Interview with “Hamlet 2” director Andrew Fleming

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Andrew Fleming is no stranger to controversy. An openly gay writer and director who splashed onto the scene with the uncommonly frank and unapologetically gay college dramedy Threesome in 1994, Fleming has defied convention (spunky tween comedy Nancy Drew and trippy gorefest Bad Dreams came from the same guy?), poked good-natured fun at our sacred cows (with the masterful political comedy Dick), and launched a subgenre of chick horror (The Craft), while keeping a decidedly queer viewpoint the whole way.

This week Hamlet 2, Fleming’s hilarious and wonderfully vulgar satire of theatre, inspirational teachers and the artistic void that is Tucson, Arizona, opens across the country. We took the opportunity to catch up with the director on offending, entertaining, and how the world has changed since Threesome. First off, what’s your beef with Tucson?
Andrew Fleming:
Something very unpleasant did happen to me there, which was a reflection on the city. But um, no, it’s just sort of this idea of this place that’s supposedly "paradise" … There’s just this idea of a city that’s supposedly paradise, but it’s really just flat. It’s a stand-in for what’s wrong with America.

AE: You didn’t grow up there yourself,  but you had a personal experience there?
All right. I’ll tell you. I have actually not told anybody this. I screened a movie there that I did a long time ago, Threesome, at the University. And in that movie, the lead character is gay, but it’s a bit of a mislead. You don’t really know for the first 15 minutes and at one point he reveals it in a voice-over and about a third of the audience got up and walked out.

I did some press there and it was very … it wasn’t hostile, but it was clear that my being gay was strange and you know, it’s a Republican state and it’s a very, very, very segregated city. The poor people live here and they’re largely Hispanic and the rich people live over there and they’re largely white. Another close friend of mine was a professor at the University there so I spent a lot of time there, actually.

AE: You sort of play up some of those things in the movie. So you did have some familiarity with the city. 
AF: Yeah, I spent a time there. I’ve been there many times, so it wasn’t out of nowhere. It’s just like, you know, Pittsburgh.

AE: If I’m not mistaken, Rand in Hamlet 2 is the first gay character you’ve had since Threesome, am I right?
Oh, no, no. There was the very un-PC character in The In-Laws, the villain it was actually, a self-denying gay man. And let’s see, there were supporting parts, like parts in Nancy Drew, the two thugs at the beginning, there was a gay couple and they’re snapping at each other.

AE: Did you have anything specific in mind when you wrote the character of Rand? Was he taken at all from your life or did you have anywhere specific you wanted to go with this character?
We just … wanted to see a fresh take on that group of high school kids. There was this one point where I thought, “Geez, this is kind of like an insane depiction of a gay character. Like he’s not really the most pathetic guy in the world.”

And I was looking at all the other characters in the movie and they’re all nuts, kind of self-destructive and insane. I thought why should we – I think that’s the greatest disservice to any group, to make any minority appear saintly in some way. Let’s be an equal-opportunity offender. The idea of a film where you’re ennobling the gay character because . . . I don’t know, because it’s the right thing to do politically. I think that that’s worse than anything.

AE: Taking a step back, everyone’s kind of crazy and he has his own issues, and he does move the story along.
His heart’s broken because he’s in love with Dana Marschz. My heart goes out to him.

AE: Did you have a similar experience in high school? Did you have drama classes like that?
I sort of had a moment like that, but it was in the yearbook staff. I left the yearbook staff to go to work in the film, TV department in my high school. It was sort of a grand, dramatic moment.

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AE: Is Dana based on anybody from your own personal life?
No, we really kind of engineered him. It’s like this idea of a teacher who is really, has this romantic idea of himself. He thinks he is an inspirational teacher like he has seen in the movies, but he’s really just kind of a boob.

AE: He’s a pretty grandiose boob, at least. I read that you said you cut a threesome scene from early in the movie. Did you film that or was that just in the script?
It’s kind of a threesome. It’s this scene with Dana and Brie and Gary at home and it gets very sexual. It’s not really a three-way. It’s kind of like two of them are doing it and one is watching. But it ended up being a little dark for the movie. It didn’t feel like the rest of the movie, but it’s a really interesting scene and it’ll be in the DVD.

