How We Got to Bros: A Roundtable on Representation and Progress with the Writers Behind Some Classic Gay Ro

(Clockwise from bottom left): But I’m a Cheerleader (Photo: Mark Lipson / Kushner-Locke: Ignite); Jeffrey (Photo: Orion Classics); D.E.B.S. (Photo: Apple TV); Bros (Photo: Nicole Rivelli/Universal Pictures) Graphics: Karl Gustafson

The arrival of Billy Eichner and Nicholas Stoller’s Bros in theaters this weekend looks like it will certainly be heralded by a choir of heavenly gay angels. Can lighthearted romantic comedies featuring LGBTQ+ characters emerge from major film studios now? What is the world coming to, and Hollywood? And how did we get there? The A.V. Club asked these questions, and more, to three screenwriters whose queer-centric films helped pave the way for mainstream LGBTQ+ representation of Bros.

Brian Wayne Peterson of But I’m A Cheerleader, Angela Robinson of D.E.B.S. and The L Word, and Paul Rudnick of Jeffrey and In & Out joined us to reflect on queer-centric rom-coms then and now. In a light, it is a subgenre of cinema that has frustratingly few examples, and that has been forced to make compromises to account for homophobic norms. But more optimistically, any authentic, nuanced, and reflective queer story, whether in the late 1990s or in 2022, is a crucial act of creation, and an inspiring and valuable resource for queer audiences who long to see themselves on the screen.

From their perspective, Bros owes a debt to the queer classics that came before it. Peterson, Robinson, and Rudnick overflow with recommendations for movie fans curious about the legacy of indie LGBTQ+ cinema, especially stories that challenge the all-too-pervasive notion that queer characters must be destined for tragedy. (For even more queer films that dare to be joyful, check out these picks, and read The AV Club’s Bros review here.)

The A.V. Club: So let’s get back to developing your LGBTQ+ romantic comedies. Did you conceive these stories with an initial goal in mind – just telling a certain story, or emphatically depicting something you hadn’t seen on screen before?

Angela Robinson: One hundred percent both. [Laughs] I had a lot of personal or political goals at the time, and I probably still do: basically doing things that didn’t exist for me when I was growing up. When I was growing up, I really loved rom-coms and I loved spy movies. I just love the genre. But I still paid everything back. Like on The Breakfast Club, I’m like, Molly Ringwald is going to reunite with Ally Sheedy. Or Charlie’s Angels, I watch that show and make Sabrina and Kelly get together or whatever. So when I finally said, okay, I’m going to be a filmmaker, it was really just to do what I thought was fun and funny and sexy. I’m trying to make something that doesn’t exist. And because it doesn’t exist, it has become political, because it doesn’t exist for political reasons, right?

And [with D.E.B.S.], I was operating under a very “Trojan horse” mentality. “I’m going to try to make the most fun confection, this candy-colored thing,” a rom-com that’s so engaging and you just want them to be in love, that people almost wouldn’t even notice it was weird.

Paul Rudnick: My first LGBTQ+ rom-com was the film version of my play Jeffrey, which I wrote at the height of the AIDS crisis. I wanted to reflect what everyone I know was going through, including the battle to maintain any sense of sanity, intelligence or romance in the face of so much tragedy. The project was called “a comedy about AIDS”, which seemed impossible! But I used rom-com traditions as an approach to a horrible situation.

Brian Wayne Peterson: I think it was really important for [Ma I’m A Cheerleader] to capture the satire and absurdity of this situation. There was certainly a choice for that; a path we did not go down was to handle [gay conversion therapy] a little more gently. And to [director] Jamie Babbit’s credit, he really wanted to shoot the whole conversation. And I liked being able to embody these characters, take some archetypes and play with them in ways that were kind of familiar, but also draw attention to a lot of the things that in gay culture we like to overlook sometimes. We tried to make a movie that really spoke to everyone and was new and incredibly gay-positive. Because, you know, at the time, the 90s had an explosion of these amazing gay movies. But a lot of them were either just comedies or they dealt with a slightly lighter subject… [We] made a comedy about a really difficult and dark subject that is very emotional for people. And if you look at the reviews at the moment, it has not always struck the fancy of the critics, let’s just say!

AVC: What challenges or constraints do you remember facing in terms of including such a subject? Any censorship or pressure from the studios, for example?

