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Tugging On Superman's Cape
An Interview With Brad Fraser

by Michael D. Klemm
Reprinted from Outcome, April, 2004

Buffalo theatre audiences who crave entertainment a little more on the dark side are no doubt familar with openly gay Canadian playwright Brad Fraser. Buffalo United Artists has mounted four of his plays: Poor Super Man, Unidentified Human Remains and the True Nature of Love, The Ugly Man and Martin Yesterday. Last year, Fraser became the Executive Story Editor on Showtime's Queer As Folk. Fraser has just directed his first film, Leaving Metropolis, and he spoke about this, and other notable topics with Outcome.

Outcome: Your new film, Leaving Metropolis, is based on your 1994 play, Poor Super Man. How difficult was it to adapt it to the screen and was it challenging to direct as well?

Fraser: When the play was written it was very much my cry from the heart about the state of the world in the midst of the AIDS crisis and how people were dealing with it. But, by the time we got around to making the movie, protease inhibitors had been introduced and people were living a lot longer. And so Shannon and David's characters both had to be changed quite a lot because David, in the play, is a man who is in the grip of death everywhere he looks. [It was difficult] to adapt that and still keep the same sense of poignancy and urgency.

The biggest challenge was that the budget was so low that all the things that you normally want to do in a film, like opening it out or making the scenes bigger, were impossible because we didn't have the money to do it. We shot it in less than three weeks on eight hour days. Then we only had three weeks to edit it so it was really challenging to try to get everything the way I wanted. I would have liked another week to edit but overall I'm really happy with the film.

Outcome: Any reason for the name change?

Fraser: Yes, Warner Brothers. They own DC Comics which owns Superman. When the play was done I was told I could not use Superman as one word in the title. When we made the movie, we could talk about Superman but we couldn't use any images [of him].

Outcome: When your play Unidentified Human Remains and the True Nature of Love was adapted into the film Love and Human Remains, you got to work with a film director of great renown, Denys Arcand. Did you learn a lot from him about stage vs. film directing?

Fraser: I did. It was a tremendous honor and it was very educational. I love Denny, he's a fabulous man and a wonderful director. But I have to say that the adaptation of Love and Human Remains doesn't work very well for me and didn't from the time it was made. A lot of friction between the characters, and a lot of the homoerotic subtext that existed between David and Bernie, (a gay man and a straight man), was really important to the play but those ambiguities are not very easy to do on a film. Everyone wants a clear answer to why things are happening and they don't like anything ambiguous. I like to create things that make people think but, when you're working in film and television, you often have to make it work for the lowest common denominator and that can be frustrating.

Outcome: How was it working with Brent Carver in the original Toronto production of Remains? [Carver is a regular at Stratford and won a Tony for Kiss of the Spider Woman.]

Fraser: That was amazing, Brent was one of the few actors who's ever appeared in a work that I've written that totally made we feel like I was seeing the play for the first time. Brent is an amazing talent, and he's a good friend, and I'm hoping he might play the lead in my next play. When he did Remains he was making that transition from pretty young actor to leading man and that play put him on the map again.

Outcome: When you work with actors, do you let them develop their characters?

Fraser: Well, you have to. An actor doesn't give a performance until they've immersed themselves in the character. I don't know if I am an actor's director per se; I expect them to have done their homework and be professional. [Leaving Metropolis] was shot so fast, I basically had to get them on the set, tell them what they were doing, talk to them about their motivation, and then let them go and hope like hell that it would happen. These actors were all so amazing but I know it was frustrating because the filmmaking process wasn't about the acting and they had to come in ready to go without much room to experiment.

Outcome: Your work has always pushed the envelope. Too many current gay works play it safe. What kind of responses do you like to provoke from an audience?

Fraser: If an audience leaves a play or a movie or even a television episode that I've written and everyone loves it, I feel like I've failed. Because if it's making everyone happy, then it isn't really challenging anyone. I try to write things that stimulate debate among people so that when they are leaving the theater they are talking and arguing about what they just saw. They've been affected by it. A lot of people find that scary but for me that's the sign of success.

Outcome: As a reviewer, I'm seeing a lot of terrible gay films now that the genre is more mainstream.

