An interview with Walsall’s award winning film director, Dave Hastings (part one)
Dave was born and still lives and works in Walsall. He has won numerous awards for his films, many of which feature strong LGBTQ characters in pivotal roles. His latest film You Are My Sunshine, set entirely in Walsall and scheduled for release later in the summer, focuses on the relationship between an mature Gay couple who look back on their journey together from their initial meeting in the 1970s.
As the climax of our PRIDE celebrations this year we spent an hour or so talking to Dave about his latest film, his passion for horror movies and why historically there are so few LGBTQ characters in film.
Walsall for All (WfA): Perhaps you could start by telling us a bit about your upcoming feature You Are My Sunshine.
Dave Hastings (DH): Well, it kind of goes back to horror films really. I grew up on horror films, and always wanted to be a filmmaker as a kid. I've always wanted to do horror stuff, but I don't always want to make horror films. As a director, same as anybody in any job, you want to try different things and you want to challenge yourself continuously.
So I've done other films. The film beforehand, Sustain was about racism which ties unintentionally into topical themes we’re seeing with Brexit at the moment, and when we did Screaming Death, people were asking, “What are you going to do next?” I said, “Well, I'm not doing a horror film because I've just spent a month with vampires, witches and ghouls!” And as much as Sustain is still horror, it’s human horror, and again, as a director, I find that interesting, to explore new and different things.
So Sunshine … well, I'm very interested in LGBTQ history. I've read about the Stonewall riots and I've got a lot of films about the history of the LGBTQ movement, The Matthew Shepard Story and tragic events like that. I'm very interested in the history because if you’re from the LGBTQ community, it’s a part of us - these people, for whatever reason, paved the way for what we're doing today, gave us hope and equal rights. So, I'm very interested in terms of how LGBTQ people live, the pressures they are under, the obstacles they face and Sunshine kind of came out of that. I wanted to do a love story and a lot of people said, “What are you doing a love story for Dave?” And I said, “Well, you know, I want to try it and see what we can do with it, try to make it meaningful to a certain extent, don't just make it a rom-com do. Something that would have some meaning and depth to it.”
It contextualises the stuff that's in the past too, so if you’ve seen the trailer, there’s the first PRIDE in the 1970s referenced. It's not a major part of the film (as other filmmakers have done a great job telling that story), it just felt good to reference it because it was happening at the time. So you get to know what's going on in the world around these two characters and I felt that was really important. So Sunshine, was me exploring the history of the community and showcasing it in the area I am in, to the best of my abilities as a filmmaker. Some people write about events through their books, some people through documentaries, some people create art or paintings and other great artistic avenues, whereas for me my forte is film.
So that's my outlet for it and I thought about the story and I was like, well, that that could be interesting, what about if we paralleled it with today's world, because I don't think there's enough representation of more elderly LGBTQ couples. I just don't think there's a lot of stuff out there, you've got the upcoming Supernova and that was really good, but that’s about it. I was quite scared watching that actually, I was like, oh God, they're going to have done the same film! I sat all the way through thinking don't flashback, don't flashback (to when they were kids), but they didn’t and it was a really good film. It's the market, young people sell, but there are so many stories out there. I've got friends who are that age, retirement age and they met when they were young men, when this stuff was going on and it had just been decriminalised, that stuff hasn't really been touched on a lot.
So I thought, well, if I combine the 1970s with the start of PRIDE in the UK, and then kind of interweave that with present day stuff, it could be interesting both visually and narratively; the fact that there's still tension in some families through the generations. The fact is, it takes the nephew, John, who is a really important part of the film, because he's the one that bridges that gap between the past and present.
He's the one who’s saying, look I'm from this modern generation, we don't really care that much about people's preferences, but mum you need to sort this out with your brother because it’s going to be too late otherwise. So there’s a bit of a message there. I’ve worked in education, and these kids are as fluid as anything. I'm looking forward to the future where I think there's going to be a lot less homophobia because they will have actively taken their more accepting messages and ideals forward.
