’The Green’ :: Every teacher’s nightmare makes for a powerful film
When does an honest concern and attempt to help a student excel in life cross the line for a teacher and become inappropriate conduct? And do such accusations put in question your relationship with your closest loved ones, friends and family, alike?
The latest offering by Table Ten Films, co-founded by Molly Pearson and screenwriter Paul Marcarelli, better known as the Verizon "Can you hear me now?" pitch man, "The Green" addresses these questions with a storyline that puts into question the perceptions we as a community place upon our society. Marcarelli was able to explore the headline-grabbing narratives concerning inappropriate teacher-student relationships and our quick reactions to judge in such cases.
In addition, "The Green" explores the various degrees of being "out." We, in the gay community, must somehow measure with our friends and co-workers at times, bringing to light how certain circumstances may put the understanding of those relationships into question.
I had an opportunity to explore these areas of the film with Marcarelli including how his newly bestowed public persona experiences as a gay man may have presented some enlightenment on the gay community’s response to public figures coming "out."
BeBe: "The Green" has done quite well in garnishing quite a few film festival awards in the past year. That has to be quite rewarding.
Paul Marcarelli: It’s really gratifying. And it’s not anything we expected. We knew we were doing something different, and we were clear from the outset with everyone we wanted to work with. We wanted to make sure that all of our intentions were aligned. You know anything that you make that is seen as gay in any way is inherently political, and I think it important that everyone’s intentions be clear and that they are working in conjunction for the same goal. Otherwise you end up with something that is either too general in its approach or something that is irresponsible, and we really didn’t want to do that.
BeBe: The cast in the film is quite dynamic. I am a fan of many of your lead characters. I adore Illeana Douglas ("Cape Fear," "Entourage") to no extent.
Paul Marcarelli: Me, too. I’ve been a fan of Illeana’s for so long. She was the person we wanted for her part. She was so right for it. As it turns out, her mom lives two towns away from the town we shot the film in. I don’t think it hurt us that she was able to go home for a few weeks and hang out with her mom. Her mom actually drove her to set every day with a brown bag lunch (we both laugh)! It was awesome.
BeBe: And how about Julia Ormond (Emmy winner for HBO’s "Temple Grandin"). She is definitely a critically acclaimed actress, and I was impressed to see her a part of the cast and playing a great attorney. She was very believable.
Paul Marcarelli: Yes, I think she is fantastic in this! She came into the project rather late in the process. You know we shot the entire film in 17 days, and we only had about three days of shooting for her. So we were able to work out in our schedule three consecutive days, and then we sent her off. And the day after leaving set, she went and won the Emmy for Best Actress in a Television Movie for "Temple Grandin." We were all watching. It was very exciting. We got her back in time for her dress fitting.
BeBe: The storyline of "The Green" is very interesting with two parallel stories. There’s the two main characters played by Jason Butler Harner ("Changeling," HBO’s "John Adams," and presently the new hit Fox series "Alcatraz") and Cheyenne Jackson ("30 Rock," "Glee"). Harner’s character, Michael, a gay teacher, is being accused of inappropriate behavior with a student at the prep school where he teaches is one storyline, and then there is the story we follow with the relationship between Harner and Jackson’s character, Daniel, who is Michael’s domestic partner, and how the accusation tests the relationship and discovers some frailties of their relationship. As the screenwriter, did you draw from any personal experience in writing this story and developing these characters? Or was this triggered from some news headline or something?
Paul Marcarelli: I’ll answer that in two parts. The accusation of misconduct with a student is completely fiction. We made up that plot line entirely. We did notice in the local news that these type of accusations tend to be a pretty steady drum beat. And I was really curious why every two weeks or so you would see a headline like this. And you rarely, if ever, see the follow up. I was more curious about what news producers saw in their viewer’s response system that would make that such a good headline than I was about the headline itself. Because it really speaks to us a culture that we are all sort of react in such a way that they (newsroom producers) can count on us watching their advertising. So we wanted to certainly look into the rush to judgment.
