Mattioli Productions’ new film, Neon Boys, introduces us to two sexy go-go boys who ply their trade in a New York City club bathed in red lighting and infused with dance music. One of them, Ricky (Jonathan Salazar), is a student by day and a seasoned but sensitive stripper at night. Shawn (Matthew Kinkel) is a newcomer to the club– a gruff, hirsute straight guy recently released from prison who’s dances for tips when he’s strapped for cash. We learn that Shawn has a young daughter named Emma whom he loves– but the acrimonious relationship between Shawn and Emma’s mother Becca (Kelsey Denae) prevents him from seeing her. Ricky and Shawn quickly develop an idiosyncratic friendship that gets intense faster than you can say “Last call!” Unfortunately, one of the characters harbors some dark issues that can’t be erased by friendship, sex, or even love. Both Salazar and Kunkel (who served Mattioli Productions well in the 2018 film Killer Unicorn) are both highly appealing to watch, and both turn in provocative performances. The movie also features Vincent De Paul, John Strand, and singer Tym Moss, who’s cast against type as the club’s boorish manager named “Big Daddy”.
Produced and directed by AJ Mattioli and co-directed by Salazar, the film is bolstered by authentic New York City settings and exquisite cinematography by Cory Green. The movie packs a wallop into its 30 minute running time– especially with the shocking conclusion.
AJ Mattioli and Jonathan Salazar spoke to me about the new film, which is now available for download and streaming.
JR: Hello, gentlemen! So, to start out: I always watch every movie right through to the very end. Every last credit! After the credits in Neon Boys, we see “Based on True Events” . If you blink, you miss that. How much of Neon Boys is based on a true story… and how did that true story come to your attention?
JS: The movie is actually based off my own experience. My first year living in New York City, I was a student and I needed to make more money. I was going to school full time and I didn’t have that many free days off. I fell into the world of stripping at a private club on Long Island. It was something of a hidden gym somewhere in Massapequa. (Laughs) I started stripping and dancing over there, but it was a little bit more than that. There were ways of escorting yourself. I actually became friends with one of the performers there. A “friendship/relationship” type of chemistry was built. There was a little romance built there– and it did end tragically for one of those friends. He had some demons.
JR: Oh, wow. That’s sad… So, for anyone watching a movie, there is sometimes a “suspension of disbelief” required when you’re seeing an actor on the screen who you know in person. So, Jonathan, the character you play, “Ricky”, is a little bit naïve and more than a little bit vulnerable. Ricky really falls for the character of “Shawn” and vice versa in a relatively short amount of time. I know that in real life, you and your drag persona “Sucia Queen” have much more of, shall we say, a “harder shell”. Is “Ricky” based upon your younger self when you first entered the nightlife scene?
JS: Yeah! I was extremely naïve. I didn’t know anybody, and when you’re new to a scene you want to get everybody to like you and trust you. So, you open up fast. Both in real life and for this character, it was just like: If someone’s willing to be vulnerable with you, why not be vulnerable back? That’s what happened. That’s what the character of “Ricky” was for me. In real life, at the time, I was very naïve and very accepting, but I’ve learned over the years not to be so accepting and embracing! (Laughs)
JR: (Laughs) Gotcha! AJ, I know that making Neon Boys was a long journey– from the beginning with the Kickstarter campaign, all the way up until now, with the final project available for the public. What were some of the struggles that you faced along the way to make this movie?
AM: With films, especially independent films, you have “the triangle”: You could have “two out of three”, but never all “three”: cheap, good, and fast! You could have it cheap and good, but it’s not going to be fast! You could it have fast and good, but it’s not going to be cheap! So we chose the “cheap and good” route. Our editor, Cory Green, who also shot the film, has two Emmy nominations. We got a lower price– a “friend price”– because we work together often. We took our time with the edit– finessed it a little bit, made the sound perfect… We made sure that it was the best that we could get from the footage that we shot. You know, independent filmmaking is a struggle. There’s never all the money that we need, but we make things work, and we have “work arounds” and things like that. Things takes a long time to come out. People forget that there isn’t a team of hundreds in post production. There’s me and an editor. Even though it’s a short film– 30 minutes– it’s a challenge nonetheless. Most of it is just making sure it’s coming out at the right time. Right now felt like the right time. Everyone’s in quarantine. We have a finalized product, so let’s get it out there on some of these outlets and give people something to watch. It came together all in all, which is great.
JR: I understand! I know just from my own experiences, and from what I’ve observed from other people that are involved in filmmaking, that shooting a five minute music video or commercial takes all day or even longer (Laughs)– so, a 30 minute short film would take more time to create than most people would think…
AM: We shot Neon Boys in the span of… I want to say, eight days?
JS: No! We shot in all of four days!
AM: Oh yeah, and one day of “pick-up shots” of “Ricky” on the subway. (Laughs) So, about five days. You know, it’s hard. It’s a lot, and it takes a long time to get everything in the can and process everything. It’s a long struggle, and you have to take those gigs and make money in between. But we’re happy. It was well worth the wait!
JR: I agree. I also know from my own experiences that, sadly, a lot of independent projects never see the light of day. They never get completed, almost always because of lack of money– but also sometimes because the people who were working on them didn’t have the same level of professionalism that you have. So the fact that the film was completed is enough to be very proud of in itself.
