Keegan Dark returns home for the first time in years. Finally having found love himself, Keegan is ready to make peace with his mother, and the ‘dark’ past of his childhood. However, when he arrives home at his mother’s vineyard he discovers a new stepfather and new stepbrother, both who seem … suspiciously perfect. But Keegan has a difficult time forgetting the past, in fact, an impossible time. Keegan is ‘blessed’ with hypothymesia, or superior autobiographical memory – he remembers every moment of his past in excruciating detail. When strange events unfold around the winery, implicating Keegan in a murder, he must defend his inheritance and his life against the conspiracy set to leave him ‘in the dark.’

THE DARK PLACE is the new suspense-thriller the producers behind JUDAS KISS, one of the most acclaimed LGBT indie hits of the last five years. With a backdrop still in the LGBT setting (a majority of the characters are gay), the film has a surprisingly universal appeal that mixes a Hitchcockian suspense set up with the style and humor of the BBC’s Sherlock. I got to see the film at this year’s aGLIFF (Austin Gay and Lesbian International Film Festival) in September, and it has stuck with me ever since. Writer/Director Jody Wheeler creates a gripping tale of a horribly flawed character with a special gift, placed in a situation where only he can save his family. It’s an LGBT film that really doesn’t have to be LGBT at all, any of the characters could be swapped out for heteros, but they’re not, which is great, because it adds an extra layer to the conflict. The cast includes Blaise Embry from Showtime’s Weeds, Timo Descamps from Judas Kiss and a host on OutTV Network, and Sean Paul Lockhart, also from Judas Kiss and from countless other films (of a more adult nature) under the name Brent Corrigan. I had a chance to speak with Wheeler and editor Steve Parker at aGLIFF about the film and about making a suspense thriller that just happen to have gay characters, rather than making a gay suspense thriller.

BEARS: What do you think makes for great suspense?

JODY WHEELER: When there’s what you think is happening and you’re told that it’s not actually happening. I used to be a therapist and a social worker, and one of the chief things that you run into with the children is that when they knew there was a problem in the family, but everyone is telling them that there is no problem in the family. In a story like The Dark Place, the main way to make things more suspenseful is the character can’t quite trust what’s going on, even though they’re the one that’s most accurate, and at the same time you just keep putting problem after problem after problem on the character’s shoulders. And you have no idea how the character’s going to get out of it, because the character has no idea how he’s going to get out of it.

BEARS: What was the foundation of the story? What was the first thing you had?

WHEELER: I think the original idea was coming home, having a stepbrother, and falling in love with your stepbrother. But this story started like 10 years ago. As the story went on, and the revisions happened, I got further and further away, and started re-shifting around the character of Keegan. I was trying to focus in on someone who has done some bad stuff in the past, or has had some problems in the past, and then he’s got to find it within him to rise to the occasion and become a hero. And then I started adding in elements from Sherlock Holmes. What if you caught up with Sherlock Holmes when he was 12 or 13 years old? What kind of person would he be like? They don’t know the kind of power they have and now they’re 21 or 22.

BEARS: Let’s talk about the ‘powers’ Keegan has.

WHEELER: It is a real thing. It’s called hypothymesia, superior autobiographical memory. The last time I checked there’s only 12 documented cases so far — the most prominent person with it is actress Marilu Henner from Taxi — and these people really are able to file away information from their life and recall it with crystal clarity. We take some dramatic liberties with it in the story to make it play a little bit better but the one thing that leapt out from reading about it was this one woman who has the condition and doesn’t actually like it. She said anytime she’s in the world she has a screen playing in her mind of everything else in the past and it drives her nuts because everything ties together. And that sounded like just an awesome place to go for. So as I was revising Keegan’s character, I started drawing from this, because it makes someone who’s really brilliant, visual. How can you show this guy’s inner turmoil going on?

BEARS: So it wasn’t originally part of his character?

WHEELER: In the first versions of the story he was just a really smart guy. He was annoyingly smart. But this took it to a whole different level. Keegan went from being a character who was so dark to being somebody with darkness in his past trying to make his life better, and this allowed us to show all of that stuff in the movie, and still limit the exposition. Make it as visual as possible.

