A love story set amid a geographical and political conflict isn’t exactly a fresh concept. Cinema has witnessed far and few in between prisms of the gender spectrum, from the many varied versions of the Bard’s Romeo & Juliet to border romance Yossi & Jagger, right to Angelina Jolie’s curtain-raiser In The Land of Blood and Honey – all featuring emotionally-challenged lovers who all struggle against the confines of their socio-political dogmas and crushing conformity. It seems a proverbial sub-genre of romance, but Michael Mayer’s welcome addition to a well-trodden terrain isn’t tautological.
His debut, Out in the Dark, has the sheer urgency of a harrowing political drama, the sweep of a traditional romance and the grittiness of a cinéma vérité, made all the more resonant since it’s happening right now in our current international climate. I raved about the film when it premièred during the BFI London Lesbian & Gay Film Festival this, and for my money and dignity, it still remains as one of the most poignant love stories you will ever see in cinemas this year.
I sat down with writer/director Michael Mayer in a Bloomsbury hotel, joined by the two lead actors Nicholas Jacob and Michael Aloni, playing Nimr and Roy respectively, discussing authenticity, intimacy and what really gives Out in the Dark a genuine heartbeat.
The Moviejerk: Michael [Mayer], this is your debut film. Of all the stories that needed to be told cinematically, why Out in the Dark?
Michael Mayer: It started when a friend told me that he’d been volunteering in the Gay & Lesbian Centre in Tel Aviv, and he was telling me that one of the things the centre does is to give support to gay Muslims who are hiding in Israel illegally. It really intrigued me first of all, and I went to Israel to do some research. Originally, I thought I would make a different film. I thought I would make a more political film. It deals with the politics, but really the politics in this movie takes a backseat to the love story, to the story of loyalty and family. I met people in Tel Aviv, in Palestine, activists and people who are in this sort of relationship and have gone through these experiences themselves, and I realised that the real stories, the stuff that really touches you are the stories about families being torn apart, the cross-border lovers who have to deal with such situation. It’s really those personal stories that moved me. The more research I was doing, the more focused I was becoming with the kind of story I wanted to tell, which was a real, simple love story. A story about a man who can’t find his place in either world and needs to get out, set against the political backdrop. But the real focus is the love story.
TM: There’s a very positive buzz about this film. It’s been through the Marché du Film in Cannes last year, Sydney, Toronto – and it’s reaching a wider audience, and not just in the LGBT festivals, which is a great thing.
MM: I’m excited it’s coming out theatrically. That’s where the wider audience is, and everyone has the chance to see it. I think you hit a really good point. When I was making it, I wasn’t quite sure how it’s going to be received. When we did the sales in Cannes, we realise that we have something that, I don’t want to say bigger, but with a wider appeal.
TM: Recently, a few gay-themed films reached considerable success on a wider market, such as Andrew Haigh’s Weekend and Ira Sach’s Keep The Lights On.
MM: Both phenomenal films.
TM: Absolutely. They did not only focus on the LGBT community, but they actually successfully reached a wider audience. And there’s a good opportunity for Out in the Dark as this year’s breakout cross-over triumph.
MM: First of all, that would be amazing. And wow, you just compared me to two films that I really love. So I would say, absolutely yes. I’ll take it.
TM: Out in the Dark touches the rather big thorny issues in life – politics, religion, culture, sexuality, class – you couldn’t have chosen a more difficult, more complex topic as your first film.
MM: That’s what drew me to it, originally. It’s exactly that. Yes, you’re right, it’s exactly the kind of movie I wanted to make, because it touches on these issues. But at its heart, at its core, I see it as simply a small story about two people who are just trying to connect in this impossible setting.
TM: How did you assemble the two actors together, Michael and Nicholas?
MM: I had a really good casting director. Michael is a big star in Israel! I knew of him at the time. I saw his work, my nieces were big fans of him, they had posters of him in their walls and all that. He came in to read for the role, and he was ready to work. You will always find talented people, but the fact that he didn’t only bring his talent but he brought this readiness to work, which was quite challenging to me. You don’t expect when you have a guy who enters the room, when you meet somebody for the first time, you’re not expecting them to just dive right into it, and to open this dialogue with you – and he was doing exactly that. That was phenomenal for me, there was a connection right there. He was taking the character into places right there in the first meeting!
Nicholas was little trickier because he never acted before. His girlfriend actually auditioned for a role in the film, which she ended up not getting, but she recommended his boyfriend, who turned out be Nicholas, to the casting director. Soon he came in to audition for the lead role, and there was talent there. It was pretty amazing when he was reading, and then we saw the two of them together and it was when we realise they had this really good chemistry together.
TM: (To Nicholas Jacob and Michael Aloni) How did you guys prepare for the role? How did you pull off that chemistry onscreen?
Nicholas Jacob: We had a good one month preparation before we started shooting. I think that was the main thing that helped us get ready for the scenes. We had to break the ice between us prior to that preparation. It was such a challenge.
Michael Aloni: One film that inspired me in the preparation of Out in the Dark is Blue Valentine. The actors Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams lived together for about three months before they started shooting the film, and many scenes were improvised, most of it coming out from living together. The movie creates this amazing intimacy, showing the little stuff. It also goes to show that even if you make the whole preparation for the part, when the action is called, you’re limited to what you have in your conscience and in your mind. You have this great preparation before, but what really comes out is the spontaniety of being together. We aimed at something that will create this naturalism, truthfulness and really genuine element of this romance. We tried, I hope we succeed, but that was the biggest challenge.
NJ: Michael [Mayer] also made sure things were very clear for us. He wanted us to connect to the characters, and we were given space to bring our own thoughts and perspective into the scenes and how we saw it, that’s something that helped us pull it through.
MM: You guys brought a lot of yourself to the characters, which was really important. You both did good work.
NJ: The greatest challenge was to create this authentic intimacy with a stranger. If it was a woman, it would still be difficult in the same wavelength.
TM: So it wouldn’t make a difference if it was with a man or a woman?
NJ: I did a short film after Out in the Dark and I had to have this intimacy with an older woman. We didn’t have any preparation before, we just came to the set and we had to do what we have to do. That was hard for the both of us. You need to connect with this person in order to bring out this connection and show it to the camera. The preparations we did in Out in the Dark made us do our jobs pretty well. I learned a lot. But I had great people around me, the director and the actors, and they made this an easier experience for me.
TM: What’s next for you guys?
MA: I’m doing finals for The Voice in Israel! There’s this new TV series I’m doing, and there’s a new movie I got involved in which is going to be released soon. It’s called Place in Heaven.
NJ: Last week, I just finished shooting my second feature Three Sisters.
MM: I’m adapting this book, it’s still early days. It’s a whodunnit, and it’s set in LA. Hopefully it’ll get financed later on this year. We’re also pitching a TV series in the next couple of months.
TM: Exciting times!
MM: Exciting times, indeed!
Out in the Dark is released theatrically in the UK this Friday, 5 July.