As much as I love theatre, it's always a thrill when I get a request to interview someone in another medium. I've gotten to interview some great filmmakers over the years and now I get to add rising filmmaker Kerstin Karlhuber to that list. When I read the film was about a young man who returns to his family farm, after a long stay in ex-gay conversion therapy, and is torn between the expectations of his emotionally distant father, and the memories of a past, loving relationship he has tried to bury, I had to talk more with Kerstin.
Fair Haven will be released March 3rd in Los Angeles and VOD/DVD March 7th.
1. Who or what inspired you to become a filmmaker? I started out as an actress. I grew up performing and was working professionally in musical theater productions by the time I was in middle school. I was majoring in theater in college when I booked a small role in a TV movie and took a week off from school to film it. Most of the time I sat around waiting for my scenes and during the down time I became obsessed with the behind the scenes process. I watched what every crew member's responsibilities were, what each piece of equipment did, and asked a lot of questions. It was that experience that changed the direction of my career. I did a complete 180 and realized I was much more interested in being behind the camera than I was in being in front of it. I finished my studies in theater but added as many production classes as I could. I then went on to get my Masters Degree in Film Production and have never looked back. At this point in my life I have no desire to ever be on camera again!
2. You just completed your first full length feature film, Fair Haven, a tender love story about a rural working class family drama, and a poignant exploration of the lingering effects of "gay conversion therapy" on a young man and the people he loves most. What made you want to tell this story? How long did it take you write Fair Haven, from concept to filming? In college I began writing a screenplay that was a family drama and took place in my native Vermont on an apple farm. I never finished it and put it away for over a decade. Immediately after grad school, where I met screenwriter, Jack Bryant, he came to me with a script he had written about "reparative" or "conversion therapy." It was wonderfully written and I wanted to direct it immediately. In his youth he had personally seen several friends and family members come back from this traumatizing "therapy" and was passionate about highlighting the horrors they endured. But that film was a huge project requiring a large cast and a lot of money. We tried unsuccessfully to get it off the ground for several years, and ultimately decided we needed to focus on something smaller and more attainable for our first feature.
At this point I had learned so much about this "therapy," had interviewed survivors, and had become just as passionate as Jack about making a film that shed light on the issue. That’s when we combined my original screenplay idea taking place in Vermont with this incredibly important and timely topic. Jack went off and wrote Fair Haven rather quickly. When I read his first draft I fell in love with the characters and the dynamics between them. The script got a lot of attention immediately. We had the opposite experience getting Fair Haven off the ground than we had with the previous project. It was around 10 months from writing the screenplay to production. We had a great team on board who were instrumental in pushing it forward.
3. What was the hardest scene to write and what was the easiest/most fun scene to write? I asked our screenwriter Jack this question and he said, "The scene with 'Ruby' in the bar at the end was the hardest to write because so much needs to be said about 'Richard's' past and he needs to think about a lot of things in a short amount of time. The scenes with 'Charlie' were usually more fun to write because he's a lighthearted character, even when 'James' is being miserable or treating him badly."
4. Do you have any fun stories from filming that you could share with us? I just did a director's commentary for the DVD and it brought up a lot of memories! I have a lot of fun stories. The shoot was hard; we shot in 14 days and had a lot of really deep, dramatic themes to cover. But we managed to have fun too. One of the hardest scenes to shoot was the barn scene where "Charlie" and "James" become intimate. It’s sensitive and awkward to shoot those kinds of scenes but it ended up being hysterical. I brought an array of breath sprays and mints with me in case either of the actors wanted to freshen their breath. One of the sprays I had was pink grapefruit flavor. Josh Green, who played "Charlie," being the jokester that he is, decided to overuse the grapefruit spray. He knew that Michael Grant, who played "James," didn’t like grapefruit. After the first take Michael made a face but moved on. A few takes later he finally said, "What IS that!" It had been a long day and Josh and I ended up flat on our backs in the grass outside of the barn laughing uncontrollably. It was half funny and half due to be being incredibly overtired. Poor Michael, I’m not sure he ever knew what Josh had been up to. If you watch our DVD extras, Josh tells that story in his behind the scenes interview.