But in terms of the relationship, certainly there are elements in that relationship that reflect experiences I’ve had. And there are qualities that each of them (Michael and Daniel) possess that I’ve observed in others over the years. The thing that Michael needs to learn throughout the sort of journey in the film is that there are degrees of being "out." I think we play with those. There’s the subtle way in non-urban America when you’re the only gay guy on the block. There are subtle ways we tend to prevaricate and try make sure others are comfortable with our being gay in way that we have to be a sort of well behaved gay ambassador. You know there’s an inherent insecurity when you’re the only gay guy on the block and you know that the people that live on either side of you enjoy an entire host of rights and privileges that you do not enjoy. It’s easy to feel insecure, even if you’re not conscious of it. I think that is the experience Michael has in this film. That is the dynamic he brings into his relationship.
BeBe: That all kind of played out in the film where you have Michael and Illeana’s character, who is Michael’s best straight girlfriend, in a blow-up between the two where Michael expresses these insecurities. We always struggle between being tolerated and being accepted.
Paul Marcarelli: Yeah, and both of them to me seem to be cold comfort. The reason you live in San Francisco and the reason I spend a lot of time in New York is probably because we realize the more successful communities are ones in which people with differences are celebrated not tolerated. Who are you to tolerate me? I think the relationship between Illeana’s character and Jason Butler Harner’s Michael is very unique and special kind of relationship, the singular bond that exists between a gay man and his straight female friend. And obviously that relationship is tested by the accusations in the film. Suddenly the detente that they sort of find themselves in -- that level at which they have understood one another -- is put to the test. I think Michael calls her on something that she didn’t realize has had an affect on his feelings about her. I think she is blind sighted by it. Because she has thought acceptance and tolerance were enough or understood in that relationship.
BeBe: You earlier brought up how your interest in exploring the motives behind sort of the sensationalism of news producers using headlines to invoke a certain response from their audience with little to no follow up, and you have somewhat been a victim of such headlines when we were publicly made aware that you were gay. I know you wrote a response to some of this in an article in the Huffington Post. I have to ask if your response was your follow up that you felt lacking?
Paul Marcarelli: Well, first off, I don’t feel victim of anything in the least. I have this unusual job (Verizon’s commercial test man) that has made my face very recognizable for the better part of the last 10 years, and outside of that I’ve absolutely no public persona. So there has been no forum to discuss my personal life in any respect.
It was only in interest to start promoting "The Green" and my work as a filmmaker that I discussed my personal life at all. In fact the first reporter I ever spoke with at all was in March of 2011 and I talked about me being gay, and it was taken as sort of a public coming out. And I suppose I entered into that conversation rather naively. I didn’t realize there would be a resonance to it, because I don’t experience celebrity even though I’m recognizable. So, I was shocked by the way it was responded to. Within two days the headline in the New York Post became something about The Verizon Guy’s Bizarre Life. In this case "bizarre" is code for gay. Because there is absolutely nothing bizarre about my life. I have the most banal and mundane life (laughs).
Out all his life
BeBe: With two rescue pugs, right?! (laughing also)
Paul Marcarelli: Right. (Continuing) But then there is this thing that happens that we really need to keep in check. When a public figure who is gay does come out of the closet, served message boards are filled with this tone. And the tone tends to be ’well we know that, of course he is, who cares’. And I’m talking about the gay message boards right now and the gay blogs. It’s like ’I don’t understand why more public figures don’t come out’. The response seems to be - what took you so long? Like I said in the Huffington Post piece, a little kindness from the home front would be appreciated! And since saying that, a lot of people have reached out to me through Facebook and email and have said they appreciate the fact that I’ve come out and it does make a difference. So, I’m glad about that.
BeBe: Well you prefaced your detailing of the series of events that lead up to your Huffington Post piece that you didn’t have a public persona before, so there was no thought put into coming out or concealing your sexuality. It just wasn’t there.
Paul Marcarelli: It’s an odd brand of notoriety to be recognizable, but no one knows your name.
