Michael Scanlon and Thomas Gibbons on Short Film 'Theoria'
From the moment Michael Scanlon and Thomas Gibbons picked up the phone, it was clear they were a team. Scanlon, from upstate New York, and Gibbons, from Boston’s suburbs, met at NYU 11 years ago. When it comes to creative collaboration, it’d be hard to ask for much more than a decade-old friendship.
“It’s crazy that it’s taken us 10 years to see this through,” Gibbons said. “We’ve been talking about making something for probably five or six years now.”
“We actually came up with this name Condo for whatever we’d end up doing together,” Scanlon added. “Like we could be making films or designing vases, but it’s just been something growing in the back of our heads so when we finally came up with a solid idea, we were like, ‘oh wait, this is Condo.’”
The idea they came up with was Theoria, a short film exploring chance encounters, gay culture, and parallel realities. The noteworthy post production was handled by Velem in New York. Turns out, the project was well worth the wait. We caught up with the duo to talk about the inspiration behind their debut project, beauty in darkness and what’s next; peep the film below, and keep scrolling for our conversation with Scanlon and Gibbons.
Will you talk about the inspiration behind the film and how you finally settled on doing this?
Scanlon: I think it honestly started over brunch. We were feeling like we were ready to do something, and we were bouncing some ideas around. We had just seen this old Serge Lutens commercial that he directed for this French department store. It [featured] this woman who had a very full face of makeup, almost Kabuki-esque meets a Pierrot sort of clown. Like super artistic makeup looks from the ’70s.
Gibbons: Serge is kind of responsible for that ’70s high fashion runway look: powdered face and deep, dark eyes.
Scanlon: Yeah, deep rouge. And he directed this commercial for this department store and it was this weird, beautiful thing. It’s basically this short film where this woman pulls up to a curbside in an old Cadillac. The window rolls down, and she’s sort of wearing a veil. You kind of cut between her in the backseat of the car and this guy who is running across the street towards her. He gets in the car, they drive off and that’s it, and we were thinking, “where does this story go? Who are they? What was this transaction?” And then that kind of became the launching point for us to discuss all these different ways of expressing and expanding that story. It became very personal and layered.
Gibbons: Well, the music. The Mahler. So the soundtrack to the commercial is the end of Mahler’s 10th Symphony which was the last thing he wrote. At the end of Mahler’s life, he was kind of going crazy. He had a very tumultuous relationship with his wife. I don’t remember exactly what happened, but he was writing this symphony and he was tortured. The symphony was never finished, but [Lutens] actually used an excerpt of the symphony in the commercial, and it’s like the breaking point. It’s haunting and hysterical; it’s rageful and kind of scary, but really beautiful. So then we started doing some research about Mahler. Turns out they used some of that same symphony in the movie Death In Venice, which was inspired by the novel by Thomas Mann and directed by [Luchino] Visconti.
Scanlon: It was weird that all of these things started linking up. In the commercial, they use the Mahler symphony, the symphony is also used in Death In Venice, and Death In Venice is all about this man’s obsession with beauty and the appearance of looking younger because he has this obsession with this young boy. He’s become very aware of how old he is in the boy’s eyes so he starts to completely disguise himself in makeup, false teeth and wigs to try and seem younger to get this kid attracted to him. So it’s something about this mask of beauty and fake artificial beauty. It’s the same thing the woman in the commercial was doing because the woman had a veil on so we started connecting the dots and getting really excited about our own experiences of being gay men in New York who have gone through the ins and outs of transactional sex, cruising and sort of these encounters that are based on no real substance, words or dialogues. Really, it’s just about visual cues and how we attempt to create a visual expression of ourselves to attract someone else.
Gibbons: As transactional and superficial as these encounters can seem, sometimes they reveal something much deeper about ourselves. So these seemingly unimportant or frivolous encounters actually carry these transformative powers that we tried to creatively reveal in the film. Without her even touching it, [the veil] starts coming off. She almost starts peeling away the layers of her psyche. That was, in a way, illustrating this higher power that can sometimes change our lives.
Can either of you recall any sort of casual encounter that you’ve had that’s changed your life?
Gibbons: I grew up in Massachusetts in a fairly liberal household, came out very young, you know, had gay family members, my uncle actually passed in 1993 of HIV AIDS, and so I’ve always known what “gay” was. I was never really in the closet, but even still, I found myself searching for other people, like, in a very coded and closeted way. So I think from a young age, I actually sought out, not relationships, but contact with people in a secretive way in public spaces through eye contact. When I was a teenager, I would go into the city on weekends by myself and basically cruise. That was my way of learning about myself and about sex at a time when my parents weren’t going to explain gay intimacy to me. I had to discover it on my own, and I think we all end up having to do that in one way or another. In my case, it was sometimes with strangers so it added this heightened sense of danger. So there’s a taboo quality to sex that I experienced from a young age, and I think it’s carried through with me for many years. This film is one way I negotiated some of those secretive memories as something to not be ashamed of, but rather something that’s part of a larger queer history.
