the time. So the script transformed into being this story in which we’re both dealing with huge, traumatic weights at different moments in our lives, but that are ever-present. So the story became more about how we could deal with that trauma. I spent a month in the hospital in April, and we started shooting in June.

MF: Yeah.

SB: I used a walker in the beginning, but we just included the ostomy and my surgeries and things like that—for me it was really hard to work through personally. Matt and I really collaborated on how we could make things truthful. So it was a huge process, but we supported each other through that.

Sheldon Brown & Matt Fifer

That may be the single craziest story anybody has ever told me about the genesis of a movie. So you actually got shot. Are the scars we see in the movie real?

SB: Those are my real scars, yeah.

That’s amazing. So how the character of Sam evolve then? What elements did you bring to the character beyond the details of his physical trauma?

SB: It was really important for me, when thinking about this character—we had many conversations about this as well. Often times when you see a black supporting role in a film or television, they are really there to help their white counterparts discover who they are. You don’t really hear to much about their own trauma. That was something I very much did not want, even from the beginning. It was important for me that as they work through their relationship together—Sam and Ben—Sam’s trying to help Ben, but he has his own stuff he’s going through. There are many times [our characters] try to be there for one another in the film, and we just don’t know how. That’s very real. In life, you want to support everyone, but you still have your own pain.

Absolutely.

SB: So when I was shot, I was out [as a gay man]. But that’s not the reality for Sam in the film. He’s very much not comfortable with his sexuality. I thought it would be interesting to see how that trauma prevented him from seeing who he really is, or from feeling free. I think black men, especially black queer men, always live in a state of insecurity, of not feeling safe in the world or their own community. It was important for me to see how this trauma makes Sam clam up, and how he has to learn not to live in fear.

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I love what you say there. This is a film, in many ways, about buried trauma. For Sam, that’s the trauma of homophobia and racism, and getting shot. For Ben, that’s the fact that he was molested. Matt, do you think of Ben as a sex addict? Is his promiscuity a result of his trying to normalize how he feels about being molested?

MF: Yeah, I mean, a lot of this character is based on my own life. When I was writing it, I wasn’t thinking about these things. I was just writing what I went through. I know a lot of sex abuse victims do end up in these situations, looking for validation, looking for love, looking to fill a void. So this was me before I went to therapy. I was all at once trying to feel alive. I wanted validation. But I really wanted love. I thought [promiscuity] was how you get it. And other parts of Ben—his psychosomatic things—these were also things I was dealing with. It would flare at different points in my life.

Ok.

MF: Specifically during the Sandusky trial, I went through all kinds of tests one summer thinking I had multiple sclerosis or a brain tumor.

Oh Lord.

MF: The doctor sent me to cardiologists and neurologists. I had all these blood tests. I just wanted an answer. Funny enough, one of the symptoms where I can’t swallow, was an actual real thing. At the end of shooting this film, I was actually in the hospital and found out it was caused by a real thing. It wasn’t just in my head.

Sheldon Brown

That’s crazy. I hope you got it taken care of.

MF: Yeah.

There are a couple of specific elements I want to ask about here. The Jerry Sandusky scandal plays out as a background to the main action, almost mocking it sometimes. The other is that the year is 2013, and you guys even make reference to this: that was the year PrEP started to become widely prescribed.

MF: Mmmhmm.

That’s also around the time Black Lives Matter took off as a movement. There is a level of specificity to those that I find intriguing. What is it about these elements that made them, and that cultural moment, so haunting?

SB: That’s a great question.

MF: Yeah. Going back to my own abuse, I didn’t have any catharsis with pointing [my abuser] out and having him on trial and having him go to prison. So I would always latch on to these stories as a kid. Today, it still piques my interest whenever something like that comes about. Sandusky was a massive, worldwide story. It largely affected a bunch of young, black children. The end of that, on June 23 when he was finally convicted, I…

[A beat]

It was a really incredible moment for me.

SB: I wasn’t that familiar with the story until we actually shot the film. For me, I just feel like 2013—that was around the time we met. Much of the conversation we’re having now, much of the comfort or willingness to be uncomfortable in our conversations—that’s happening now. That was something that always stuck out to me in the film. We were having difficult conversations at a time where we are restarting the national conversation about race. That was 2013. And this was before the #MeToo movement, and we are talking about men having this conversation about sexual abuse, and how difficult that is. We have the scene in the film where we meet my father, and the subject comes up. We have the conversation about how many of those students are black in the case. Why don’t we talk about that?

Right.

SB: We’re three men having the conversation, and it’s an awkward one to have. We just didn’t have so many of the tools. I was closeted at the time, and afraid to embrace my sexuality. When I first met Matt I was still in the closet.

MF: Mmmhmm.

SB: To that was a very closed and reserved time for me, not embracing who I am and not feeling safe enough to share that. So in the film, we push that conversation a lot at a time where there’s a very unstable environment to have that conversation.

