One very hot Friday afternoon, amid the swelter and indie rock music of Republic of Pies, a hipster hangout in North Hollywood, actor, writer and director Doug Spearman sits down across from us, iced coffee in hand.
Spearman has come straight from the airport, where he picked up longtime editor Christo Tsairas from arrivals. Tsairas has flown in from Boston on the eve of a milestone for both men: their latest film From Zero to I Love You, opens at Outfest July 27.
From Zero to I Love You centers on Jack (Scott Bailey, of The Bay), a devoted husband and father, who also has a penchant for getting drunk and hooking up with men. One chance evening, he meets Pete (Darryl Stephens, Spearman’s Noah’s Arc co-star), a handsome, single guy with a nasty habit of meeting and falling for married men. What begins as an innocuous liaison becomes a connection too powerful to ignore, even when Jack insists that he is not gay. Over the course of several months, both men must face their own fears and predilections to decide who they are, and ultimately, what they want.
As Spearman and Tsairas chomp on lunch, we managed to snag a few minutes to discuss the film and its rather provocative implications.
So most of our readers will know you from Noah’s Arc or any number of other series. This is also your first film as director in five years, only your second overall. Where do Pete & Jack come from?
Doug Spearman: My life. Actually, Hot Guys with Guns was also inspired by something that happened to me and an ex-boyfriend. The crime in that movie was based on something that really happened. But, when I was growing up, I would find myself in situations with married men. A lot.
DS: I would find myself constantly hit on or falling for guys and then finding out they were married. Sometimes I knew beforehand; it was like you’re my teacher. I know you’re married. Or it’s the father of a girl I went to school with. So I wrote it to figure out why that was happening.
That’s a very good reason.
DS: I first wrote it as a novel to try and work out some questions I had. When I moved to LA, I was going to be a director and an actor. I was never going to be a writer. But I wrote a novel—I’m the only guy I know that moved to LA and wrote a novel. A couple of years later, I wanted to see if I could actually write a screenplay. I didn’t want to do it from scratch. I’ve read thousands of scripts in my life, and I work in television, so I had access to some of the best and worst scripts in the world. So I read a lot, and I thought let me see if I can adapt this novel to a screenplay. So I took a 500-page novel and adapted it into a 120-page screenplay. There were 48 different versions of the script, and I stared in 1998.
Oh wow, that’s crazy. And obviously, you knew Darryl Stephens before you began this project. Did you always envision him as Pete?
DS: I wrote it for me.
DS: Yeah, and I just aged out of the part. Same thing with Hot Guys with Guns. I got too old to play it. At the time I started directing film, I was falling out of love with being an actor. But I also have a cell phone full of actors, and 30 years of friendships. My friends have careers, so I thought I’ll just call my friends.
So that’s how it happened?
DS: That’s how it happened. And Darryl, I think is such a multi-layered actor. There’s stuff in Boy Culture where you get to see him really just doing some fine, layered acting. That’s what I wanted here.
It’s funny you say you wrote this to sort of dissect your own reasons for getting involved with married men. That might be the most troubling element in the movie. I felt terrible for Pete. And you say this is based on your own experience.
DS: I didn’t know why I did it.
So what did you discover?
DS: Let me share my theory on writing. I believe all I do is take dictation. Everything comes through me. I am the lantern, not the light, know what I mean? Everything comes through me. I was writing a scene where Pete goes to see his dad and soon-to-be stepmother in a bar. And that’s based on my relationship is based on my brother and sister-in-law. Originally, Richard [Lawson] was going to play my older brother. Ron is basically my brother.
DS: There’s the scene where they ask Pete, “Why are you doing this?” And they say in unison, “You have a fear of commitment.” And I was like, do I?
So did you?
I think that’s one of the more provocative elements of the film. This isn’t, I would add, something unique to gay guys either, who get involved with a “straight” guy or a married guy. I know women who suffer from the same issue.
DS: It’s about emotional and physical availability. It’s not about why do you pursue straight guys, or why do you pursue [X]? It’s about A) getting something out of it. You’re putting that energy out there. And one of the things I know from my own experience about dating guys who are in a relationship—there is a settled, grounded quality to them. They’re not looking for more. It’s nice to not be facing down a pack of wolves.
Know what I mean? Single people look hungry. All the time.
Even people in relationships look hungry all the time.
DS: That’s a different movie.
Jack’s coming out is quite different. Alcohol is almost always involved, and for him, sex with men is almost compulsory.
