Interview: First Girl I Loved Director Kerem Sanga on marriage equality and the film’s Australian release

When First Girl I Loved screened in September 2016 as part of the 4th annual Queer Screen Film Fest in Sydney, I was initially disappointed by the film’s second half (read more in my original review). It wasn’t because it was bad film, far from it, however, it was because I had no idea what to expect and was left with the feeling of being cheated by the movie’s second half. When going in for a second viewing, however, I came to realise that the unexpected quality of First Girl I Loved is what makes it thought provoking and powerful, staying with you long after you leave the cinema.

For the excitement of First Girl I Loved being officially released for a limited run in selected Australian cinemas, I got to sit down with director Kerem Sanga. We speak about the film’s surprising second half, Kerem’s thoughts on marriage equality (especially in Australia), how homosexuality in 2017 should be the norm of acceptance for most of us rather than dividing us, and some of the inspirations for creating First Girl I Loved.

With the cast of Dylan Gelula, Brianna Hilderbrand and Mateo Arias how did you assemble such a fine cast for First Girl I Loved?

Well, right you are about how great they all were, they certainly brought the script to life in a way I was very grateful for! Each one of them has a different story but it all comes down to myself and the three producers of the film Ross Putman, David Hunter and Seth Caplan doing a lot of work assembling lists for people we thought might be good for the roles.

Dylan Gelula actually sent a tape for my previous film The Young Kieslowski, she was in New York at the time and years before what we have come to know her for, a few TV shows and then The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, it was a very small role as well, but I remember watching the tape and thinking ‘wow she’s doing it right’, exactly as I imagined, but we didn’t cast her in that film because she was way out in New York and we just always remembered her. When it came time to cast this film I had seen Kimmy Schmidt and I was speaking to the producer, saying how much of a wonderful job she was doing and that I think she could do this dramatic role and we should put her on the list and meanwhile he was trying to remind me of the old audition tape and I didn’t even realise they were the same person, in my mind I knew that this was going to work out!

Brianna Hilderbrand was somebody that was pitched to us by her agency, she was in Marvel’s Deadpool and we had an interview with her over Skype while she was in Vancouver filming Deadpool. You would think that somebody from such a big budget film wouldn’t want to do such a “small scale” feature, but everybody, even the amazing Mateo Arias was just so committed to the story and liked the script so much there wasn’t any question about it, it was great. Mateo was awesome too, he was just this amazing and thoughtful young actor that I have ever worked with.

I don’t want to ruin too much for anyone that hasn’t seen it yet but First Girl I Loved really turns into a different film the second half, almost a mild thriller in parts and not what I was expecting at all. I believe that is a good thing, the unexpected. What made you decide to go down the darker route rather than stick to the traditional girl-meets-girl story?

I think you start with the characters, it’s called First Girl I Loved and I wanted to explore that, when you think about love parts of it are the girl meets girl story as you said, the stuff at the beginning where they are flirting and falling in love, exploring each other’s sensibilities, that kind of thing is fun to watch and then to me, story is about conflict and I like to see all the in-between stuff, what happens when conflict erupts or starts between something that’s going really good. I wanted to really explore other things and not just dwell on how good it can be.

The film starts off by being about two woman that fall in love. The subject of homosexuality is still ridiculously touchy for some people – I even think the film touches well on this subject as well – even though its acceptance should be the norm in 2017. Did you have any obstacles in your way when trying to represent such a great subject matter in this film?

Yes, in getting the film made. There is such a broad spectrum of acceptance, maturing of people’s sensibilities, at least here in America. It’s like you said, not everyone has caught up to the current climate of the ‘how this should be’ and that it should be a normal accepted thing. I get some people asking me, after watching this film ‘Do people still question homosexuality anymore’? and I think wow, there is so many different America’s that people live in. There are so many different places that have moved way beyond it and other places and people that are still living in the past.

To get back to the question about did it make it difficult!? First, I was trying to raise money for the film and that I suppose a little bit, but it’s hard to divorce that from the fact it’s hard to raise money for a movie of this scale at all. But yeah, you would sense sometimes with location when you ask people to shoot there, you kind of have this sense of how much do I want to tell them about what we are doing, but at the end of the day we would tell them the whole story because we want them as allies and not finding out half way through production and have to possibly move.

