Texas is synonymous with “macho.” The 1980s are linked with plaid shirts. And contemporary queer cinema is denoted by a playful irreverence and a knowing attitude toward sex. Put ’em all together and you have Longhorns, the third feature (and first comedy) by San Francisco writer-director David Lewis. Filmed in Grass Valley, the Sierra foothills and Oakland and featuring original, ’80s-inspired songs by H.P. Mendoza (Colma: The Musical), Longhorns centers on a good ’ol Texas college boy who would never in a million years admit to being homosexual—no matter who he fantasizes about when he’s in the saddle. Until, that is, Kevin (Jacob Newton) encounters Cesar (Derek Villanueva), a fellow student who’s proudly and publicly out. Lewis has a lot of fun with Kevin’s awkwardly charming self-denial, which climaxes at an overnight getaway with a couple of equally, um, straight friends. By that point, lust has given way to love, priming the pump for a poignant denouement. Longhorns receives its world premiere at Frameline35, the San Francisco International LGBT Film Festival, Saturday, June 25 at 11 a.m. at the Castro. Lewis, a San Francisco Chronicle editor by day, was readily agreeable to conducting an interview by email.
SF360: How and why did you get into filmmaking?
David Lewis: I’ve been writing in some form all my life, whether it’s plays, short stories or newspaper writing. I always wanted to write screenplays, but was afraid I couldn’t do it. Then I wrote the feature film Under One Roof for Todd Wilson in 2002 and was part of the production. Being on set hooked me from Day One.
SF360: Is Longhorns in any way remotely, vaguely autobiographical?
Lewis: Absolutely. My college life was one continuous sex romp. (Laughter.) I wish. Seriously, though, sex (and my friends’ purported exploits with women) was topic No. 1 during college, and it was amazing how crudely we talked to each other. It was a not so subtle way of carving out sexual identity. But for some of us, there was an undercurrent of sexual confusion: We were figuring out who we were and what we really wanted. It’s all part of growing up. It was true then; it’s true now. Though it’s somewhat easier now.
SF360: Was writing and shooting the film in any way vaguely, remotely cathartic? Were you paying Texas back for various college-era slights?
Lewis: Writing is always cathartic to me, a process of self-actualization. Shooting, too. I am a strange creature: Most of my family lives in Texas, but I have never lived there because I went off to college when they moved there. I’m the California kid in the Texas family. We all get along very well, but I do feel I’m the odd duck in the bunch. And God knows they feel I’m the odd duck in the bunch, too.
SF360: Why did you set the film in 1982?
Lewis: The hair and the wardrobe and the music were just too totally hard to resist.
SF360: What’s with the conspicuously placed photo of President Reagan on the bulletin board? Can’t we leave the poor guy alone? What did he ever do to anyone?
Lewis: It’s the subversive in me. What can I say? I suppose they won’t be playing Longhorns at his presidential library. Maybe I should ask them. What do you think?
SF360: How much full frontal male nudity is enough? Too much?
Lewis: It depends on the story. This was a sex comedy about crazy college boys, so I think the bounty of nudity in these outrageous situations worked very well, and added not only to the humor of the story, but also to the characters. I have to say that all the craziness is balanced by romance, too. I believe this story has a lot of heart. And I have to give credit to my brilliant and game cast for bringing these characters to life, and making us care about these young men.
SF360: How did you meet H.P. Mendoza, and how did you work together on the themes, use and placement of his songs in the film?
Lewis: I met H.P. at the Frameline festival in 2009. We got along instantly. Then I saw his film Fruit Fly and said to myself, ‘I have to work with this person!’ When he read the Longhorns script, he got it right away. He had an instant vision of what kind of 1980s music to write and how it could fit into the film. He also was the editor. As I did with [cinematographer] Frazer [Bradshaw] on the set, I gave H.P. a lot of latitude in postproduction, and like Frazer, he rewarded me with genius. H.P.’s themes and music are astounding, and coupled with Frazer’s cinematography, Longhorns turned into quite an ’80s concoction.
SF360: What were your biggest filmmaking challenges making Longhorns? How did you deal with them?
Lewis: Money is always the biggest challenge. We had time constraints, like all indie filmmakers. Making sure that the film had a true 1980s feel was also a big challenge.
SF360: In your mind, how does Longhorns further your development and evolution as a filmmaker?
Lewis: I think I loosened up as a writer and director. After doing emotional, sometimes wrenching dramas like Rock Haven and Redwoods, I needed some humor and just went for broke. I kept telling myself, ‘I shouldn’t be writing these outrageous scenes with this outrageous language—everyone’s gonna think I’m off my rocker.’ (Laughter) Also, I got to work with great people, who were mentors and taught me so much: amazing cinematographer Frazer Bradshaw, brilliant editor/composer/producer H.P. Mendoza and wonderful producer Lewis Tice, who kept things sane and on an even keel. I want to keep working with people like this, because they make me a better filmmaker.
SF360: Most of the film consists of interiors, but you did have to include a shot of Austin. Are you proud of being the first filmmaker ever to use a Bay Area location to double for Texas?
Lewis: We have exterior shots of Austin, the UT [University of Texas] campus, and of course the beautiful ranch in the Sierra foothills where some of the exterior action takes place. I think the Grass Valley area worked nicely as the Hill Country of Texas. Many of the actors were Southern, too, so that helped.
SF360: Texas’ image will never be the same after Longhorns. Are you proud of the fact that at least some of us are now convinced there are more ‘closet whores’ in Texas than barbeque grills?
Lewis: Very. Can I use that slogan for the poster?
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