BWP: We’ve been quite lambasted and I think it’s because of some of the choices that were really smart, that maybe were criticized at the time. But these choices have really helped him stand the test of time and made him relevant to new generations of queer youth. When we did Ma I’m A Cheerleader, we had such supportive producers and we had a financier… We had this great experience of being able to make the product we wanted. I don’t want to say where, but I know we’ve had some red flags raised by some of our vigilante groups in the gay community. And if I remember correctly, it was about how lightly we treated the subject. That makes sense. But, you know, there have been many films after the fact that have dealt with it very seriously. And it wasn’t just the film that Jamie had decided to make, nor me to write.

PR: Jeffrey was an indie shot on the smallest budget; Back then, studios didn’t take any chances on queer material. Actors have been warned to stay away! But once Sigourney Weaver and Patrick Stewart signed on, things became easier… Studio executives would, and still do, often say that they have no prejudice, but that LGBTQ+ films don’t make money . This is nonsense: Brokeback Mountain, The Birdcage, Milk and Moonlight, among others, were financial successes and won numerous Oscars. When we did In & Except, which also made money, if the script threatened to become “too gay”, the executives claimed that it was “repetitive” – ​​code for “Are the two guys going to kiss?” Finally, during a meeting, I said that I was born repetitive, which stopped that particular criticism. Luckily, we had two terrific actors, Kevin Kline and Tom Selleck, who turned their kiss into one of the best scenes in the movie.

Here’s what we were up against: after a rehearsal, audience members were asked to fill out response cards. One woman went on and on about how much she loved the movie, listing her many favorite scenes and performances. But when asked if he would recommend the film to a friend, he wrote “No.” When asked why, he replied, “Against God’s law.”

AR: D.E.B.S. It was such a funny moment in history because it was sort of the end of this queer [era], but it was still considered, like, “It could ruin your career if you played a lesbian character.” It was always a conversation. But I also found that every actress between 17 and 36 years old – not all, but a ton of people – auditioned for the roles. Because at the time there were often not five good parts for young women to play! So actually this kind of concerns replaced. And to be fair, neither Jordana Brewster nor Sara Foster gave a shit and they were totally game to play their [lesbian characters]. And the other thing was that we had a PG-13 rating. And I had to cut the sex scene very, very, ridiculously tame. I mean, hesitate to even call it sex, they were just under the covers… And I think D.E.B.S. it was the first lesbian movie, if not the first queer movie, to have a PG-13 and not an R just for having gay content.

AVC: Which brings us to the R-rated Bros. What are your thoughts? What was your reaction after hearing about it, learning its plot, maybe seeing its trailer?

PR: Bros sounds spectacular. I’m a big fan of Billy Eichner and the rest of the amazing LGBTQ+ cast in the movie, so I can’t wait to see it. The trailers are fun and I think audiences, queer and straight alike, are looking forward to a great romantic comedy.

AR: I’ve seen billboards everywhere, which I think is so cool. The idea of ​​just making a movie, I mean, that was always my goal – it’s just a studio movie. Like, it’s just going to be the movie, and it has a shot like anything else and it’s supported like any other movie. And I want it to work. I want you to win… I feel like it’s different for gay and white movies versus other movies, necessarily. But I mean, I’m all for it, because I always feel, a rising tide lifts all boats.

BWP: I’m excited about it. I’m actually a little, maybe, alarmed that we didn’t get here sooner. Given that explosion of gay movies we had in the 90s that I remember so well, from Jeffrey to The Wedding Banquet, to Edge Of Seventeen to Priscilla. We are kind of stuck maybe. And now we have to get back on track, perhaps a necessity given the larger context of the world.

AVC: With Fire Island and Bros and other modern examples, is mainstream LGBTQ+ representation really back on track? What progress do you think has been made in Hollywood since your films – perhaps because of your films – and what progress do you think still needs to be made?

PR: The terrifying Fire Island, like Bros, has a lot more latitude in depicting gay life than previous films, in terms of sexuality, romance and any kind of queer character. While there is still a lot of pressure on gay films to be commercially successful, no film has to bear the absurd burden of universal representation, of being the only gay film available, and therefore needing to show idealized and acceptable role models. Of course, there have been many extraordinary indies that have explored all kinds of gay life, from the work of Gregg Araki and Todd Haynes to Go Fish, Trick and My Beautiful Laundrette, not to mention the genius of John Waters.