AE: I read that you didn’t want it in the movie because you didn’t want people confused about Dana’s sexuality at all?
No, no, no, no. Because he’s sort of the one watching. It was just that it was too dark. It doesn’t even fly that he’s gay or anything.

AE: I loved that he was this very off-the-chart, bizarre, flamboyant character, but there’s never any sort of gay-panic humor associated with him. Nobody seems to attach his weirdness to the fact that he might be gay. A lot of people would have gone there with this character.
At one point we thought he might be an effeminate heterosexual or something, but the whole thing just felt cliché. It felt kind of camp. In the theater there is certainly a big percentage of gay men, but there are also just a lot of straight men and I know a lot of straight men in the theater who have that kind of flamboyance and that’s what [co-writer Pam Brady] and I hadn’t seen and we were more interested in.

AE: He didn’t seem very concerned about it either. He was very confident in how he put himself across. He operates in this universe where in his mind hiring the gay men’s chorus of Tucson seems perfectly normal.
We had this little line in the script, but we dropped it, but it was sort of like that they were supporting him just because he was challenging the status quo. So it wasn’t like it was his first choice for them, but they saw what he saw. I don’t know where that came from, but it was always in the script, it was always going to be there, the gay men’s chorus.

AE: So you used the real gay men’s chorus from Tucson?
We used the real ones from Albuquerque. And we shot in Albuquerque.

AE: I noticed Rand had a line in the preview about the hand job and it wasn’t in the film, it didn’t make the final cut. Was there anything of Rand’s that didn’t make the movie?
No and that was just for pacing, just to sort of move the movie along.

AE: But there weren’t any other scenes or any other character development cut for Rand?
No, no. He was very protected. Like there was a scene cut that was just the principal and the angry parents. The stuff that we cut was really the ‘in between.’ There wasn’t anything that we cut because it was too much or too crazy or anything. It was just like the stuff, like the air between the interesting parts.

AE: From the time since you did Threesome until now, do you think there’s any difference in how easy or difficult it is to incorporate gay humor or gay jokes into a mainstream film?
Oh, it’s entirely different. I think it would still be hard to make a movie that’s all gay characters at a studio, but studios aren’t making any movies that are all about character. Gay humor in general, I mean it’s a completely different world than it was then. I mean, just Will & Grace turned it in the opposite direction. But it’s like, you see beer commercials that are engineered for straight men that have an element of homoeroticism to them, like a funny joke or . . . but just in general male eroticism is so much more common now. There are entire networks devoted to material for gay men. It’s a different world. It really is. It’s amazing how different it is.

AE: Have you felt compelled in recent years to make another movie with a central gay theme or gay storyline to it?
It’s just this idea that it’s like, is your movie part of “gay cinema” or is it part of “straight cinema?” I just thought that idea, it’s like if you’re gay, you should live in the gay neighborhood. I’ve never bought into that. But in terms of gay characters, yeah, I wrote this albatross script that I’ve been trying to make forever and one of the three leads is gay, but I don’t know. It’s a very small, crazy movie and I don’t know if I’ll ever do it.

But I’m writing something else right now which is actually about two gay men. But just this idea like I’m going to write about this stuff because that’s my agenda, that’s what I never bought into. You know what I mean? I think you have to write about what interests you and to say I’m going to write about gay people or gay sex every time – It’s just, I don’t know. I mean, “Men should only write about men and women should only write about women…”

AE: Right, and white people shouldn’t write black characters and vice versa. You’ve been out since very early on in your career, but if you hadn’t made Threesome early on which had a lot of gay things in the story, do you know if you would have been an out director at that point?
Well, I was never in. I was brought up in LA and New York and my parents always had gay friends who were very open and I never pretended to be anything otherwise. It’s just that when I did Threesome, somebody from the New York Times literally called and said, “Are you gay?” and I said yes because they were going to review it or something and they wanted to say openly gay film director, or not. And at that point it was unusual. I mean very few people were out. I think Gregg Araki was and Gus Van Sant, but in Hollywood everybody was still kind of in a panic about it.

AE: I was in college when I came out and I remember seeing the ad for Threesome in the paper and just picking up from the tagline the implication that there was a gay character in it and my jaw just dropped.
Well it was Tri-Star and they released Philadelphia within a few months of Threesome. Those two movies were, those were the only movies since . . . The Birdcage was later, so it was basically Making Love.