Scanlon: I think for me growing up, I was very aware I was gay, but in the community I lived in, it wasn’t allowed or okay. Gay was always a scandal, something to disguise as much as you can. I think even when I moved to New York, there was a part of me that wanted to find the balance between being myself, but also not revealing too much. I dated someone who thought that my accent should masculinize. I started to find pleasure in more covert, shadowy experiences. In the film, we’re kind of showing the tension between some self-imposed disguise, creeping on the down low, but then on the other hand, this alternative experience if you were emancipated and self-actualized. When you think about gay culture, it’s had to exist for so long in the shadows, while heterosexual culture has always been in the light, but is one more truthful than the other?
Gibbons: Right. And the title Theoria is a Greek word that we don’t have a direct translation for, but it basically means careful or thoughtful seeing that is beyond the surface, being able to see into someone’s depths. In the film, we set these two characters up to be seen, to see each other and change one another as a result. I love the notion of a powerful or “glorious” garment, like the veil that Lida has on her face which comes off miraculously through being seen for who she really is. That’s the transformation that I’ve experienced. There are no words. There’s no real way to describe it other than to show it for what it is, and I think that’s what the film ended up being. And in this instance there ends up being two parallel realities. It’s like that Jean Genet film, Un chant d’amour about those two prisoners in different cells who simultaneously fantasize about this other world wherein they can be lovers or friends or whatever they are. They meet up in this dream, this wooded dream where they frolic and make love, and it’s very idyllic and sweet and passionate. The reverse side is brutal, a very closeted, prison environment yet somehow through this wall without even seeing each other they imagine this mutual alternate universe. I like to think of Theoria like this. If these people could really be who they wanted to be, without artifice, without the veil, devoid of shame, what would they look like?
Scanlon: So much of the world does still accept this idea that there was once long ago a man and woman who were tempted with an apple. They ate the apple and from that day forward their nudity is something that they were ashamed of. And we started thinking, well what if you could eat the apple and live without shame? Like what if they ate the apple and were better for it?
You guys touched a little on this, but I think that the score just added so much to the mood of this. How did you choose it, and what’s the story to that?
Gibbons: This is a saga and probably the most difficult part of making this film [laughs]. I don’t know how to tell the story, but we worked from a track
Scanlon: We really needed a piece of music that was going to feel as structural and nuanced as a piece of classical music, but texturally very contemporary, very physical and very haunting…
Scanlon: …dark. We wanted the palette of the song to feel like physical textures. We wanted to hear sounds that brought to life the vinyl seats, the metal chains… rubbery sort of sounds that pull and twist. And when we flash the outdoor scenes, and reveal this alternate sunnier world, we wanted to introduce more organic sounds. So it was really a lot to ask for in a song but, Thomas found this amazing student at NYU.
Gibbons: Which was cool since we’re both graduates to work with someone currently in school there. His name is Adrian Martins, he’s from South Africa and he’s a total prodigy and we loved working with him. We gave him a brief with all of our needs and just kept adding to it. He would get back to us with a draft and we would say ‘now we need a more of a melodic shift here and here we need this to be more A-tonal or more dissident or more layered or here we need more structure’ and so he was just as much a part of this process. He was really very pivotal in creating the final product and we’re really happy with it. I mean the track. I could just listen to the track by itself and take something away from that. I think it’s really beautiful.
What’s next for you guys as Condo?
Gibbons: We are working with Band Of Outsiders on their re-launch. I was actually cast as a model in their FW campaign by Daniel Hettmann, who is now the head creative over there. He wanted to integrate artists as models into the re-launch, so there’s a painter, I believe there’s a poet, there’s a musician and a sculptor and then there’s me, a director/choreographer. At the lookbook shoot I fell in love with these oversized suits they made and started thinking about ways to move in them and this whole story came about. I pitched it to Michael as a Condo project and to BoO as a sort of dance/fashion film and they went for it. I think we’ll probably shoot in the early spring and it will come out during fashion week in July as part of a group show.
Scanlon: We just want to keep telling stories and to find visually interesting ways to tell them. I think fashion film is a really weird term and doesn’t mean anything. I don’t really know how to explain what it is we do, but it’s creating moving pictures that tell a story and have a meaning to us, while also exploring different visual styles that we’re obsessed with aesthetics and bringing our love of fashion into it in a way where the fashion is integral to create these characters and worlds.
Gibbons: It’s costume and it is obsessive you’re right.
Featured image courtesy of Ben Lamerty
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