“Hamsters and Magical Realism and Body Horror:” Stephen Dunn on His Impressive Debut, Closet Monster

There is a boy who is falling in love, who has a dreadful summer job, who awaits word on college applications, and who is still dealing with his parents’ divorce… and though this boy might seem just like all the other boys in coming-of-age stories, he is not.

The construct of young manhood and the archetypes that aim to define it are intimately challenged in Stephen Dunn’s Closet Monster, a wildly original film, overflowing with visual idiosyncrasy.

Haunted by a childhood memory that marked his views on homosexuality, Oscar (Connor Jessup) is a teenage boy coming to terms with his father’s transformation from tender hero to unstable bully with rigid ideas about masculinity. Hiding away in the tree house that father and son built together, Oscar seeks counsel in Buffy, his opinionated hamster (voiced by Isabella Rossellini), and pursues his talent for manufacturing elaborate prosthetics and makeup designs. When he develops a friendship (platonic, initially) with a young man named Wilder, Oscar’s burgeoning sexual desire comes up against his masculine façade.

Fluorescent costume parties, an ominous yet transfixing soundtrack, a captivating lead performance, and a myriad of fantastical elements perfectly assemble a bittersweet cinematic cocktail. MovieMaker picked Dunn’s brain about the making of his impressive debut.

Connor Jessup as Oscar Madly in Closet Monster

Connor Jessup as Oscar Madly in Closet Monster

Carlos Aguilar, MovieMaker Magazine (MM): Tell me about the inception of Oscar as a charactercreating that on paper first, and then translating that onto the screen. He’s such a complex and interesting protagonist, one who subverts conventions from similar stories.  

Stephen Dunn (SD): It’s a pretty personal film. I wanted to tell a story about internalized homophobia. The film and the character are kind of “incepted” by an image that I had—I guess this is kind of a spoiler for the film—of a young man physically removing fear from the body, and using it as a tool of empowerment. I sort of worked backwards from there to build Oscar’s character. It’s not an autobiographical film, but it has a lot of personal elements to me. So it kind of grew organically out of that one image.

MM: In that sense, as you were creating him from a personal place, did you know that you wanted to include some genre or coming-of-age elements, and then flip them on their head and give them your own spin?

SD: To be honest, I didn’t intend to do that. I keep getting that feedback from people! But to me, that’s how I wanted to tell the story. I wasn’t trying to do anything new or different; that’s just the way my brain works. I’m very interested in what’s going on internally in my storytelling, and part of my process is to externalize internal emotions and develop them. In Closet Monster, there are a couple of elements, like Buffy the Hamster, and the metal rod metaphor, that were just part of the natural collusion of the story. It wasn’t like I was trying to make a weird movie; it was an organic writing process.

MM: What I’m referring mostly to were the elements in the film that are representative of the idea of boyhood in North America in general: the tree house, the hamster, the summer job. These are elements that seem to be very particular to the “boyhood experience,” and we see them here from an unconventional perspective. Were these grounded on your personal recollections?

SD: Actually, I’ve never had a job quite like that. I was rejected from all the employment opportunities that I went out for, like my local movie theater. But I did have a hamster, and I was an only child, so my pets were often very important to me, and personified something that was internal. When you have pets as an only child, your animals are kind of a reflection on your mental state. They’re with you at your most vulnerable moments. I wanted Oscar to have someone that he could be honest and authentic with, even if he doesn’t fully know what’s going on inside of him. He has a spirit animal that knows more about him that he knows about himself.

MM: The tree house represents a space where he can actually be free. Is that something that you had, or longed for, when you were younger: a space where you could be removed from everything else?

