An Interview with Filmmaker Patrick McGuinn
Patrick McGuinn’s new film “Leather” begins with a scene of two young boys, Andrew and Birch, going fishing in a lushly idyllic country setting of the Catskills. Fast forward 25 years, and these childhood friends are now grown men leading very different lives. Andrew (Andrew Glaszek) is now a handsome New York City native who’s partnered with Kyle (Jeremy Neal), an amiable but sometimes childlike fashion magazine writer. When Andrew learns that his father passed away, he and Kyle (along with their pet lop-eared rabbit) travel to that aforementioned picturesque upstate New York setting of Andrew’s boyhood… and find a grown-up Birch (Chris Graham) now living alone in Andrew’s isolated childhood house, far removed from the technology-obsessed city life. (Birch tells Andrew, “I don’t do electronic mail!”) Birch, now a rugged and bearded but equally handsome man (As one of the characters later says, “Birch is hot… in a ‘Little House on the Prairie’ kind of way!”) is living a simple life working as a leather craftsman. We learn that Birch was a drifter for years but had returned to Andrew’s old home and became something of an apprentice and eventually a nurse to Andrew’s aged, ill father. The reunion of Andrew and Birch cause some strong (and surprising) emotions to emerge, as well as some questions. Just what was the true relationship between Birch and Andrew’s father? How will the reappearance of Andrew, the rightful heir to the house, change Birch’s life? And how will the lives of all three characters be affected by this surprise reunion? Surrounded by the simple, bucolic beauty of the country setting that surrounds them (with just a touch of fantasy thrown in…), the three men’s lives take a journey which cumulates in an unexpected and somewhat romanticized conclusion.
“Leather” is the latest movie by the 47-year old McGuinn, a New York City independent filmmaker and musician, whose previous full-length feature was the horror film “Eulogy for a Vampire” in 2009. The new film clearly falls into the genre of romantic drama, but like its cinematic predecessors, McGuinn’s new film doesn’t shy away from unapologetic homoeroticism which was seen in his other works. In addition to showcasing the natural beauty of the Catskills, “Leather” also features some beautifully filmed scenes of man-to-man lovemaking. Patrick McGuinn took the time to meet with me in his native East Village, New York City, to discuss “Leather”, life as an independent filmmaker and his next project, already in the works…
JR: Hi, Patrick! Thanks for speaking with me.
PM: You’re welcome!
JR: The last time we spoke, you were telling me about your experience with “Eulogy for a Vampire”, your full-length feature film prior to “Leather”. You told me that the experience of making “Eulogy” was something of an exhaustive and sometimes difficult experience. At the time, “Leather” was still very much only in the “idea” stages. What gave you the renewed energy and inspiration to dive right into the movie-making process again?
PM: I go through cycles, I guess. There are stories which really inspire me. At the time of “Eulogy”, I was looking to do something supernatural after doing “Sun Kissed”, which was sort of a metaphysical thriller. After doing “Eulogy for a Vampire”, I just felt like going back and doing something very pure, simple, and “back to nature”. The cycles are what inspire me. It’s not so much the act of filmmaking, but rather that filmmaking is the means to telling a story or communicating some form of a story. In this case, going back to work on what became “Leather” started out as very fundamental. The landscape had to be a very pure, remote place. Where it was going to take place was much simpler and less confined than where I previously set a movie– at a monastery with all kinds of horrible, supernatural things going on!
JR: Yes, I remember! (Laughs)
PM: Also, there were some childhood resonances that I wanted to explore. I’d say a good portion of “Leather” has some autobiographical components to it. For the screenplay, written by Greg Chandler, I provided some background scenario for him to take conceptually and flesh out. I was happy to have found the things that I sort of figured out… He took them and fleshed them out in ways that were very rewarding to me, just from a personal standpoint. I identify with a lot of what the characters are going through. In “Leather”, all three characters have things in one way or another that I identify with.
