"I wanted to write a film about gay men that was more the way I knew the gay world to be, which is very mainstream and regular," says screenwriter/director Greg Berlanti, co-executive producer of the hit TV show Dawson's Creek and screenwriter of Her Leading Man (2001), a romantic comedy set to begin production under director Kevin Williamson in early 2000. "I wanted to write a gay film that was about romance and not about sex, something that was universal that everybody could understand."
These sentiments compelled Berlanti to pound out a screenplay. "After I finished the script and started circulating it," he says, "I was brought into a lot of meetings with women and men, straight people and gay people, and I was shocked at the number of straight people who said, 'where can I get friends like these?' They liked the voices of these people who were so entrenched in each others' lives and cared so much about each other."
"Then," jokes Berlanti, "they'd offer me some football movie to rewrite." After making the rounds, the script ultimately caught the attention and interest of Mickey Liddell, who most recently produced Doug Liman's edgy comedy Go (1999), about the outrageous misadventures of a group of young people in the raucous underground scene of L.A.-also the locale of The Broken Hearts Club. Liddell also produced the critically acclaimed Traveller (1997), starring Bill Paxton.
"I was doing another movie at the time. I read the script and after the first 10 pages, I knew this was what I wanted to do next. The way Greg wrote it was so real-I knew people like this," says Liddell. "I love scripts that take you into a world that you know. And if you don't know that world, you want to become a part of it."
Berlanti describes his first meeting with Liddell and the conversation that eventually led to the making of The Broken Hearts Club.
"We were introduced, and Mickey said, 'Your script was really one of my favorite scripts of last year,' and I said, 'well, why don't you make it?' and about an hour later, Mickey was asking me if I wanted to make the movie, and I said no," Berlanti laughs. "I had a lot going on at the time. I was very fortunate with my writing career (with 'Dawson's Creek'), and I didn't want to push my luck. Mickey said 'Ok, I'll come back to you in three months.'"
Indeed, Liddell kept his promise. He approached Berlanti again about three months later with producer Joseph Middleton attached.
Producer Liddell explains his passion for the project- and his choice of screenwriter Berlanti to direct as well: "From the beginning this project felt like a story that needed to be told, and I just didn't think there was anyone else that could tell it but Greg. It was his friends and people he knew, and it was so important for him to tell the story. If we attached another director, something would've got lost in the translation."
The Broken Hearts Club, told from a gay perspective, emphasizes the universality of its themes: family, relationships, love - and most importantly, having a sense of humor through it all. "What we're trying to do with the film is present a group of friends that are not that different than you'd imagine a group of straight men to be," says Berlanti. "There has never been a film about gay men that was conventional, that just happened to be peeking in on their lives for this set period of time."
According to Berlanti the primary theme of the film is family- not friendship. "At what point do you cross those boundaries and does friendship become this family that you both need, and don't need for a while?" he questions.
The film is also about becoming independent of a powerful group of people. "It's very easy to function within any group or function in any job and be defined by it and by what that group's expectations are of you," explains Berlanti. "But at what point do you separate yourself from it to sort of reclaim your own identity and find yourself again?"
It is Dennis, the film's protagonist, who struggles most with who he is beyond his group. "He needs to discover who he is before he can actually include someone else intimately in his life, because he has nothing but this group of friends to offer," says Berlanti.
In one hilarious scene, the guys actually deconstruct the dynamic of their crew - by comparing themselves to a tribe of Somalian monkeys that Benji (Zach Braff) saw on cable. "They live together happily in a set social group all year, and then when it's mating season - they attack each other!" explains Benji to his hairdresser. "We're those monkeys," concludes Dennis (Timothy Olyphant). "And I'm the monkey with the image problem," laments Patrick (Ben Weber).
Another idea that threads through the script-and the actors' performances- is the concept of beauty, says Berlanti. "What's beauty? Is beauty what the world accepts, or is beauty what we make of our own world?"
Beauty is no problem for the gorgeous, self-centered Cole, played by Dean Cain. "The thing I love about playing Cole is having no conscience. I mean, what a luxury. The guy uses an audition monologue to break up with someone."
"The characters learn a lot throughout the story," points out Berlanti. "I think they've reached that point in their lives where they say, not only am I gay, and not only am I happy about it, but I wouldn't have it any other way." Indeed, one of the film's more poignant scenes is when the older Jack (John Mahoney) is explaining to the insecure Patrick (Ben Weber) that "not everyone is beautiful. Some people are just gay and ordinary." Jack goes on to say, "We're the strongest I think."
These somewhat weighty, reflective issues fail to obscure perhaps the most important message of the film: "Just laugh at your life," says the writer-director. "Because life and God and the universe will provide you with enough to be unhappy about. So you can choose when to laugh and to surround yourself with people who help you laugh at your life."
Laughter was in no short supply on the set, thanks in large part to part time videographer Billy Porter (who plays Taylor). Sony provided a handheld digital video camera for Porter to record the downtime during filming. Porter came up with a thematic quiz, now his famed Gay Aptitude Test, administered to everyone on set. "What was Madonna's first hit single?" he demanded of co-star Dean Cain. The pressure grew with each subsequent question, and Cain finally faltered on "'No more wire hangers' is from which movie?" Only the buzz of the generator could be heard in response..
Bringing together the actors was a challenge both Berlanti and Liddell approached with enthusiasm. Berlanti specifically sought out actors that had extensive theater backgrounds. "We had about a week's worth of rehearsal time in which to establish a year's worth of friendship. We had to establish a relationship between these people as friends if it was going to feel real and authentic. I wanted people that I thought would be skilled at making these characters their own and really playing off what other people would give them in the moment."