SD: The tree house is kind of a complex set piece, because it’s something that his father built with him in a sort of male bonding moment. It then becomes a bit of sanctuary for him. His first sexual experience happens in the tree house. It becomes a place where he can truly feel safe, but it was a place built out of a complex oppression. This oppressed sensibility, of his repressed sexuality and fear, was all channeled into the tree house and the relationship with his father, just like Buffy was also given to him in a moment when he was feeling lost and suppressing his fear, because of his parent’s divorce. Oscar is being dealt a shitty hand, and through the film, I wanted to turn the shitty hand he had been dealt into something special, into something that could be just his own. Again, spoiler alert—when the film ends, he’s part of this beautiful artist residency, which to me is a hopeful, but not quite clearly laid-out, ending. He ends up in another, different tree house, but one that is a reflection of his future, and his maturity and art and whatnot, so this space was extremely important to me in developing this project, and developing somewhere where Oscar can truly feel safe.

MM: In terms of the grammar of the story, and the editing, at times I wasn’t sure if certain elements were “real” or “internal.” There were several moments in the film where I wasn’t sure what was fantasy and what was reality. Can you tell me about creating that rhythm and that dynamic?

SD: My editor Bryan Atkinson and I had worked together on probably all of my recent short films, so there was a very close relationship. Obviously, what is reality and what is fantasy is a blurry line. The film has a lot of elements of surrealism and magical realism and visual metaphor, and it’s very important that all of these elements feel grounded and real, because they are real. We’re telling it through the perspective of Oscar, and this is the world he lives in—and more so, it’s the way he deals with pain. So to him, everything is very real. We decided, in editing, that while keeping the film grounded, I wanted to keep a sense of mystery and magic in the air. So we have, in many moments, shots spliced into delicate, intimate scenes. I wanted to make a kind of psychological story with fantastical elements, but where everything is treated as real, whether or not it’s perceived that way. For me, it’s grounded in reality.

Jack Fulton as the young Oscar in Closet Monster

Jack Fulton as the young Oscar in Closet Monster

MM: Tell me about working with Connor Jessup and creating to construct Oscar. As you mention, the film is intimate and you’re externalizing something about yourself that an actor has to make alive. How was that relationship?

SD: It’s true. You have to build a lot of trust on both sides. I’m essentially entrusting Connor with my story. We obviously collaborated all the way through, but when you work with an actor, the one that’s leading the way in your film, they are also the storyteller. Our relationship couldn’t have been better. We had a bit of serendipitous introduction—well, not even an introduction, because I discovered Connor in the library where I was writing the film. I recognized him as an actor, but we didn’t send him the script ’til about a year later. I wrote the film with him in mind, and when we finally met, it became clear that there is something extremely especial about Connor, about his ability and sensibility. He’s incredibly smart and wise beyond his years, and he brought a level of preparation and dedication to this project that I wouldn’t have been able to make the film without. He really trusted me, and it’s difficult when you’re dealing with hamsters and magical realism and body horror. I imagine he really had to trust me when I asked him to speak to this little rodent and create a connection with someone who’s not really there. We’re still very close, and I’m very, very fortunate to have been able to make this film with him.

MM: How did Isabella Rossellini come on board to be Buffy, the talking hamster? Directing that voice performance must have been interesting.

SD: Yeah, it was. It was probably one of the highlights of my entire life working with her. Originally, the hamster was written to have a voice like Siri, a robotic iPhone voice. It was really funny, but the internal nature of what Buffy represented wasn’t present. So, I’m a huge Isabella Rossellini fan, and I was watching her Green Porno series about the sexual reproduction of animals, where she plays all the animals, and I was watching an episode where she actually plays a hamster, and I got the idea, and I pitched it to my producers, kind of thinking they’d laugh about it. But they didn’t—they loved the idea. We had no money and we had already shot and had edited almost entirely, but we were still editing, and Niv, my producer, had worked with her before on the Guy Maddin film The Saddest Music in the World, as well as the film Enemy, so I knew it wasn’t totally out of the question. So we approached her with the script, and a cut of the film, and my producer called her, and she got back to us right away. She’s a huge animal lover, and she was very enthusiastic to play a talking hamster. It was pretty hilarious actually, and before I knew it, a few days later, I was in New York, workshopping with her at her farm, surrounded by all her animals. It was incredible and kind of surreal, to be honest.

