Photos by Nephi Niven for The Devotion Project
THE DEVOTION PROJECT is a series of short documentaries celebrating LGBTQ couples and families. The films are “MORE THAN EVER,” “SAY ONLY YES,” “LISTEN FROM THE HEART,” “MY PERSON,” “BUILD YOUR WINGS,” and “FOREMOST IN MY MIND,” which follows the story of Gail Marquis, a former Olympic medalist, and Audrey Smaltz, a former model.
“FOREMOST IN MY MIND” will screen at San Francisco’s Gay and Lesbian Film Festival (Frameline 37) on Thursday, June 20. The DEVOTION PROJECT has had over 218,000 views on its YouTube Channel. Director Tony Osso talked to PrideIndex about the importance of presenting positive images of gay and lesbian relationships, how audiences reacted to THE DEVOTION PROJECT, and what the future holds for this labor of love.
PRIDEINDEX (PI): Where are you from? Why did you become a filmmaker?
TONY OSSO (TO): I grew up in New Jersey, and my parents are Italian immigrants. I became a filmmaker because my parents were adamant about my brother and me getting a college education. So, as we went to college, my brother studied business, and I pursued film because it was the thing that caught my attention the most. I became a filmmaker because I wanted to create stories that I did not see around me. On some level, I was trying to create a make-believe world of images, people, and places I did not have access to growing up, like extending make-believe into real life. (Laughs.)
PI: Right. There’s nothing wrong with that. Sometimes make-believe helps us to get through life.
PI: Tell me about your educational background. Did you formally study filmmaking? If so, when and where?
TO: I went to a public high school, then to New York’s Tisch School of the Arts. I enrolled in journalism but transferred over to film production in my sophomore year. And I never looked back. Every few years, I asked myself, Is this still what I should be doing? And I still answer yes! (Laughs)
PI: That’s a good thing.
PI: How many films have you made, or is THE DEVOTION PROJECT your first film?
TO: We’re talking about “FOREMOST IN MY MIND” primarily, right?
TO: I’ve made eight short films total, and the last six were the six-part series that make up THE DEVOTION PROJECT. The Gail and Andrey’s movie, “FOREMOST IN MY MIND,” is the last one I’ve made in that series, so it was the most recent film. I’ve made some narrative shorts that I had written years ago, took a break, and then came back and made this documentary series. It is the first documentary series that I have ever done, in this series.
PI: So, let me get this right. The DEVOTION PROJECT is a series of short films. How did that come about? Why did you make this as six different documentaries rather than one?
TO: I first became inspired by the different stories of young gay men killing themselves in the media. There are too many LGBT suicides. I thought to myself, gosh, I don’t understand why this is still happening today. I realized that somehow, I guess that they were looking for the things that I was looking for twenty years ago, which were role models, and there were still so few up until the present day. And even if there were a couple of role models, they were not varied. They were all the same, so I decided to make short docs because I wanted to get them online as soon as possible. I wanted to make things discreet, watchable, and sharable online. Because it’s so much easier to watch a film online from your desk than it is to go to a theater, find the one theater in your town that’s playing it and pay $14 or whatever it costs and sit there. And you can access these films from anywhere in the world with an internet connection. It was important to get the movie in front of people who weren’t out or could not see the film at the cinema and who needed that information, that there were these gays who were living their lives successfully already, so that was the inspiration behind making them short.
PI: In terms of the subjects, how did you find them?
AO: It’s funny. I’ve found them in all different ways. I met the first couple through a mutual friend, he said to me you’ve got to meet John and Bill. He took me to the Upper Westside of Manhattan, and I met them in person and had an ongoing conversation, and we shot the film so that one was an easy word of mouth. Subsequently, I’ve sent emails to people asking, if they knew other people whose relationship, they admired who happens to be LGBT, and through that, I got some responses. I met one couple because their uncle walked their dog on the same block of a family friend. And one relative was talking to the uncle about my project. The uncle said my niece is in Oakland, California, and she is raising a baby with a heart condition with her wife. And I found that to be so amazing, so there was a lot of goodwill.
You know you cannot cast regular people through a casting director; I was not looking for actors. I was seeking people who had never crossed their minds to be on camera. I wanted people living their lives, so that was it. It was sort of organic. I saw Gail and Audrey in the wedding announcements section of the New York Times in November of 2011. When I saw it, I tore it out of the paper, put it in my notebook, and said I had to find these two. I reached out to various sources to see if anyone knew Gail or Audrey here in New York, and I finally got through to them through one of Gail’s old basketball coaches.
PI: Why was it necessary to interview couples from different races and backgrounds?
