Isn’t it scary how you can date someone, break up, and then realize that you never really knew who they were? Faces is a Dekkoo-original short film that dives into this topic as the protagonist, Ryan, embarks on the emotional journey of dating Nathan. As is the case with many relationships, things start off great. But how well does Ryan really know Frank? I sat down with the writer and director of Faces, Ben Empey, to talk about the making of the film.
Tell us about yourself.
I’m Ben Empey. I grew up in Santa Rosa, California, about an hour north of San Francisco. I went to film school at the University of Southern California, graduated in 2011, and have made a couple of short films since graduating. But before Faces, I hadn’t been behind a camera in six years. I was on a journey getting to know myself and my voice.
What was your main source of inspiration for the film?
The name for Faces comes from the 1968 film of the same name directed by one of my favorite filmmakers, John Cassavetes. His movies are all about authenticity, and it was between his third and fourth films that he decided to stop kowtowing to the studios. So, he made the movie with his own money in his own house with a circle of friends as the cast and crew. I am so inspired by his methodology, and I wanted to honor him.
What can you tell us about the narrative of the film?
It was really important to not clearly delineate what is real and what is in Ryan’s mind because it’s all real in terms of Ryan’s emotional journey. It doesn’t matter what his literal experience was because the narrative is honest to Ryan’s perception of how his relationship progressed.
What has your personal experience with dating been like and how has that influenced Faces?
I see myself in both characters. I’ve never really been in a relationship for longer than a couple months, and that’s where Ryan is at the beginning of the film. I’m also like Nathan in that I am emotionally stunted, have issues with vulnerability, and push people away. I find that I chase unattainable men because I know I will never have to be vulnerable with them. I think that some gay men tend to project this armor to protect themselves, and everyone does it a different way. I tell jokes rapid-fire and don’t date men who might actually ask me to open up. I also insulate myself so I don’t have to do the real-relationship thing. Nathan does this too by presenting a glossy version of himself in the first half of the movie, and as that facade breaks down, Ryan gets to know the real Nathan. Michael Benjamin (Nathan 2) is a good friend of mine, and I wanted him to play the part because he projects such warmth and honesty. That gives the character an extra dimension and shows that he’s not a villain. He’s trying his best but is maybe just messed up emotionally from a past relationship. And now, he’s hurting Ryan unintentionally. That will probably fundamentally change Ryan which might lead to him unintentionally hurting his next boyfriend.
When working on Faces, did you have specific directions for the actor playing Ryan (Matt Pascua) when acting in a scene with Nathan 1 vs. Nathan 2?
I really just let the casting do the directing for me. I believe you never want to tell an actor to not feel what they’re really feeling. I don’t think it’s my job to dictate what an emotion is supposed to look like. So, I just let them go. There’s nothing better than watching an actor do something that isn’t how you initially imagined it, but it’s totally dead on. That’s why they’re actors, and I’m not!
What do you think the Nathans meant to Ryan?
Nathan is essentially Ryan’s first love. He’s never had a real boyfriend before and is ready to go all in. The relationship is no doubt going to leave an indelible mark on him.
Habits and falling back into old routines seem to be a major theme in this film. If you could scream something at Ryan through the screen—a warning, a piece of advice, a criticism, etc.—what would it be?
I wouldn’t yell anything at Ryan, because if he guards himself, he’d just turn into Nathan. I wanted him to have this experience and be able to move on to his next relationship knowing that there is no perfect relationship, but he should still be open and dive as his true self. It sucks, but sometimes you have to learn the hard way.
What do you think queer viewers will gain from this film?
I’m not interested in watching queer stories where the fact that they’re queer is beside the point. Why can’t we have a major superhero movie where there is a solid romance about two same-sex characters? We get a lot of characters that are flawless models or progressive liberal fantasies. But that’s not human. It’s not real, and it doesn’t interest me. We all have parts of our personalities that we wish weren’t on display, and that’s exactly what I think we should be displaying.
What would 15-year-old Ben say about seeing something like Faces on screen?
15-year-old Ben was so deep in the closet, he probably wouldn’t have watched this film! Haha. But maybe at 17, I would have been incredibly excited to see a well-rounded gay story. I was 17 when Brokeback Mountain came out. It was very important to me to have this gay romance exist at the highest level of studio filmmaking. I wasn’t out then, but looking back, I can see it was hitting me on a subconscious level. It validated my existence in the cinematic world. Film has always been a big passion of mine, and seeing queer stories on screen helped me accept that I was gay. I can’t imagine who I would be if I’d had even more stories or the access to queer content that teens today have because of the internet. Now, you can look up listicles of classic queer cinema and find the movies online. I love it.
What’s the main message you’d like your audience to walk away with after seeing your film?
It all comes back to Papa Cassavetes: be authentic. When you aren’t authentic with other people, getting hurt is inevitable. It’s not sustainable. And part of authenticity is vulnerability. So, reveal yourself! It’s gonna hurt sometimes, but it’s worth it.
I’m so thrilled to have Faces on such a cool platform. I remember Dekkoo was featured in Film Comment about a year ago, and I thought, “Damn. One of the best film magazines in the world is devoting space to an all LGBT streaming site. That’s so exciting.” This is the first instance of my work being distributed, and to have it be on an LGBT streaming platform is amazing.
What are your future plans?
I’m trying to get my first feature as a director financed which is an uphill battle. It’s probably clear after viewing Faces that what I’m writing isn’t exactly what you’d consider “commercial.” I like to play with form in everything I do. I’m a bit of a tough sell, but that’s okay. I’m also writing a couple of other things as well that I’m really excited about—all queer in some way. The straights have enough.
Where can we find you online?
You can find me on twitter @realtoddhaynes. I am also a co-host on a podcast called movies imo where we pick a new release and discuss it in combination with some other films. You can find it on the podcatcher of your choice.