AE: And we all know how well that one went. You have had a very varied career. You’ve worked in studios, family films, genre films and it doesn’t seem like it’s hindered your career at all to be an out director in Hollywood.
No, no. The truth is, even at that time there were so many gay people working in all studios, running some of them. It was never in any way limiting for me.

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AE: You said it’s a different world, things have really changed and now we’re seeing a lot of people, even actors come out. Do you think it’s becoming a more hospitable place?
I think it’s interesting that the people who came out first are people who are really brilliant actors because they know that if they’re good, I mean having a role, it doesn’t really matter what they do in their personal life whether they work or not.

AE: It’s less of a death sentence for an actor’s career.
Well, I think if you’re an actor and you’re either young, male or female, kind of a heartthrob, your personal life gets mixed up in it and that can work for or against you. I don’t know. If your career is based on your abilities, then it’s really not an issue, but if your career is based on what the tabloids say about you? I mean it’s interesting because I think Lindsay Lohan has been the first litmus test for that. The tabloids are being very careful about her. It’s like they have anxiety about doing the wrong thing.

AE: Do I see that Nancy Drew II is coming up? Is that on your plate?
I don’t really think it’s active at this moment.

AE: Hamlet 2 is so wonderfully profane and out there, is there a concern when you do such a project like this that you can do family films again?
I’m not really a family film guy.

AE: I’m a huge horror fan. Bad Dreams is really great. What’s been your favorite thing to make so far?
I feel like this movie is actually in the zone, where I live. I feel like this is kind of the closest to what I would want to go see the most. I mean, I‘ve never made a movie that I wouldn’t go out and see, but this movie is exactly where I want to be.

AE: It’s as close to the full distilled Andrew Fleming that we have out there so far. 
And I think that, like Threesome, I think those are more projects that I originated. Some of the others are, too, but they’re all a little different.

AE: Do you have anything in the works right now?
Yeah, a couple of different things. I’m just very superstitious about . . .

AE: Nothing you can talk about at this point. In terms of Hamlet 2, it’s great that it’s being promoted like crazy because I really like the film. Who do you think is going to be most offended by this movie?
Most offended? Oh, geez, let’s see. Let’s make a list. Well I think people who haven’t seen it could be offended by it because they might glean that it’s more offensive than it really is because I think at the center it’s a very generous world view, but if you look at each kind of subject matter that it takes on . . . The idea of race, it’s not a racist movie. It’s making fun of the racists in the movie. Even the main character has this sort of idiotic racial preconception about what the Hispanic family is going to be like, and he’s wrong. Even though we do play fast and loose with some language, it ends up trying to break the stereotype of what a Hispanic is in the movie.

And that Jesus thing, I mean it is irreverent to talk about the sexuality of Jesus, but there’s really nothing negative about it. The Catholic Church has been sexualizing Jesus for a couple thousand years now, so it’s kind of nothing new. But I think that there’s something sweet about the movie at the center of it and that it’s not necessarily offensive, it’s just kind of irreverent. On the other hand, I really hope some people get offended. It’s kind of exciting!

AE: There’s probably something in there everyone can find to get offended by. I think the’ raped in the face’ thing is the first time I’ve laughed aloud in the theater in several months.
Yeah, there. That doesn’t mean we just laughed about it. This is not – what are you making fun of here? You are making fun of the anxiety people have when you talk about rape. And he’s a victim, so we’re actually depicting victimhood and that kind of came from this friend of mine. This woman, she made a film about rape. She had been raped and she made this film about it. Parts of it are very funny because a lot of it deals with the aftermath of how do people respond when you want to talk about rape. Which is a real thing, but people get very anxious and clam up. We were having this discussion around a round table with a bunch of reporters and we started talking about it and they all got very still and anxious. And I think that’s funny. We’re certainly not belittling the idea of being a rapist or being victimized.

AE: And then of course it comes back as this little dance number, which is great. One more question, who is the narrator?
It’s Steve.

AE: Oh is it? It’s impossible to find anywhere.
I forgot to put it in the credits, frankly. He’s doing his best Jeremy Irons with maybe a little Ian McKellen thrown in. That was the idea because he references him.

AE: That’s it. Thanks for talking with me.