Monday, July 01, 2019

PRIDE Profile: Film-maker Wendy Jo Carlton

Wendy Jo Carlton (in hoody) directing Good Kisser (Rafael Rodriguez Ochoa III)

Film maker Wendy Jo Carlton is a self-effacing and privacy-seeking artist. She’d rather talk about her films than her personal history. She says, “I feel like it’s not about ‘me,’ it’s about my art.” Still, SGN wanted to do a profile for Pride and that meant talking about how she got to this place of success and significance through the lens of where she’s come from.

Wendy Jo Carlton directed her first feature, Hannah Free, starring Emmy-winner Sharon Gless, in 2009. Carlton wrote and directed her second feature, Jamie and Jessie are Not Together, (said to be the first lesbian romance musical). Her LGBTQ digital series, Easy Abby, received 50 million views for its 13-episode Season One, and Seasons 1 and 2 are now distributed by

Her latest film, recently rolled out at SIFF, Good Kisser, is set in Seattle and got a great reception. Three women plan to spend an enjoyable evening together and mostly succeed until secrets are revealed that derail the fun. It could be considered a sex comedy, or a psychological drama, or relationship movie, but is mostly what Wendy Jo likes to be: not stereotypical.

The journey to finally being able to get a feature film funded and made starts much earlier. Wendy Jo put in a lot of time working on shorts and before that, focused on radio and story-telling.

Early years
Wendy Jo says, “I grew up in western Michigan in a Catholic working-class neighborhood. It was largely Hispanic and Polish. My dad was a disabled Korean war vet, mentally and physically wounded in the war. My mom was a nurse and sole bread winner for the five of us (Mom, Dad, three kids).

“Both of my parents were dancers and that’s how they met – dancing at a VFW hall. They were pretty hip for their generation. Naturally charismatic people. I feel lucky for that because even in the face of a lot of mental health issues, alcoholism, domestic violence, there was more than that in terms of layers. Humanity, intelligence, love, humor. A mixed bag.

“My mom was the rock. Not a substance abuser, reliable and loving. She protected us. Most of the violence was aimed at her. You don’t really know as a kid that it’s not aimed at you (though). My mom and dad are both influential personalities in the way it comes out in my own personality and in my writing. It leads to me being able to write characters that are complicated and with something redeeming about them even if they tend to be impulsive or selfish.

“I’m the only one (of the kids) to go to college. I don’t think it’s something someone has to do and if you don’t go (to college) that it’s a mark against you. That being said, I was excited to go to college. I studied communications and film and photography.

“I was always drawn to mass media. I was obsessed with tape recorders and microphones and my voice (on tape) and interviewing people. I loved listening to disk jockeys talk on the radio and so I went into radio. As a radio personality.

“There was a community radio station connected to the school. I pitched a show. It was playing music and in between I created fictional travelogues with my cohost. We’d create stories (pretending) that we travelled around the world. It was clearly fake.

“We did characters and my cohost would be the pilot who would pick us up (in the fake plane) and take us around the world. We made sound effects. ‘Now we’re in Prague in a bowling alley. What foods are we eating? Did you know that these animators made this film in Prague?’ (we’d say).

“I (began by) presenting characters and stories that are not typical of mainstream television or films in the ‘80s and ‘90s. That was still (a time of) very ‘straight male gaze.’ As a Lesbian, a female, coming from a working-class, marginalized, alcoholic family, statistically I’m not supposed to be here articulating my story.

College years –
“I didn’t start college until age 22. I had been working and playing in a band with my boyfriend. I was inspired by fellow artists and queers to go to college. People who were in college were making things and doing things and being politically active and curious and fun. Fun and joy and community are super fucking important. I was lucky to find the subculture within a socially conservative Midwest city. I wanted to do what they were doing.

“I was (also) 22 when I acted on wanting to sleep with a woman. It’s hard to know how much I was pushing something down (in terms of my feelings for women). I wasn’t feeling bad about my attraction to women, I wasn’t internally struggling, it was more culturally socially how to navigate it (being attracted to women) and still maintain my privacy.

“It was already hard to initiate within my own person to ask a woman out when the culture doesn’t show you how to do that. The culture shows you how to be straight.

