Scott Boswell's first feature The Stranger In Us faces the street with considerable compassion, observing the youthful exploration of urban night life with generous honesty and tact.
Scott Boswell is production coordinator at San Francisco State University; a hybrid position where he teaches half-time, while lending production support for all the media needs of the film students the rest of the time. Having graduated with an MFA from San Francisco State in 2004, the shorts he produced while he was a graduate student were the first shorts he distributed, with some success. His film came to me in an interim cut by way of Frako Loden who felt I would appreciate its subtleties. She handed me her screener, which I watched, and which intrigued me enough to contact Boswell to see if he would be willing to discuss the project. We met up for coffee at Bean There in the Lower Haight.
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Michael Guillén: You're in post-production for The Stranger In Us; working on color correction?
Scott Boswell: We are right now, yeah. In the Fall we decided to do some focus test screenings of the film with small groups of people who didn't know anything about the project and mostly didn't know me. The result pinpointed where people were finding the plot confusing. We decided there were maybe five or six issues we needed to address and so we've done that.
Guillén: Thus, the screener I've watched is not as the film stands today?
Boswell: What you've seen is before we did a re-cut, yeah.
Guillén: I was intrigued by your film's narrative structure, which—admittedly—I "got" more upon second viewing than the first. It took me a bit to understand that your main character Anthony was remembering earlier events while on a bus to find his friend Gavin. So I'm wondering now if that's been shifted in your recent edit?
Boswell: No, that basic structure remains intact. But we actually added chapter cards to give the film seasonal stamps to help distinguish that these are two different tracks in Anthony's life. There's actually three. There's the track of him on the bus, where he's having memories of these two people who have come into his life and who he's lost. There were lots of questions around that in the focus screenings. People typically by the end of the film pretty much understood the structure; but, the questions always landed in the first act.
Guillén: To be honest, I didn't fully catch the structure until Anthony showed up with a black eye….
Boswell: Which is easily an hour into the film.
Guillén: …and then I thought, "Oh. That's why I'm not following certain things here. The sequence is being shuffled." I liked that, however, because that's truer to how people actually remember things. People don't remember things in a linear fashion.
Boswell: That was the idea behind it. The trick with editing this project was finding the balance between people enjoying the puzzle while figuring out the structure and being annoyed by it.
Guillén: I was never "annoyed."
Boswell: I'm glad to know that.
Guillén: I've watched enough films to know there are many different ways to structure a narrative and none of them are essentially wrong; it's whatever the filmmaker wants to do. Let's back up a bit to the title: The Stranger In Us. Why that title?
Boswell: By and large the film is about self-discovery and the character—this actually comes up in his poetry—is exploring the relationship between himself and strangers, but also the discovery of what he doesn't know about himself. For example, most people who find themselves in a situation where their partner is not treating them well and is being abusive surprises them. We don't go out into the world on a daily basis thinking that that's going to happen to us, normally, right? This particular character comes from a sheltered world and enters this urban area to discover that he's doing things that he may never have thought that he would do, on the streets with Gavin, the homeless character, experimenting with drugs and those kinds of things.
Guillén: While I was watching this again this morning in preparation for our talk, I found myself considering that an alternate title to this film could have been Face the Street. Where your film spoke to me was in my own experience of growing up on the streets of San Francisco. I arrived here in 1975 at the age of 21 during that incredible Castro Florescence where it seemed we had all been summoned by some kind of homing beacon. Anthony's experience in your film was my experience and—I might venture—will be every young gay man's experience coming to a metropolitan center like San Francisco. In some ways your film was difficult for me to watch—i.e., remember—because, of course, I'm so much more mature now. [Laughs.] I'm more centered, more grounded, and it was difficult to relive that awkward and necessary pain that a young man has to experience in order to familiarize himself with the stranger within. I appreciated how this was expressed not only through Anthony's struggles to become a poet but in the poetic vision of the film itself. Are you a poet?
Boswell: No, not in the traditional sense.
