Interior drama: Director Joe Graham (right) with DP Matthew Boyd shoot a scene featuring actors Ben Bonenfant and Paul Guerrior in not-your-typical-hustler movie, Strapped.

Joe Graham's Soulful 'Strapped'

Michael Fox January 19, 2010

“I wish gay cinema would die.” Joe Graham declares. “It would be nice to move past this strange subgenre to a place where gay makers who want to tell stories with gay characters will just be independent filmmakers telling personal stories.” See, it’s not queer movies the San Francisco filmmaker hates, though he’ll vent at scathing (and hilarious) length about titles that stoke his ire. Graham’s fed up with categories and pigeonholing, and negative associations generated by countless artless, formulaic, direct-to-DVD flicks targeted to lesbian and gay viewers. “People perceive gay cinema as meaning cheap and crappy,” he says, an approach he rejects in his feature debut, Strapped, now in postproduction.

Graham, as you may have deduced, has a strong aesthetic sense. His 45-minute tour de force Vanilla (2004) is a spooky, color-mixed-with-B&W saga of an overly curious high school photographer fixated on a series of gay-themed murders. “I can’t help it if I’m fascinated by eroticism, emotions of love, fear, connection and disconnection and I happen to be gay,” he says. “I’m turned on by Patricia Arquette in Lost Highway; I’d love for a straight guy to have the same reaction to my films.”

Graham subsequently directed two highly charged short pieces (one film is here and another film is here) before embarking on a feature-length screenplay, Beautiful Something. The screenplay, alas, didn’t generate the kind of interest Graham expected. It will have a life as an off-Broadway play down the road, he promises, but he didn’t receive the numerous rejections along the way with much equanimity.

“I just couldn’t raise the $200,000 I needed to make that movie the way it needed to be made,” he concedes. “It was just a little too ambitious for where I was at the time, I guess. Almost out of desperation I wrote Strapped. I was feeling slightly bitter. If all anybody wants is some kind of exploitation piece, that’s what I’ll give them.”

With the backing of TLA Releasing in Philadelphia, who put out Vanilla, Graham penned a movie about a hustler who meets a succession of people in an apartment building and can’t get out. “The thinking was we could have one apartment that we just keep dressing,” Graham recalls. Not a terribly highfalutin film, obviously, so he was shocked when a straight actor friend interpreted the screenplay as a parable about the search for the gay soul. “We went through the script and he revealed things I wasn’t aware, despite myself, I was putting in there,” Graham admits. “Pretty soon my off-the-cuff, fuck-you, straight to DVD exploitation picture was a Coen Brothers-style, expressionistic Alice in Wonderland erotic labyrinth.”

Graham put out a casting call for the lead role that generated 600 responses; he spoke with a hundred candidates and auditioned 60. “A lot of these young actors wanted to play the junkie-orphan-runaway-hustler Panic In Needle Park type,” Graham says. “They wanted to play the gritty guy.” Yeah, but that wasn’t how the director saw the character, and after a series of long phone conversations he cast a straight 20-year-old from Colorado Springs named Ben Bonenfant.

“I don’t know if the audience is going to see it as a dream story, but I navigated my way through it on those terms,” the filmmaker says. “In fact, what I’m hoping is the audience will watch the first 15 minutes and say, ‘I know what this is about, I know this character,’ then the character pulls the rug out from under them.”

The script called for a hot, rainy night; the shoot spanned 12 nights on a set in a cold warehouse down Third St. Well, it’s called “acting” for a reason, right?

“I did a bold experiment,” Graham divulges. “The love scenes are close-ups of one performer’s face from the beginning through orgasm. I was playing with audience’s expectations of how sex scenes should be witnessed on screen, particularly in terms of bodies and nudity. I wanted to do something I hadn’t seen before: fear to relaxation to ecstasy to release to freedom. Brother, it’s beautiful. And it’s more erotic to me than somebody’s ass moving back and forth.”

As he works his way through post, Graham is sanguine about the next stage. TLA has first crack at acquiring the film (and putting up the completion money); if they pass, and another distributor doesn’t step up, the timetable gets extended another year. You can savor the trailer at Indiegogo.

“This is a pretty ambitious film and I may fall flat on my face,” Graham says. “But I’ll fall with a smile because I know it’s the best work I’m capable of doing—for better or worse. And I made art with friends.”

Notes from the Underground
Local filmmaker Dayna Goldfine (Ballet Russes) is one of the jurors for the Documentary competition at the Sundance Film Festival, which begins Thursday night (as if you didn’t know). Elizabeth Farnsworth and Patricio Lanfranco’s The Judge and the General, which played the 2008 SFIFF and aired that fall on “P.O.V.,” received an Alfred I. duPont-Columbia University Award for excellence in broadcast journalism. Marc Huestis’ Whatever Happened to Susan Jane (1982) screens at noon on Valentine’s Day at the Castro, coinciding with the release of the newly remastered DVD. Ingrid Eggers, who shaped Berlin & Beyond into one of the most exciting film series in the Bay Area, announced the debut of “German Gems,” a one-day series of new films, Feb. 28 at the Castro and Mar. 6 in Point Arena.

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