BEARS: Yes, I love the way that you got it across on the film; it almost makes it sort of a science fiction film with Keegan having these paranormal abilities.

WHEELER: I’m a sci-fi junkie, I love mysteries too, so I pushed it just slightly in the sci-fi territory, because I love that, but still keeping it grounded. A lot of movies have people haunted by their past. This was a really good way where, if you were not making a supernatural movie, you can make it real when somebody is actually haunted by their past. Because Keegan can look to the left, and he can actually see the past, he can see things happen. In the script, it’s written as ‘windows pop-up.’ Making a film for not a lot of money, how do you make that play? We knew that if everything else failed, we could always just cut to a past scene, but we worked really hard to find a way to bring it all into the present and put it on the screen and make it believable within the context of the movie.

BEARS: It’s almost like he has a superhero ability in the real world. How do you deal with that?

WHEELER: I wanted him to be a superhero, but I didn’t want to write a superhero movie.

BEARS: He would look good in leotards though.

WHEELER: He would look good in almost anything.

BEARS: Then of course you’d need the superhero budget.

WHEELER: Yes. We were really ambitious with this thing, car crashes and gunfights and all that stuff on our budget and our shooting time was pretty crazy. We had a 20 day shoot.

Blaise Embry as Keegan Dark in The Dark Place

Blaise Embry as Keegan Dark in The Dark Place

BEARS: So the film was set in a winery, and wineries are often sites of rebirth, sort of the Dionysian cycle of death and rebirth, but this is a very dark movie to be set at a winery. I love that choice.

WHEELER: It’s really funny, and people tease me about this, because I don’t drink. And I don’t know a hell of a lot about wine. I’m like going through the Idiot’s Guide to Wine. But [my editor]Steve Parker loves wine. And so he was giving me notes.

STEVE PARKER: And we also did a field trip, we went up to Sonoma, and the Red River Valley. We went through a bunch of these small local wineries. We spent a bunch of time talking about ‘what is your life like here if you run a small winery?’

WHEELER: My parents, as part of our acculturation process, would take us to all these wineries, and beer brewing places, and they’re just fascinating to walk-through. To see the combination of science and art all come together. Plus they’re so big and there are all these nooks and crannies. There is so much craziness going on, it’s like this is the most awesome place to set a movie. When we went looking for locations, one of our other producers found this [winery]up in Hillsboro Oregon. And we took two wineries and combined them into one and went back and forth, and we were able to get the location that we needed to really make it feel like a cool, huge place.

BEARS: So are they places that actually make their own wines? DO you want to give them a shout out?

WHEELER: It’s the Garden Vineyards. The man who owns it is actually the inventor of this Soloflex machine. And he’s this hippie who may good with the Soloflex machine so he bought one wine estate, and the other wine estate his son owns, and we some back-and-forth between those. There’s this one scene in there, the shack that Keegan discovers – the storage parts for the Soloflex machines are actually in there, you never see in the film, but there’s actually all these parts for the Soloflex machines because they still service the ones that are out there. We got so much production value from that winery and being out there and then it makes the film feel like a much more expensive film than it is.

BEARS: Let’s switch the discussion a bit. What I found most exciting about the film was that it has these LGBT characters, and clearly is an LGBT film, but that’s not really what it’s about. It’s just a suspense thriller, and these are the characters in it.

WHEELER: The goal of this film was to make a movie that had gay leads, but wasn’t a gay movie. It was a film about gay characters.

BEARS: Have you had any feedback from straight audiences?

WHEELER: I had one straight guy tell me [taking on a ‘jock voice’]‘this is the first gay movie I felt like could actually relate to the characters.’

BEARS: [copying ‘jock voice’]‘Because I like beating people up, and shooting people.’

WHEELER: Basically yeah, I had some who even said they could actually identify with the sex scenes. We showed it at the office where Steve Parker works, we had about 60 people come out, men and women, and they were about 95% straight, and they all loved it, because when you sit down and watch it, it feels like a movie

BEARS: The thing I was noticing was that any of the characters who are gay, could be not gay. That doesn’t actually change the plot at all.

PARKER: And no one has ‘coming out angst,’ there’s no ‘gay metamorphosis’ as a storyline.

