The inspiration for Mark Goshorn Jones' quirky comedy Tennessee Queer was anything but funny.
The Shelby County Commission in Memphis wanted to pass an equal rights law in 2009 that protected LGBT city workers from job discrimination. They eventually did, but they were met with harsh and heated opposition for all the usual reasons. One of those critics included a county commissioner who said in a press conference that the bill was immoral because "They see the traditional family as a folly. The Bible states very clearly in Leviticus that homosexuality is an abomination, that it's a sin."
That gave screenwriter and director Mark Goshorn Jones an idea: What if a small Southern town tried to put on a gay pride parade of its own? That led to his third film Tennessee Queer about a prodigal gay son who returns to his super small hometown of Smythe and accidentally gets the city's blessing to hold its first gay pride parade right down the middle of Main Street. Jones talked to Mixmaster about his inspirations for the story of characters of his movie, which will play at 7 p.m. Monday at The Texas Theatre.
Was there one idea that sparked the story for this movie or just an idea you always wanted to try? This is my third film, and I started writing this in 2011 and about this time three years ago, there were a couple of different things that sparked my imagination. It mainly had to do with really conservative politicians in Memphis and Shelby County and the state of Tennessee. We had one man who was part of the Shelby County Commission and in 2009, the County Commission was going to vote on giving LGBT workers some just basic equality protection. This guy had a huge press conference in front of the Shelby County building with six ministers and just banned gays to hell and just sort of said how evil and bad it would be to give gay workers any sort of protection. I just sort of filed that away. It was pretty horrific. I watched it. I was there. It was just horrific to watch that occur in the 21st century.
Then in a Memphis City Council meeting, we had an occasion where a councilwoman labeled all of the gays in Memphis sinners because she was talking about the issue of giving gay city workers protections. There was also a guy, a state senator in East Tennessee, who introduces a bill every cycle called the "Don't Say Gay" bill that prohibits schoolteachers from kindergarten through 8th grade from talking about anything gay. So "Johnny has two dads," she can't really address that. If you're studying Walt Whitman, you can't bring up the fact that he's gay. There are several examples. I could just go on and on. I guess in 2011, it actually passed one of the chambers, either the state Senate or House. So just some lone guy now, one of the chambers approved and of course, it takes two chambers and the governor to sign it and thankfully, the other chamber did not pass it. It got so much negative press and became a laughing stock.
The last thing was back in 2010, it seemed like there was a teenager who committed suicide because they were bullied just every two or three months and we would read more and more about another child somewhere. The one that I can remember is the young man from Rutgers University who killed himself in 2010 because his roommate taped him. So there was no one thing, no one big bang but it was several things just rambling around in my empty head that took hold and I wanted to show something positive, that one person can make a difference. The character of Jason ultimately does help and change the lives of the LGBT members of the town.
Considering the source material, why do a comedy? Why not do a more dramatic movie? I guess because I'm a funny guy. My other two movies are comedies. I just do comedy more or better than drama. I never made a straight drama before, no pun intended. I never made a drama. I think you can get the message out better through comedy than being hit over the head with serious stuff. I think the work can get out better that way.
Is Smythe based on a real town that you know? Is it even a real place? Smythe is not a real town. I was writing the script and Smythe is the name of the dorm I lived in at school and I needed a good Southern name.
We actually shot in the city of Memphis. There are four blocks of a small town that got annexed right after World War I that hasn't changed. So we used that as our small town. It just makes it easier to travel two miles instead of 20 or 200 to find the small town that will let you shoot.
Is Memphis a pretty progressive city? It's like A Tale of Two Cities. Our gay and lesbian community center is 25 years old this year. We shot this movie here with the full support of the Memphis Film Commission and had the police come out and block off streets. In some ways, it is very progressive but in some ways, we have some very conservative politicians and some extremely conservative ministers who still try to influence what happens in the city. So like I said, it is like A Tale of Two Cities because we have some extremely affirming ministers from mainline churches who help support gay and lesbian people and the city finally, I think it was two or three years ago, who finally did give some protection to the LGBT city workers. Shelby County is not and sadly, our mayor has never marched in the gay pride parade here and he's a good guy. I like him and he's progressive in many ways. Memphis sometimes is about 10 years behind other cities. Another example is in the last two years, we've become really, really bike friendly. We have tons of bike lanes and green lines but other cities did that in 2002-2003, we're doing that in 2011.
So the city and the local film commission were supportive? I had no trouble. People were very happy and supportive and I've made other gay films here and gotten support. In terms of the art, Memphis is extremely theater and gay friendly. ... We have great local playhouses and a theater that produce LGBT plays. It falls again into that Tale of Two Cities. We have several thriving theater companies with great plays. Artist-wise, we're a very progressive city. Government-wise, we're about 10 years behind.
When you were writing the movie, were there any personal moments from your life that you put into it? I get asked that question and really the main character's not based on me. It's all out of the imagination.
Why do they assume you're Jason? I've lived in some small towns, but I've never tried to lead a gay pride parade. I've worked on the gay pride parade here in Memphis for several years back in the '90s. I've helped organize the gay pride parade. I've helped organize our local gay and lesbian film festival a number of times. I've been on the board or committee for that for, I don't know, 10 or 12 years. I know what it's like to organize events for the LGBT community.
The influence was all these negative politicians I had seen and the religious leaders I had seen in Memphis, in Shelby County, in the state of Tennessee. Kind of as a writer, you've got to make your villain almost your worst character so the hero can really overcome the villain.
But at the same time, in a comedy, the villain often gets the best laugh, which I won't spoil. Yeah. So the villain makes for a more meatier character than the hero.
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One thing that struck me was how much faith played a role in the movie and not in a purely negative light. Was that something that you felt needed to be addressed or was it just a way to add another ally to the hero? We wanted to add another friend in Jason's corner and I do think you do have supportive ministers. My minister is very supportive here in Memphis. My two brothers are Presbyterian ministers, and they are supportive. I wanted to show a wide range of men of the cloth. So you have the Baptist and the Presbyterian and for laughs, you have Reverend Jeremiah Faulkner who runs the ex-gay camp, but I do believe there are supportive ministers out there. I know there are. I think it would be unfair to be pro-gay, anti-religion because that's not realistic.
I have to ask: Was the video for the gay conversion camp based on a real one? Sadly, we had a thriving and very popular ex-gay camp in Memphis for many, many years called Love in Action. It's out of ...It was thriving about two or three years. So I wanted to make fun of that and the one that was here. The guy in that video talks about "forbidden zones" in the different areas in a city [a map detailing LGBT hangouts where camp members were forbidden to be]. They had that. It was pretty much midtown and downtown where I live now. It was ridiculous and teaching you how to play sports and change the oil in your car, those things occur at the camps.
How has the response been to your movie at screenings and in reviews? It has been for the most part very positive. We sold out Mobile, Alabama. when we played there one night. [In] Los Angeles, the theater decided to hold it over a second week. So I'm excited about that.
I do think that people in the South can identify with it more than people who are not in the South. We went to about 15 film festivals and played it at some colleges, a lot of those were in the South and Midwestern and a lot of people enjoyed it, but I think people in the South can identify with some of the characters, both good and bad, and just the idiosyncrasies of living in a small town. I was in Los Angeles last week and people enjoyed it out there.