"There were a couple of actors that Mickey got on board to get the momentum going, and Joseph did a spectacular job of casting," says Berlanti. One of these was Timothy Olyphant, who plays Dennis.
"I had just done a movie with newcomer Timothy Olyphant, and I gave him the script. About a day or two later he read it and said, 'I want to do this, I mean, any part.' So Tim came on board and then we started casting with Joseph and, somehow, everyone just fell into place," explains Liddell.
Olyphant describes his reaction to the script. "Mickey gave it to me, and I thought it was great. I met with Berlanti after that and basically made the decision to do it even before my agents were involved in the process."
Was he nervous about playing a gay character? "I gave it to my agents and said, 'I'm gonna do this, take a look at it.' There was no hesitation," he says.
Dean Cain reacted similarly. "I didn't have any hesitations - it's a great story that is really well written." Then the former Superman adds, "In one scene I have to kiss another man. I think my Mom had hesitations with that."
Olyphant continues: "It's about a group of friends in their mid- twenties dealing with what it's like to make that transition from teenager to your thirties, where you're an adult. Only there is a twist to it because it's in and around gay culture and dealing with the pressures, the clichés and the traps that they fall into as being part of that world."
But will straight audiences respond?
"If they're open to the fact that this is about people who have a lifestyle different to them," Olyphant answers, "then straight audiences should get what anyone would get from any good story. It's a well-written romantic comedy with interesting characters who are going through a lot. It's both funny and sad. So, gay audiences will get that, and straight audiences, if they're human, should get that too."
In casting the other roles, Liddell and Berlanti encountered full support on behalf of the actors. "There was no point where any of us had to fight for anybody," recalls Berlanti. One interesting aspect of the casting was combining both straight and gay actors in the cast. Is everyone convincing?
"Olyphant replies, "Well, when we all got here on the baseball field today, you saw all the straight guys head right for the equipment - you know, really eager to pick up the balls and bats and get straight." He winds up for a mock fastball pitch with accompanying 'straight guy' grimace.
"I'll just say 'tone it down,'" laughs Berlanti. "Sometimes he'll say, 'that looks like a straight guy from the East Village - can you gayify it?'" adds Braff. "He'll tell me when I need to turn up the gay volume."
"Sometimes you have to, you know, 'girl it in some' or 'not so much with the hands.' Greg's a great director. He gives us our space, and he knows exactly what he wants," adds Matt McGrath, who plays Howie.
Mary McCormack, who portrays Anne, the lesbian sister of Patrick (Ben Weber), explains her reaction to the story. "More than gay or straight, it's about friendship. They just happen to be gay, and my character happens to be gay but it's sort of irrelevant. It's a funny story about friendship."
Andrew Keegan, who portrays Kevin, the young man struggling with his newfound gay identity, explains: "I think the gay community will really enjoy the fact that there is a quality gay movie for all of America to watch. I think the straight community will hopefully, from watching the movie, better understand the lifestyle."
Keegan adds: "It's not a 'gay man with AIDS who is dying' story. We haven't seen many movies just about the lifestyle and what happens instead of all the myths that people conjure up. It's just the real thing. And it's funny."
"Nobody has been fearful or apologetic about the material - everyone just has an admiration for the writing and a commitment to making it work on screen," adds McGrath.
For initiation, the cast hung out together and frequented Rage, a West Hollywood gay bar. McGrath, a New Yorker, explains. "It's a huge, open space, and there are tons of men. Men everywhere, hanging out on the street, the sidewalk. There's a lot of uh, male energy. You could say it's overwhelming," he laughs.
Although Berlanti was depicting a world that he is largely familiar with (the gay community in West Hollywood), he faced a challenge when writing the character of Jack, the father figure to the boys. "I don't really write with someone's voice in my head," Berlanti explains, " but I was having a little bit of trouble with an older character who is friends with all the boys and kind of takes care of them."
His solution? Borrow the voice of an actor he respects. So Berlanti decided to borrow John Mahoney's voice for Jack. "I really respect him as an actor and I think he's so magnetic, you just want to watch him." In Mahoney, Berlanti found the kind of person that would be the perfect patriarch to this family of friends. Then a year and a half later when the producers were looking for a Jack, they sent Mahoney the script.
"I wrote him a note with it, basically saying that he was the one actor who I had written a part for. He responded to it and jumped on board," says Berlanti.
"When I had my first lunch with John Mahoney, he looked across the table at me and said 'Don't be afraid to direct me.' And once someone like John Mahoney gives you the go-ahead on something like that, you just dive in."
Mahoney explains his role as Jack: "It's a buddy movie involving a group of very, very good friends. I play a sort of father figure to them, an older gay man who has been through whatever they are going through now. As Jack, I'm willing to offer any advice, comfort and kicks in the butts to help them."
Mahoney continues: "Playing Jack is really no different than playing Marty Crane on Frasier. They are both father figures - they're basically very ordinary, no-nonsense people with senses of humor who are able to cut to the quick of the problem and help people."
The universal appeal of The Broken Hearts Club's themes helped all the actors, both gay and straight, make their characters real and believable. Liddell explains: "Greg's writing really tells the truth. As a result, I felt like every actor showed up really ready to expose himself, whether it be straight or gay. The movie is really funny. I think all the actors have a great sense of humor, they really get it."