WHEELER: But if you want to see that in the story line, you can see that Mom had trouble with Keegan being gay. Because that’s a valid take away from the background. Or… she was the most accepting thing in the world, but because Keegan is a bit of a dick, that was her problem with him. It was tough to do, but we were able to walk the line. But if you want to see more ‘gay angst’ in there, you can.

BEARS: Why? Why was that the choice, because I think that’s very brave. You are essentially not fully satisfying either audience, and yet making a film that could potentially satisfy both, unless you screw it up.

WHEELER: When I was a kid and watching movies, before gay was anywhere, I had to constantly do mental arithmetic and make all the heroes of the stories gay. I wanted to write a story where gay was just established. Plus I feel like we’ve done every permutation where gay is an issue now in films.

PARKER: I grew up, I read Vito Russo’s Celluloid Closet and went ‘Yes, exactly.’ The historic portrayal of gay and lesbian characters on screen was awful, and consistently awful to an embarrassing degree.

BEARS: Villains often, just by virtue of them being gay. Gay panic.

PARKER: And so we’ve now had really a couple decades of film changing that, in so many ways. We have Brokeback Mountain so we have Academy level recognition of gay stories. So that’s the two extremes in my book. And I think The Dark Place hits something in the middle. Yes they’re gay characters, but the gay part of their life just happens to be there.

WHEELER: I think that area is only being tapped just in the last five years — the gay science fiction films, the gay fantasy films, gay horror films. I don’t mean adult films, I mean genre films. That is the one area that has only been lightly touched upon by our filmmakers over the years, and not played for camp, played straight. We’ve done campy versions of those but we haven’t done those where our heroes are in there, where it’s our lives, where we’re the heroes of those things. And Keegan in this, he’s much more of a thinking hero than he is the physical one, he can’t punch very well.

PARKER: He could maybe use a little time on the Soloflex.

BEARS: But most people can’t punch really well, that’s the ridiculousness of most action movies.

WHEELER: Keegan has to basically outthink everybody. As a science fiction fan, I grew up on Dr. Who, and the Doctor was rarely ever more physical than everybody else, he had to constantly outthink.

BEARS: I think it is interesting that we started this conversation talking about Sherlock Holmes. I think everybody including myself has decided that the new Sherlock Holmes with Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman is definitely a gay couple, and we love that. Was that in your mind at all?

WHEELER: Yes. This script was written years before the BBC Sherlock came on, but it was revised after I had seen Sherlock and some of the visual style we stole, you steal from the best. But of course in our version, our Sherlock and Watson can actually kiss each other. So of course that did have an impact, and I think we made it work.

Jody Wheeler’s THE DARK PLACE is out today from Breaking Glass, available on DVD on Amazon and other places, and streaming exclusively on Vimeo on Demand.

Bears Fonté is the Founder and Executive Director of Other Worlds Austin, a new festival in Texas’ capital focused on SciFi.  Prior to that, Bears served as Director of Programming for Austin Film Festival from 2012-14, overseeing some 200 films selected to screen at eight venues over eight days.  The 2013 Festival saw 28 world premiere features and 7 films picked up at the festival or the week after.  His most recent short film, THE SECRET KEEPER, has been selected by over 35 US Film Festivals since September of 2012.  His feature thriller iCRIME, which he wrote and directed, was released on DVD, VOD and streaming by Vicious Circle Films in 2011.  Bears also self-produced two web-series which have been seen by a combined ten million viewers.

Prior to arriving in Austin, Bears wrote coverage for independent producers and coverage services in LA and placed in nearly every single screenwriting contest out there including Screenwriter’s Expo, Final Draft Big Break, Page International, Story Pros and Austin Film Festival.

Bears received his BA from Carleton College in British Studies and Theatre Studies and a MFA in Directing from Indiana University and has directed over forty plays, including the Austin Critics Table nominee Corpus Christi, and the Austin Shakespeare Festival’s Complete Works of Shakspeare Abridged. He studied writing with noted playwrights Jeff Hatcher and Denis Reardon, and directed the first-ever professional productions by Princess Grace Award-winning and Pulitzer Prize-nominated playwright Don Zolidis and up-and-coming playwright Itamar Moses. He is currently working on a new five minute short to submit to festivals in 2015.

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