Guillén: So this isn't a situation of a closet poet coming out as a filmmaker?
Boswell: No, but I'm drawn to it. I appreciate slam poetry, which the current generation of young people have embraced and—in many ways—they're expert at it. Before I worked at SF State, I ran a digital filmmaking program for teenagers in Oakland and, of course, I started to meet all the different worlds I ran in and all the different arts that they create. Slam poetry was one step away from what we were doing.
Slam poetry has become so popular and has received so much attention that now they feature slam poets on HBO and they're hosting national competitions. But myself, no, I'm not a poet. What you said earlier about coming to the city and sharing Anthony's experience I find particularly interesting because—since I've been working on this project—I've found a number of gay men who have told me that. There's a lot of mythology around San Francisco, especially for gay men. Hence, when we arrive here we don't quite know what to expect but we're driven by some sort of optimism.
Quite a few people have told me that they relate to Anthony's experience of feeling alien in the city at first and having trouble making connections with people while discovering this more urban, gritty street life. I love that. For me, I didn't quite know what to expect from the Castro but somehow it was disappointing.
Guillén: When did you arrive in San Francisco?
Boswell: I arrived here in 1997.
Guillén: Ah, so what you entered was the commodified Castro?
Boswell: I did! I experienced a commodified, more gentrified Castro and—at least on the surface—what I was seeing were more materialistic values and things that weren't interesting to me. I came looking for an alternative and, instead, felt alien in this enormous gay world. But I also came to discover that there were lots of us like that.
Guillén: Definitely. I have often said that the meanest men I have ever met were gay men in the Castro. Which was quite a shock to me when I arrived in San Francisco from the conservative Mormon belt of southern Idaho. I came expecting brotherhood and found brutal hierarchies of sexism and—much to my alarm—racism.
Which leads me to one of the distressing topics in Strangers In Us: that of partner abuse, a subject that's not usually addressed in gay narratives. The self-loathing that capsizes relationships among gay men was skillfully handled in your film. Likewise, inversely, the genuine relationship Anthony had with Gavin the street kid pulled me right in for feeling so resoundingly honest. Truthfully, I learned to know myself as a young man by hanging on the streets. Anthony's desultory late night wanderings and how he learns to navigate the city—down to the broken glass and shit on the sidewalk—struck me as an urban poetic aesthetic of a young man's coming into being. I have to ask then: where did this story come from?
Boswell: The story is autobiographical and very much reflective of my experience coming to this city. Of course, whenever you work on a piece of fiction it becomes more and more fictionalized; but, the lead characters are based on people that I knew and experienced. I was largely trying to capture that experience, which is unique to people like yourself and I who have come from smaller, more conservative regions….
Guillén: Where are you from?
Boswell: I'm from central Illinois, a town called Normal. I literally grew up tasseling corn in the summertime. Normal was very much in the Midwestern Bible Belt. I moved here sight unseen. I just decided to pick up and go West. I don't regret it for a minute; but, I will say that you find yourself in this entirely new world and it's exciting and scary and makes you question everything about yourself. Ultimately, you either find your place in it or you don't.
In terms of domestic violence between gay men, you're right, I haven't seen that portrayed much in "gay" movies, or between same-sex couples at least. But it's always been of interest to me on a political level as well as a personal level and that's one of the reasons that I wanted to explore it. I mean, I've seen violence portrayed between gay men such as in Brokeback Mountain where I felt they were effectively trying to beat out the homophobia, that they were both frightened for being attracted to another male, but that violence was coming from somewhere else. I was more interested in the kinds of violence integral to a relationship, whether it's between two men, two women, or a man and a woman. I feel this is a big issue in the society at large; but, I haven't seen it dealt with a lot in the gay world.