DS: I had to do that. For me, when I was first going to gay bars when I was 18…I’m old enough to remember when the legal age was 18 to get into a bar. I remember going to gay bars and having to stir my courage up just by having a couple drinks. There was no internet. There was no app. You had to go talk to somebody. You know what my best pick up line is?
It’s basic but it works. I’ve had it happen where I see a guy in a bar, and he’ll message me on an app but won’t come over to talk. Then he gets up and leaves.
DS: We live in a very neurotic city.
You need a degree in psychology to date in Los Angeles. And it’s a degree in abnormal psychology. It’s hard being a man. It’s hard being a black man. It’s hard being gay in this city. The neurosis out there are jaw-dropping. I turn 57 in September. Have you ever been at an airport, running to catch a connecting flight and you see people just saunter about in the Admiral’s Club?
Not really. I fly Southwest.
DS: But you know those lounges?
DS: Ok, your 20s and 30s is running through the airport. Your 40s are going into the lounge.
DS: Life after 40 is fantastic. Life after 50 is unbelievable. I have more, better, hotter sex now in my late 50s than I ever did when I had a 28-inch waist and a six-pack.
I’ve noticed it does get better as I get older. Sometimes I wish I could go back and show some of those early guys how much I’ve improved.
Fran Lebowitz had a great line about sex in the 70s. She said something to the effect of: “In the 70s, we thought sex was like kale. You just had as much as you could because we thought it was good for you.”
DS: That’s what I think. I grew up in the 60s during the sexual revolution. That’s one reason sex in the movie isn’t so fraught. It’s a panacea for Pete.
It’s not that way for Jack. I really admired in Scott Bailey’s performance.
DS: What did you see? I learned something from Scott.
He plays a lot of the ambiguities of the character. I wasn’t always sure what he was thinking for feeling because the character wasn’t sure what he was thinking or feeling. As a director and writer, how do you convey that to an actor?
DS: You know, the best thing I can tell you is hire better, direct less. If you hire Picasso and DiVinci, you don’t go behind them and say “ok, can you put a line there?”
They want you to do it. Let DiVinci be DiVinci.
The old axiom that casting is 90% of directing…
DS: It’s 100%. That, and rehearsal. The thing I gave [Scott] was that his world comes alive at night. And I had it in my head that there would be a different color palate for each environment, and that Jack’s world happened in the daytime with different lighting [from the night scenes]. I got in there very little. My job is to let them work it out and do their thing. If there’s a problem, I’m there to answer a question.
Well that’s a good editorial question then. So often, performances happen in the editing. When the two of you collaborating, and I assume the two of you work closely together.
DS: Never. We’re bi-coastal.
Holy Christ. Really?
Christo Tsiaras: Here’s the thing. When I get the rushes, Doug barely tells me things.
Does he tell you which takes to use?
CT: No. I take it all. I’ve been doing this 40 years. His work with the actors is so good, and the actors are so good, I go through and look at the performance and gather from that what Doug was trying to do. I put it together the way I think it should be seen, but in doing that, I put myself in the place of the viewer and ask what I want to see. Doug concentrates on dialogue, but I see the reactions.
DS: I go in and give him notes, but I let him play with it.
So is this what Orson Welles used to talk about: presiding over happy accidents?
CT: There are no happy accidents here. What happens is that this stuff exists, and I’m looking for it. When I cut, I’m always looking for that other area that they may not have seen.
DS: I shot this over four years.
I did not know that. Wow.
DS: Yeah. And the great thing about taking that much time was that I would see things and adapt.
CT: I scroll through all the takes. I always look for the eyes. That’ll give you your emotion.
The whole Palms Springs sequence [in which Jack visits his wife’s family] is really funny, and interesting. Karla’s Brother—it’s hinted that he might be gay, insofar as Jack thinks. At least, he and his friend have a bromantic sort of relationship that really confused Jack. Is that a statement about west coast mores versus east coast attitudes? Is that generational?
DS: It’s very interesting that you ask about east coast versus west coast. I realized my gaydar in LA was broken around 2000. Gay guys in LA look straight, and straight men in LA are so over-groomed and over-tanned. You think most straight men in LA are gay. Gay men wear t-shirts and have tattoos. There’s a lot of that. And if you don’t come on to a straight man in LA, they get offended. They’re like, am I not hot enough?
I’ve had that happen.
CT: Is that a thing?
DS: It’s a thing. So, there’s that in the scene. But I also wanted to show the depth in the lives of these characters. If you notice, Karla’s married to a philanderer. Karla’s brother is a philanderer. And if you listen in the pool scene, you hear Karla and her mother arguing about her father leaving her mother for a younger woman. I know this from my own life: we tend to fall in love with people who are very much like our parents.