AO: It was necessary to interview couples from different races and backgrounds because they were completely missing from the landscape. I made the first film about an older white male couple, and friends said it would be great to document these stories before they passed away because their lives were shrouded in so much secrecy for so long, and I think that’s a precious thing to do. I was thinking about the audience of teenagers who were looking for role models. I wanted to give them a variety of ages, situations, and races as much as possible in six films. There were only six couples that I knew I wanted to do, a younger, older, with kids and without and not just one race. Four of the couples are white, one is Latino, and one is African American. I wish to keep going and expand further into different kinds of families and places throughout the world. But based on the access that I had to people, this is how we ended up. I could not be more thrilled. Honestly, Gail and Audrey are the most fantastic way to end the series because their story is so light and joyful. They are in the honeymoon stage, but I think that they will be in the honeymoon stage forever.
PI: That leads to my next question, will you do another project like this or continue the series? It sounded like you said no. Why not?
AO: This is a completely non-profit endeavor I did while I was developing another project which is a feature film that I wrote that I am hoping to direct, so this kind of had a deadline on it to some extent because sadly I had to pursue some paying work at some point. I thought that six was a good hour’s worth of material, and a great round number to give a variety, and basically, the money that I was able to raise online to complete them balanced out just enough to make six. I guess if someone were interested in funding them, I would happily make more of them. It is a very joyful process to meet these couples and shoot their stories, don’t get me wrong. But at this point, what I am focusing on is outreach and getting the films to more organizations who could use them to educate people and give at-risk youth hope and some examples of what to look forward to. And also, to go to film festivals with them and to potentially continue to translate them into foreign languages because we have a Spanish language playlist on the YouTube Channel, and we’re hoping to do a few more languages coming up.
PI: I came across your films while looking at Frameline 37’s schedule. What other film festivals do you plan to participate in?
AO: We have screenings showing up at OutFest in Los Angeles as well in the following month in July. The series has won six festival awards so far, mostly for the first film “MORE THAN EVER.” We have already screened at over 20 film festivals in the UK, across the United States, and Canada. We have a few more coming up, but nothing confirmed yet this summer but Frameline in June and Outfest in July.
PI: Did you show these films separately in these film festivals, or did you run any of them together?
AO: At the festivals, it is much more easily to screen them by themselves or with other shorts. I’ve had a couple of festivals that screened, all of them disbursed through the festival. For the most part, we’ve been through two festival cycles with the first three films last Spring. I submitted them to a bunch of festivals, and film number 1, 2, 3 or combination of all were accepted. Now we’re in the second cycle where films 4, 5 and 6 are now playing. They play independent of each other, but we often have two or more films play at a particular festival.
PI: How have audiences reacted to these films?
AO: Audiences have been warm, grateful, and supportive. Some of the YouTube comments have been great. People are craving stories of role models who are regular folks living their lives. Overall, it has been overwhelmingly positive.
Because the movies do not focus on a political agenda, they focus on how to make love work. This is not something that our community has not had a lot of discussions about because we are so busy fighting for basic rights and defending ourselves that we don’t have the opportunity to talk about the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.
PI: How have the participants reacted to seeing themselves on film?
AO: (Laughs.) They are mostly pretty shy. I would have to say that Gail and Audrey are the most comfortable seeing themselves in front of a camera with a microphone attached to them. The others were pretty shy at first, but they’re all pleased with the film.
I’ve shown the participants a cut of the film before we finalized it so that they can make sure they are comfortable with the representation of their stories. They have made suggestions and work to get their head around the idea that people are going to see their stories. Everyone has been great and supportive of their sharing their stories on film and with sharing the project. I think that everyone in it was glad that they were part of it.
PI: What other projects are you currently working on?
AO: I’m working on a feature film that I wrote called “PIN DOWN GIRL” about a lady wrestler in the 1950’s, and it’s a true story. I have just discovered this woman that wrestled for six years in the Midwest. I met her and was inspired by her true story that I wrote a film about her incredible story of courage in a poverty-stricken community in Ohio and how she got of a bad experience through getting in the ring. I am hoping to shoot either later this year or early next year.
PI: I have been in a committed relationship for a while and can attest that it has not been easy, and there is not a special magic wand to wave to make it work. I appreciate this project you’re doing.
AO: I think that we are educating the public about what our relationships look like. I think that there are these outdated, very limited ideas out there about what two men or two women or a trans couple might be looking for. But what it comes down to is that a large part of our population is looking for very traditional things, commitment to raise children together, and to have a home together to lean on each other in bad times. And I think that you’re a pioneer if you got with your partner over twenty years ago. There are so few role models. I think that for us gay men especially, we were taught that we were just sexual creatures and that we were not capable or even interested in a commitment. I think it is harmful to our community, and we have to combat that.
That’s definitely a part of what my goal is. I am 38 years old and have not been in a very long-term relationship either, so part of my initial curiosity was “I am I missing some gene,” or what is the trick here that maybe I am not getting? I have to say that I discovered that everything that I learned I kind of knew in some way, but to have it affirmed by these examples is so meaningful. I live in New York in the midst of an openly gay community, but even still, there is not a long list of people to look up to. So when I say that I made them for young people, it is true, but a lot of the comments online have been like, “I am in my 40’s, and I need these role models.” All of us need to build this media presence of diverse images.