Guillén: In some ways, it's not cool timing as it seems most gay films these days are concentrating on positive images. That's okay in and of itself, although I believe it delimits the potential of queer cinema, which—unfortunately—appears to have collapsed into rom-com fantasies that I don't feel particularly further queer sensibility, other than to offer comfort through fantasies of commodification. Partner abuse isn't a comfortable subject to look at, but, it's a real one, and I commend your film for tackling the theme, and the performances of your actors for rendering it real. Can you speak to me about your three main actors who play Anthony, Gavin and Steven? Are they San Franciscan actors?
Boswell: They were when we shot the film. Let me start by saying that my initial approach to this project was completely different. I was wanting to do something a little more experimental. And if I may back up just a little? I've always been fascinated with the Polk Street neighborhood as an older, grittier, alternative to the Castro, especially the Polk Street that I knew in the late '90s. Now Polk Street's become more gentrified itself; but I was fascinated with the kinds of bars you'd find there and the diversity of people, the rent boys on the street, the tranny hookers and all of that had some sort of appeal to me. I was thinking of doing something more like a documentary set in the Polk Street area but it would be a hybrid narrative where I would bring in actors into the scenario and film it like a documentary to see what we could make. Then as I worked on it, the script became more fleshed out and traditional, and I posted earlier than usual for actors before I'd actually finished the script, because I was still thinking of a more experimental approach. I wanted there to be a lot of improv and stuff that had to be worked out before the camera rather than in pre-production.
One of the first people to respond was Raphael Barker, who appeared as Rob in Shortbus (2006). This threw me because I wasn't expecting to hear from someone who had some props. I thought, "Okay, well, let's meet." So we had coffee, hit it off immediately, and in some ways he inspired me to move forward with the project as it is.
Guillén: Let me be clear about this, when Raphael contacted you there was no finished script? How did he know what he was auditioning for? Had you posted a general story outline?
Boswell: Yeah. On the call for actors, I tried to pitch it in the way that I felt passionate about it. That's what drew him. He actually said something about how he doesn't normally respond to these but this sounded like an interesting project and he wanted to find out more about it. When I saw Shortbus in the theater, Raphael genuinely impressed me in that movie. He was one of my favorite actors in that film. Out of all the actors in that film, he's the one I would have wanted to contact me. So I was very excited that he was interested. When we met, I tried to explain to him what I was trying to do with the project and he got it. He was on board for it. There was another good eight months before we actually went into production. I did audition Raphael because I needed to know he could do it. He genuinely gave the best audition, which is apparent in his performance in the film.
Adam Perez, who plays Gavin, was one of maybe forty auditions for that role. We just kept looking at actor after actor. Ultimately, he proved to be bringing to the role what we wanted. We made him audition three times because we wanted to see that he could handle it. Raphael was kind enough to come in and do a chemistry test with him. They worked together very well, which I was excited about.
Scott Cox, who plays Steven, is a local stage actor who, incidentally, is the sweetest guy on the planet. If you've gone to plays locally, you've probably caught him at some point. I knew him because of a short I had worked on several years ago. We had been trying to find someone who could handle the difficult role of Steven. Fully qualified actors were having trouble bringing something to the role that we were looking for and I just suddenly remembered Scott and having worked with him a number of years earlier, so I contacted him and asked him, "Would you like to audition?" He was excited about it. And then it all worked out.
So that's how we came to working with those three and all three of them were such a pleasure to work with—and thank God!—because you hear nightmare stories sometimes.
Guillén: How much did they lend to the development of the script? Did you do a lot of improvisation with them to shape dialogue?
Boswell: We did. A fair amount. The script is 100 pages; but, the way it reads, there are paragraphs that say: "Now we're going to improv", with descriptions of what should happen for the set-up and I let them go where they wanted with it. I wanted to capture a naturalistic feel to the film and retain some sense of the original documentary impulse. Personally, it's also the kind of acting I enjoy. The truth is that 85% of the script was written but the actors were given liberty to adlib and then there were moments when we risked improvisation. We did spend quite a bit of time in auditions as well with improv to see if people could handle it. I have to say that sometimes the actors provided gold and sometimes they didn't; but, ultimately, I got what I needed. All of them brought moments to the script that I didn't compose myself. All of them also brought moments that were absolutely off base—which is what happens in improv—and that's when as a director you need to step in and bring it back to where it needs to be.