Sorry It’s a hard question to answer because they’re so many little things, it’s hard to pin it down, it was harder, definitely than shooting a movie about two heterosexual people.

I believe your sister is what inspired the story and subject matter for you the most and for me, living in Australia you probably know we still do not have equal rights when it comes to marriage equality, I am hoping your film reaches an audience down here that can raise more questions as to why, what are your thoughts on the matter?

Well, it seems pretty cut and dry to me, it is a human rights issue, when you take away somebody’s rights or when your denying them that (marriage) over their race or sexual orientation of whatever it needs to be changed and addressed, it’s about shifting and changing people’s attitudes. It goes deeper than hate and I mean how long of an interview do we have?

My goal of the film was to really try to explore the characters within the story, I mean, no matter my thoughts and the fact that if you love someone you should have that right on these very basic human rights we are discussing, I didn’t want to make a story where you had to, or that I wanted to have this authorial presence and that I’m trying to do the lecture about how people should be accepted, that is not really my intent, the intent is to tell a story about real people and explore all of these in-between emotions, incidentally two of them are gay or one of them are gay and ‘spoilers’!

When you’re not filming or writing what do you love to do in your down time?

My whole life is orchestrated around writing and making films right now. I did just start doing yoga! I don’t know if that’s interesting to your readers but, I like to try things that I normally wouldn’t try and before I started I thought ‘that is not something I would be interested in doing, no thanks I don’t want to be a part of that’ and then I tried it and I realised why everyone is so into it now, it’s nice exercise and you’re not hurting yourself. Now I am a complete believer (in yoga).

Can you tell us some of your favourite films that have inspired you?

There are so many but I could probably talk about the films that inspired First Girl I Loved, this may sound a little esoteric but there is a film called The Passion of Joan of Arc, it’s a silent film from Carl Dreyer from way back in the day (1928 to be exact). I remember watching that movie and being really engrossed by it, it’s maybe an hour long but I was so surprised that I was so engrossed by a silent film because generally I can appreciate them but then there is always a part of it that is kind of boring because it’s a silent movie. There is a lot of close-ups in that movie and when I was shooting this movie I felt that this film was about point of view and that the strongest thing that I can bring with the great actors that I have and the great camera work that my DP (Ricardo Diaz) did and our limited resources, was to focus on these three points of conflicting views, so that movie (Passion of Joan of Arc) really incorporates that as well.

There was also a series I was watching called The Knick, a Steven Soderbergh show, while I was editing the film and I have always appreciated Soderbergh’s editing style. I love great editors. There is another The Departed, one which you certainly wouldn’t think of to compare First Girl I Loved to but the editor in all of Martin Scorsese’s movies (Thelma Schoonmaker), you watch the way in which she edits some of the footage and the emotion in the scenes are so good, you don’t question any of it.

We know you wrote First Girl I Loved, but you also have a co-founder and writer involved with most of your previous work that you mentioned earlier, David Hunter (who shares a name with the famed Iris interviewer you’re speaking to now)? What other projects do you all have on the horizon you can talk about over there at PSH Collective?

We have made three films together now (PSH Collective crew) and since Sundance Film Festival and First Girl I Loved that has brought us a lot of attention, we have been able to branch off and do projects that we had going outside of our little group. Producing a couple of films that are coming out soon and I have a few projects that I am writing, jobs that I got after Sundance and another film I am really hoping to make in Texas, I actually come from Texas, I lived in Dallas often. So, yeah, we have quite a few Irons in the fire you could say.

I am so thrilled that The First Girl I Loved is getting such a positive and wider release in Australia, I never thought that would happen. The people that we’ve been working with at Arcadia (Production and Sales Company in Australia) are doing such an amazing job and I am just really thrilled to bring it to Australia!

First Girl I Loved is now showing at Cinema Nova in Melbourne and Luna Leederville in Perth. It will be released July 13th at Dendy Newtown Cinemas in Sydney and July 14th at New Farm Cinemas in Brisbane!