BeBe: I do understand, however, the response some in the gay community had to what was seemingly a public coming out for you since many believe if more public figures did come out earlier in their careers it would make it a whole lot easier for a lot of folk out there. We can take the Ellen DeGeneres, the Rosie O’Donnells, the Ricky Martins of the world where the community responded to their coming out similarly that we have always known you were gay but we could have used the general public who adores you to have known that much earlier in your career. But your article shed some light on your circumstances were not the same since your notoriety was different. You were really never in a position until recent months for a topic such as this to come up. No one even knew your name. You are the Verizon Test Guy.
Paul Marcarelli: Right. I’ve always been out in my life. I’ve been out since I was 19. And in a lot of ways the character Michael in the film that is what he’s dealing with, the degrees of being out. It’s trying to figure out when it’s safe to be wholly and completely yourself.
Teacher’s worst nightmare
BeBe: In the film, Michael’s approach in dealing with his students is what a general community would love to see a teacher display toward their students. He has an extreme level of caring that goes beyond professional in that he does want to see his students reach their full potential. But his sexual orientation gets in the way of people’s perception of his intent.
Paul Marcarelli: You know it is interesting that every where we have gone with the film, a teacher has stood up in a Q & A after the film, or come up to me or the director, Steven Williford, and said exactly the same thing. A lot of gay teachers have said this is our worst nightmare. My sister, who is straight and a teacher, says that as a teacher you’re always concerned about that... when can your intentions be misinterpreted? It’s a fear a lot of teachers have. I mean if I had kids in school, I’d want teachers to take a special interest in them.
BeBe: I know I am definitely a product of teachers going that extra mile. I grew up in a very urban community, and it was always perceived as the do-gooder teacher that would help create opportunities for students who might not otherwise have those opportunities. But now it seems that vibe has changed. I don’t know if it is because the sexuality of professionals,including teachers, are not as hidden anymore through the protection of laws and what have you that now plants the possibility of some sexual misconduct in the minds of the community, or what?
Paul Marcarelli: I have met teachers across the country who are very reluctant to make their private lives known in their work. Where we (gay community) have made tremendous progress ,there is no question about that, let’s not forget up until 2003 it was illegal to be gay in some states. In most of our history you could be fired for being a gay teacher.
Hitting 55 million homes
BeBe: Let us not forget Anita Bryant, right?
Paul Marcarelli: Yeah!
BeBe: You said earlier that this film will be in many more film festivals this year. And of course the DVD release in late 2011 is going very well.
Paul Marcarelli: And through Movies on Demand. We started out quite early to reach the widest audience possible with this film. So few people are getting their entertainment out of the home these days, we really wanted to start with a heavy digital strategy. So we worked with our distributor FilmBuff and Wolfe Video for the DVD release. Again we are now in over 55 million homes nationwide which is pretty remarkable for a small film like this. The audience is finding the film, and the film is finding its audience. It is really, really gratifying!
BeBe: I know Wolfe Video distributes mostly gay content films, but with "The Green," that theme didn’t overly resonate with me, if that makes any sense.
Paul Marcarelli: It makes perfect sense because I really think this film is about the perceptions that we all project in communities. And as a result, we are finding a much wider audience. Whether you are gay or straight you can see something of your on experience in the film. You know I have always thought that a creative work is gay if a gay person made it. That’s always been my definition of a gay film. And it doesn’t necessarily dictate that it has to have a gay plot line or a gay theme. There is such a thing as a gay sensibility. The next film I’m working on doesn’t have any gay characters, but I still think it is a gay film because a gay person will have made it. There’s a lot of material out there that is made in such a way to attract a perceived niche audience. And we as filmmakers have to be careful not to pander to this niche audience. I think there are a whole lot of us that this material doe not reach because of the efforts that are made to reach that common denominator. And I think that is unfortunate. For me with "The Green" it was about telling the best story we could tell. It wasn’t about hitting a prescribed set of marks that will attract a very specific audience of any kind. And as a result I think there is a little less preaching to the choir.
"The Green" is now streaming on Amazon and iTunes, and can be purchased or rented anywhere dvds are sold. For more information visit www.thegreenthemovie.com.