Last month, Alicia J. Rose’s comedy series The Benefits of Gusbandry went live on the web in conjunction with a crowdfunding campaign for new episodes. We had a chance to talk to her about her anything-but-vanilla gay comedy.
Sarah McCarron: Where to start. There’s so much to chat about.
Alicia J. Rose: I’m plucking my eyebrows while talking to you.
SM: I love it. So, “Gusbandry.” Why don’t we just start with the term actually. Is that a term you made up or is that a term that existed before?
AJR: Well, the term “gusband” has been around for a while. I think that it has always been a term of endearment, but “gusbandry” is a term that I did make up. I don’t know of another word to describe the relationships I have with the gay men in my life. I mean, they’re not just friendships. They are comprised of emotionally enriched in-depth relationships that for me have lasted a lot longer than my romantic relationships because, I just blow those up really bad.
AJR: Not on purpose, but I feel like I was just born with a shitty picker. The show was born out of my relationship with my most recent gusband, Lake, but I’ve been having these relationships my whole life with gay male friends. Once I put that together, that’s when I realized that I had to make a show.
SM: Are your relationships with gusbands exclusive?
AJR: Well, I like to call myself “polygusbandrous” because I can’t have just one, you know. If I attracted straight men like I attract gay men, life would have been a very different journey for me. The relationships with my gusbands are the most powerful and have been more consistent in a way. I had to make a tribute to them somehow.
SM: Yes, the show is definitely a tribute.
AJR: This type of relationship is rarely the center of attention, minus the sort of mockery of it. We all need at least one relationship where we aren’t competing with one another. Any relationship can make that happen, but I think that at its core, since there isn’t that sort of relationship competition or ulterior motive of somebody wanting something, it cleans the slate.
Yuval Boim: In the show, you go to places that are exciting and uncomfortable, but in a way that is delightful and refreshing. There is nothing vanilla about it at all.
AJH: I think there’s a way to sort of keep things light and still very deep at the same time. There’s a message in the show. This is a crazy time we live in. Like what the fucking fuck? I mean marriage equality and civil rights and reproductive rights and everything is suddenly on the line.
AJR: We toured the first season of Gusbandry to film festivals in Nashville and Austin and New Orleans. I met a lot folks, especially in Nashville, who said they loved the show because “Guess what this doesn’t exist here! You can’t be this free in Nashville walking down the street.” I wanted to infuse that lifestyle and message into a comedy that cuts to the quick.
SM: When you were saying you’ve not seen this kind of relationship on television, why is that? Do you have thoughts on why that might be?
AJR: It’s funny because we are pitching the show on a larger level as well, as a half an hour and I feel there is a Will and Grace curse that exists. For some odd reason, people don’t trust that [a friendship between a straight woman and a gay man] will bring in viewers. Even now it is easier to sell a show about a woman in her forties than one about two people in this kind of relationship.
SM: Why would that be a curse if Will and Grace was so successful?
AJR: It’s not logical, but it’s as if Will and Grace is the show everyone compares us to. But in a way, the last thing you want to hear is “Oh it’s Will and Grace.” I think Will and Grace is a show our parents’ generation could watch and be exposed to something. People have had a hard time as writers playing in the field [of relationships between straight women and gay men], but for me I know that I could do it because it’s completely true to who I am.
SM: You said you were in the process of pitching the show to networks. Did you decide to make the first season before pitching it?
AJR: I decided just to make it. As a woman in this field, and as a director, I had been directing for quite a while. Music videos mostly. I had done a short film, which was fine, but it wasn’t my story. It wasn’t me as an auteur. It was a great experience, but really different tonally from Gusbandry. Gusbandry is absolutely me on a plate. To make Gusbandry is me coming out of the closet on a certain level. It was me saying that this is the relationship that has taken priority in my life.
SM: Your relationship with your current gusband, Lake?
AJR: We went to Thailand together, last year, Lake and I. And I had to explain to my friends what the fuck was going on because it looked like a honeymoon. I’m calling it a “gunnymoon”: a gay honeymoon.
SM: Haha. Can you say more about the experience of directing this show?
AJR: Gusbandry was an opportunity to show myself off as an auteur visually. And I’m very good with music supervision and I have comedic timing and I knew I could do it, so I did it! I thought an episodic would be a fun way to go about it because you can grow into your characters more.
