One of the high points of the recent Outfest LGBT Film Festival in Los Angeles was Michael Mayer’s drama, Out In The Dark. The film has been shown at film festivals across the globe, picking up numerous awards along the way. The film will be released theatrically in September via Breaking Glass Pictures.
Out In The Dark tells the story of Nimr (Nicholas Jacob), a Palestinian student who falls for an Israeli attorney (Michael Aloni), but visa issues as well as Nimr’s being closeted in his home country threaten their relationship.
During Outfest, we sat down with Mayer, who not only directed the film but co-wrote the script with Yael Shafrir, to talk about the making of the movie and what he hopes people take from the project.
TheBacklot: First just tell me the genesis of Out In The Dark.
Michael Mayer: It started actually over dinner. A friend of mine was visiting from Israel and was telling me that he had been volunteering at the Gay and Lesbian Center in Tel Aviv. And one of the things that they did was, and still do, is give support to gay Palestinians who are hiding in Israel illegally. I’m from Israel. I’ve lived there all my life. I had no idea it was happening.
I think the BBC estimates that there’s about 350 gay Palestinians hiding illegally in Israel at any given time. It’s a weird situation because these guys are not really accepted…and again depends what family you come from, what social standing. You know, if your village is more extreme or less. You know, what’s happening with the political situation.
But the fact of the matter is most of these guys are rejected by their families and by their communities because of their sexual orientation. But when they cross over, they’re rejected in Israel because of their national identity. So it creates the situation where it’s like damned if you do and damned if you don’t.
In my next trip to Israel, I got in touch with people at the Gay and Lesbian Center in Tel Aviv, and the Open House in Jerusalem. I went to one of those underground gay Palestinian parties in Tel Aviv. We portray one in the film, the ones that end at 11pm.
TBL: That scene reminded me of that old footage from the ’60s when guys would go into these little dark clubs in fear of getting caught like criminals.
MM: You know what’s interesting is even in the span of almost 10 years that I’ve worked on this, beginning back in the early 2000s, I went to these parties, they really happened in a room the size of somebody’s living room, underground. No cell phones. Nobody would take pictures. Very few people knew about them. Now these parties happen, I think, quarterly in a club that can populate like 400 people, a much bigger club. So it’s a testament to the fact that there’s more openness in Israel about this, but also within the Palestinian community…there are a couple of online Palestinian LGBT communities that are active online. It’s interesting.
TBL: So obviously a good story that needs to be told. How’d it all come together?
MM: I got together with a writer in Israel, who’s a good friend of mine, Yael Shafrir, and we started basically putting the story together that’s inspired by stories that we’ve heard. Originally, we thought we wanted to make like an issue film, much larger scope, like bigger movie, much more political. The more people we talked to and the more people we met and the couples that we met, we realized the real drama was in people’s intimate, smaller story.
TBL: Where did you shoot the film and were you always safe, especially with the film’s subject matter.
MM: We shot as much as we could in Israel. So obviously Israel shoots for Israel. Tel Aviv shoots for Tel Aviv. And then we cheated as much as we could. So the interior of the house, the Ramallah House, we actually shot it in Jaffa…and we shot in a couple of Palestinian villages within the Israeli territory, near Jerusalem. It wasn’t unsafe. We had some difficulties shooting in one of the villages, but it was never unsafe. But then again, in those locations, we never told them the subject matter of the film. They knew it was a film about Israelis and Palestinians, but there are a lot of films about that, about the conflict and people were fine with it. But we never said this is a gay love story.
TBL: How did the actors come to you? Both Nicholas and Michael were terrific and just beautiful men who had a real palpable chemistry onscreen.
MM: I just got lucky. Michael Aloni, the guy who plays Roy. is a big star in Israel. And I always say and people always laugh, but I never really wanted him because he was this pretty boy and he played in a bunch of teen dramas. I wasn’t sure and my casting director actually told me to go watch him in a couple of movies where he does serious roles and he’s absolutely amazing.
I was like, “Okay.” So I met with the guy and he came so prepared for the role. And he came in…he already did the work, which is so rare when you meet with a bunch of actors that show up, read, and they’re out of there. He really wanted the role and I felt he was so good, there was really no other choice for me.
And then Nicolas was the complete opposite. He came from a recommendation of his girlfriend. She came in to audition for a different role, didn’t get the part, and as she was walking out, she was like, ‘By the way, my boyfriend, he’s not really an actor, but he’s a musician. He never acted before. He really wants to give it a shot. Will you let him read?’ And we were like, ‘Sure.
When I saw the two of them together in the room, I was like, ‘There’s something special there.” So that’s half of the story. The other half is that we rehearsed a lot and I made sure that they get to spend as much time as possible together, that they feel as comfortable as possible with each other. Michael was great giving his time, sacrificing a lot of time to work with a non-actor. So it just really gelled well. Nicolas was willing to work around-the-clock. So even after a day of shooting, he would still come to rehearse. So I was lucky to have two guys that were not only talented and have good chemistry, but really hardworking actors.
TBL: And they’re both straight?
MM: They’re both straight as far as I know. Nicolas was actually saying a really sweet thing after we shot, because he was more nervous than Michael. But after we shot, he had a smaller role where he was hooking up with this actress, this woman on film and there was a little sex scene. He was really excited about it because she’s a big actress and after the shooting, he called me up and he says, ‘It was tougher than with Michael…I realize that it’s not about whether it’s a man or woman. It’s about creating intimacy with a total stranger.’
TBL: What’s your hope that people take from this? The love story? The political message?
MM: Can I say everything?
TBL: You sure can.
MM: Listen, I would love for people to really just have an emotional connection with the story and the characters. So come in, watch it as a good story. It’s something that they can connect with and if that happens, then I think the next natural step is that people go home and Google or research or read more about the subject matter and get a little bit more informed. So hopefully everything.
Out In the Dark opens in select theaters Friday, September 27th.
Available on DVD October 29th.