Fresh off its ensemble award for “Best Performance” at the Los Angeles Film Festival, Brooklyn-based Joshua Sanchez’s debut feature, FOUR, makes its New York premiere this Friday, July 27 as the opening night film for the newly revamped NewFest. The film is spare and elegant, with a real feel for how endless summer-time suburban sprawl seems to extend and exacerbate emotional longing. It’s anchored by Pearce’s excellent performance as Joe, a middle-aged married man on an internet date with a teenage boy. He’s confident, thoughtful, and at times completely repellant, yet always compelling and human.
Adapted from Obie-winning playwright Christopher Shinn’s 1998 play, Four tells the story of four different characters faced with conflicting desires and unexpected emotions on the fourth of July. A white teenage boy, June (Emory Cohen, TV’s Smash), meets up with a married, middle-aged black man, Joe (The Wire’s Wendell Pearce), whose confident mantras and sloganeering are seductive and unsettling in their certainty. Meanwhile, Joe’s daughter, Abigayle (Aja Naomi King) finds herself drawn to the clever Latino basketball player named Dexter (E.J. Bonilla).
Joshua Sanchez grew up in Houston, TX and graduated from Columbia University’s MFA Film Program. His previous shorts, INSIDE/Out and Kill or Be Killed, screened at festivals worldwide.
Among other things, Four is notable for a refreshingly frank sex scene between Pearce and Cohen. Like Sanchez’s ongoing Screentests series of short video portraits, it’s a movie with a rare, unassuming emotional intelligence and lack of moral judgement.
KTLO: How were the screenings in Los Angeles and San Francisco?
It was great. It couldn’t have been better, really. The screenings were all great and the audiences were really enthusiastic and seemed to really enjoy the film and get it. In San Francisco and LA, it was really like there were two different audiences, but they were both very enthusiastic. In San Francisco, we played at the Castro Theatre, which was really incredible. It’s like a big old movie theatre in the middle of the Castro that was just a really nice place to play, and the audiences there are always very lively and opinionated, so it was fun to play there.
KTLO: How did you shoot the sex scene with Joe (Wendell Pearce) and June (Emory Cohen) ? How did you make them feel comfortable? Did you shoot it early in the shoot or late?
Sanchez: It was kind of in the middle, I think. I don’t think it would have been…I mean we purposefully sort of put it in the middle of the shoot because we knew it was something that we kind of had to work up to. It wasn’t something that we could just dive into. The actors had to feel comfortable with each other and it was better to do it when everybody was feeling sort of more in tune with the people on the set and everything.
It was a closed set, so that kind of helped. It was really just the core people that needed to be there. It was a real motel room. But I think it was more the actors, you know, they had done so much work on that scene and so much work internally about what they were bringing to it. And I think all of us were sort of apprehensive about the way it was going to go because we…you know, it’s ostensibly one of the most sensitive of all the scenes in the movie. But actually it was sort of one of the more fun days of shooting, I think because of that. Because we all were like…wanting to sort of make other people comfortable, so it was a lot of cracking jokes and laughing. Oftentimes when you do really heavy things like that, you just have to really kind of break the tension by doing stuff like that. It helps. It helps them feel comfortable and more in the moment, and we also shot that scene in a lot of really long takes, so the camera could really sort of be with the actors and not really break up what they were going to do with the scene. I think that helped a lot.
KTLO: Was shooting the scene with Abigayle and Dexter, a straight make out scene, different for you than shooting a gay sex scene?
Sanchez: [That’s] an interesting question. I think that scene was probably more uncomfortable for everybody because we shot it in a studio and that was a little weird for everybody, because we’d been on location for most of the entire shoot, and it kind of came towards the end of the shoot, and we were all really tired. I think with Abigayle and Dexter’s part of the movie, the two actors just had such an incredible chemistry with each other that I think sort of took over anything that I could really say or provide for them that they didn’t already know about what they were doing with the characters.
I think probably the best thing I did in that sort of situation was to be able to sort of trust them to do what they did and just to not try to suffocate it too much, to give them freedom to do what they wanted to do. And also, the actors are younger, Wendell [Pearce] been doing this a lot longer than the rest of them have and I think that he is a real professional in that sense. He can really go in and do things that would probably seem really uncomfortable to other people, whereas the others were really…I think this was maybe one of their first sex scenes ever to do, so I think they were really nervous about wanting to get it right and for it to be true to what the characters were. But it wasn’t necessarily so uncomfortable because it was a straight thing. I think it was because it was just a different group of actors with different dynamics with the characters.
KTLO: Did you and Christopher Shinn work together on the adaptation?