YB: Speaking of the visual element, you are a photographer. Can you talk about your role in constructing the frames? What was your collaboration like with your Director of Photography?
AJR: It was great. Because I am a photographer, I was sort of Lord of the Frame. (laugh) Lordess of the Frame? Lady of the Frame! I brought on a cinematographer, Bradley Sellers, who I had worked with eight or nine times prior on music videos. He was the first DP on the show. We worked with another guy, Phil Anderson. Both of them shoot Portlandia. Both of them have shot features. Bradley shot Curb Your Enthusiasm and Real Sex. So I brought people into the process who are badasses. And people who I’ve worked with before who I knew could match my eye. So I’m always adjusting the frame, but they know what they are doing. They are very very talented. I’ve worked with lady DPs as well, but unfortunately not on this show.
SM: Do you identify as a feminist?
AJR: Oh for God’s sake, yes. I can’t believe you even asked me that. I’m in my 40’s too, so I’m not afraid of it. There are so many shades of feminism. I think making the show itself is a feminist statement. Even exerting myself and trying to stake any claim as a filmmaker, as an auteur – which is typically a term that’s used to describe very wild and wooly male filmmakers. I got into a fight with a film critic about this recently who kept asking “Where are all of the female auteurs!?”
Lynne Ramsay who did Ratcatcher and We Need To Talk About Kevin. She’s a great example of a total auteur who has absolutely done her own thing. Even just to be a filmmaker is a feminist act. Because there is so much competition and it’s so hard to get through the noise. I think that’s why I chose something that was true to myself because I knew I could trust myself to do it. And the only person who was going to give me any opportunities was me. I am 100% a feminist. I have been forever. I describe the show as a feminist gay comedy.
SM: Going back to process, you are talking about not asking for permission. The first season is excellent, and has had great press, including a write up in the New York Times Critic Notebook. Do you feel you can move forward on the second season without asking for permission?
AJR: Yes, It’s complicated. We are working with great producers who brought Unreal to the screen, and tweaking the pitch. I am a filmmaker in Portland making art. I’m not a showrunner in LA.
YB: Is teaming up with a veteran showrunner something you are interested in?
AJR. Yes. I show ran the first season. I’m learning the whole process. I’m trying to get into episodic television right now, but there is a whole process. You can’t just call up and shadow. And the programs are competitive and proprietary. I’m still not getting the advantages that a penis and an NYU education might afford me so I’ve been doing it myself.
YB: Where do you think you get your energy from to sustain you in the face of the monolithic system? What fuels your energy and gets you excited to keep going?
AJR: At the core I am addicted to storytelling. I am 1000% compelled to tell my story right now. My story. Of course I will help others tell their stories. But there has never been a better time as a woman to throw your voice in the ring. Me as a 40 year old-ish woman with a very unusual life, and now that I’ve cracked the code on my own bullshit…I have other ideas with other shows in my back pocket. There are still a lot of voices, especially feminist voices, that aren’t being heard at the same level as our male counterparts. And I would say that is true for the LGBT voices across the board. The thing is, five years ago you had to wait because the equipment was even less accessible. The internet – it was hard work to get anybody to see your show. And now the technology is there, but also the platforms are there. We are on Amazon Prime. Nobody asked me to be on Amazon Prime, I just put it up there.
YB: Your production value is so great.
AJR: My production value level and aesthetic are very high because I’ve worked so much in photography and music videos. I’ve honed my visual style. I wanted to make a narrative project that could reflect my style and my pacing from music which is something we’ve seen from a lot of male directors. Not a lot of women. But there are some! Melina Matsoukas, who did Beyonce’s “Formation” from Lemonade. Floria Sigismondi is another incredible woman. She has done amazing work and videos with people like David Bowie. And she’s doing tv and film now all the time. So there is a path there. People who are recognized, the dude versions, are people like Spike Jonze and Michel Gondry. Making music videos was my version of contemporary film school. I was able to do it without needing permission, and very little money. That’s a strong suit of mine. I’ve always been able to conjure up a lot with the imagination, inconsequent to budget.
SM: So you have a strong women centered production team?