There has certainly been progress in queer filmmaking, mostly thanks to streaming services, which have hosted shows like Queer As Folk, The L Word and Noah’s Arc. Producer-directors like Greg Berlanti and Ryan Murphy have been pivotal in hiring gay performers in front of and behind the camera. In recent years, another common studio complaint (and excuse) was that there were no actors out there and absolutely no movie stars. Now we have many wonderful artists, including Zachary Quinto, Kristen Stewart, Bowen Yang, Hari Nef, Neil Patrick Harris, Wanda Sykes, Matt Bomer, Janelle Monáe and many others – the common sense courage of these actors, who “are often warned of potential career damage, has changed the landscape enormously.

AR: The topic is depressingly evergreen. I almost feel like I’m back in the ’90s because, I mean, we’re worried about gay marriage again and we’re worried about increased homophobia. The conversation goes all around; it’s so boring that we have to have it again. Things come back. It was so simple in the early 2000s to be like, “I’m going to do a sweet, misguided queer romance about spy girls.” And that in itself is, I don’t know if I would say revolutionary. But I also worked on The L Word, which was revolutionary. So you have all these conversations and you’re like, “Okay, for the record, we’ve hit the ground running, right?” Like, it’s done! But then it’s strangely, incredibly, still important for people to see positive and romantic queer role models. I’m very excited to see [Bros] supported as it is, it’s just a regular studio movie; it feels really important, always, to see our stories on the screen. Because you’re like, “Okay, we’re done.” But then, “Oh, wow, the world hasn’t ended yet.” And so we just have to go back to the first principles, which is, get our stories, that our stories are supported, that our stories resonate.

This seems a bit old fashioned to me and I’m sure there are a lot of caveats. But the LGBTQ movement, I’ve been told and I’ve read, is the fastest civil rights movement in history, in terms of how quickly progress has been made – many, many, many years, but compared to the movements of civil rights in general, an incredible. amount of progress in a short time. And I feel like Hollywood had a ton to do with it. To make narratives, to tell stories, and to create characters that people in the world can look at and be like, “I know that person. I like that person. I want them to be in love. I’m for them.” This it is still, to this day, super powerful.

AVC: Finally, and perhaps most importantly, what other examples of LGBTQ+ romantic comedies do you enjoy or recommend to audiences who crave more?

PR: Yes, I am hungry for gay films, not only for political reasons, but because they can be fresher and more surprising. In In & Outside, I wanted to use it as a romantic comedy device, like divorce or love at first sight, rather than agony. That’s why I love [Pedro] Almodóvar’s work, because he constantly reinvents the traditions of film, with sexy, funny and sincere LGBTQ+ characters. I’m waiting for My Policeman, about a love triangle inspired by the life of E.M. Forster. And the biopic of gay civil rights activist Bayard Rustin, [Rustin,] directed by George C. Wolfe. It’s inspiring to see so much talent taking so many exciting chances.

BWP: First, the early 90s filmmakers that influenced me were Marlon Riggs, Gregg Araki and Derek Jarman. One of the really seminal movies for me is called I Think I Do, by Brian Sloan. Alexis Arquette is in it. I saw it at a film festival and it really spoke to me. And then [Thomas Bezucha’s] Big Eden is near and dear to me because they set it in my home in Montana, in the same valley I grew up in! And he was really ahead of his time and the kind of story he was telling. And then [Greg] Berlanti’s Broken Hearts Club was one of the first films that I could completely connect with, which won’t be the case for everyone… It stinks because I’m trying to think of something that had a better spectrum of representation. I would go to [Ang Lee’s] The Wedding Banquet, honestly. It is problematic that many of those films were predominantly Caucasian.

AR: Of course, Imagine Me & They are an old classic. There’s Show Me Love-a Swedish film called Fucking Åmål, but it’s called Show Me Love here. I love all those like O.G. those, as well as The Incredibly True Adventure Of Two Girls In Love, all of those are very formative. But I’m a Cheerleader … I’m trying to think of something in the last [few years]. I’m sad about The Wilds, which has been cancelled. Because, just for the queer subplot, it was like, this would have been a lesbian movie in the ’90s. These are my favorites. And I like Carol. But this isn’t really a romantic comedy. [Laughs] Hey, it has a happy ending.

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