Described as a “neo-noir mindbender,” Guys Reading Poems is being released into select theaters after its run last year as a film-festival favorite. Hunter Lee Hughes, the writer-director behind it, says that creating this film gave him a great sense of satisfaction.
Although the relationships depicted are mostly on the heterosexual side of things, plenty of those involved in making the film, including Hughes, are proud members of the LGBT community.
The story is told through 32 different (and often contrasting) poems that are used as a framing device for the larger narrative. The selections include classics from such gay and lesbian poets as Walt Whitman, Edna St. Vincent Millay and Thomas Gray, as well as from West Hollywood’s Steven Reigns.
Recited by different actors, including Hughes himself, they signify different personality traits of the intrepid boy at the center of the film.
“The film is designed as a dream with the dreamer slowly waking up,” Hughes says. An ethereal feel flows through it.
The story follows a troubled avant-garde painter, played by Patricia Velasquez, an out and proud lesbian actress. She portrays a wife and mother whose sanity dissipates when she’s abandoned by her womanizing husband (Alexander Dreymon) for his mistress (Lydia Hearst). Luke Judy makes his big-screen debut as their resilient young son who turns to poetry as a survival tool when his disturbed mother locks him in a small, box-like puppet theater — a plaything originally seen as a fun and harmless way to encourage his creativity.
After he is rescued, she transforms the box into a modern art installation. Dark, yes, but also surprisingly sublime, the film is shot in elegant and evocative black and white.
“It’s a very risky, very original idea,” observes Velasquez. “It’s something like you’ve never seen before. Hunter really went with his heart and his creativity, and that says a lot. This authenticity, I think, is the reason why the movie has been getting so much attention.”
Hughes said that throughout his adolescence and early adulthood, he enjoyed writing poems “here and there.” It wasn’t until he was in his late 20s, though, that he discovered the works of Rumi, the renowned 13th-century Persian poet, after going through a particularly painful break-up.
This discovery, he says, truly “kicked the whole poetry thing into overdrive.”
But he says it was his grandmother’s love of poetry — and her personal collection of poems — that ultimately inspired Guys Reading Poems.
“Many of these old ‘public domain’ pieces came straight from books she collected over the years,” he said.
She interacted with the poems on the page by circling, underlining, or making notes in their margins, Hughes said.
“Those marks became clues as to who she was as a woman,” he recalls. “She was also an inspiration in relation to how poems can be psychological puzzle pieces used to understand a human being.”
Hughes ascribes the hard-hearted plot twist about the boy’s confinement to a story he once heard about the childhood of a singer.
“I’m not sure if it’s a tall tale, or if it really happened,” he concedes, “but I read that as a very young child, [she] was locked in the closet by nuns at her school when she misbehaved. The legend also goes that being trapped in the closet frightened her so deeply that she taught herself to sing – to comfort herself and pass the time. … That story became a rallying point for me to explore how even extreme trauma can be transcended through a creative pursuit.”
Hughes says he drew from four different filmmaking styles in making the movie. For the sections in which the poetry readers speak directly to the camera, he chose Indian director Tarsem Singh’s 2006 fantasy epic The Fall for “the power of the embodiment of a character’s imagination.”
“Then, with the story of the family in the past, I thought of Joe Wright’s 2012 remake of Tolstoy’s classic Anna Karenina,’ because I loved the stylized look of that film,” he says.
For the scenes that take place in the present-day, when the mother returns home from jail, he was influenced by Walter Salles’ 1998 drama Central Station. “We made use of its wide shots and long, uninterrupted takes in that part of the film. It suddenly gets quiet and almost ‘ordinary’ in those sections.
“Finally, there’s the part toward the end where imagination and reality meet, and for that I chose David Fincher’s blockbuster Fight Club, which I think is pretty self-explanatory.”
When casting the team of “guys reading the poems,” Hughes explains, “I wanted guys who fit in with a sort of 1950s Dead Poets Society type of ‘vibe’– guys that you could picture either as boarding school alums or members of some offbeat secret society.”
Five of the seven — the characters who are referred to as “The Gambler,” “The Keeper,” “The Scholar,” “The Oracle” and “The Survivor” — were actor friends of his.
To cast “The Kid,” though, “we put out a casting call and eventually found 21-year-old Blake Sheldon that way.”
He himself read as the persona known as “The Artist.”
“I didn’t over-analyze my own attributes too much, but hey, it’s one way to get a job in this town!” he says.
Velasquez says that among all the poems introduced, the one Hughes recites, which he specifically wrote for the film, ranks among her favorites.
For Velasquez, working on such an unusual and intimate film as Guys Reading Poems was a welcome and challenging opportunity. Her credits include a recurring role on Showtime’s hit series The L-Word, the 1999 remake of The Mummy and its 2001 sequel, The Mummy Returns, and the title role in the 2014 LGBT-themed film Liz in September.
“When you study a role, especially as multi-faceted as this one, you approach it as ‘What is the main goal of this character? What is the main objective — what does she want from her experience, from her journey?’” she notes. “When I’m asked how I can approach such a role, I had to find in my heart and in my psyche the reason why I would, in effect, imprison my son. The only way I would ever be able to justify this was by thinking, ‘if I put him there, I was going to save him from me.’ Therefore, it becomes, in this character’s mind, a bizarre act of love.”
By then repurposing the very object used to incarcerate her child into one of her art pieces, she essentially reduces the boy to one of her art projects as well.
“Later, when she does the exhibition, that’s what gets the most attention. But what’s really fascinating about this understanding is that, given the same kind of symbolism, everybody has been [at some point in their lives] ‘put in a box’ — and this, too, is something that people really relate to in the film.”
With a tight shooting schedule of about two weeks, Hughes says, the greatest challenge he faced as a first-time feature filmmaker was the sheer complexity of making a film. Roughly 1,000 people are listed in the closing credits, he says.
“Every one of those names represents an action made on behalf of the film,” he says. “So just think of all the organizational skills it took to bring that together, with respect to schedules, contracts, and overall logistics!”
Velasquez was pleased with the result. She says, “I loved ‘Guys Reading Poems’ when it was just an idea and Hunter first approached me. Now to see it in its finished form, and to see how beautiful it is, just proves that we were all on the right path.”
Hughes says that he hopes audiences can be uplifted by what he sees as the primary message of the film: “Even in our most dire situations, creativity and the arts can empower human beings to persevere and draw meaning from their suffering. So many people have faced depression, trauma, disappointment, and rejection. … I hope that those who have experienced such dark elements of life see this film and walk away with the hard-won optimism that just maybe, a creative pursuit like poetry might help them process, find, or make meaning out of their misfortune.”
A limited theatrical run of Guys Reading Poems begins April 28 at the Arena Cinemalounge in Los Angeles. For more information, check out http://guysreadingpoems.com or “like” the film on Facebook. at https://www.facebook.com/GuysReadingPoems. For a sneak preview of several of the poems spotlighted in the movie, check out youtube.com/fatelinkproductions.