LGBT Youth Suicide Makes It to the Big Screen
Q&A with Kim Rocco Shields, the creator of short film turned feature "Love Is All You Need?"
In 2010, 13-year-old Seth Walsh walked up to his mom when she was folding her clothes and told her that he was gay. According to the New York Times, his mom, Wendy Walsh, said, "O.K., sweetheart, I love you no matter what."
In September of 2010, Seth hung himself in his backyard, a victim of peer bullying. He was on life support for a week before he died. He was in the sixth grade.
That year, a string of LGBT suicides spurred by bullying were trending all over the news and social media. Rutgers University freshman Tyler Clementi jumped off of a bridge. 15-year-old Billy Lucas hung himself. 13-year-old Asher Brown shot himself.
Inspired by the upheaval of media covering LGBT youth suicide in 2010, Kim Rocco Shields created the short film Love Is All You Need? The short film flips the script on heteronormativity. In this world that Shields created being gay is the norm and being heterosexual is looked down upon. The short film went viral, reaching over 40 million views and was translated into over 15 languages.
You can watch the short here at Curve.
From the impact that the short film had, Shields felt called to turn it into a feature length film. The feature film follows three storylines: The story of 11-year-old Ashley Curtis (from the short film) who is kicked off of her school football team when she’s outed as a hetero; the story of college star quarterback, Jude Klein, and budding sports journalist, Ryan Morris, and their clandestine love; and the story of zealot priest, Rachel Duncan, who after finding out about the affair between Jude and Ryan makes it her mission to spread the word of God that all breeders are sinners.
The cast is a combination of Hollywood and Curve favorites. Briana Evigan (Step Up) plays closeted college quarterback, Jude, who falls in love with, Ryan, played by Pretty Little Liars' Tyler Blackburn. Emily Osment (Hannah Montana) completes the love triangle as Jude's girlfriend, Kelly. The film also features Leisha Hailey from the musical duo Uh Huh Her as Coach Jenkins and Haviland Stillwell as one of the sorority sisters, known from lezzy web series Unicorn Plan-It and Easy Abby.
We got to chat with the writer, director and producer of the film, Shields, about her motivation to make the film, her passion for portraying the stories of marginalized people and the impact that this film has already had on the community.
During that media frenzy of LGBT teen suicide and during the It Gets Better campaign, the idea for the film came to you. What about that time inspired the film?
One night I was watching reports of it [LGBT teen suicide] all over the news, and these reporters were lamenting over and over. "How could 11-year-olds take their lives? I just can't imagine even thinking that at 11 years old. I can't imagine feeling that way so much that you'd want to end it." And I'm like, you know, if they could just step in their shoes for a minute they would totally understand because when you take away a youth's social acceptance and you take away their family unit and they feel like they are left with nothing, of course they could be driven to a dark place, especially in the best of best circumstances. That's why in the short I made sure to dwell on the fact that she has the picture perfect family, because again, it's not about the family. It's about withdrawing the acceptance and feeling like you are the social other, and with that you feel like you have nothing, and you don't want to live. This film is to get to the root of that and to show the psychology and really tell a story of human existence and how things happen. It's not to define this gay world. It's about exposing bullying and the psychology that goes on behind it and why these things happen. We could all say it gets better a thousand times, but until you can show why and how, you can't get people to get it and make change.
A lot of your films tell stories about marginalized people. What is it that drives you to bring marginalized people's stories to life?
My main goal as a filmmaker is to tell stories that haven't been told. I feel that Hollywood is oversaturated with the same old song and dance. And film and TV and media in general are such a powerful entity, and if we can use it to create discussions around topics that are not normally discussed or are not normally shed light upon in kind of a mainstream way that appeals to all audiences, I feel like we can create change. And you know, I think everybody wants to make their mark on this world and do something positive with their life, and that's what drives me.
Love Is All You Need?, the short film, focuses on the story of 11-year-old Ashley who is bullied at school. The feature film follows her story, as well as two others. What inspired you to add the college star-crossed lovers storyline and the religious zealot storyline to the feature film?
I wanted to create a film that would appeal to all audiences – that every single person watching it could find a piece of themselves in it and relate to it with this lens. And you know, you only get to make a film about a gay world once (laughter). I thought it would be best to use the notion of how Crash is woven together and uses all these different storylines and [you] see that they're actually all connected. And the actual reveal at the end of the film is that one small prejudice and one act of love could ripple into something very, very large and stimulate a town. It shows how prejudice can start small and end very big with terrible consequences, and at the root of it, that's where it needs to stop.