AJR: Oh yeah. My co-writer, Courtenay Hameister and my producer, Lara Cuddy, are the first women I contacted. I called Courtenay and said I had this idea and would she want to help me write it. She is a brilliant writer, one of the best comedy writers I know. We’ve known each other for a long time. We started out as enemies, then we became frenemies, and now we are friends. I love her to death. She is fucking amazing.
SM: Why were you enemies?
AJR: Because we both were brought on to work on the same show, that she was the host of, called Livewire here in Portland. It’s on NPR. She was the head writer and host. I was brought on as the person who was going to book all the music and interview the musicians. I was still a nightclub promoter, which is what I was doing before this. She at first felt I was coming on to steal her thunder and we did not get along. But that peetered out when she realized I was an ally. And we became friends. And then I asked her to collaborate with me. And here we are. From frenemies to writing partners. I call it chips and salsa.
SM: I feel like that’s actually a deeply feminist theme as well. Sometimes in a space where there is a limited representation of women, it can be territorial. It can be threatening to see another woman come into your space.
AJR: Yes, that was scary for her. And I myself didn’t know what I was doing there at first.
SM:What was it like writing it together?
AJR: Oh it was a blast. We had a great time. She is so funny. We have a similar sense of humor and we always make each other laugh when we hang out. She has the best laugh of any human ever. Getting to make her laugh is truly a joy. She’s a tough customer, too. When we write, she knows if it is funny or not. And having someone with a barometer like that, someone who comes with the experience of having written every week as a writer, constantly. I’m more of a filmmaker than a writer. I don’t claim to be Courtenay. She is the real deal. For me, I’m a filmmaker first. I’m a good macrostory teller, and I’m getting better at one liners. But part of this was shoring up my weaknesses and bringing on a co-writer. So that in every element or department where I might be “ok”, I could be great. Because the people that are around me are even better. And I feel that is a very feminist action as well. Bringing in women who are my main collaborators to help elevate the project.
Brooke Totman, who is our lead actress, plays Jackie. Courtenay and I started immediately thinking about Brooke, and started talking to her before we even started to write the script. So we asked her if she wanted to be a part of the collaboration. So it was a core of four women. Myself, Laura, Courtenay, and Brooke.
YB: You were able to make something that really stands out. That requires a lot, and it seems like you have an incredible community of collaborators. How do you sustain such a process when working on a micro-budget?
AJR: Portland is an amazing dynamic community. A lot of people born and bred here are really talented and want to work. To get the best people to help you, you have to have something really fucking good that people want to work on. First off, people loved the script. Which is so great, because if somebody loves the script, they are going to do everything they can to work on it. I am a no nonsense badass who wants to get the best people and the best technology, even if there is no money. Micro-budget has never scared me. You realize at a certain point that the only way you’re going to make anything is by making it.
YB: Has anything changed since the presidential election, in terms of your hard-on for the project?
AJR: I like that you say “hard-on.” I often say “My boner for art. My art boner.” In terms of the election: yes and no. On the one hand, I’m more inspired than ever. This new batch of episodes, I was already planning on some of it happening in a Planned Parenthood. We are already going in that direction, but now it is even more of an exciting opportunity to put our frustration and this insanity into the show. So many good things about sexual politics and the insanity of this situation is going to be in the second season. What is better than putting your angst into a tv show? And I’m doing a web series so there are no rules. I’m not dealing with the networks. We are just doing what we want as feminists and creators.
Sarah McCarron holds an MFA in Movement Based Physical Theatre from the London International School of the Performing Arts, in the pedagogy of Jacques Lecoq. She has developed new plays in both Europe and the United States. She wrote for David Milch on the HBO series Luck. She was a consulting producer for Emmy-awarding winner Bernie Su’s drama, Socio. Her drama series was selected as a finalist for the 2016 Sundance Episodic Storytelling Lab.
Yuval Boim has made numerous appearances in film, television, and theatre, including Steven Soderbergh’s Red Oaks for Amazon, That Awkward Moment with Zac Efron, and the indie digital show Hunting Season (Independent Series Award). Together, he and Sarah run Clyde & Mnestra Productions which is currently producing D.I.Y., an indie television comedy about a nonconforming couple planning their wedding.