There is a mainstream to independent cinema just as much as there is in Hollywood.
A small budget doesn’t automatically mean a film is radically challenging the tired narratives or perspectives perpetrated by its bigger budget counterparts. Time and time again, the film industry champions predominantly white male voices and stories over those of women, people of color, people with disabilities and the LGBTQ+ people. This is representative of a larger societal system that is carefully designed to benefit a small percentage and silence the majority. Hollywood, as well as the American indie film industry, has reinforced this system for decades by promoting stereotypes and erasing marginalized identities. By controlling the narratives of other, less powerful people, Hollywood helps keep power in the hands of those who hold it. Within a system that refuses to take care of its people, community is the glue that keeps it all together, offering safety and solidarity to marginalized or othered people.
Filmmaking is highly collaborative and in many ways, community-based. Over time, you build your team and find the people who you can count on and communicate with, who you value and trust. I was very lucky to find my community in Chicago. Over the six years I lived there, I met people who would end up being my advocates, collaborators, audience and supporters. This community would ultimately lay the groundwork for my career as a filmmaker.
My new film, Make Out Party, is a “love letter” to this community. A high-style queer comedy, the film follows three characters through a single day of misadventure as they try to attend their friend’s party. The conception of the film coincided with my decision to move from Chicago to L.A., and acted as both a piece of art and an opportunity to collaborate with some of the local artists I had not yet been able to work with. It is a film by and about the Chicago underground—a community of artists, outcasts and dreamers, making decisions according to their own desires and visions.
We had no budget for Make Out Party, and limited resources. Everyone in the cast and crew worked for free, contributing their time, skills and equipment. We filmed when we could, depending on people’s schedules and making do with less-than-ideal weather conditions. Local businesses donated locations and catering, and each character’s wardrobe was sourced from our own closets or loaned out by local designers. Our exteriors were shot guerilla-style and interiors at friends’ houses we’d be hanging out at anyways. Even the songs used in the soundtrack were provided courtesy of the local musicians involved.
This communal, no-budget effort allowed us an unrestricted ability to institute processes of creation to reflect the spirit of its content. For instance, the three lead characters in Make Out Party (Madame X, Bambi, Band-Aid Box) were written so that anyone could play them, regardless of race or gender. Once the film was cast, pronouns in the script were adjusted accordingly. Similarly, because we had no studio execs or networks (aka no money) telling us “No,” we were able to tell a more interesting story about queerness and sexuality. The film examines these topics playfully, from an almost-PG-13 perspective—not from a viewpoint that turns the experiences of queer people into automatic tragedy.
Sexuality in cinema is often demonized and censored, while violence is held in high regard, or worse, normalized. Make Out Party challenges cinematic sexual taboos, highlighting this tension by featuring queer, femme and gender non-conforming people as the main characters, and glorifying the act of making out—an activity generally regarded as juvenile, impolite or adolescent. However, this tension is ultimately turned into a joyous act by inviting all to participate, free from judgement or danger.
As a tool used to help shape, inform, and enforce culture, cinema is a powerful agent of change. Yet this tool is so often used carelessly as weapon to misrepresent, otherize and belittle marginalized peoples. Make Out Party is not necessarily the answer to these harmful industry practices, but offers an alternative perspective. It is a celebration of community and a testament to the “fuck-the-system, do-it-yourself” attitude that is sorely needed in the film world. It is a forceful push—by virtue of its very existence—against the constricting practices of a larger industry that otherizes and erases non-normative identities.
Make Out Party is finished filming, and the footage is sitting on drives. Now we extend a hand to you, the film community at large to support us in finishing its post-production and film festival run. A creative collaboration from start to finish, Make Out Party was made with the principles of a more inclusive, and perhaps revolutionary, kind of filmmaking. I hope you’ll consider supporting our Seed&Spark campaign, and other films that seek to redefine what American audiences see on-screen. MM
Make Out Party is produced by Full Spectrum Features. Support the Make Out Party campaign here. Follow Make Out Party on Facebook here. Visit director Emily Esperanza’s website here. All images courtesy of Full Spectrum Features.