In your film Zero Positive/Zero Negative, it touches upon the fear around loving someone with HIV, and with Love Is All You Need? there is that same fear of getting into a stigmatized relationship for heterosexual couples. What specifically about that theme resonates with you?
I think love is the most powerful human emotion, and I think it is the meaning of life, honestly. Even looking at something as simple as the animals we have, like I have cats and a dog – at the end of the day, their purpose is love. They just want to be loved. They want to be pet. They want to be held, and love creates people that are in love to do crazy things. It prevails over all obstacles, and that is something I really want to show. As far as Zero Positive/Zero Negative, my uncle is married to his partner, and one of them is HIV positive and one is negative. They've been together for 25 years, and it's such an incredible story to be with someone and to express your love and to always have on the line getting a terminal disease that could take your life. To love someone despite that is so fascinating to me. And HIV is considered this gay disease, and it's not. It's prevalent in heterosexual relationships as well. The documentary doesn't just follow homosexuality, but heterosexual couples. I really wanted to stay on the stigma behind HIV because now it's being considered a treatable disease. My uncle is 25 years with the disease, and he's as healthy as a horse. People need to know that. People don't need to be as scared. I mean you need to be careful with it, clearly. I'm not denying the severity of it, but there are ways to show that love prevails.
Now that you're currently filming Love Is All You Need?, what is that like to see your idea in 2010 come to fruition and happen before you right now?
It's mind blowing. I can't even believe it's really happening. Have you seen the web series?
I did. I saw the first three episodes.
I made that series for a variety of reasons. One, this is a film that Hollywood did not want to make. I tried to get this off the ground for four years, even in the wake of the short film, and finally, finally, in all weird circumstances, it finally got funded. And it's turning into exactly what I envisioned with mainstream actors and mainstream appeal.
I know that if the short went viral, 45 million people saw it and it was self-translated into 15 different languages, all on its own, with no publicity, no promotion, no nothing, imagine what a feature film could do with main actors, with publicity, with marketing, you know, with that reach. The feedback from the short, it changed lives. I still get emails every day, ranging from kids who said they showed it in their schools and they stopped being bullied to, "Wow, I really feel like I can be who I am," to, "I was going to kill myself and now I'm not," to older people saying, "Wow, I saw your short film and I've always hated homosexuals, and now that I've seen this I totally understand that they are just people too, and I can't believe I was so closed minded." So it creates a dialogue and it creates a lot of responses, and sometimes it's controversial, because you know, some people do not like gay people being represented in media without stigmatization, and this is the first project that is doing that.
Out of all the personal stories you've received from people who have seen the short film, which has most touched you?
One, you'll see on one of the [web series] videos we have, there was one girl who reached out to me and created a video of her talking to me, and basically saying, "I saw your short film, and I stopped hating myself. I stopped cutting myself, and I stopped hurting myself because I realized that there was more for me out there, and your film saved my life, and I thank you for that." It's crazy. It's a crazy feeling.
How does that feel to know that something you created had that kind of impact?
It just drove me forward to keep on making this feature. I heard a thousand no's. "You'll never make this. It will never happen. You'll never find the funding. This doesn't have mainstream appeal. You should change it to this. You should change it to that. Why don't you sell out to this studio? Change it to a comedy. Do this. Do that." They were always running me around in circles, and at the end of the day I just wanted to give up. It was emails and calls, stuff like that that kept driving me because I knew, I've always known that this was what I was supposed to do with my life. I honestly can’t believe this is happening. It's a dream.
How will we be able to see the film?
Theaters. Theatrical all the way. That's how most people are going to see it. There's a lot of fans of my cast. Twitter is going crazy right now because I've got Emily, and Tyler, and Briana, let alone Jeremy, and you know, all of these big people with big followings and everyone is so excited to see it. So I couldn't see it anywhere else but theaters.
It's going to be such a big experience to see a film like this in the theaters.
I am so excited. Really, from the bottom of my heart, and I'm not just saying this because it's my movie. I think it's going to be a game-changer. And, it's the first time in American film where gay is not being stigmatized.