Guillén: Who are you imagining to be the audience for this film?
Boswell: That's an excellent question. I decided when I made this film that, first of all, I was just going to do it. That's not because I don't care about audience. But I wanted to make a feature for a long time and I woke up a couple of years ago and realized, "You can! Maybe you go a little bit into debt. But do you choose to buy a car or choose to make a low-budget feature film?" Once I had that thought, nothing was going to stop me. I'm a big believer in quality work and I believe that—if work is done well—it will find an audience. I don't think The Stranger In Us will appeal to all gay men. I do hope it plays in LGBT festivals. I hope it plays in international festivals too. We haven't aggressively started the distribution process yet. I suspect the audience will be somewhat diverse. We have shown it to maybe 100 people now and we've received some positive reactions from a diverse group of people and so The Stranger In Us needs to appeal to a certain aesthetic taste, to people who can appreciate the kind of film that we've shot and made. Perhaps those are film festival goers? Maybe there's an LGBT market for it? In general, audiences who can appreciate dramatic character-driven work. It's definitely in the indie vein so I imagine it would have to be something of a film festival audience.
Guillén: Though the film allows access in several different ways. For example, I've approached it by way of memory because, of course, the film reminds me of my own youth and my transformation from rural to urban. In fact, because it faces the street so honestly, I was wondering how its urbanity will speak to audiences outside an urban area? I have to reiterate that the depiction of Gavin is one of the most thrillingly authentic portraits of queer street youth I've ever seen. It was the character of Gavin, and Adam Perez's pitch-perfect performance, that enthused me about wanting to talk to you about this project. Basically I just wanted to tell you exactly that. Gavin, as a character, is such a grounded, real person. Also the bartender who Anthony solicits for help in determining Gavin's whereabouts is someone I feel I already know. And, of course, I'm very intrigued by the transgender character Sonja who serves a wise and poetic function in the film, almost like a member of a Greek chorus. What were you trying to say through her character?
Boswell: It's funny you mention Sonja. She comes up a lot in conversation, which I enjoy. My initial idea—and the way it's written in the script—is that she is another one of those lovely characters that you meet in the Tenderloin. What I love about the Tenderloin is all the crazy—and I mean that lovingly—people that you encounter. I don't think Sonja's crazy at all. I never wanted her to be a joke or a caricature or anything like that. I wanted her to be lovely. Joshua Grannell actually helped me find her. Her name is Veronica Klaus. She's a well-established local cabaret singer. I approached her and she agreed to do it and the song she sings in the film is her song. There's a studio version of her song that we'll probably incorporate into the credits in the final cut.
Sonja is a character who's a bit mystical in that she observes what's going on around her and she sees that Anthony's in pain. She offers whatever comfort she can, even by just crossing paths with him on the street. In retrospect, I might have included her more, largely because I love Veronica's performance. Of course, going into it you don't always know what you're going to get; but, in this post phase, I have often thought that I would have put her in more often.
Guillén: That's actually a question I was going to raise. Being that this is your first feature, a project that you have strived for quite a long time, and now that it's moreorless done, would you have done anything differently? What is the main thing you've learned from your first feature?
Boswell: I've learned a lot. I've learned that you must always be extremely focused and mindful of your vision for the project. If you lose sight of that, scenes aren't going to work. Only you, as the director, carries that. Meaning that it's not necessarily the responsibility of the actor. They're not the director. You might find that they tripped, especially when you're allowing improv. For instance, Raphael loves to be funny.
Guillén: He does have some cute bits he delights in.
Boswell: And thank God because it brings layers to the character.
Guillén: His humor reveals his vulnerability.
