According to G.B.F., a hip teen comedy that fires zingers like a taser, throws more shade than a sugar maple, and opens in select cities and on VOD platforms today, the hottest new popular-girl accessory is the titular arm candy: the Gay Best Friend. Starring Michael J. Willett in the lead role of Tanner (above), a closeted high-schooler who, once-outed, becomes a must-have for every status-seeking female classmate, the movie leads with the idea of teen gayness as a positive, while also exploring Tanner’s exploitation in a manner true to ye olde clique-filled youth comedies. Brimming with zeitgeisty one-liners, G.B.F. feels fresh, yet it also feels like it should have been made years ago—like, say, when director Darren Stein made Jawbreaker in 1999. It’d be wrong to say we haven’t come a long way since then, but, with G.B.F. being handed an undue R rating, allegedly for its gayness, it’s clear we’ve hardly come far enough.
Both Stein, 42, and Willett, 24, are gay artists of multiple disciplines. The former is also a screenwriter and producer who worked on All About Evil, and the latter is an on-the-verge star who’s poised to not just be on your screens, but in your ear buds. Equally passionate about their frothy, yet topical, film collaboration, Stein and Willett chatted with me about G.B.F.’s witticisms, its handling of stereotypes, the ways in which they identified with its themes, and why that double-standard-driven rating should be taken with a grain of salt—or maybe a fleck of glitter.
I wanted to talk first about the dialogue, because it’s very quotable, yet it also has that rat-a-tat-tat quality that’s often hard to keep up with. Darren, how much of a collaboration was this between you and screenwriter George Northy? You fill these teenagers’ vocabularies with quips I could easily imagine viewers repeating.
Darren Stein: Yeah, it’s funny—already on Twitter, I’ve been seeing that people are spreading around quotes from the film, like, “Let’s go get an extra low-fat iced coffee and talk shit about people.” I think that’s the quote. [laughs] I really have to give George Northy most of the credit. He wrote an awesome script, and he completely has that rat-a-tat-tat style, which I think is one of his great gifts as a writer. But I do like to think of the film as a collaboration between the two of us. I developed the script with George for a good year before we made it; however, I must say, the bones were there, and the dialogue was there, thanks to him. And when you have a script that’s that sharp and that quippy, it really makes you want to build upon that and add your own ideas, which I did. And the actors were also inspired to bring their own level of slang and improvisation to it.
Michael, was there something specific you added to the mix during the process of shooting? And were you able to get through a lot of these takes without laughing?
Michael J. Willett: [laughs] Well, I definitely identified with Tanner. In high school, I was much more introverted, and trying to figure myself out. I was a creative person, and I didn’t really know who the popular people were. I always just say I was popular in my own head. [laughs] But as far as improv and all that stuff goes, I didn’t do very much. I’m playing the straight man to all these character roles, so I was kind of the anchor for the comedy. But everyone else was hilarious. If you had fun watching the film, then you know how much fun we had making the film. We were constantly laughing and goofing around. But because it was an indie film, and we had such a short shooting schedule, we didn’t get as much time as you might think. Most of my scenes had to be done in two or three takes.
Darren, I was actually a little surprised to learn that you didn’t write this film because, as other viewers have acknowledged, it does recall Jawbreaker to a certain extent.
Darren Stein: Well, I think the comedy in Jawbreaker is definitely darker, and bitchier, and maybe a little more…I don’t know…alliterative. G.B.F. is straight-up funnier, and more political—a different kind of high school experience. Part of why I was so happy to receive the script was I just thought, “Wow, this is something I feel like I could have written, and that I definitely want to direct.” It was sort of like a meant-to-be experience.
And it is progressive in the sense that, even though Tanner is exploited by certain characters, it’s showing a high school environment where it’s cool to be gay, which is something I definitely didn’t see in my high school years. Michael, you briefly mentioned some details of your time in high school, but could each of you speak a bit further about how this relates to your own experiences of growing up gay in school?
Darren Stein: Well, I went to an all-boys school, Harvard-Westlake. It’s a prep school, and it was very academic and sports-oriented. Masculinity and brains are the things that were valued. I had brains [laughs], but I definitely felt like an outsider. I had to carve out my own niche, and for me, that was making movies in high school. I lived in a cul-de-sac in Encino with a bunch of kids that were slightly younger than me, and it was there that I could have a say in things, and express myself. But I would say high school was a bit of a lonely experience for me. I had to study for hours and hours to keep my head above water, and I wasn’t really into sports. Going to the movies was a major escape for me, and I grew up with Fast Times at Ridgemont High, and Valley Girl, and Sixteen Candles. But I think for a gay kid, you need girls around to sort of validate you, and give you power, so you’re not invisible and not “the other.” I didn’t have that, and I think that’s why Jawbreaker was born, and why I ended up directing G.B.F.. It’s fun to create the high school you had fantasized about.
Michael J. Willett: I definitely wasn’t “gay-specific” in high school, but everyone knew that I was a creative person, and slightly more effeminate. Everyone just kinda knew, I think. But I experimented with guys and girls. There weren’t that many gay people at my school when I was there, at least not that many who were out. So I didn’t really have too many gay friends. I knew a lot of gay people outside of school because I did theater. But overall, I’d say it was kind of a non-issue. I think our film is depicting a time where it’s still sort of new to be gay, but it’s also cool and, potentially, can make you popular.