JR: That’s interesting to hear, because I was going to ask you if “Leather” was inspired by or based upon a real life story or real life people…
PM: Yes! Greg is kind of savvy to and privy to a lot of things that I’ve been through. We’ve been friends a long time, and we’ve talked about certain aspects of life or whatever… and with this story, I suppose one thing we both aimed for was that there was something about being away from an urban environment that has a “purification” effect on oneself. That was something that we both experience a lot when we go to remote places. So, we wanted to create a kind of “call to arms”: Get away from your cell phone or Smartphone, and away from the Internet, and find some kind of connection or idea of what life might have been like before that technology was so accessible. There’s something sort of magical about it that I felt strongly about and wanted to embrace– yet at the same time, I am completely an urbanite, relying on all my technology– especially with filmmaking, which is so technologically driven! There’s almost something of a conflict within oneself: where you have technology so easily accessible, and yet there’s almost something like an unsatisfied hunger with it– you’re always using it, but does it bring us true satisfaction? I’m not sure it does. I feel that there’s something about taking a break from it that’s important in life. I think that’s what “Leather” has organically developed into: the idea that through the voices of these different characters, the audience can see or feel different attitudes toward the modern world that we live in. Greg had some very rich material in the screenplay that involved literature– which is another aspect of culture that has diminished quite a bit. People still read, but there’s more of a “pop culture” consumption with books. The character of Andrew is a student of American literature, and there’s a connection where Birch is reading this old literature as well, and they connect from that perspective. That was developed quite a bit in some scenes which wound up being cut in order to shorten the running time. But they are in the “Deleted Scenes” on the DVD. So, the connection to literature is there. I think that the movie’s running time is perfect, but the deleted scenes give you a richer sense of how good the original screenplay was, and more about the character’s motivations as well.
JR: You mentioned the term “magical”. Is there a general magical or fantastic element to the film? There is a fantasy sequence in there, which I won’t reveal– but in addition, do you think that the choices the main characters choose to make at the end, romantic as they are, are realistic for the audience to believe?
PM: Greg wrote two very different drafts in the early stages of the development of the story. One draft was very light and happy, almost like a Wes Anderson movie. And, like a Wes Anderson movie, it had a sort of magical realism– which is a tradition in Latin American cinema, where things happen almost magically and there’s a slightly supernatural or spiritual resonance with the storytelling. I thought we needed to bring it “back down to earth” a little bit, so I gave him my critiques with that draft of the script. He came back with a totally different draft. It was actually very dark, and sad, and had a very dramatic, gritty quality. I thought, “Wow! It’s great but it’s in a whole other direction now.” I decided that I really just wanted a synthesis of the two styles. Working with Greg, I took both drafts and took the best parts of each one and made a composite of the two different styles, and smoothed it out in a way that made it cohesive. There are still vestiges of the magical aspect of the first draft. I’d say that the film skews more towards the Wes Anderson style of filmmaking as opposed to the more dark, dramatic side. That will certainly sit with certain kinds of people a certain way. There will be people who love that kind of style and there will be some who don’t. (Laughs) But with regard to the magical or supernatural or spiritual, I always had in mind the moments in Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”, where the characters are in the woods and lost, and fairies are governing their experiences without their knowledge… and that is the kind of model that we were going for with regard to being in the woods at night and being with fairies, whether you believe in fairies or not! There was also a reliance on “Harvey’s Wonder Tonic”, which is this green potion in the woods. A viewer will see in the deleted scenes that there is a lot more in the Harvey’s Wonder Tonic played up as a reason for what is happening . I think it’s a rich storyline, in how it’s fleshed out. But it was just too much footage to put into the story, so we had to turn it down. But I think that the deleted scenes are very enjoyable in their own way.
JR: No doubt! Speaking of enjoyable scenes, “Leather” contains a generous amount of nudity and sexual situations.
PM: I hope you liked it!
JR: Yes, very much so! (Laughs) I know that you are an uninhibited filmmaker!
PM: I try to be!
JR: How were the actors with the nude scenes?
