Bros Before is stupid and horny—and wonderfully queerMicco Caporaleon June 8, 2022 at 3:08 pm

It’s only gay if the swords touch—and Henry Hanson’s short film Bros Before is a whole arsenal of blades. In it, Billy (Radcliffe Adler) and Elijah (Marten Katze) are two trans men who happen to enjoy jerking off together—but, like, no homo. When Billy begins dating Grace (Meadow Meyer), Elijah finds himself wrestling with what their secret ritual means. The title plays off the idea of “bros before hoes,” adding a subtle wink to the time-honored queer tradition of “experimenting” with a same-gender friend only to learn one person is experiencing their desires in a way the other isn’t—or rather, isn’t going to acknowledge after orgasm. Over the course of 19 jam-packed minutes, Hanson plays with the storytelling conventions of rom-coms, reality dating shows, and pornography to tell a comedically rock ‘n’ roll story about unrequited love and some of queer culture’s unspoken taboos.

Hanson came to Chicago five years ago. His childhood was divided between New York and LA, but upon graduating with a cinema studies degree from Oberlin in 2017, he felt called to the Windy City after several friends moved here for the queer community and relative lower cost of living. At 27, this is his debut as a writer and director. Bros Before has been making the festival rounds at places such as Wicked Queer in Boston, Translations in Seattle, and Inside Out in Toronto. Next month, the film will make its official hometown debut at Facets as part of a partnership with Full Spectrum Features that will include a curated selection of similar shorts.

The trailer for Bros Before

Micco Caporale: Tell me a little bit about the germination of the Bros Before story.

Henry Hanson: I really wanted to make something that was inspired by Gregg Araki. For years, I had all these different visuals just waiting for the right story, like displaying prominent text that gives more meaning to the scene or bright colors. The story itself actually came out of a very personal experience where my friends and I had this inside joke that went on for years where they would say that I was gay. I would deny it in these really funny ways that showed that I was obviously gay—like I would come up with this funny logic as to why things I was doing weren’t gay and blah blah blah. But after a while, I realized that it was negatively affecting me. I became so committed to the bit that it sort of fucked with my mind, like I couldn’t actually express being attracted to other men anymore. It’s so ironic. Like, how come I can be visibly trans and medically transitioning and in this totally queer world where everyone I know is gay and trans, and yet I still have this weird hang-up about, like, being gay? That’s so funny and weird. So I wanted to write about that. 

I’ve also always loved dumb rom-coms and boy humor that’s, like, so stupid. I think a bromance is such a funny concept, and I don’t think queer stories fit into straight narrative structures. There’s something about the actual narrative structure of rom-coms that I think is built for a certain type of relationship, so that was part of my motivation: expanding the idea of what a happy ending could be, offering a structure that could be a little bit different. I would love there to be more content that’s made for queer and especially trans people.

Why is it important that Billy and Elijah are both trans?

I’ve seen a lot of movies in recent years made by trans people or about trans issues that feel like they are edutainment for straight people—like begging them to care about us. Not only do I think that’s ineffective propaganda, it’s bad art. Like, what are you even doing? I don’t know, I just wanted to make something that I would want to watch and assumes a trans audience. I think there’s a universality in specificity, but that makes people uncomfortable. I think it’s part of why Americans don’t watch foreign films. They assume they can’t relate, but once you actually watch one, you realize you don’t need to know every single piece of cultural information to think about the story. You can actually learn more about this culture just by being thrown in and gradually having stuff explained to you. I haven’t gotten any play in any venues that weren’t explicitly for queer people, though, and I guess I hope that [Bros Before is] not seen as something that can only appeal to queer people.

Where did you find your actors?

I put my casting call on typical casting call sites like Backstage Post, but there were basically no trans people. I had to use Lex, Instagram, and Twitter—just working my personal networks. I didn’t care if people had previous experience. I just wanted people who were like the characters, and I think that approach worked.

Why do you think it took you so long to write and direct your first film project?

I was holding myself back for a lot of reasons. Obviously, I wouldn’t have been able to make this movie before my transition because it’s so much about being trans. But I also produce a lot of other people’s work. I felt like I was being selfish pursuing my own project. I couldn’t admit to myself what I really wanted to do because I was embarrassed by my taste or what I had to say or that I wanted to make stuff that was stupid and horny. I went through a certain amount of transitioning before I was able to be OK with all that stuff about myself.

I love how specific Elijah’s room got, from the chaotic sharps container to the artwork. It felt so much like it could be any number of my friends’ rooms. Tell me a bit about the production design.

Well, I definitely have to give major props to my production designer, Jade Wong. The Chicago artists we used were Jade’s ideas, like Chloë Perkis and Money Kaos. I think those two’s work totally encapsulates the aesthetics of the film. And there are a few other pieces in there. Martin, who plays Elijah, is primarily a visual artist. So we put one of his prints in there, as well as a few other of my trans friends’. And then there were a lot of printouts from J.D.s, which is an 80s zine from Toronto by G.B. Jones and Bruce LaBruce, who is one of my favorite filmmakers. J.D.s helped start the queercore movement, which is another big inspiration to me. 

Then we had a few other posters that were trying to show that Elijah had evolved from a very specific sort of lesbian culture. That was also Martin’s idea: using specific bands, like, “Oh, Elijah would have a Team Dresch poster.” I think I was trying to give a bit of context as to why he might be struggling with being gay. In the past, his lesbian identity was, like, really important to him. And a lot of times, lesbians can feel like it’s a point of pride to not be with men.

The reality dating show Monogamy House is shown in Bros Before, which Hanson created with local trans filmmaker Mitch Mitchell.

Yeah, I think so much of lesbian identity gets defined in opposition to maleness or masculinity in a way that can be hard to come to terms with later.

Totally. I think a lot of trans men coming out of, like, queer feminist spaces feel very conflicted about becoming “the bad gender.”

And to not only be attracted to the bad gender. It’s like you love the bad gender so much, you want to be it while fucking it.

Exactly. Just double whammy.

Like, “You must really hate women.”

Exactly. And I think that what I wanted to explore in the story was like . . . even though I’m sympathetic to that perspective, I think it’s a bit silly and reductive, and I think it can lead to this sort of weird neutering of trans men and masculinity. Like, “Oh, we’re not men like those men. We’re different!” Or better, or whatever. I kind of wanted to make something where trans guys were those men: disgusting and horny and idiotic and obsessed with their dicks. And I wanted to say, like, that’s also fine. They’re still sympathetic and human. They’re not monsters.

I must admit—and maybe this is my revealing my own biases—the promo of the movie made me think there would be a lot more sex. I was kind of pleasantly surprised there wasn’t. The sex that was there was really sexy, but I also liked how coy it was. Tell me about that balance.

I asked myself, “What do I want to see that would excite me and be sexy but also use sex as part of the story to express something?” John Cameron Mitchell talks about this with Shortbus. For so long, because of the Hays Code [a set of industry guidelines imposed between 1934 and 1968 that aggressively regulated swearing, nudity, and depictions of sexual expression or violence], sex could only be shown through visual metaphor. And now that we can actually show sex, what if we use it to say something else? 

On a similar note, I definitely want to shout out my intimacy choreographer, Kayla Menz. Intimacy coordination is more than a safety practice; it’s an art form. Kayla helped stylize and choreograph the sex scenes, but she also found moments where intimacy could be added to the script, like a fake-out kiss on Billy and Grace’s first date. She coached all three actors on subtle things that never would have occurred to me and really helped the movie work while keeping everyone comfortable.

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