Wasn’t it The Lovin’ Spoonful who long ago posed the musical question: “Did you ever have to make up your mind?” Now, director Rob Williams and Guest House Films tackle that same intimate conundrum, giving it a whole new slant in The Men Next Door, which makes its way onto DVD this month from Wolfe Video.
In the film, viewers are introduced to Doug, a 40-year-old gay man who suddenly finds himself dating two very different, but equally desirable men: Jacob, a mature 50-year-old who has recently come out, and Colton, an adventurous 30-year-old who wasn’t initially looking for a relationship. What Doug doesn’t find out right away is that the two men are, in fact, father and son — and they share the house right next door!
Williams takes a setup that, in a lesser artist’s hands, could have come off as the plot of another outlandish porn flick and instead presents it as a logical, if emotionally complex, situation. Ultimately a choice is made, but his conclusion offers his audience a kind of cinematic Rorschach test. What they get out of it (or whether they agree with who is chosen) largely depends on the viewpoint they bring with them.
Williams cast Benjamin Lutz as Colton, the hot young neighbor and Michael Nicklin as Jacob, Colton’s father, who is temporarily staying with him.
Lutz was born and raised near Dallas, and his first memory of acting in front of an audience was during a kindergarten Christmas play.
“I played some sort of ‘Merry Baker’ that baked gingerbread Christmas cookies,” he said, laughing.
Nicklin, too, remembers catching the acting bug early on. “My first memory of performing was staging a puppet show in my backyard and selling tickets to my sympathetic neighbors,” he said.
Growing up as an only child in Santa Barbara, Calif., he spent plenty of time alone, but this inspired the creative spirit that would serve him so well. “Living inside my own head so much as a child nurtured my imagination,” he said. “That, coupled with my passion for storytelling, has helped a great deal with my acting career.”
Men Next Door spotlights several themes. The first is the changing and often challenging nature of relationships, and the second concerns the heightened awareness of ageism these days — especially within the LGBT community as more people come out later in life.
“One of the things that attracted me to this role was the addressing of ageism in Rob’s script,” Nicklin said. “Studies have shown that men generally are faced with a great deal more of it than in the past, relative to work life — and looks have mattered in the dating world since the beginning of time.”
He points to what he calls the “aesthetic archetypes” that many (if not most) gay men use today. “That raises the bar of expectation and judgment,” Nicklin said, “Even such descriptive categories as ‘twink’ and ‘bear’ all refer to age as well as physical type.”
The film also delves into gay parenting, and Nicklin also found this element particularly intriguing.
“Two of the most dominant traits that Rob wrote for Jacob are that he came out after being married for decades, and that he was a loving father to Colton,” he said. “I have had neither of those experiences in my own life, which gave me license to create an emotional reality for Jacob unencumbered by those actual experiences.”
Ironically, Nicklin said, this ability to approach the story free from preconceptions enabled him to be more effective in the role. “Odd as it may sound, that actually helped me in finding a balance that hopefully made Jacob likable in perhaps an unlikable situation — competing with his son for the love of another.”
For his part, Lutz also found that his differences from his character brought him greater insight.
“I have met a lot of people in L.A. exactly like Colton,” he said with a chuckle, “but they don’t know that they’re like that!”
He sees Colton as a kind of carefree “Hollywood A-Gay”— that rare breed of younger individuals who, although likable enough, don’t always realize just how good their situation is. It’s this mindset that he based his approach on.
“Colton has rented his own house. He seems to have this fantastic job. He seems to be stretching forward,” Lutz said. “I think it takes someone from outside of that sphere to really get into that psyche. I see how they work, so I could analyze exactly what makes Colton tick even better and how he changes throughout the film — how he goes from a kind of fun playboy to someone with a lot of heart.”
Everyone involved in this offbeat love triangle engages in some pretty eccentric behavior, but do these guys personally feel they’re more romantic or real in their own approaches to amour?
“I have done some pretty wild and spontaneous things to initiate relationships,” Nicklin confesses, “but I feel that relationships require both honesty and work to keep them alive and thriving. So in the big picture, I work at it to nurture them.”
Likewise, Lutz allows, “although I’m more of a realist, I got turned on by the fact that Colton is such a romantic.” He said it was Colton’s starry-eyed impulsiveness that largely attracted him to the role.
“My favorite thing about playing him is how he just goes for it,” the actor said. “They talk about him living in the moment, and that’s the one thing I wish I did more of.”
The Men Next Door is available on DVD at stores everywhere. For more information, visit www.guesthousefilms.com or www.facebook.com/themennextdoor, or follow “Guest House Films” on Twitter (@guesthousefilms).