MF: Yeah, and I want to get to the fact that on in three girls and one in five boys are sexually abused before the age of 18. And boys are far less likely to come forward. Sharing that really struck me, even though I was a living example of that. To bring the conversation full circle with the title, Cicada: I remember reading one day that there are these cicadas that come out every 13-17 years. For me, I finally came out about what happened to my best friend after 13 years. I came out to my mom about it at 17 years. What’s interesting about cicadas is that only the men sing at night.

Cobie Smulders & Matt Fifer

That is interesting.

MF: So when the Sandusky trial finally ended in June, I just remember hearing the sound at night. For me, it was like all these boys crying out, finally being free.

That’s profound. A powerful image. We had cicadas where I grew up, and I remember when they came out. And this makes the title of the film so fitting—cicadas are a plague. They’re not cute cuddly animals. They’re disgusting, parasitic and they are on everything. I have horrible memories.

MF: Oh man. I’m in Chicago right now and they are out in full force. They are crying out. In more ways than one.

MF: I do want to say that the person who abused me is not a member of my family. It was somebody that my family knew. Fun fact: 90% of abuse does happen by somebody that the family knows. The reason we wrote in as a stepdad, was that for a couple of drafts, the audience thought my own father had done it. So it was important for me to make that distinction.

And you’ve told your family. Have you named him publicly? Would you ever?

MF: That’s complicated.

Are you in contact with him?

MF: No.

Well that’s good. Both of you have been very forthright in talking about how your own personal traumas fueled this story. When you both force yourselves to relive trauma like this on camera, does that make the work more difficult? Does that affect you off-camera? Or is that cathartic?

SB: Both.

MF: That’s a really good question. Yeah, both.

SB: Yeah. I remember very specific moments with Matt doing. He’s telling me “Sheldon, you have to go there.” And this is my first film, so having to go through these emotions then cut because of sound or whatever the case is. Having to sit with that and feel very real and authentic—it’s hard. But its so necessary. There were so many feelings in the moment where I’d think my God, I thought I got over that. So I’m having to actually move through those moments in real-time on camera. By the end of it, there are so many moments, it’s like this waterfall effect of emotions coming out of us. In the moment of just being there and feeling held by each other and the team, how great it feels to come out of that and to share that moment, and to feel I moved through this. Trauma’s not something we can ever totally get past. I feel like I learned something about myself in that process.

And for you, Matt?

MF: I couldn’t have done it without this guy. There was one point where I had built up such a wall. I had healed so much, so to dive back in for one scene…Sheldon just put his hand on my back and told me it was ok, that I was safe. Just him saying that over and over let me break. So specific moments were really cathartic, and others were like what was I thinking? There were so many people around. I’m not an actor. And I’m trying to tell this story with a lot of people? So thank goodness for Sheldon and my co-director [Kieran Mulcare].

Matt Fifer

SB: There are moments where it got intense. Working through stuff so close to us and the story, there will always be moments. There is sensitivity. There is frustration. There is anger. I’m just trying to get through it. So it’s figuring out how to breathe through it. It’s beautiful because Ben & Sam work through that as characters, and Matt & Sheldon are on that same journey.

There are meta-levels to that. It’s wonderful. I can’t help but notice, Matt, that you were a PA on The Avengers. Cobie Smulders has a brief role here. Did you happen to mention that to her?

MF: No, no. Everyone we cast was either a friend or a friend of a friend. Cobie was actually a friend of our co-director, Kieren. She was just coming back from shooting Spider-Man. We sent her the script and she read it that night. When she landed, she said yes. So we all flew out to LA—Keiran, Eric, my DP and I—and we shot her scenes. On that note, the comedy elements of this film are important.

Yes.

MF: When you read the logline synopsis, it seems like it might be too much. So we have Bowen Yang, we have Jo Firestone, we have these brilliant comedic actors. That was important to me. Humor was the way I got by so long. When I called Sheldon in the hospital, the first thing he did was make a joke. All the nurses were laughing. With trauma in general, the only way to get through it is to laugh. So it was important for me to have tonal shifts.

They do bring levity to the story. We should also say Jason Green’s name here. He has a role in the film.

MF: Definitely, Jason Green.

So this is the first feature film for both of you. Sheldon, do you want to stay in film, or would you rather do theatre?

SB: I want to do it all. Theatre’s is where I started. It will always be home for me. Right now, in the midst of a pandemic, it’s hard to get all of us together and be in a space like that. I do love the freedom of film. The process was so intense and hard. I had never been challenged like that. So I want to be involved in writing and directing and anything else I can get my hands on for sure.

Matt do you want to keep acting? Or directing?

MF: All of the above. These days you have to. We’re working on a queer horror film right now. I don’t know if I’ll act in it, but I’ll write and direct and produce it. We’re talking about shooting soon.

Can you tell us anything about it?

MF: No! I feel like it won’t happen if I do.

Cicada plays the Virtual Frameline44 September 17-27.