AM: Yeah! It’s so true! And there are so many movies that, when they are complete, they don’t know what to do with them. Right now, we’re distributing Neon Boys kind of independently. I’ve had many of my films on giant, huge platforms: I’ve had these films in movie theaters– like AMC movie theaters– and I’ve never seen a dime, sadly, because there’s so much overhead sometimes. We are distributing this film independently and I think that’s the way to go. It’s an interesting journey that we’re going on right now. We’re gonna just keep pushing and hoping that that’s the right journey to take. We’re looking good though!
JR: Cool! So, this one’s for Jonathan: You are not only a Producer and Co-Director of the film, but also star in it. Nowadays, a lot of people think that it’s easy to make a movie because they post their own videos on YouTube or because they make 30- second Instagram clips– but we know that filmmaking isn’t easy. In the same way, many people may think that it’s easy for an actor to be intimate with another actor in a movie– “intimate” meaning in abbreviated clothing, or in romantic scenes. But it’s not always as easy as it seems. What was it like for you with the intimate scenes with Matthew Kinkel, AKA Matty Glitterati, who plays “Shawn”?
JS: The intimate scenes?
JR: Yes, the sex scenes! (Laughs)
JS: It was very easy and simple. Matty and I decided right before we were starting the film to hang out and to get close. He was going through some things at the time, and I was definitely healing. Neon Boys was the healing process for me. Writing the story was part of that. That’s when I decided to get a screenwriter to write the actual screenplay. AJ and I met up, and he fell in love with the story. So, we decided to do the project together. Anyway, being intimate with Matty was almost like falling in love with a stranger, which is exactly what happens in Neon Boys. Ever since then, he and I have developed a super strong bond. There were even moments on set when the cameras were off and we were just talking, chit-chatting, and making out, and just… you know, really getting into it. There was a beautiful friendship that blossomed from that.
AM: I’d like to say that with anything my company Mattioli Productions produces, we make sure that everyone knows it’s a safe space. We do lots of movies, and we make sure that it’s a closed set where the only people that are in the room are the people that are absolutely necessary. Sometimes that means that I’m not in the room– just my Director of Photography and the Sound person. I want to make sure that everyone feels safe and can feel as intimate as they are able to get in that situation. Our Director of Photography has filmed about seven of my films, which have included gay sex scenes. He has made those scenes look artistic and beautiful. Even in a situation that might not be what people deem as “beautiful”, you can still see that there’s love there. Corey’s ability to take something beautiful out of a situation such as escorting, where it might not be seen as beautiful, was kind of breathtaking. I was happy that we were able to capture what Matty and Jonathan were giving us. That was important.
JR: It looked great. So, how has the reaction to Neon Boys been so far?
AM: It’s been great. We just had a nice little review on Instagram from The Pink Lens. They have a good United Kingdom following, and Neon Boys is available on Vimeo in the UK. We had Jim Silvestri of Thotyssey in New York City give us a nice review too. TLA Video did a nice excerpt on my company and did a review too. Anyone who has gotten to see it has really enjoyed it.
JS: It’s picking up traction and I’m so excited. Being an artist, you’re kind of scared when you put out work that makes you feel vulnerable. So this has been a big challenge for me. I’m getting a lot of positive messages that people are appreciating the art. They loved the film. People are flooding my Sucia Instagram saying how much they loved my butt in a jock. (Laughs) It’s crazy. I’m like, “Thanks. That might be the only time you see my ass!” (All laugh). But everything’s been positive– even the nasty Sucia remarks that people make. I guess it fits well, right?! (Laughs)
JR: Ah, well, you know, social media is wonderful. Obviously I love it, but it also opens the floodgates for assholes of all varieties. You have to just kind of let it roll over, you know…
AM: Oh yeah! I didn’t realize that the first film I ever directed was in 2010, and I was like, “Man, the amount of hate mail I’ve gotten in a decade!” (Laughs)… Jesus!!!
JR: Trust me, I get it! So, anything else that either of you want to tell the masses– besides, obviously, “Go see Neon Boys!”?
AM: I always say, “Don’t illegally stream it, please!” The money goes straight to the hands of the queers. That’s really the big one for me. And then, “Tell your friends!”… because, word of mouth in the independent film world really can make or break the film. If you have a podcast, or if you have a little newspaper that only four people are going to read, I want to be in it! We really want to push this film. In any Mattioli Productions film, a percentage of the profits goes to charity. I don’t think we’ve picked out our charity yet, ’cause we’re not in the profit stage yet. The moment we go from in the red to in the black, we start donating to a charity. So when it comes to queers, once it pays us back, we start paying it forward. So, there’s more reasons to watch Neon Boys than just being entertained!
JS: I hope everyone enjoys it. I’d love to do more and I can’t wait to see how far Neon Boys goes. I mean, this is just the beginning, and so far so good. I’ve never been so proud of the work that we all did together. I’m extremely grateful for it.
JR: As a viewer, I noticed how beautifully the movie was shot. There was great attention to detail, and the movie really got the most flattering angles for both its leading men: great shots of Jonathan’s lips and Matty’s big eyes. See how I noticed your faces too, not just your butts! (Laughs)
AM: We have a very talented team who worked on this, I will say. The same Director of Photography who worked on Neon Boys worked on Killer Unicorn and is working on my next film, S&M Records. So yeah, he’s very talented. We don’t really stray too far from my normal team because we always get the results that we’ve gotten. I’m very humbled to work with, in my opinion, some of the best filmmakers New York. So, I’m very, very
JR: So are we! Thanks for speaking with me!
Neon Boys is now available for download and streaming at TLA Video here.
Also visit Mattioli Productions here.
Photos courtesy of Mattioli Productions. Photo of AJ Mattioli by Tom Roper.