5. Now that film is complete, what does it feel like to have this story out there to the public? What's it like to hear feedback from people who have seen the film? The reaction has been incredible. I am shocked that almost every day I get an email or a tweet or Facebook message telling me how much the film means to someone. I am truly lucky that I was able to accompany the film to most of our festival screenings around the world! Seeing the reaction during the film makes all of the hard work worth it, and then hearing from people afterwards even more so. I’ve been to screenings where it took me hours to leave the theater because so many people wanted to tell me personally how much this film touched them. Audience members have told me tearful and personal stories about their own struggles and familial relationships. I am just so overwhelmed that this little film I made affects people so deeply. And we haven’t even released it in this country yet! I hope it continues to have the same impact!
6. In Fair Haven, "James" arrives back at his family's farm after being in "gay conversion therapy" and bumps into his ex-boyfriend, prompting old feelings to arise. What went through your head the first time you bumped into an ex unexpectedly? Hide! And I did, but he saw me anyway. An awkward conversation about my upcoming wedding (to my fabulous husband) ensued.
7. "James" is pressured to give up his music career and take over the family farm. What is something in your life that you were pressured to give up? Did you give it up or did you go after it anyway? I can’t think of anything I was pressured to give up. I’m lucky! My parents were supportive of me majoring in theater, but they did urge me to have a more sensible minor. I didn’t do it! My rationale was that if I had something to fall back on, I’d fall back on it, and I was determined to go for it 100%.
8. How do you feel Fair Haven will help people in these crazy times we are living, which are filled with so much fear that all the progress we have made with gay rights will move backwards? I think Fair Haven provides hope. Hope that even in the toughest situations one can find a way to be true to oneself and attempt to reconcile familial tensions. We made the film in a very specific way so that we could reach a mass, mainstream audience. Fair Haven is subtle in its approach and we were very careful not to feel preachy or pushing an agenda. It educates but also entertains through a very traditionally structured dramatic narrative. I think the film is a bit of a wake up call to many. Before Jack came to me with a script about "reparative therapy" I didn’t know much about it. I assumed that it had become obsolete because this "therapy" obviously didn’t work. When I did research and learned that it very much still happens and that our youth is currently being subjected to this trauma, I was shocked and infuriated. I hope the messages in the film linger, inspire a dialogue, and maybe even open a few closed minds along the way.
9. As a female filmmaker, what challenges do you face that you feel your male counterparts do not? I have to say that with Fair Haven I rarely felt as though I were at a disadvantage as a female filmmaker, and it’s hard to tell sometimes if something is difficult because I am a female or because indie filmmaking is just inherently difficult. I generally go with the latter. There were a handful of times that I felt like my vision wasn’t being taken seriously, as a relatively young woman, making my first feature. That never happened on set. I was completely supported and respected by the cast and creative team. They took a leap with me on my first feature and gave me their full trust and support. I did feel as though other sides of the process were extremely male dominated and possibly a bit prejudiced. In several situations it took some time, but I think I eventually gained the trust of those "old boys club" members. However, maybe every director faces these obstacles, male or female.
10. Why did you want to dedicate this film to your late cousin Katelyn? What do miss most about her? Katelyn was a beautiful transgender woman. She was the film’s biggest supporter. She was exceedingly proud of me and the message I was trying to spread. Tragically she took her own life about a month after we wrapped production. I dedicated the film to her because she had spent a portion of her life fighting for love and equality and hope. When I made the dedication I felt like I was now carrying her torch. She faced enormous discrimination which is exactly why making this film was so incredibly important to me. After losing her, completing the film and telling this story became even more important. Katelyn was so positive. She was always giving me pep talks. She believed in me more than I believed in myself. That support is one of the things I miss most about her.
11. On "Call Me Adam" I have a section called One Percent Better, where through my own fitness commitment, I try to encourage people to improve their own life by one percent every day. What is something in your life that you want to improve by one percent better every day? Count me in on the fitness journey! But, I recently got really interested in meditation. I get fidgety and my mind often wanders so I’d like to get 1% better at that practice every day.
Kerstin Karlhuber is an award winning Filmmaker and the Founder/Director of Silent Giant Productions. She recently completed her first feature length film, Fair Haven, which has been called, "deftly and meticulously directed," and "a potent, stirring new film." Kerstin’s credits include national ad campaigns, original television content, music videos and several award winning short films. She holds a Masters Degree in Film Production from Boston University and undergraduate degrees in Musical Theater from The American Musical and Dramatic Academy and The New School.