Gay filmmaker Patrik-Ian Polk on The Skinny
Thu. November 29, 2012 by Gregg Shapiro
I think there's something to be said about the technology limiting or affecting our ability to communicate in actual live, real-time, face-to-face, and that's not the best thing.
Gregg Shapiro: Patrik, you have a track record with ensemble pieces, beginning with Punks and continuing through the Noah's Arc series and feature-length movie. Your latest film, The Skinny also fits the mold with an ensemble cast. What do you like about writing for and working with an ensemble cast?
Patrik-Ian Polk: I think that when you're doing a movie, sometimes working with an ensemble group of characters allows you to explore different stories, different personalities. I also think in life, (with) groups of friends you have different dynamics, different types. There's a type represented in any group of friends. I think that's an interesting thing to explore.
GS: Is there one or more character in each of your films that resembles you in some way or another?
P-IP: (Pauses) No. Not really, I would say.
GS: So your characters are more inventions than based on...
P-IP: ... I usually just think about the kind of story I'm trying to tell. Then I let my imagination go where it will. Sometimes it can be quite random, just the subject that interests me. The goal is always to create fully realized and interesting, dynamic characters
GS: There is an ongoing debate about gay and straight actors playing gay roles. As a filmmaker, how do you deal with that issue?
P-IP: I don't really care at the end of the day. I don't ask the actors what their personal sexuality is. I only ask that they be completely fearless, that they commit to whatever character they're playing. I really couldn't care less what they do in their personal lives. It's just about how good and fearless are you as an actor. How committed to the character you are. That's the most important thing.
GS: One of the subjects that The Skinny addresses is the impact of online social media on the gay community. Please say something about that impact, as well as the impact it has had on you personally.
P-IP: We live in an advanced technological age. Ever increasingly we communicate more and more through social media outlets. All that stuff is portable now. We can take it with us on our smart phones -- Twitter and Facebook and e-mail and instant messages and text messages. I think, especially when you're dealing with the younger characters, it's important to incorporate these things into what you're portraying because that is their reality. A lot of dating now is done online. So much of our lives and what we learn about life we're first exposed to online. It's an interesting phenomenon.
GS: Would you say that you are utilizing it as well in your own life?
P-IP: Sure, to a certain extent. Certainly as a gay man I've done my share of online dating and whatnot. I'm kind of on the fence as to how good that is or is not. I think we're all starting to feel like everyone is spending too much time on their phones. People often talk about going to dinner parties or meeting people out and everyone at the table is looking down at their phones. I think there's something to be said about the technology limiting or affecting our ability to communicate in actual live, real-time, face-to-face, and that's not the best thing.
GS: The Skinny has an educational component in the way that is packed full of gay literary and historical references. Do you feel like it is your duty as a gay filmmaker to educate the children about our community's history?
P-IP: I try not to put those kinds of restraints or requirements on my work. It starts with what story am I trying to tell and who are these characters and what's important to them. When you're talking about a group of five, well-educated, gay, African-American, Brown University graduates, many of whom may be coming to New York for the first time, they're going to be interested in certain things. They're going to be interested in the black queer culture of that city. They're going to want to see where Langston Hughes lived or certain other things. It's not so much an obligation... The only obligation I feel is to the character in the story that I'm trying to tell.
GS: The Skinny also contains informative discussions of HPV, preparations for anal sex and PEP (post-exposure prophylaxis) treatment in regards to HIV, and more regarding to STDS. Would you say that you have a responsibility to your audience to include that kind of information in your films?
P-IP: Yes and no. Again, it's about the characters. If you have a young character, for instance Sebastian in The Skinny, who is embarking on his first sexual encounter, and his friend happens to be in medical school, there's a reason that person might share sexual health information with him. I suppose on some level, sure. But it has to be rooted in story. On some level, yes, if am doing a movie about five young 21, 22-year-old black, gay characters, with current STD and HIV rates and statistics, I do feel a responsibility to talk about these issues. But if they're not rooted in the characters, I'm not going to cram it in there just to be educational. It has to fit into the story in a way that feels organic. Or else the kids watching the film will disconnect.
GS: Have you begun thinking about or working on your next film project?
P-IP: Yes. I'm actually in preproduction right now in Mississippi on a film, an adaptation of the coming-of-age novel Blackbird by Larry Duplechan. We'll be shooting that in January.
GS: If I'm not mistaken, this would be your first adaptation for film, because all of your others have been original screenplays, correct?
P-IP: That is correct.
GS: So do you think you will do more adaptations in the future, say may be Melvin Dixon?
P-IP: It's a possibility. There's been some talk about me doing an E. Lynn Harris adaptation, which I'm excited about. I'm always open to it. Blackbird has been a book I've loved. I first found that book when I was a freshman in college and I've always wanted to make it into a movie. It's a long time coming.
GS: Noah's Arc was one of the first and most popular series on the Logo cable channel. Logo has recently undergone a bit of restructuring when it comes to its original vision. As someone who benefited from being affiliated with the network on, how do you feel about that?
P-IP: I try to stay sympathetic and understanding to the plight of a network like Logo. When you're part of a bigger corporate machine like Viacom, or the MTV networks and on top of that Viacom, I'm sure you have a lot of mandates and requirements to meet and people to satisfy. That has to be a difficult position to be in. That said, I don't see a lot of physical evidence of a huge shift. It still feels like the same Logo when I watch the channel. I think maybe, if anything, it's more of a philosophical shift. Maybe that's an effort to try to get that community to not view the network in such myopic terms. To me, they still run gay and lesbian programming that is of interest to gay and lesbian communities.
GS: You will be at the Center on Halsted in Chicago on Dec. 1 as the keynote speaker for World AIDS Day. What does this honor mean to you?
P-IP: I'm always down to do my part when it comes to promoting HIV awareness, AIDS prevention messages, treatment advocacy. These are all things that are certainly hugely important to the black gay community, which has been shown to be suffering disproportionately from HIV. And I'm always down to support organizations like the Center on Halsted, to support the work that they do, and wherever I can lend my voice to that effort, I'm happy to do so.
Join Patrik-Ian Polk at Center on Halsted, 3656 N Halsted, on Saturday, Dec. 1 from 9 a.m. - 1 p.m. for World AIDS Day. Workshops, speakers, food, art show and more. Testing available all day. (More information on CalendarQ)
Interviewed by Gregg Shapiro. Gregg Shapiro is both a literary figure and a music and literary critic. As an entertainment journalist, his work appears on ChicagoPride.com and is syndicated nationally.