DS: It’s a genetic thing. And if you watch the pool scene, Jack’s treading water. Scott didn’t have to do that. It’s like he’s now in the pool with the gay guys.
Both this film and Hot Guys With Guns follow an interracial gay couple. Is that happenstance, or does something fascinate you about that? Where does that come from?
DS: I come from an interracial family. Ron & Pamela [his fiancee played by Leslie Zemeckis] are based on my brother and sister-in-law. I’d say three-quarters of the men I’ve gone out with are white. And also, I did it on purpose because queer films tend to happen in, for example, an all-female universe, an all-white universe, an all-black universe. Or an all gay universe. My problem with that is we fetishize so much—our viewing reflects our fetishes.
DS: Well have you ever noticed—you look at the poster for 90% of all queer films and it’s a white man’s torso. It looks like a Grindr profile. And it’s because that’s the idea. The head has a personality. The beauty is so iconic it’s not even a person anymore. And I want people to see my work because my life doesn’t take place in a singular universe. I have a very broad, beautiful, magical life. And just because we’re gay doesn’t mean we don’t discriminate against each other.
DS: We’re Americans. We discriminate against everybody. It’s racist, it’s ageist, its weightist…you know, “no blacks, no fats, no Asians.”
It’s masculine versus feminine. It’s everything.
DS: Yeah, and I thought if I could integrate the theatre, I could integrate the lobby. If I can integrate the lobby, people will start talking to each other. A friend of mine is Hispanic, and we’re always joking about brown people: not just for sex!
DS: You know. He’s Latino. And we’re good for other things besides fulfilling sexual fantasies and mowing the lawn. I was in The Abbey once, and there was this guy. We were on our way to hook up, and I turned my back for a second. And his friend said to him “You do like those Mandingos, don’t you?”
Oh my lord.
DS: And I was like no, you’re not going home with me. So for me…it’s my life. It reflects who I am.
That makes sense.
DS: I’m attracted to who I’m attracted to. If you’re hot you’re hot. So…
[He slaps his fist against his palm, as if holding a bottle]
DS: Smack the ketchup bottle.
I’ve never heard it put like that!
Now what you say about the racial fertilization of only dating white guys, or black guys, or Asian guys…I didn’t experience that until I lived in a city, and I heard the rather unkind terms…
CT: Like “rice queen?”
DS: Or “dinge queen?” That’s a term from the 70s for a white guy that only dates black guys. It’s dinge…as in dingy water.
CT: I haven’t thought about that term in years.
But what is that about though? I’ve always wondered: why would anyone date only a specific race?
DS: Men are visual. And whatever your visual thing is, you go for that. Men carry around a picture—that’s why men’s porn is all about the visual. That’s the way we are genetically set up.
This is something of a delicate question. One thing that comes up with so many of the black men I chat with—creators, directors, writers, actors… This came up with Billy Porter…
DS: He’s a friend of mine.
Is he? I want him to run for president.
DS: Or first lady…
Hey, in any capacity. He’s brilliant.
DS: He is.
This also came up with Nelson Lassiter (of Single Record). —is the pervasive difficulty for queer people that still exists within the African American community, especially men. What is that about? Where does that come from?
DS: I can’t speak to that. It wasn’t my experience. My parents were always like here’s a Barbie, shut up.
DS: I have very unusual parents. I remember I was 7—this was like 1965. We were at my grandmother’s house and she had a wig on a Styrofoam head.
Those terrified me.
CT: Me too.
DS: I was down on my knees styling this thing, just brushing it. And my mom came in and was like oh, that’s pretty good. Here, do another one. Then she was like what should I wear?
DS: So my parents were totally on board. My mom was thrilled. A lot of what drives people not to change is fear. But I don’t even know what those cultural fears are. I know people have those stories. I know when I asked Richard Lawson to play Ron, I did it specifically because Richard has been a hero of mine.
He’s very underrated as an actor.
DS: And Richard has a lot of clout [Lawson is married to Tina Lawson, mother of Beyonce]. But if I put Richard in a part—here’s a black man who is so well-recognized and doesn’t have a problem with having a gay son, that’s going to change the minds of people out there. If more people model good behavior with their kids, there would be less of [that homophobia].
That also speaks volumes about the character of Ron, and how he’s the moral anchor of the film.
And he’s the only one, I believe, that points out how unfair Pete & Jack behavior is, that they have no regard for anyone else’s feelings. So what’s next for you?
DS: A thriller. It’s not queer.
Hey, if you make it queer, that’s great. We’d watch that.
From Zero to I Love You plays at Outfest July 27.