Writer/director Stephen Cone weaves an impressive story of religion against burgeoning sexuality in Henry Gamble’s Birthday Party – an ensemble film that makes for an honest, revealing, and modern take on the coming-of-age sub-genre from a queer perspective. The titular Henry Gamble (Cole Doman), son of an Evangelical preacher, realizes on his seventeenth birthday that he might be gay. Over the course of one hot summer day in his backyard pool party, old friends, acquaintances, family members and neighbors cross paths, and in the span of a few hours experience a range of life-altering events. Temptation appears in many forms to the vast range of characters, who either resist or give in to their impulses, and its this human element that allows the film to demonstrate how something like religion can warp mentalities and prevent individuals from being who they are destined to become.
Ahead of Henry Gamble’s Birthday Party screening in Toronto on June 27th, in collaboration with Pride Toronto and MDFF, I was able to ask Stephen Cone a few questions about his directorial process, and what went into the making of such an interesting, unique film.
The presentation of religion at odds with sexuality in Henry Gamble’s Birthday Party’s coming-of-age narrative is interesting, and how it guides the central characters. How did you go about navigating this terrain, and how much of it came from personal experience and upbringing?
My Dad is a Southern Baptist minister in South Carolina, so I grew up going to church at least 3 times a week for the first 18 years of my life. So much of it – most of it, even – was very beautiful, and my parents were quite moderate and open and supportive, but there is in the American evangelical church an undercurrent of repression, which brings on judgement, the intensity of which you sometimes don’t realize until later on. My film The Wise Kids deals with a lot of those struggles in a very gentle, quiet, sad, but ultimately optimistic way, but I wanted this movie to be the slightly turned-up-to-11 flipside of that same coin, to be a little more of an indictment of damage done.
The variety of roles and their adjoining subplots felt very Altman-esque at times, in the way it transitions between several sub narratives yet never losing focus. How did you go about casting the various actors in the film?
Thank you for saying this! He wasn’t hugely at the front of my mind in making this, but certainly in the back, and he’s in my blood and memory, of course. I’ve had amazing casting directors, Paskal Rudnicke Casting, here in Chicago, who I’ve worked with on my last few films. They are the best, and bring in hundreds of options. The city of Chicago is so rich with actors, being the place where Steppenwolf and Second City were born, so it’s always one of the most pleasurable parts of the process.
Compared to your earlier work, how does the film differ in terms of structure and form, and how did you approach making it with past filmmaking experiences in mind? Were there any substantial changes from your initial screenplay to when the film was finished?
It’s one of the first times I’ve really tackled one 24-hour block, which was exciting. I do like studies in time and duration, and that was intentional. This film more closely resembles the original draft than other films of mine. I shot what I wrote and edited what I shot. I think there were only two deleted scenes. In my other films the first drafts are total messes and there are 30 minutes-to-an-hour’s worth of deleted scenes.
What films or filmmakers did you look to for inspiration during production, and have any others come to mind in the months since premiering it last summer?
Well Altman has certainly come up more during the fest run than it did during the shoot, though I am remembering now that I had my DP take a peek at Gosford Park! We also talked about Assayas’ Cold Water and Summer Hours, PT Anderson’s Boogie Nights, Terence Malick’s The Tree of Life, and, possibly most of all, Arnaud Desplechin’s A Christmas Tale, a movie that has come up a lot over the past few years. Another major influence was John Huston’s The Dead, the only ensemble film I could think of that was under 90 minutes. It gave me hope.
What projects are you working on currently?
I’m trying to get a project off the ground for late summer (yes, this summer; I’m a crazy person) about an older female photographer tackling a nude series in small-town South Carolina. I’m down to the wire where it will either happen crazy fast or be delayed until next year. If it doesn’t happen, I’ll either take the summer off or write something small and shoot it quickly.
Stephen Cone is a Chicago-based filmmaker, writer, and actor. Beginning his directorial career with the short features Church Story, Young Wives, and The Christians, he transitioned into feature-length filmmaking with In Memoriam, which was followed up by The Wise Kids – a Critic’s Pick from the New York Times and widely lauded by critics across North America. His next feature, Black Box, received equal amounts of praise, and was named by Indiewire as the seventh best undistributed film of 2013, eventually picked up by Devolver Digital Films. Henry Gamble’s Birthday Party is his latest feature, premiering at the Maryland Film Festival in 2015, and was later awarded the SHOUT Jury Award and the Audience Narrative Award at the 2015 Sidewalk Moving Picture Festival.
Henry Gamble’s Birthday Party screens at The Royal Cinema on June 27th in collaboration with Pride Toronto and MDFF. Director Stephen Cone will be in attendance to introduce the film and provide an on-stage Q&A session after the screening. More information can be found here.