Gimme ‘Shelter’ – Interview with the director

An interview with gay filmmaker Jonah Markowitz

In the award-winning gay-themed film “Shelter,” Zach (Trevor Wright) lives in San Pedro, Calif., with his widowed father, his sister Jeanne (the amazing Tina Holmes) and her young son Cody. Between his high school and college years, Zach works as a short order cook in a diner when he’s not surfing, skateboarding, tagging, babysitting Cody or following his true passion, drawing.

Best friend Gabe (Ross Thomas) is off to college, and while he’s away his older brother Shaun (Brad Rowe of “Billy’s Hollywood Screen Kiss”), a writer, returns to town from L.A. Shaun crashes at the family home while everyone is out of town. Soon he and Zach are hanging out on a regular basis.

Following a day at the beach, and the consumption of a few beers, they kiss.

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An already confused Zach is plunged further into uncertainty as he begins to confront his feelings of same-sex attraction — which goes a long way in explaining why he constantly rejects hot girlfriend Tori (Katie Walder). Eventually he goes with his heart and he and Shaun begin a serious romantic relationship.

Zach’s creativity flourishes and Shaun encourages him to re-apply to Cal Arts for school. All the while, Zach must deal with Jeanne’s homophobic hostility, not to mention wondering what would happen if Gabe ever found out about him and Shaun.

Jonah Markowitz, the gay writer/director behind the film, is a 1999 graduate of Emerson College in Boston, where he studied film. He took time out from promoting “Shelter” to answer a few questions about the project.

Greg Shapiro: “Shelter” is your well-received directorial debut. It’s won prizes at festivals, including two for your direction, and the reviews have been favorable. How does it feel for you to have that experience right out of the gate?

Jonah Markowitz: It’s amazing! We’re obviously really excited about how it did on the festival circuit and now we’re just waiting to see how it does in wide release and see what the differences are with those two experiences. I’m really excited. I think that everyone involved with the movie really wanted to make something that would touch people and something that people could relate to. To see that it actually did is more than we could have ever hoped for.

The movie is set in San Pedro, Calif., a town immortalized in song by Mike Watt and the Minutemen. Why did you choose to set it there?

A couple of reasons. Obviously, surfing is a big part of the story. But it is also a very urban story, especially Zach’s world. So I needed a place that was both urban and also coastal and beautiful, as well. San Pedro fit the bill on that. Originally, it was set in Long Beach, which is just across the bridge that you see in the movie, the St. Thomas Bridge. We were driving around scouting [locations] and when we drove across the bridge and saw San Pedro, we totally fell in love with it. That house underneath the bridge and having the port and having it be so industrial, it all came together and was perfect.

I’m glad that you mentioned surfing because the character of Zach is a product of surf, skateboard and graffiti culture, while Shaun, who also surfs, finds his creative outlet in writing. Is there more of Jonah in Zach or Shaun?

I think there’s a little bit of me in both. I don’t know, maybe more Shaun, I think probably. When I was writing, I thought more Zach, but when I look at it now, probably more Shaun.

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A lot of people in the gay community have been fans of Tina Holmes since “Edge of Seventeen” and might find it difficult to watch her playing such a difficult and homophobic character. Can you say something about working with her?

Tina is a phenomenal actress. I think she approached that character in the only way it could have been in order to keep it human and to keep her from becoming this evil character. I think she handled it beautifully. Jeanne’s a very difficult character, but she’s very real and there are motivations for why she does what she does. And although she’s homophobic, I think it’s different than a lot of the homophobic characters that we’ve seen. She doesn’t kick him out of the house, she’s just real manipulative. I have so much respect for [Tina] and I think she did a great job with it.

In the scene where Zach and Shaun are hanging around after surfing and drinking beer, and they end up play wrestling, “Shelter” has one of the best evocations of sexual tension since “Billy’s Hollywood Screen Kiss,” a movie in which Brad Rowe also starred. Did his performance in that movie have anything to do with him being cast in “Shelter”?

It didn’t, actually. (Laughs) I probably shouldn’t say this, but I hadn’t seen “Billy’s Hollywood Screen Kiss” when we auditioned Brad. He just read the script and really understood the character, knew exactly what I was going for and had ideas about the character that I hadn’t even thought of yet, to be honest. I felt like he was in the right place and was in a different place than what Trevor’s read was on his character, which I thought would work really well. He was the best for the part.

“Shelter” is being released in what has been described as a “unique and unprecedented platform involving three different mediums in three months,” which involved the movie opening theatrically in 10 major markets throughout March and early April, followed by its premiere on the gay cable network here! in mid-April, and then a DVD release in late May. How does it feel to be exploring this new frontier in this manner?

To answer that, it harks back all the way to the inception of this project. It’s quite revolutionary and quite an honor to be part of it, because this film was financed by here! as part of their independent film initiative. Making a film on this budget level, especially making a gay film on this budget level — there are very few options for filmmakers to get this done short of mortgaging your house, if you’re lucky enough to own one in California, which most aren’t, and funding it yourself.

So to start with them even funding the film was totally amazing and revolutionary and hopefully they’ll keep doing these films, which is their goal. Also, to have it distributed theatrically through Regent, their film distribution partner, and then to have it on their channel and on their DVD is so much more exposure for these types of films, which I think is so important for filmmakers and for future queer filmmakers. And hopefully they’ll set a precedent and an example that there are people who want to hear these stories and they need to be told.

— “Shelter” will be available on DVD at White Rabbit and other retailers on May 27.

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