“Those People” Indie Film Interview w/ Joey Kuhn

Those People is an independent film that tells the tale of millennials and the journey of finding one’s self in mist of relationships in New York City. Starring a young aspiring painter named Charlie Kingberg (played by Jonathan Gordon) who has a crush over his charismatic best friend Sebastian (played by Jason Ralph) since childhood, his secret obsession towards his friend becomes more complicated when he starts a relationship with a older pianist name Tim (played by Haaz Sleiman).

Fan Helix had chance to speak with director, writer and producer Joey Kuhn on his experience in coming out as gay man to his, coming out to his religion, and how the making of this film help him get over his relationship.

So when was that time that you came out to the world that you were gay?

Joey: The first time that I came out was during my freshman year at Brown College. At that time, coming out as a gay person was really harder than I thought.  After I first came out to my friends during Halloween and then around having three weeks off during Thanksgiving break, I told myself that I would come out to my family around spring break, which I previously learned was a very popular time to come out of the closet to your parents (*laughs*).

It was during a family dinner where I told them I was gay and it was so nerve racking. To my surprise, my family had a great reaction to my announcement. My brother, who was twelve at the time said “Oh my gosh! You are just like Will and Grace.”

I am glad to say that I had a pretty painless coming out experience. That was back in 2003 when I was 18 at the time. I am now 30.

How did you manage to land an actor like Jason Ralph for the role of Sebastian?

Joey: I had an amazing casting director named Susan Schabacker and she brought Jason in along with other amazing actors. For the role of Sebastian, I wanted the character to be a bit of an asshole that likes to jerk Charlie around, but wanted him to be likeable enough for the audience to have a little bit of sympathy for him. So Jason Ralph came in one day to audition and my jaw drop to the floor as he nailed Sebastian’s character right out of the park. We wanted him to do two comedic scenes and one dramatic scene set within a jail alongside Sebastian’s father.

Jason Ralph in THOSE PEOPLE - Photo by Vanessa Lenz Neithardt - Courtesy of Wolfe Video(2)

So when Jason Ralph and Jonathan Gordon came in to audition, they had this immediate connection and chemistry between each other. They even started toying and teasing each other during the audition. One thing that was so great about Jason on set was that he knew how to act during close ups and improvise on extra takes. With his first day in set, during the piano bar scene where he meets Tim and doesn’t know how to sing the song called “Minor Major-General”, he said “blasphemy” as written from the script and it never really worked. So on the last take, I gave him full reign to do whatever he wanted during the end of the scene and he gave off a condescending laugh that kinda became the essence of Sebastian. He was a true professional all the way through.

So what was so interesting about East Side New York that you would choose to tell this type of story?  

Joey: I have never seen a gay romance set in New York City, so I thought the grandness of a city and the emotions set within the love triangle for this film was appropriate for that setting. I did consider the thought of having the plot set in Brooklyn or lower east side NY or any number of places where most of the people lived and just felt that this small intimate love story needed to be set in a larger, more social and political backdrop. So when I set myself to write the script, the Bernie Madoff scandal was taking place during that time and I was drawn to the events of his son Mark Madoff whose life was ruined due to the mistakes made by his father.

Along with the Madoff scandal being the an important piece in the story, I also wanted to tell a story based from my own experiences. I fell in love with my best friend during school and I was afraid to tell him my true feelings for years due to the fear of rejection.. It was these two experiences that combined together to tell my story.

Interesting. So can we assume that your best friend, the one you fell in love with was like Sebastian, or did you make the character up for the film?

Joey: Oh, definitely like Sebastian. He’s not the son of a New York’s financier, but the voice of Jason Ralph’s Character. He was the over-the-top, charismatic golden boy. He loves to play the push & pull during his friendship, knowing that I had feelings for him. So when I was writing the character, I had a voice in my head speaking to me. I was always asking question like “What is his motives”” and tried to view the situation from his side. I also look at the character from my point of view as in “Why this he was treating me that way?” and questioned my self-worth to him.

I also asked the questions like “Why was I holding on to this?” That break-up scene between  Charlie and Tim was the conversation I was having in my head. Writing this movie was kinda my form of therapy, to get over my Sebastian.

Jason Ralph (left) and Jonathan Gordon (right) in THOSE PEOPLE - Photo by Tom Zuback - Courtesy of Wolfe Video

As a way of building on the subject with Sebastian: He looks like the kind of person that everybody wants to be around because he is so charismatic and dangerous to the point where he is toxic in a relationship. At the other end, he meets Tim and he is a person that has his life together.

What I thought to myself when watching this was that Charlie wasn’t a good match with any of these men because he didn’t know who he was as a person. Did you ever get to a point where you thought that a relationship was too much and that you needed to find yourself?

Joey: Oh yeah! Things were so wonderful when we were together and had great times together, but things become toxic. After I confessed my feelings for him and he rejected those feelings, I had to create some space between us and realize that this was not a healthy relationship. Every time I would tell him that this won’t work romantically, he would come back to me seeking the attention and I would fall right back into the dynamic.