PM: It’s a commonly asked question: “How do actors deal with nudity in films?” Nudity seems to be more taboo today than violence, and parents shelter their children from the human body… yet they will let their children see a PG-13 rated movie where hundreds of people are massacred with automatic weapons. So, I think that is really criminal in a way that the human body is not celebrated the way violence is celebrated. So, for me, another aspect of this movie is that sexuality is very fluid and very beautiful. Early in the production I even said to Chris Graham, who plays Birch, “The sooner you can be comfortable being naked in front of lots of people, the better off we’ll all be!”... because this is a film about Birch, who doesn’t give a damn about being naked on a hot summer day… and I personally embrace that myself. I think that being naked on a hot summer day is fantastic. No so much on a day like today, where it’s 30 degrees out! (Laughs) I think that the idea of “back to nature” was a major component of this movie, as well as the idea that Andrew and Birch sort of collide at first, because Andrew has more of this uptight, “cover up” attitude about his body, and he’s also inhibited by his true feelings for Birch. In the end, sexuality was to be embraced. That was one aspect of my approach with the actors: that they felt felt comfortable with the idea that this was going to be about this natural experience in the woods, and ultimately this mutual attraction… and how they explore it. When it comes to filming these scenes, it’s great to have that psychological background with the philosophy of the movie. Because then, it’s not gratuitous nudity; It’s MEANINGFUL nudity. So, filming becomes a real natural experience. Of course, I like to respect the fact that when you’re filming actors who in the nude, you have a very minimal crew. In this case, it was just me and the cinematographer and the actors. In that sense, it becomes an intimate experience between the FOUR of us in the woods! I always feel that later on, there are things I would have done differently… but I am very pleased with how the love scenes came out.
JR: I thought the love scenes were very nicely shot… and very hot too!
PM: One of my inspirations was the Kenneth Russell movie “Women In Love”, where the two men wrestle each other in the nude by the fire, which I thought was a tremendously beautiful scene. I tried to capture those same flesh tones and earth tones. Originally we were going to have a campfire in the movie, but then we realized from a bunch of perspectives that it wouldn’t really be possible with setting a fire in the woods… so we settled for lanterns! We didn’t have money in the budget for a pyrotechnician!
JR: Gotcha! You happen to be a very prolific filmmaker. Is “Leather” your favorite movie to date?
PM: I’ve been asked that question at Q&A’s, and yes, “Leather” is my favorite, possibly because of the autobiographical elements that resonate so much for me… but also the fact that it was such a rich and rewarding development process to create the film with Greg… and with Chris Graham and the other actors. It felt like such an organic experience. Even with the crew. It was a very special shoot. We were in this remote setting altogether. Upstate New York in the summer is such an an inspiring setting to be in. It was a long development process. We were going to film in the summer of 2011, but there was a terrible flood from Hurricane Irene. A lot of towns were decimated up there, and among them was Prattsville, New York where I filmed this movie. I was a week away from filming, and it was a really challenging time because some friends who were going to work on the project had to rescue their homes, and we were right in the midst of that. Plus, we lost a lot of props and costumes that had been painstakingly acquired over the previous year. I think this setback was actually beneficial, because it changed the mission of the movie. It became a labor of love to stay with the project another whole year, to develop and to finesse the story. It was definitely a question in my mind of whether to get back on the horse that threw me! But I am glad I did. I think that all the love that the actors and crew felt while making the project shows on screen.
JR: It does! Now, to leave off, tell me about your next film, “I, Scorpio”.
PM: It’s in the process of being edited. It was shot in the desert. It is very experimental narrative about a Mexican hitchhiker who is picked up by a drug dealer in 1974. It’s an idea that I have had for a while. I thought that there might be some time-traveling elements to it, but the budget didn’t allow for that. I originally thought of setting it in 1874 and then make it go into the future, 1974. But it is what it is, and I am very pleased with the results. It was a very spontaneous project that emerged on a recent trip to Arizona, and I am very pleased with the results. I think you’ll like it!
JR: I think so too! I look forward to finding out!
See also “Out At the Movies: An Interview With Patrick McGuinn” from 2010