At the Sundance Film Festival in January, writer and director Matthew Puccini introduced his short film, “Lavender.”
The film tells the story of a young man involved with an older, married couple. Michael Urie, Michael Hsu Rosen, and Ken Barnett are the three men at the center of the story.
“Lavender” has been celebrated for its LGBTQ+ theme, earning a nomination for the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance. “Lavender” went on to SXSW in March, where Puccini was nominated again for the Grand Jury Award.
I had the opportunity to speak with Puccini last week. We talked about the art of short filmmaking, and what it’s like to be part of the Oscar conversation.
Karen Peterson/Awards Circuit: What is it about filmmaking that you love so much?
Matthew Puccini: I like it for a number of reasons. I think I enjoy it because it’s such a collaborative art form. I like that I get to work with lots of different people across different disciplines. And I like that it’s a form of storytelling that happens to be really immersive allows you to drop into a headspace or into a situation that you might not otherwise be able to understand. And hopefully it creates empathy for those situations.
KP: What do you enjoy about telling a story in a short format?
MP: I think I enjoy the challenge of trying to distill a character or an idea into its simplest form. It really is an exercise in narrative economy. How quickly can you communicate to an audience what’s going on? It makes you, I think, more disciplined in how you tell that story because you only have a certain amount of time. And then I think it’s kind of like writing an essay versus writing a memoir. The rules are less important. You can try things and you can be experimental and you can play with ambiguity and you can focus on trying to communicate a feeling rather than being focused on trying to keep someone in their seat for 120 minutes.
KP: I don’t know what it is about this year, but it feels like every feature film has been over two hours, and some are over three hours and it makes you really appreciate short films.
MP: Yeah, they’re kind of like a tonic. They’re just, hopefully, short and sweet and pack a punch and hopefully make you see the world differently with relatively little investment of time.
KP: Where did your short film, “Lavender,” come from?
MP: It’s inspired by personal experience. I had been spending some time sort of seeing an older gay couple. And over the course of spending time with them, began to think a lot about what I wanted my own life to look like and found that I was very taken with their relationship and their lifestyle. It made me think a lot about why I hadn’t allowed myself to consider some of those things for myself before, and the longing for intimacy that I felt around that.
So I think that’s where the idea started from. And then continued to develop it through a few fellowship programs. I was involved with Sundance Ignite and the Creative Culture Program at the Jacob Burns Film Center, and between the two of those was able to put together the funding and the support to make this happen as a short film.
KP: It’s always interesting when someone can tell an emotional story or capture an emotional moment in a 10-minute film. I really liked the characters and the way you brought out each of their personalities. Can you talk about the development of the three men in the story?
MP: I think the characters were left pretty opaque on the page while I was writing. A lot of the inner life that you’re alluding to is really thanks to the actors that we cast. We were really lucky to get the three men to be in this film that we did, and I think each of them brought a lot of personal experience and nuance to those roles. We also were lucky in that all three of them already knew each other going into this project in some capacity, so I think there was a lot of trust baked in between the three of them and that allowed us to mess with the script on set and create some really lovely, improvised moments that make that world and that relationship feel real.
KP: You premiered this at Sundance. What was that experience like, getting to show your film at one of the world’s biggest festivals?
MP: It was definitely one of the most surreal weeks of my life. There’s a part of me that still feels like it was a dream, the farther away it gets. Yes, really special that they saw something in this film and in this story. And then on top of that to have FoxSearchlight swoop in and acquire the film for distribution really completed the dreaminess of the whole thing. And I think we all just feel really grateful that places like Sundance and FoxSearchlight are investing so much in telling nuanced LGBT stories.
KP: Part of the reason you and I are talking today isn’t just because this is a really good short film, it’s because you are part of the Oscar conversation. How does that feel?
MP: I’m trying not to think about it too much and get too ahead of myself because I think we’ve been lucky with everything that’s already happened. But it’s amazing to me to think about this film, and I think the real gift of being considered for the Oscars is getting to share this film with an even wider audience and it’s exciting to me to imagine that many more people interacting with this story, because I think it’s something that a lot of people don’t often think about, or think about in a very narrow-minded way. It would be really incredible to be able to put this in front of new viewers. It still feels like a total dream.
KP: Along those lines, putting it in front of viewers, this has been available for several months now. You talked at the beginning about how this is personal to you, but what have been some of the things people have talked with you about as they’ve seen the film?
MP: It’s been really lovely to talk to audience members after some of our screenings. I’m always surprised by the number of people who have a direct relationship to the material. You know, people both queer and straight have been exploring unconventional relationships more and more and have been appreciative of the nuance that the film is trying to create. and then a lot of other people who have walked in with a preconceived notion of what a film about a “throuple” would look like, left kind of struck by the love they could feel between those three characters.
KP: I’m sure you get this question a lot, but are there plans to turn this into a feature film?
MP: It’s not out of the question, but I think the feature film I’ve been developing and hope to start moving forward with next year is not a direct adaptation of the short. It has similar questions and definitely still in the LGBT space, but it’s not a direct adaptation of “Lavender.”