Boswell: Exactly. But if it were to drift too far in that direction, the tone of the film would be lost. So there were times that I had to pull him back. The only thing I would do differently is that I imagined this to be a piece where all of the puzzle would fall into place more clearly than it seems to. That's one of the reasons we've done some additions and re-cutting to set up more clues to guide the audience into what they're seeing. I don't like films that hit you over the head with structure and its meaning and things like that, but I failed to realize as the writer of this piece just how obtuse it is for many viewers. I will be more mindful of that in the future.
Guillén: "Obtuse" only in the sense that, I suspect, people don't really want to know themselves very well and are, thus, reluctant to do their share of the work. As you said earlier, a lot of young gay people come to the city with preconceived notions of what life is going to be like for them once they arrive here. They anticipate a fullness of experience that real life often delivers fractured. You can become hardened because of that, jaded, which was always something I was most fearful of as a young man: I didn't want to become a jaded queen.
Boswell: [Laughs.] Which, fortunately, you didn't.
Guillén: [Knocking on the table.] Fortunately, I didn't. But, even if you don't become a jaded queen, you still hazard becoming a macho mannerist hiding behind enacted virilities. Rather than concerning yourself with the imagined failure of your narrative, I would focus on how it successfully depicts a young man who doesn't even really know what he can have or become yet—though he might have a sense of what he wants—yet, by film's end, even though it's left open-ended and is not neatly tied up, you sense that Anthony is ready for the challenge of living an authentic life. It's a subtle optimism: every young person can answer the call to lead an authentic life. For gay people, especially, it's problematic because there are all that many more barriers in the way of leading an authentic life, not the least being their own preconceptions and fantasies.
Boswell: I agree. That has been some of my own frustration with San Francisco. I don't mean to bash the Castro; but….
Guillén: [Laughs.] Oh go ahead.
Boswell: The Castro symbolizes….
Guillén: All that went wrong!
Boswell: When I first moved here, the apartment that I found to live in—and you know how competitive and difficult it is to find housing—was in the Castro, which shocked me. I never expected that to happen as someone coming from the Midwest, and everyone knowing what the Castro is, and so on and so forth. To me the Castro symbolizes the inauthenticity that you're describing. I've always resisted it. Of course, I love the Castro Theatre and I love the sense that there's this mythological community that's always festive and safe—even though it's not always—but, my attitude has largely been to resist falling into that and, as cliché as it sounds, to not become that, to remain true to myself. That's one of the reasons I moved out of the Castro. And you may notice in the film that Anthony never goes to the Castro. He's in San Francisco but he never goes there.
Guillén: I did notice that. I noticed that the film focuses on the Civic Center, the Tenderloin and Polk Street.
Boswell: That's why. Because of what the Castro symbolizes for me. I completely agree with you. I think it's reflective of what I do want to say about this city.
Guillén: As a film journalist who watches lots of movies and monitors the fantasies that basically inform movies, I often consider which fantasies (i.e., movies) can actually help people lead an authentic life and which will throw them off the track. One of my main critiques of queer cinema is that I often feel that the stories that are being told/sold are inauthentic narratives.
Boswell: I agree.
Guillén: These are not stories that are going to help anybody achieve anything, except perhaps a momentary illusion of normalcy, which itself is fraught with error. Returning to your choice of locations, and your decision to monitor Anthony's nocturnal wanderings, are you familiar with the work of João Pedro Rodrigues?
Guillén: His debut feature was O Fantasma, and he followed that up with Odete, and most recently with To Die Like A Man. One of the aspects I most enjoy about João's work—and I've talked to him about this—is that he uses the night as his mise-èn-scene. Night becomes the realm or the domain within which his characters discover themselves. Night is their mirror. Can you speak to what night means for you in The Stranger In Us?
