San Francisco resident Joseph
Graham first came to my attention with a featurette length gay erotic ghost
story, Vanilla, where a voraciously horny seventeen-year-old attempts to
shed his annoying virginity while withstanding the distractions of a terminally
dysfunction family, a Dante inspired leather bar and a fiendishly successful
gay serial killer.
Graham’s sophomore effort, Strapped,
smoothly doubles down on many of Vanilla’s genres by embedding us
with a chameleon like boyish hustler who spends a melancholy rainy night
gliding between apartments in a queer haunted building whose absentee cinema
landlord is probably named Polanski.
The Hustler, who tries on new first
names as smoothly as he sheds his hooker regulation red hoodie, jeans and
T-shirt, offers a full-service bar of erotic favors for happy hour discount
prices – but no kissing, please.
Eschewing Vanilla’s spirited
if at times bratty first time filmmaker showing off his special effects trick
bag style, Graham carefully crafts a seductively creepy ambiance in a
succession of shabby little spaces the denizens call home which the Hustler
appropriates as his stages. Somewhere between the old codger’s leaky penthouse
and the dark bowels of the building’s laundry room we suspect that someone
could turn up dead. Sure enough the Hustler is ambushed in the laundry room by
a married guy, a backdoor bandit who quickly turns violent. Rescue comes from
an elderly white knight leather guy, Sam (former Colt model Paul Gerrior), who
cleans our boy up and starts a dialogue which slyly reflects the author’s
“What were you boys doing down
there? It didn’t look like laundry.”
“It’s a long story…I’ve been trying
to get out of this building for an hour.”
“You’re trying to get out of the
“Yeah, I can’t get free of this
“It’s an apartment building. It
“I know, but I keep getting lost or
sidetracked – it’s like a maze, a labyrinth.”
“Which is it, a labyrinth, or a
“What’s the difference?”
“A maze is a trap, a labyrinth goes
Graham wants us to forget every
hoary canard about beastly rent boys – from the crafty, bi-sexual
prostitute/murderer so indelibly brought to life in Joe Orton’s Entertaining
Mr. Sloan to John Schlesinger’s out of his depth Midnight Cowboy to
Scott Silver’s melodramatic if emotionally involving Santa Monica rent boy soap
opera Johns – where the hustler is either a scheming sociopath or a
delusional loser whose path to destruction is guaranteed by the third act
Strapped’s boy – called Adam
in the script – plays his clients as skillfully as Mozart constructed his
sonatas, while only hinting at baser motives. Adam is a sensual Candide who
strives never to reprise his tricks. Asked why Adam teases Paul.
“You mean when I’ve fucked every
fag in this city?”
“The wandering hero – I like the
thought of you, out there, somewhere, bringing pleasure to the world.”
“For a price.”
“Right, we can’t just give
ourselves away – no one’s that altruistic.”
A movie rule of thumb holds if the
hero is having too good a time too early, he’s due a comeuppance. Graham and
his sultry lead, film newcomer Ben Bonenfant, keep us guessing as to whether
Adam will elude all who mean him harm, if the merry rent boy will someday morph
into a gigolo version of Falstaff, by age forty when he muses that everyman
“has the face he deserves.”
Graham’s knack for witty, withering
barbs keeps us amused and off guard about whether a homo Puck lurks in the
Kudos to a first rate production
crew – especially director of photography Matthew Boyd for keeping us on edge
with a shadowy lighting scheme that could service a queer vampire tale as well
as a quirky bedrooms farce.
Strapped allows us to care
for a not so blasé plucky boy who thinks he’ll never be kissed.
Writer/director Joseph Graham spent
a peripatetic childhood – Texas, California, Missouri -- with many of his
happier memories playing out in St. Louis where he recalls pre-school puppet
shows and occasional trips to Cardinal baseball games with his beloved
grandfather. Now happily situated with a boyfriend in the city of St. Francis,
Graham is basking in the fruits of a second hard scrabble indie film shoot
while looking forward to the theatre debut of an earlier movie project, Beautiful
Something, described as a night in the lives of gay characters of all ages,
with time flash backs like those in Gus Van Sant’s Elephant.
Sprawled out on my black office
couch – in the same spot once occupied by Milk screenwriter
Dustin Lance Black, Graham riffed on the transformational magic
of finding the right boy for the first kiss – while his theatre trained actors
shivered during twelve cold nights in a Southern San Francisco warehouse.
“I remember my first kiss and how
it rocked my toes: under a bridge in St. Louis – what a kisser! As far as
having an ending where the kid said he wanted to be kissed I was as surprised
as the Hustler was, but it felt right. I wanted the audience to experience that
cosmic kiss as the Hustler did, so I was very careful during all the other
sexual scenes to keep the performers separated by shots – you never see them in
the same shot during sex. So when we get to the kiss not only do we have two
performers in the shot for the first time but we have this wonderful music, in-
camera lighting effects, post-camera lighting effects – we almost went a little
overboard – but I really wanted the audience to feel this and the character
says, “Nobody’s ever kissed me like this before!”
Lamble: The actor playing the good kisser is in an
earlier scene where he’s treated like Cinderella’s ugly stepsister. What were
you looking for?
Graham: If anybody but Nick Frangione had played that
part – if you read the dialogue it is so corny and so horrible and if it had
been played without the honesty and bravery that Nick brings to it the scene
would have died and the audience would have been embarrassed. I wanted him to
be somewhat effeminate, not necessarily in his voice or gestures but in his
look, so when Nick came in with his long hair, his thin swimmer’s body and
boyish good looks, it seemed right. I think Nick is very beautiful but not in
the way we’re trained to see beauty these days.
Lamble: And the rest of your casting?
Graham: The older man, Sam, was written specifically
for Paul Gerrior, who I had done plays with. What a voice! What a kindness he brings.
Paul was a Colt model in the seventies and he still, even at seventy-two, has
this great virility to him, but not in a threatening or a lecherous daddy way,
but a kind wise way. All but two of these actors were straight -- it took a
good deal of courage and trust on all our parts to move forward.
I had about six hundred people
respond to an open call for the Hustler -- half quickly left when they saw what
the material was, half of the remainder simply weren’t right physically and
then I tested about sixty people. I actually cast it a couple of times, but I
wasn’t a hundred percent committed to them. Thank goodness we decided to part
ways – because these young actors saw the role as The Panic in Needle Park struggling
hustler -- but this was more of a Coen Brothers’ dreamscape movie. I needed an
actor who could be a chameleon. A good friend contacted me from the Colorado
Shakespeare Company, where he was performing with a young actor, Ben Bonenfant.
I’ll never forget the first thing Ben said, “I read the script and I got to
tell you that it scares me,” and then he added, “That makes me want to do it,”
That’s when I knew I was talking to a real actor. I went to see him in a play
by Dionysus and he scared the shit out of me! This was his first film – hard
core theatre trained actor, adapted to the camera without so much as a two
minute conversation, just an actor’s actor.
The Strapped DVD arrives
with a making of the film chat with lead Ben Bonenfant; a screen test short
film; a music video and an original trailer with a song by Halou.