25 Oct 1996
A first-time screenwriter and director bring an urban fairy tale to the screen with Beautiful Thing
by Joseph Manghise
One of this fall's major gay movie releases boasts at least one stunning scene. It's night in a forest somewhere in England. Two teenage boys romp through the woods, playfully roughhousing, then hugging and kissing. As Cass Elliot wails her gay-positive 1969 hit "Make Your Own Kind of Music" on the sound track, the camera spins and careens around the adolescents, capturing all the fun and excitement of being young and in love for the first time. Beautiful Thing, which opens nationwide November 1, goes on to tell the story of how the boys cope with their feelings in a less-than-supportive environment. But what appears to be the work of seasoned professionals in bringing this thrilling slice of young gay life to the screen, surprisingly turns out to be the product of a writer and director who had never made a movie before.
Screenwriter Jonathan Harvey, 28, was teaching school near Thamesmead, London, when he wrote the play Beautiful Thing in 1992. The story of two schoolboys who fall in love while living next door to each other in a housing project came about from Harvey's sense of outrage about England's age-of-consent issue. The law stated that if you were straight, you had to be 16 years old to have consensual sex. But if you were gay, you had to be 21. (The law has since been changed.) "If you're a 16-year-old lad, you think that what you're doing is wrong," Harvey says. "I wanted to write about two lads falling in love at that age. I think that's what being gay is about - emotions and falling in love."
Harvey's tale of romance among the Clearasil set obviously struck a chord. The first production of Beautiful Thing was performed in a tiny pub theater, but after receiving rave reviews and selling out it's five-week run, the play moved to a 200-seat theater. Following that successful engagement, it made the big time, landing in an 800-seat theater on London's famed West End. It was then that Channel Four approached Harvey about turning the play into a movie.
A self-described "showbiz kid," Harvey had always been an avid TV and movie fan, and is quick to admit that he's been obsessed with The Sound of Music since age 5. Although he thought the movie version of Beautiful Thing would wind up as "crap on the telly," Harvey saw a chance to present gay men in a way that they had never been depicted. "I had never seen my experience onscreen," he says. "This certainly wasn't the Merchant Ivory school of homosexuality." He also saw an opportunity to tell a different kind of story. "At the time, it came on the tail end of depressing stuff about AIDS. Now here's a movie about two boys falling in love. It was a refreshing piece of froth. After all, everyone wants their dreams to come true."
Directing a movie was a dream come true for 34-year-old Hettie Macdonald, who was also a novice in the film world. Although she had been associated with Beautiful Thing as director of the three stage productions, she didn't think she had a shot at helming the motion picture. "It was extraordinary to be asked," she says. Despite working as an assistant director for the Royal Court Theatre, Macdonald says she didn't know what to expect from directing a film. Working with a small budget (2 million) on a tight schedule (25 days), she describes the shoot as a crash course in filmmaking. "But I just decided to go for it," Macdonald says. "And I found the whole process of making a film to be quite fascinating and challenging."
One of the major challenges facing the first-time filmmakers was casting the lead roles. While the actors who played the boys in the stage versions were in their early twenties, the film needed actual teenagers for the sake of realism. Extensive casting calls produced many actors, but Macdonald remembers, "You keep expecting someone who's going to be perfect for the part to walk in, but that didn't happen." What did happen is the casting director found two boys from the Anna Scher Theatre School who had known each other for years. Glen Berry and Scott Neal (pictured above) auditioned and were eventually cast in the roles of the star-crossed lovers, Jamie and Ste. Although the boys admit that they were nervous about the kissing sequences, director Macdonald helped them by breaking down the emotional scenes into manageable pieces and choreographing the love scenes.
Another important aspect of the film was the sound track, which is chock-full of music from the '60s pop legends The Mamas & The Papas. Harvey writes in the sound track album's liner notes that he had become familiar with Cass Elliot as a child when his mother warned him that if he didn't eat slower he'd choke to death just like Mama Cass. As an adult, he came across an old tape of Elliot's and listened to it as he wrote the play Beautiful Thing. The music sparked his creativity as he realized how pro-gay and life-affirming it was. "It celebrated being different," he says. When it came time to score the film, Harvey and Macdonald decided which songs would make it into the final cut. However, due to costly copyright fees for the use of these pop classics, the film skyrocketed overbudget by more than $100,000. But when the executives at Channel Four realized how essential the music was to the message of the story, they granted the extra money.
Director Macdonald says that she, too, connected with the "go where you wanna go" attitude of the music and the overall message that Harvey hoped to convey in Beautiful Thing. "This movie says that it's okay to be gay," she says. "Gay people feel isolated when they're young. If kids today see that a story like this can have a happy ending, that's important. Those images weren't around when I was growing up. And the more positive images of gay people that are put out there, then the less it will be an issue."