James Sweeney’s Straight Up is a hilarious mixture of screwball comedy rhythm and a modern perspective on sexuality, and it’s unlike anything I’ve ever seen. Straight people have had the distinction of seeing romances–both realistic and not realistic–portrayed on screen, but Sweeney manages to create something nostalgic but fresh. Straight Up is an intellectual romance, but it’s also a very agile comedy at its core. Sweeney is nominated for Best First Screenplay at this year’s Independent Spirit Awards.
Sweeney not only stars as the film’s conflicted leading man, but he also wrote the script, directed and produced the film. A lot of the dialogue has a rapid fire pace that directors stumble over, but Sweeney performs and captures it all with such ease. If he is directing with such verve at this age, he is surely one of the most promising writer-directors of his generation.
Straight Up is a comedy, but it has such a thread of loneliness throughout. His Todd is trying to make sense of his own romantic destiny and his hunt for happiness is so universal. Most people just expect love to fall into our laps, but Sweeney’s Todd is trying to make it happen for himself.
Awards Daily: We normally see characters struggling with their sexuality when it ties to shame. For Straight Up, you play a character who is willing to see where his sexuality will go. What made you want to explore that?
James Sweeney: That’s an interesting question. Part of this ease with what we dive into the concept comes from the screwball nature of it. It just would’ve been a different tone if it was a queasy, tortured transition into dating a girl. All the classic screwball comedies are very much about gender dynamics and twisting conventions. In terms of coming with the concept, it stemmed from living in LA and I was out. Wouldn’t be nice if I was just attracted to one of my female actor friends. Within the queer genre, there is so much focus on the coming out process or deal with a lot of shame and I was more interested in starting post that. It’s okay to be gay and they say it gets better, but that doesn’t mean it’s great. I was interested in exploring in what we do when we get beyond that phase.
AD: What are some of your favorite romantic comedies?
JS: In terms of specifically what inspired this film, I’d say Kissing Jessica Stein.
AD: I can totally see that.
JS: I’d also say The Wedding Banquet and Chasing Amy. I didn’t realize until recently that it was controversial when it came out which might say a lot about why I didn’t think about some of the implications of this film of how it could be perceived. If it wasn’t done with nuance or compassion, it would’ve been so different, I wouldn’t approach it in any other capacity. In terms of straight rom-coms, Silver Linings Playbook is a big one for me. 500 Days of Summer. My Best Friend’s Wedding. I recently watched Notting Hill for the first time.
AD: What did you think?
JS: That monologue is so cheesy when you hear it out of context but when I saw it in the movie, it made me cry.
AD: What did you want to say about the disconnect between the head and the heart?
JS: I think for Todd that’s where that struggle comes from and it’s compounded with OCD and the intrusive thoughts that can come with that can be very confusing. I think you are mixing this notion of what he wants his life to be like compared to the reality of what they are. I think for most of the film Todd and Rory are on the same page. The crux is that Rory needs shift and that’s why their Odd Couple routine is hard to sustain. Something’s gotta give as they say.
AD: I wanted to ask about your use of color in the film because some of it is so striking. In the scene where Todd and Rory talk for eight hours on end, the carpet they are laying on is very colorful but when things start to hit the skids, that color isn’t as present. I thought it was vibrant when you get that sense of energy between them. There is one scene where you are washing the dishes and the only color is in the tile in the kitchen during the scene.
JS: The color palette was very intentional. My big rule was that I wanted to exclude white, black and shades of grey. I wanted to utilize a soft color and a very rainbow spectrum within the film. There was a lot of intention to use as much color as possible, but I have to say that because of our resources, we only had so much control. I didn’t put that tile there so we were beholden to what the location looked like but we could set dress them as much as we could. A lot of the color choices were done with location scouting.
AD: What did you learn most or like most about doing so much on this film? In addition to starring in the film you also wrote, directed, and produced it.
JS: I think the biggest hurdle was that I was the only producer on set. I think it would’ve been easier if I didn’t have those responsibilities. I had done some shorts that I had acted in and I think it’s a muscle that gets better the more your flex it. It is discombobulating switching back and forth, especially for this film where the rhythm and cadence were so specific. The character is a hyperbolized version of a lot of my thoughts or anxieties. It felt like I was slipping into a character and it wasn’t a character that I could keep with since Todd would’ve been a nightmare on set if he was the director.
AD: That would be a different movie.
JS: A very different movie. In terms of what I learned, I was intentional with how I set up the shoot overall to be as prepared as possible. I had a succinct shot list so I could spend time not doing as many takes as we needed to get coverage from many angles. It was constructed purposefully to aid getting more takes if I wasn’t getting it right away. Sometimes the best take was the first time, sometimes it was the tenth.
AD: Your chemistry with Katie [Findlay] is really magical, especially in terms of pacing. I love how you used the camera in a lot of scenes–moving back and forth. Was it hard to capture that, because I think it’s something unique and very special.
JS: Thank you. It really is like capturing lightning in a bottle. Even though I had written the part for myself, I had written a concept that had a different cast. I had gone through a different iterations of talent and producers. When we were casting, it’s a compliment that people think we had known each other for a long time, but it was a traditional casting process. We put in a call for a character that is a struggling actress in her twenties and we got a lot of submissions. Katie is based in Vancouver and she sent in a self-tape, but a Skype conversations really solidified how simpatico we are. She asked all the right questions and it was clear that she was going to be a partner in crime. But even then you can be in the same page intellectually and you don’t know if that chemistry is going to show up on camera. I flew to Vancouver to get to know each other and she comes from a TV background mostly where I come from having done nothing (laughs).
JS: I’ve done theater so I very much value the rehearsal process. One of my favorite stories to tell is that the very first scene that we shot is the very first scene where Todd and Rory meet in the library. The very first take that we shot of the whole movie is the five minute take where she stumbles upon him. The take that we used was actually the very first take that we shot.
AD: I love that.
JS: I think there was something just right about it that wasn’t forced or manufactured. We spitball well off each other and we’re very lucky.
AD: Todd makes a big gesture towards the end of the film. The flashmob is hilarious. From a character standpoint, what do you think Todd would consider a big, romantic gesture is someone did that for him?
JS: That’s a good question.
AD: Would it be finding an apartment with bathrooms at the opposite ends of the house?
JS: Maybe. I want to come up with a brilliant, funny answer. The thing that’s coming to me–and this is the Todd part of my brain–is a house with a forcefield around it where no bugs can get through.
Straight Up is streaming now on Netflix.