Actually, I wasn’t going to make Sunshine at first, I wrote it and was going to try use it to get a scriptwriting agent. It sat in my desk for a few years and the more I kept going back to it, the more I was getting ideas for shots and thinking actually I could cast this person or that person and we could use Barr Beacon - that would be really cool and the filmmaker part of your brain starts to say, “You want to make this film don’t you?” And you end up going “okay let’s just do it”. And it was a joy to make, I have lots of fond memories of the shoot. We’re doing the sound mix at the moment so I was there last night with Josh, our amazing editor and we get to watch all the footage and stuff and it's really nice. It's coming together quite nicely.
WfA: How easy (or difficult) was it to relate to the experience of teenagers coming out in the 1970s, given you were born in the early ‘80s?
I came out around Easter 2002 and I wasn’t ready. The reason I came out was because I was being blackmailed (and by somebody I thought was a friend). I’d told one or two friends at that point, but I kind of had to do it right there and then, so it wasn’t really my choice. In the long run, it was great, but at the time it felt awful and I was having to deal with all this stuff, but my parents were incredibly supportive - they were more upset at the situation I was in. You look back on these things and at the time it felt crushing, but in hindsight, it was the best thing I ever did because I just came out sooner than I thought I was going to.
I remember as a kid in the 1980s watching the AIDS advert with John Hurt, the one with the grave that shatters and I remember that terrifying me to death. That was being screened when I was about 7 or 8 at that point and I think even at that age you kind of know something is happening around you, how you think and what you’re attracted to, just not completely understanding it yet as a whole. Then obviously there was Freddie Mercury and things like that. I remember the Sun being truly brutal about Gay people. All these newspapers today are like ‘yeah we love Gay people’, no you didn’t always. I remember them calling it [AIDS] ‘Gay Cancer’ and outing people for it and I have very low tolerance for that kind of stuff. So in that sense I can relate to how difficult it would have been for the characters, just a little further down the years.
As a kid I was bullied a lot. I was always an introvert and most kids would go outside and play, whereas I’d get home and watch films – they were my sanctuary which is why I’m so passionate about film and why I wanted to be a filmmaker – they were my little bubble as a kid, they looked after me. Sunshine is kind of about me being an LGBTQ filmmaker and telling the stories that are out there that still need to be told, stories that can resonate with an audience and I think this is the right time to tell this kind of story. I’ve been to PRIDE a few times in Birmingham and I get really upset when I see the elderly members of the community on their own; they’ve lost people during the AIDS crisis - we lost a generation to that - and I always try to talk to people, to hear their stories and Sunshine came from all of those stories really.
As a kid, every now and then, you’d hear the news and take things in and the more that happened, the more you’d start questioning yourself. I remember vividly that [John Hurt], advert and Freddie Mercury because that created a lot of discussion and so with GRID I wanted the setting to be purely in the early 1980s UK, because there’s a lot of AIDS films in America (all amazing too), and there’s a few here as well, but they were always made with stronger connections with the US narratives, yet it was going on here too sadly and the papers were picking it up and being horrible. There are so many stories of people dying here which is why I was really happy they made It’s A Sin.
I was a bit disheartened at the same time because they were doing the same time period as us, but I don’t have quite as far reaching influence as Russell T. Davies does unfortunately (laughs). But that was a story that needed telling because these stories are out there and filmmakers have to find this stuff out. I won’t do films unless they’ve something new to say or something people need to know about and yeah San Francisco during the AIDS crisis had a lot going on sadly, lots of people dying, but that was happening here as well. We just haven’t put as much of a spotlight on it and that was what the GRID mindset was - “Well actually it was happening here so let’s shine a light on it too”. I worked very hard to be subtle but meaningful too in that film which is why we don’t mention people by name but Ernest, who played Doctor Andrews, mentions “that actor” which is meant to be Rock Hudson. So we didn’t specifically name him but we mention it enough that the audience can make that connection and go, “Oh actually that was Rock Hudson.”
WfA: I'm going to change the order of my questions as you've mentioned, GRID. Do you think that the medical advances ultimately that that were made around AIDS were a result of the realisation that actually this could impact the heterosexual community?
DH: It's an interesting question … to a certain extent, I would say yes because studies have shown that actually HIV and AIDS is more commonplace in heterosexuality and that's from studies that have been carried out around the world.