Boswell: First of all, I can't deny that it's based largely on real experiences. In that sense, it's purely just trying to capture something I experienced myself. There was … is a Gavin and he was someone that I used to only see at night and run into in the neighborhood, and he was someone with whom I developed a friendship when I didn't feel that I had a lot of other close relationships here, and had gone through and just come out of a difficult relationship. But I love the visual symbol of being in the dark. I also love the beauty of Polk Street at night because it's so colorful and florescent and for me it sets up what is simultaneously appealing and scary about it. Because there are all these things going on around, it's possible that you could get hurt; it's possible that you could get lost; but, it's also erotic and beautiful and there are other people out there just as lost and lonely as you are. In terms of just a place on the planet where different people meet, I found the Polk Street region a fascinating place to explore and it seems to me that happens most at night.
Guillén: I've frequently considered that what was so different in the '70s was the proportion between private and public space. So much of what was public space has become privatized since then, such that it's only at night these areas are reclaimed as public. I especially took note of this in the scene in The Stranger In Us where Anthony meets Sonja. This was filmed outside the public library?
Boswell: It's actually the Asian Art Museum, but the Civic Center area.
Guillén: I was fascinated by this because the Civic Center is truly a private sector of art and cultural institutions, a government sector with city and state institutions, and yet at night it's being reclaimed as a terrain of self-discovery for an alternative culture.
Boswell: The shot where Anthony sees Gavin for the first time is in front of City Hall.
Guillén: How did you decide where you wanted to set your film? You've talked a little bit about Polk Street already. Did you have any issues filming in these locations?
Boswell: No. For the most part we had permits.
Guillén: So you weren't shooting guerilla?
Boswell: We didn't do it all guerilla, though we did do a bit when we shot a few hours past what we were permitted for. But no one asked. It's funny, we shot for days and for hours and hours on Polk Street, in the alleys around Polk Street, and the police never once asked. Which, of course, if we hadn't secured the permits, they would have asked every time we went out there. I don't know if they had bigger fish to fry; but, we chose the locations largely for aesthetic reasons and lighting reasons. We didn't set up any outside lights. We scouted very carefully beforehand and spent a lot of time walking around and driving around that area, looking for places where light always falls at night, either from street lamps or any other artificial lights set up in the area. Then we set all of our scenes beneath those lights because it's very easy to walk just a few feet away and fall into darkness in a way that wouldn't work for the visuals. We based our locations largely on the light that we could find. Some of the scenes turned out beautiful in ways that look almost lit. If you look carefully, there's light on the shoulder, on the head, on the face.
Guillén: Which lends to its naturalistic look. It is real, without being murky as can often be the case. You've billed your film as cinema vérité, though your camera is more controlled and composed than what I would associate with cinema vérité. To wrap up here, though you're still in post-production, what is your strategy for getting the film out there once the film is finished?
Boswell: The obvious first step would be to submit to film festivals. I always find this to be a tricky step in my work because I don't just want to be a gay filmmaker; but, I get that I'm dealing primarily with gay characters and themes. I always hope that my films will screen in international film festivals as well as the LGBT festivals, and my shorts have, so hopefully this one will as well.
Guillén: Do you strategize that way? Do you aim for a general audience first and then fall back on the sure LGBT audience?
Boswell: Typically, I've done them both simultaneously and just see what happens. But there are a couple of other possible trajectories. I, ultimately, would love some DVD distribution. I obviously want it to be shown as much as it can and my hope is to interest some of the distributors who would distribute a movie like this. My producer Cheryl Valenzuela has been largely looking into these possibilities. Also, independent filmmakers are dealing with the fact that there's a lot more media being produced because it's cheaper to produce now—which is why I could make this film—but, when you hear the number of submissions that festivals are getting now, it's staggering. So how does your film get attention? There's a movement of DIY filmmakers creating distribution strategies that work for them and we're just starting to look into that to try to create our own buzz around the project. This is all new territory for me so it's simultaneously mysterious and exciting and worthy of exploration in the coming months. We're in the grey zone of thinking, "Who's going to show this? And when?" That whole international vs. LGBT issue is tricky, because you don't want to turn anyone down but you also don't want to undersell.
Cross-published on Twitch.