Fraser: We once rejoiced in every gay film but hopefully we've gone beyond that because, like you said, there are a lot of really bad gay features and a lot of them try to try to soften what we really have to say to make them more acceptable to a straight audience. Personally, I don't think that's the way to go at all. The more militant, the more honest, the more real it is, the more interesting it is. If you look at the development of gay work in the theatre you see a real progression from the sensitive coming out plays of the late 70s and early 80s to much more militant work, and then to the 90s to much more professional and integrated work. The real trick is for someone to finally make that gay-themed feature film that a straight audience will come to. A lot of straight male reviewers look at Leaving Metropolis and have a real problem with it because they say there is no way that a straight man would ever fall in love with a gay man. But having been in one of those relationships three or four times in my life I know it happens very much and I think there is a level of denial and being threatened that goes on with a lot of straight people, particularly men, and we need to overcome that.

Outcome: I've been a fan of Queer as Folk as far back as the British version. As the American show went into its third season I feared that it might get stale. And then I saw your name in the credits as script editor. What were your contributions to QAF? Are you in part responsible for the darker turn it took last season?

Fraser: You know, a lot of people say that. But there are five writers, and Ron Cowen and Dan Lipman - the producers and head writers, and we're all co-creators. I definitely have an influence, and I definitely have a darker take on things. But generally, I'm the guy who says "no, we have to go farther, we have to go out there and really explore it. We can't just let it be a TV thing where we wipe it away next week." I'm the continuity police in the room. I really am quite psychotic about everything having to add up. The characters cannot make a decision just because it helps the story, when it doesn't really fit with their characters. Every script is a group effort. and Dan and Ron have the final say. But for the most part I think they look at me as the guy - Dan said it best one day when he said "I've never seen anyone who has as little fear as you when it comes to telling a story."

Outcome: Did they contact you or did you contact them?

Fraser: They contacted me. What I don't think they realized was that Unidentified Human Remains was really big in England, and particularly in Manchester where [British QAF creator] Russell Davies lived. When I saw the English version of the show, the relationship between Stuart and the younger boy was much like David and Kane [in Remains], and there was the scene on the rooftop, and I thought "Gee, I've had an influence on this show of some kind." And then all of a sudden two years later there I am being offered a chance to write for the new show. But I think that in some ways I helped inspire the English version and so it's gone kinda full circle.

Outcome: Brian and Debbie bonded over a joint in one of the two episodes that you wrote, and I thought it was one of the best scenes of the series. It has you written all over it.

Fraser: Thank you. I actually pitched that one because we knew Brian and Debbie had to make up after the conflict they were having all season and we weren't sure how to break that barrier and I said let's have them smoke up because Brian smokes dope all the time and Debbie is an ex-hippie. We don't always get to write such good character-based scenes, and when I wrote the scene, it just flowed out of me.

Outcome: What do you think are the responsibilities of a gay artist, especially in today's political climate?

Fraser: I think every gay artist has a responsibility to be political. I was much more militant about it in the mid-90s; I thought we had a political obligation to protect ourselves and to speak out and to make things happen. A lot of straight people who saw Leaving Metropolis said to me, "why do we care anymore?" and yet, living in the gay community, I'm hearing all these stories now about guys who have been on protease inhibitors since 1994 who are actually going off of them now because they can't deal with the side effects. In Leaving Metropolis, Shannon goes off her meds because she doesn't want to live anymore - and I think that maybe I'm a little ahead of the curve - but I think that's going to become an even bigger problem that it is now. This is a whole issue that's not being talked about at all.

Outcome: Which medium do you like working in the best?

Fraser: They all have their challenges, and they all have their advantages. I've worked in film, theatre, television, I have a talk show on PrideVision called Jaw Breaker that I host and produce. In a perfect world before I die I will write a novel, a couple more movies, a Broadway musical that will be a huge hit. The important thing for me is to keep trying different mediums and find what the power of the writer and director is in that medium and then explore it. The important thing to me is that I'm telling the stories that I want to tell about the characters I want to write about and I don't really care what medium it's in.

Outcome: What else are you working on now?

Fraser: I have a new play which opened in Manchester, England last year called Cold Meat Party and it's opening here in Toronto in September. And I've also adapted my play Snake In Fridge as a screenplay which I'm supposed to direct with Rob Morrow's company. Remains is opening off-Broadway again, and it's opening in Toronto next month in a major revival as well.

Outcome: Anything you'd like to touch on that I didn't bring up?

Fraser: I'm very appreciative of Buffalo, of all the support they've shown my work. Most people don't think of Buffalo as being a fabulous theatre or art center, but for the last 15 years no other city has done as many of my plays as Buffalo has.


Review of Leaving Metropolis