“(In turning toward my feelings toward women,) I did have to give up something: my relationship with my boyfriend and the band we were in. I was hurting someone who was a good person. And we had fun together and were creative together in good philosophical ways. But I had to go towards a bigger desire to be with women.

“Once I slept with a woman, I didn’t have the space to maintain the relationship I had or the interest. It’s nice that he’s married and happy now. He’s a great guy.

“In college, I started making short films. Narrative, experimental or music videos, with Queer content. I submitted work to film competitions. One of them was through American Film Institute and I won First Place in the experimental category. They flew me to Los Angeles for a winner’s screening. It was a big deal! No one knew who I was and I felt recognized for my talent!

“The film was about the beauty of the mundane life tasks mixed with how we look to others for authority to tell us we’re ok. Even then I had that mindset. How are we informing ourselves about what’s important and why do we give so much power to people who don’t even know us?

“I won my own video camera! I used that a lot and carried it everywhere and used it to create weekly documentary and political content for a cable access show I produced.

“I looked into grad school in Los Angeles and found it too expensive. I also suspected it wasn’t the best match for me. At the time, it was all about doing things that were carbon copies of other work. The good old boys’ network. It didn’t feel welcoming.

“When I came back to Michigan, I did a weekly public access show (in order) to do experimental things. I did that for about two years. Going back to Michigan meant going back to an artistic community, but eventually I got wanderlust.

“I visited Olympia and Seattle and loved the arts and culture vibe. I came to Olympia in the mid-90s in the middle of the RiotGrrl movement music and arts. I was working for the Olympia film festival.

Shorts to features
“I made a dozen short films, usually under 10 minutes. It was economical to do a short. At some point, I realized that features are the most known medium and that you get to create a relatable world in 90 minutes. The arc of a feature is more a beginning, middle, and end that is more satisfying. You can’t get lost in shorts in the same way.

“You have to convince a lot more people to help you. That’s the difference between shorts and features. Exponential amounts of collaborators and more money (are needed for features).

“In Chicago in 2009, I directed my first feature Hannah Free which stars Sharon Gless.  That came from meeting the playwright while I was a coproducer of the Chicago Gay History Project which interviewed nearly 300 people over 30 years of LGBTQ Chicago poets, playwrights, aids workers, all of it. I helped produce that project: to get them interviewed and put the short videos online for posterity.

“The playwright Claudia Allen was one of those subjects. From that came the conversation came an idea to get one of her plays made into a movie. She knew how to get in touch with Sharon Gless. Gless is not a lesbian but plays one in this movie.

“I directed. It did the festival circuits and was distributed on Wolfe Video, a long time LGBTQ film distributor (owned by a lesbian).

“I wrote and directed a second feature: Jamie and Jessie are Not Together. It’s on Amazon Prime now and it’s Lesbian rom-com musical. I co-wrote the music with the music director of Second City in Chicago, Stephanie McCullough.

“Next was my Lesbian web series, 28 7-minute episodes (called) Easy Abby was on YouTube and got 50 million views! I feel like if it were not about Lesbians, it would have already been purchased and redone for Netflix or Hulu.

“Arriving” but not getting credit
(I do feel like I’m) finally ‘arriving,’ but (so far) I’m not getting the funding I think these efforts should be allowing. I don’t want to live in LA or NY to do my work. I still think I should be able to get the kind of support and funding that I feel my work deserves because of the quality it is and the way audiences clearly respond.

“Part is our capitalistic culture and the lack of governmental support of the arts. Australia, Germany, England, France, Israel, they all have arts budgets for their artists. But our government doesn’t give support filmmakers with funding.

What’s next for Good Kisser?
“I made Good Kisser in Seattle because I have a queer brain trust among my friends. 75% of the crew behind Good Kisser are women-identified and or LGBTQ which was intentional!

“Next is the international film circuit (to go on). We were just at the Inside Out LGBTQ Festival in Toronto. We’ll get distribution and hopefully by fall 2019 Good Kisser will screen in select cities for a theatrical run. Then it should be on video-on-demand platforms.

“I love to promote my films as community LGBTQ events so we can have after-parties and fun and a reason to gather. It’s why festivals are fun: to meet new people, dance and share ideas. It means a lot to me to have a community vibe to bring together even in small ways. To have fun and feel less alone and inspired.”

That sounds like something we can all aspire to have in our lives! Happy Pride!

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