Michelle Ehlen, director of Heterosexual Jill, playing Sunday, May 4, as part of the Miami Gay and Lesbian Film Festival, likes to mess with people's minds - well, at least the parts of people's minds that formulate stereotypes about gender and sexuality.
Her previous film, Butch Jamie, played with gender issues and societal misconceptions. She was awarded Best Actress from Outfest Film Festival for her performance in the "gender-bending" comedy.
Heterosexual Jill also screws with our perceptions of sexuality. The titular character falls victim to the "ex-gay" movement, then seeks to rekindle a relationship with her ex-girlfriend to "prove" the reconditioning worked. The film won Special Mention of the Jury at the Barcelona LGTIB Film Festival and was recognized by the Cleveland International Film Festival's Focus on Filmmakers Program, sponsored by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.
Some subplots keep the action and laughs going, particularly via supporting characters David and Lola who compete for the affections of a sexually ambiguous Brazilian named José.
Michelle Ehlen spoke with us about the making of the film, her favorite moment during production, and her next project.
Cultist: How do you feel about Heterosexual Jill being part of MGLFF's line up this year?
I'm really excited, as I haven't had a film screen at MGLFF before.
What's the film about?
I call the film a pseudo-romantic comedy about being in love with who you think you are. The main character Jill is trying to be an "ex-lesbian," and gets the crazy idea to date her ex-girlfriend to prove to herself that she's no longer attracted to her.
What inspired you to take on this project?
The film is a follow up to my first feature Butch Jamie, although I don't think of it as an official sequel, as I believe it stands on its own. Butch Jamie is a satire on gender, and I liked the idea of doing another installment that was a satire on sexuality. There are characters all over the sexuality spectrum in the film, which helps round out the themes of sexuality and identity.
What was your favorite moment during filming?
One scene that stands out for me is the one where Jill (Jen McPherson) and Jamie (me) are laying in bed talking and laughing. That whole scene is improvised, and actually replaced a scripted scene I had. The camera kept running after the scripted scene was over (thanks to my producer Charlie Vaughn, who made an instinctual decision not to cut after we were done), and we spontaneously went into the improvised part, which ended up feeling really natural and real on screen, because it was. People tell me they feel like they're right there with us.
What do you feel is the message of the film, if there is one?
I think the film touches on a few different issues, but for me, the main one is the idea that many people are over-attached to their identity and what it means, or what they think it should mean. This is reflected not only with Jill, but with many of the characters, including Jamie, the gold star butch lesbian who ends up confronting some of her own insecurities about her sexuality.
Were any of the actors LGBT? If so, who?
Many of the smaller roles were cast with LGBT actors, however out of the main characters, I'm the only actor who identifies as LGBT. I didn't know that when we were casting though, since many of the straight actors were very convincing as queer. One of the actors kept me guessing until over a year later when I finally asked him. I always thought it was cool that the straight actors identified with the project as much as they did, and said they felt the themes were universal and relatable. Since I believe few people are one hundred percent gay or one hundred percent straight, I think people who identify as straight have their own connection to the material since they have their own unique place on the continuum of sexuality that the film portrays.
What kind of response has the film received so far?
The response has been really great. Some of the comments I've heard are that people like the way the film pokes fun of stereotypes, how sexuality is presented as an indefinite thing, and that they enjoy the chemistry between Jill and Jamie. Despite the farcical nature that the film starts out with, there is a tipping point after which people have told me they really start to fall in love with the main characters and go on their journey with them. People say that it's one of those films that's entertaining and funny, but there are layers, if you're looking for them.
There have been quite a few films in which a gay character 'turns' straight, such as Gigli. Was Heterosexual Jill a response to those films in any way?
Not consciously. I just write films that represent my own opinions and view points, so it mostly sprung up from that, and the desire to take something that could be presented very seriously and present it as satirical and ridiculous, but also in a way that feels grounded and real.
So, what's next?
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I'm currently writing a third installment to the series called S&M Sally, which I hope to shoot later this year. That one will focus on relationships and going outside of your comfort zone. It's a bit edgy and outrageous and a lot of fun. My favorite project is always the one right around the corner, so I'm really looking forward to it!
MGLFF presents the Florida premiere of Heterosexual Jillon Sunday, May 4, at 7:45 p.m. at O Cinema Miami Shores. Tickets cost $12. Visit mglff.com.
Follow Ily on Twitter @realily.