If you’ve seen Pose, which is an amazing show, they talk about this a lot in reference to the Black LGBTQ community at the time it is set; “They just don’t want to know anything about us.” Reading about the subject, it was almost like it was a good thing, it was killing off the Gay population, as horrible as that sounds that was the mentality at the time. And I think that is why there wasn’t a spotlight on it in this country because it was killing us off and it was quietly and conveniently in a room somewhere and people would lock the door and you were left as if you didn’t really matter, disowned by family members. The more we understood about it and the more studies were showing that heterosexuals could contract it too, that’s when the alarm bells went fully. It is quite controversial to say it but part of me does think that and that’s why I make the films. That’s my outlet to say I have to challenge this because this wasn’t right.
WfA: Do you think the media at the time used AIDS then to demonise the Gay community?
DH: They called it the ‘Gay Cancer’. Gay people were portrayed as perverts, deviants while there were religious organisations saying this was the ‘Gay Plague’ and that was published. It was being used as an excuse to ‘out’ people.
WfA: Is it the job of you as a filmmaker then to challenge that narrative?
DH: Sunshine does it, Sunshine challenges that narrative from a 1970s perspective as well as a modern day one. GRID is a challenge to that, it’s saying look this was happening here in the UK it wasn’t just in San Francisco or New York or just in America, it was happening here but people chose to ignore it. So for me it was saying lets’ make a story that challenges those perceptions, let’s show that these people were human beings, sons, fathers, brothers, uncles, and that they deserved to be looked after, made as comfortable as possible and a right to healthcare the same as anybody else.
I research all of these things before I write anything and some of the things I read for GRID broke and shattered my heart. There are little bits that were used in the film, so the red ribbon on the door handle, which you’ll see, that was put on there to basically tell people there was an AIDS patient in that room. Some nurses wouldn’t want to go into a room so they’d draw straws and whoever got the shortest one would have to go in, and these things happened … so for me as a filmmaker, however upsetting this is for me, I want to make it upsetting for the audience so that they grasp that these were people too, just like you and me, they just happen to love somebody of the same sex. Where is the harm in that?
WfA: GRID was a spin-off from an earlier film called BRINK, where the victim of a hate crime is facing death and reflects on his life. This seems to be a theme of yours, I’m thinking Willem for example and I wondered where that stems from?
DH: Part of it’s me - I sound so old at the moment - but I look back on life and remember a lot of stuff from my youth and growing up. I’m getting to that point in my life where I’m reminiscing about being a child. I actually drove past my old primary school a few days ago by chance and all these memories came flooding back. And it doesn’t look any different and that was 30 odd years ago I was in that playground having not a care in world. I find that the more you spend time reminiscing about stuff, the more it educates you further in a weird kind of way. For example, when I’m reading a book about Stonewall, it's the people who were there telling you what happened, you understand it more, you look at it from a first person perspective.
So with filmmaking it’s the same thing in a sense, I find reminiscing is a good way of exposition in film too, so you’re telling the audience who your characters are but it moves the story forward naturally and it has a message. With Brink for instance, that was something where we just decided one night “Let’s make a film”, and myself, my producing partner Kaushy and close friend and special FX wizard Alex, went down to Sandwell and just filmed for about an hour.
Brink is based very, very loosely on the heart breaking Matthew Shepherd story, the lad who was beat up and left for dead and tragically subsequently died - but adding in the looking back part of the narrative … reminiscing, it allows those characters the opportunity to face up to something bad, something really bad is coming, but that I’m still not going to stop being the person I am, I’m not going to stop being proud of who I am, I’m not going to stop being a Gay person, or Transgender or Bi-Sexual or whatever.
In Brink, for instance, yes he’s dying but he’s still remembering the fact that he’s a person, an uncle and so forth. In GRID, Daniel is dying too, but he never falters in who he is, he still talks to you - and the character of Angie, again that use of duel exposition - about his partner, while in Willem it is the same but still different themes and ideals/scenarios, except Willem is based on a real person.