Sanchez: Not formally in the sense that we sat down in a room together and we’d write. In the beginning, he read all the drafts that I was doing and gave his notes about how he felt about it. From the time that we started working on it, which was maybe about six years ago, until now, it changed so much and the conception of it changed so much that I think at a certain point he kind of like pushed it over to us, because he was busy and stuff. And that took a lot of faith, to be able to let us do what we felt what right with the material.
KTLO: The play was written in ’98. How do you think the time period affects the adaptation?
Sanchez: Yeah, I believe the play is set in ’96. So it was like a very sort of early internet world that he was writing about and I think it’s interesting in a lot of ways. Because Chris is so observant about American culture, I don’t think the play or the story has dated in a very huge way. I think that more teenagers than ever are meeting people like that. You know, going on sort of sex dates like that. More than ever before, I would imagine. So I think that was a really interesting part about it because when I started working on it, I think I had that same thought, like what if it becomes dated or what if it’s not the same as it was? And I think in the movie, sort of generally about two people who meet online, and that could be any way now.
But it’s been really interesting to watch from the time I started, which was in the mid-2000s to now, how much that’s changed and how much technology has changed on that level and how technology has changed the way in which gay people in particular meet and hook up online and what that means for the gay community. It’s so sophisticated and wide reaching now and I think it’s sort of changed the way that gay men sort of exist in that way. Where as a few generations ago, it was all about sort of more physical meetings. You’d go to gay bars or cruise or whatever and now it’s like people are in that realm sort of more digitally now. So I don’t know.
KTLO: And then there’s Joe’s monologue about how AIDS humanized gay people. I was troubled by this part and how he mentioned that your first AIDS test is like the equivalent of straight men losing their virginity, because for me his logic didn’t really compute. I feel like it’s a really interesting scene and I wonder if you take, or if the play takes his politics at face value.
Sanchez: A lot of it is very challenging for audiences because it asks questions more than it gives you answers. I’ve always appreciated art that did that for me, as difficult as that can be sometimes. It certainly wasn’t my intention to create – I mean, I didn’t create the character of Joe – but it wasn’t my intention to present this character and say that this is a person who has it all figured out.
Certainly, he’s a very complicated and conflicted character, and that’s what makes him interesting, and it makes him repulsive and it makes him kind of human, in a way. I think a lot of those things that he says in that scene when he’s telling that story to June, I have issues with, too. A lot of what he says makes a lot of sense to me, a lot of it relates to my own life. Some of it doesn’t. But I think what’s more important to me is that it felt true to who that character was. And it felt also true to the conflict that he was coming up against in his life, which is I think that he’s an incredibly buried person, who hasn’t really come to grips within himself with who he is, and the damage that has caused in trying to live a lie, basically, on many different levels.
When I watch that scene now, it’s incredibly heartbreaking to me, because I think that it’s less about him trying to tell that story to June and more about trying to tell that story to himself, and to sort of reassure and comfort himself about who he is and about what’s going to happen and about what he’s maybe giving to this kid.
KTLO: Well, it’s also rare in a film to see that an African American male isn’t really hyper-sexualized or asexualized.
Sanchez: Right. I think Wendell [Pierce] gave a really interesting interview with IndieWire about the response that he’s been getting about taking on a role like this, and how people were very concerned that he would be sort of emasculating a black man. His answer to it was, “Well, why do you think that this is emasculating?” and I think actually probably that people would go into this…I’ve noticed that I think people go into the movie having a lot of pre-conceived notions about what it’s going to be or who this character’s going to be, but then they kind of walk out feeling a slightly different way about it. Or at least not as convinced that it’s a black and white story, because I don’t think it is.
KTLO: Have you ever worked on material that wasn’t queer?
Sanchez: Yeah. When I started making films I was an undergrad in Austin and I started making music videos and more experimental stuff and skateboard videos.
KTLO: Did you skateboard?
Sanchez: I did, yeah. Very badly.
KTLO: Does “bad” mean a lot of injuries?
Sanchez: Let me just say that it seems like skateboarding nowadays is so much more diverse. There are a lot of people that do it in a lot of different ways. But when I was like a teenager, or in my early twenties, it seemed like being a skater and being into skateboarding was very technical. Like, do a lot of tricks or learn a lot of tricks, and it can be a very macho sport. I was bad at learning tricks. I’m bad at doing them. I’m not very athletic at all. Mostly I just think I was into the culture of it, and a lot of my friends were skaters, and so I would hang out with them.
Part of how I got into filmmaking was I started hanging out with a friend of mine in undergrad that was a skater and we had a lot of mutual friends who wanted to make skate videos, and so we just started picking up cameras and shooting and editing. We made a music video together in Austin and it just kind of spiraled from there.
For more information and tickets for NewFest’s opening night screening of FOUR, click here.