I knew that Charlie needed to be alone at the end of the film to find himself. He had to learn who he was in order to stop putting blame on others before himself, and at the end of the film, he was able to create the portrait of himself. I also had a lot of audience members come up to saying that the film should have concluded with Charlie ending up with Tim or Sebastian, but I knew that this character needed to be alone at the end of it. I remember reading this quote from Nora Ephron: “You can’t meet someone until you become what you’re becoming.”

It was the hope that Charlie becomes Tim at the end.

So during filming, there was a blizzard.

Joey: Yes, there was! (*Laughs*) Oh god! It was such a headache!

How did you manage shooting the film during that blizzard?

Joey: Well we found out that there was going to be a snow blizzard in New York on the final day of shooting. I had a meeting with my producers to decide if we should wait until the blizzard passed by or should we film it during the storm. I decided that we should film during the blizzard because I felt that it could add some emotion to the climax of the scene, and also make the final scene look more expensive than it actually was.

So we went with it, but there was some challenges. Jason Ralph’s character was supposed to be perched on a fake ledge on a roof attached to safety harness but it was unsafe to do, so we had to change our coverage. The actors also constantly got wet during the film shooting so we had to prepare a new change of clothing for them. We also had to cut out some of the dialogue.  I remember the first part of the scene where the dialogue we wrote wasn’t working too well for Jason during his big scene, so we decided to remove some of it and make it simpler when he was on the ledge. Again, I have to give props to Jason for handling that moment!

Yeah! I enjoyed that scene a lot because there was some amazing acting talent coming from Jason Ralph and most importantly, a turning point from Charlie’s character about the whole situation between Sebastian and Tim.

Another thing that I wanted to talk about regarding the film was your religion: Coming out to your family and friends as gay is one thing, but I feel it is very bold to come out to an institution of faith, due to how some religious institutions handle things whenever a person is seen as gay. How did you come out to your rabbi and how did they react that?

Joey: I am a very secular Jewish person.  My Jewish identity is very important, but I am not ultra religious. I go to temple twice a year, usually on holidays, and I’ve always had a very good relationship with my rabi so I never had to amount to him.

But wanted to film a particular scene during Rosh Hashanah so I wanted to get his permission before doing so. Before I went to ask him, my father was like “Maybe you shouldn’t let him know what it is all about. Just keep that close to the chest and just shoot the scene.” But I felt very strongly that the rabbi should know what the filming was about and not to surprise him on that day.

So when I went to ask him if I could shoot the scene, I gave him a wall to explanations about the scene and to my surprise, he said yes! He mentioned to me that he was a big advocate of gay rights in 70’s, have married gay people as well as spoken at gay temples. I was so blown away by his response, just because of the area that I lived was very conservative about those ideals.

So not only was I able shoot the scene with my rabbi in it, he was happy to show the film at his temple during the gay rights event in NYC.

What was your favorite scene in “Those People”?

Joey: My favorite scene I would have to say was the “Almost threesome” scene because it was an important turning point for Charlie’s character. It was the most important scene to me  emotionally because there was a big confrontation and I didn’t know how it would go. I remember there was a closed set on that day. Between Leo, the actors and I as we were dancing in the small space to get the intimate shots that we needed, I remember John saying that this was his favorite day of filming, which I was surprised because he was very frustrated in trying to get the the material right and those emotions on display in the scene.

I would expect a sex scene to be nerve racking since it’s such a personal act to perform while being exposed in front of other people filming it.

Joey: And when you have actors so willing and able to just go for it, you can’t ask for anything more. The actors were also so very good at communicating with each other and we wanted to make sure that everybody was safe as well as comfortable during it. This was also one of the audition scenes that both John and Jason did together so I knew beforehand that this was going to be a good scene, but again, you never know how it was going to turn out with other factors during shooting day.

So let talk about the song that both Sebastian and Charlie tried to out do each other in.

Joey: “Minor major General.”

Yes! I tried to sing the song myself… Didn’t go so well.

Joey: (*laughs*)

Why did you choose that song?  

Joey: The same way I wanted my New York to have its own sound. Woody Allen’s Manhattan has jazz, so I wanted my New York to have classical music and ever since I was in the six grade, ever since seeing the musical “Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Gondoliers”,  I have had an obsession with that kind of music. What also made this choice appealing was that the music was in the public domain so I didn’t have to worry about publishing rights, which can get very expensive.

I’m also such a big fan of other musicals and wanted my film to have the feeling that it was one. I wanted both characters to be obsessed with something so I created this competition that shows Charlie’s love for Sebastian, as well as being used to gauge on Charlie’s growth throughout the film. By the time he kept up with Sebastian through the song, it shown how much he has surpassed him. Another reason why I chose that song was because my grandfather would sing the song occasionally and I would always have that memory in the back of my head.

Well, after watching this film, I’d like to say that it well put together and truly relates to people in their 20’s about finding something about themselves.

Joey: Yes, well I’d like to say that we all have a little bit Sebastian in all of us.


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“Those People” is out now on Vimeo, DVD, and On Demand