WfA: That’s leads us nicely onto Willem, it’s quite unusual to find a Gay pivotal character in this kind of setting so why this story in particular?
DH: Social media is pretty good at this kind of stuff, every now and again you’ll get little things that tell you about certain strange or obscure historical events, things you never really knew about and I actually wrote the script as part of my MA because I was doing my scriptwriting unit. And for years I’d heard this story, it kept coming up on my Facebook feed about this extraordinary man named Willem Arondeus. I found it so interesting and yet, no one had made a film about him and nobody knows about him or the heroic events that led to his death. And then reading more and more about it, the only reason they decided to acknowledge him in the ‘90s was because legislation was changing; originally he was forgotten about because he was Gay. Simple as that.
So you’ve got somebody who saved hundreds of lives, possibly even more than that, but he’s forgotten about because he’s Gay. And you just think okay, fine, let’s see if we can do something and try and change/open up that narrative. I read more about him and he was such a courageous person and inspiration; he never once gave up on his ideals. So even at the very end of his life, when he was captive, he was still a proud Gay man and if you remember what he wrote at the end [he asked his lawyer (accounts vary) to: “Let it be known that homosexuals are not cowards.”], that’s true as well, he wrote that and those were his last official words and I just found that really powerful.
Even in the face of hostility by some of the worst people in history, the Nazis, you’re still openly Gay and you’re still trying to help other people. The character Alexander [the guard] was a fictional character that I created though, almost to allow Willem to bounce off, yet still keep him three dimensional. I knew he [Willem] would be in a cell and I knew he would be shot at the end, but I thought how can I create a story that shows who he was, but dramatise it a little bit with creative licence and still honour Willem. The character of Alexander and that scenario was made up, so there are elements of truth in it. I felt it important to tell that story because the more I read about him, the more I was like, why has this not been a film? Why do I know all about Schindler, all about Anne Frank and all of these other WW2 heroes, but I don’t know about Willem Arondeus and it’s because he was Gay, it’s because of his sexuality. He saved lives. Surely that story has just as much right to be told as those others.
WfA: Alexander comes across as much of a prisoner as Willem himself.
DH: Yeah, there was a certain deliberateness to that because when I did my MA, my dissertation was ‘The Lack of LGBTQ Characters in Holocaust Films’ so I had to watch a lot of those films. There’s not that many films with Gay people in but they were there, it happened. Gay people were in the Holocaust, there weren’t as many killed as there were Jews obviously, but they were there and they suffered equally appalling treatment and death. Reading all of that and having to immerse myself in that world for a year and a half was … well I had to break every now and again, but what I found was that there were a lot of Gay people in the Nazi party and they were stuck. There were many in the Nazi party that really didn’t want to do the things Hitler and the far right wanted them to do, they rejected it and fought not to sign up or even be a solider, and so that character feels trapped in it as they did.
The whole of Willem’s, from reading more, just felt sad, yet from accounts he was upbeat in the face of the inhumanity. In the film he talks about his partner and having to let him go at some point, but even in that moment, after losing a loved one because he wanted him to be okay, I got the feeling he would have still helped anyone. Like he says in the film, “We are meant to be enemies but you are the same as me.” It was more that really, I mean I love Indiana Jones beating up Nazis and I hate Nazis with every part of my being, and what they stood for, but even in the British Army, you once couldn’t say you were Gay while in the US Army, I think it was only repealed about 10 years ago, you could be sacked from the military if you were Gay. So these soldiers who are meant to be straight and butch and macho and everything, for some that is a facade, some are Gay, and have spent years terrified someone will expose them, that they don’t tell anybody and that’s a terrifying immense mental anguish and I kind of wanted to address that in a certain way too. But I also wanted to use Alexander as a pawn for Willem to show who he was as a person too, because reading about him I would imagine he would help anybody. He was rescuing people, he blew up buildings just to stop the Nazis from capturing people who he probably never would have met.
Part two of our interview can be read on our website, where we discuss Dave’s obsession with horror movies and why he believes so many from the LGBTQ community are drawn to the genre, his award-winning homage to classic British Gothic Horror The House of Screaming Death and we talk about his projects post Sunshine.