MM: The father figure in the film works, at least for me, as a hero and a villain at once, in the interchangeable role that he has for Oscar. 

SD: Thank you for saying that, because that was the biggest struggle for me in making this film—portraying this character in an objective way. To me, he is essentially an antagonist in the film, but at the same time he is an incredible, imaginative, loving father, who instills an imagination in his son, like in the scene where he gives Oscar a dream, and basically primes the imagination that he will use in his career and his life. However, he’s also very broken and lost. It was important to portray him in a way that shared enough of his story that audiences could empathize with him in some way. He’s broken, he feels abandoned and betrayed by his wife—and also his son, who also decides to leave him at the end of the film. For me, it was very important to have that perspective first of what Oscar is grateful for. Unfortunately, when Oscar truly needs him when he comes of age, his father is unable to be the right role model for him, and that’s also a painful thing for him to realize—that he’s potentially unable to support and be a father to his son. I don’t see as a villain or a hero, he’s essentially both. He’s suffering, and while the film ends on an ambiguous note, in the world of the film, I’m optimistic for Oscar and this relationship to become something healthy.

MM: I’ve now sought out all of the songs in the film. The interaction between the imagery and the music is fantastic. Tell me about picking these preexisting songs, as well as creating an eerie soundtrack for the film.

SD: A lot of the songs were written into the script, and I write listening to music. The score was an original creation by Todor Kobakov and Maya Postepski. I wanted the score to be a reflection of the music Oscar is listening to, and building his life around. So Todor and Maya created a beautiful electronic score that also used a lot of metallic elements, which echoed the themes of metal throughout the film, including the hate crime weapon that haunts Oscar throughout his childhood—because I wanted that imagery featured in the soundscape of the film as well.

MM: I wanted to refer back to the one particular scene that’s truly beautiful: the scene at the costume party, and all that in entails. The colors, the rhythm, and also the meaning behind it for Oscar and Wilder; how that night turns out for Oscar.

SD: Strangely, out of the entire shoot, we had less time to shoot the party section. The party took up around 15 pages of the script, and we only had two days to shoot the whole thing, and that’s not a lot of time, shooting tight with performances, and all of those extras. It was really an extreme situation, and Connor was a real champ about the flow that we needed to have on set: He was so prepared, and he was really incredible those days. I’ll never forget those two days on set. We actually shot the entire scene in our costume designer’s house, which was actually dressed like that. Actually, we had our wrap party there as well! I filmed the scene like an assault; it depends on how you read that moment in the bathroom, but he is assaulted emotionally, he’s breaking away from his father, and this rash act of violence is quite scary, where he kicks his father into a closet, and then he leaves this party broken and bleeding, and gets hit and pummeled with so many brutal experiences. So for Connor, I think, it was a really difficult couple of days, but I’m really so proud of him and his work. And also [DP] Bobby Shore and his lighting team. They were incredible. They did such great work.

Closet Monster is writer-director Stephen Dunn's first feature film

Closet Monster is writer-director Stephen Dunn’s first feature film

MM: You talked about internalized homophobia, and you also have a character that we can assume is straight but comes across as ambiguous in terms of his sexuality. Is that how you perceived Wilder?

SD: For me, Wilder’s sexuality is not really that important in the grand scheme of what this narrative is about. Essentially, whether you’re gay, straight, bisexual, fluid or unknown, what is attractive about Wilder is that he is constant. He is able to be an authentic version of himself. Even though he’s not perfect—he lies about where he’s going, and there’s something not to be entirely idolized about him—he does represent a sense of liberation that Oscar has yet to discover when we first meet him in the film. I think for me, the condition of those characters is more about Oscar wanting to be Wilder than wanting to be with him. It’s only later in the film that Oscar is challenged by him, and given the opportunity to explore his sexuality in an ambiguous way with Wilder. MM

Closet Monster opens in theaters September 30, 2016, courtesy of Strand Releasing.

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