'The Stranger In Us,' screening Frameline34, brings a neighborhood's underseen population to screen.

Polk Street Lures Boswell's 'Stranger'

Michael Fox June 23, 2010

Scott Boswell’s marvelous debut feature, The Stranger In Us, plays out on Polk Street and in the Tenderloin, far from the oft-photographed glamour spots. It’s likewise populated with people who are largely invisible in other San Francisco-shot movies—prostitutes, drug peddlers, rent boys, transsexuals and transvestites. Boswell moved here from southern Illinois in 1997, and his rocky first year inspired this engrossing portrait of newcomer Anthony (Raphael Barker of Shortbus), his screwy yuppie boyfriend Stephen (Scott Cox) and Gavin (Adam Perez), a likable teenage hustler. Boswell ran The Factory, the teen digital filmmaking program in Oakland, for four years before joining San Francisco State’s Department of Cinema as production coordinator and half-time instructor (of a graduate-level directing class). The Stranger In Us has its world premiere June 23 at the Roxie and June 25 at the Castro (a second screening added  after the initial show went to rush status in a flash) in Frameline34, the "*San Francisco International LGBT Film Festival*": I spoke with Boswell on the phone.

SF360: You don’t exactly portray San Francisco as a welcoming city to strangers. Are you trying to single-handedly stem the tide of new arrivals?

Scott Boswell: Absolutely not. I’m just trying to capture a particular character’s experience. And in this case, it parallels my own. But I’m still here and I love San Francisco. I’m devoted to the Bay Area. But that attitude was hard won.

SF360: Do you think Anthony’s experience, and your experience, are more common than is usually thought?

Boswell: Quite a few people, primarily gay men, have come to me and said, ‘This is really reflective in tone, if not the exact experience, of men who’ve come to the city, especially from more rural areas.’ There’s a kind of wide-eyed green experience that people have when they’re thrown into this urban environment. It’s not unusual for people to move here without a developed social network, so initially you’re kind of reaching around in the dark a little bit looking for human connection, which is perhaps the overriding theme of the film.

SF360: That brings to mind Midnight Cowboy, and the curious friendship of Joe Buck and Ratso Rizzo.

Boswell: I do think there are some parallels with Midnight Cowboy and it is a film that I love. It wasn’t necessarily a film I was thinking about when I was writing the script. But it has dawned on me during the process of making the film that there are similarities between the characters. Perhaps this is something of a modernization, but again it wasn’t intentional.

SF360: The Stranger In Us is a mysterious and evocative title. What does it mean to you?

Boswell: We had a hard time naming this film. We used the temporary title up until the fine cut stage. It used to be called Burn like Fire, which we never liked. That title was meant to be reflective of the internal, fiery experience that Anthony was having, but it never worked. I do think there’s a consistent theme about strangers in his relationship to Stephen and Gavin, and his relationship to himself. So the title is really about discovering those parts of yourself you had no idea were there. 

SF360: How did you arrive at cinematic ways of conveying Anthony’s internal struggles, such as his need for connection, without putting it baldly into words?

Boswell: The internal experience of a character is always a struggle for writers and directors, especially when you’re doing character-driven work. I think the key is to explore how the external reflects the internal as opposed to outwardly stating it. I find when films beat you over the head with the character’s psychology it’s a real turnoff.  It’s not uncommon, when writing an early draft of the script, to overstate your point in the dialogue. Which is why you return to the dialogue in rewrites, and work through those issues. There literally were days when I’d sit down with my producer, Cheryl Simas Valenzuela, and we would talk about, How do you portray this experience with a visual medium? It literally came down to things like Anthony’s inability to unpack and always getting take-out, even though those are very small elements in the film. Those kinds of things are integral to every scene, and they collectively work toward that theme of someone being stuck and lonely.

SF360: One of the things I appreciated the most about  the film that you resisted the crutch of using music to convey Anthony’s state of mind.

Bowell: I just loathe productions that use the soundtrack to tell you how to feel. My whole approach to this project was that it was meant to feel local and personal and even gritty. To me, part of creating that tone and style was a sparse soundtrack. I worked with a composer named Margrit Eichler who really got what I was going for and wrote to the occasion beautifully. Originally I had this concept that there would be no music at the beginning, that it would sort of slowly creep in throughout the film, and the majority of the soundtrack would occur in the last portion. It didn’t exactly work that way, but that framework is still somewhat there.

SF360: Since you mentioned structure, let’s talk about the way the film goes back and forth in time. How does that underscore it’s theme?

Boswell: Let me start by saying that I don’t always expect the audience to fully get this [while they’re watching], but all of the scenes with Stephen and Gavin are memories that Anthony’s having on the bus ride [at the beginning and throughout the film]. The idea is that Anthony is trying to resolve for himself the loss of these two relationships, and how these two people became strangers in his life. So that’s where the structure comes from.

SF360: In response to some confusion among test audiences, you identified with onscreen text  when the first several scenes take place. That helped me a lot, I’ll say.

Boswell: When I was writing the script, I was always very content with my structure. In postproduction, which is editing, we were challenged with the fine line between what’s confusing to audiences and what audiences would enjoy figuring out — where they would enjoy solving the puzzle. So we actually did piece together the film linearly and watched it. I’m the first to admit that some things worked better that way. But it had some major problems. One is that we just found the film to be not as interesting. The other is that the film opens with 45 minutes of Stephen, which is a lot to take. The payoff, in the linear version, is the midpoint, where you get 45 minutes of Gavin, which is like a breath of fresh air. If you can survive 45 minutes of Steven.

SF360: You got lovely natural performances from Raphael Barker and Adam Perez, and a creepily ambiguous one from Scott Cox. What is your approach to working with actors?

Boswell: Some renowned directors are known for berating their actors. That would never be my style. For me, it’s extremely important to gain the trust of your actors. I don’t think there’s only one way to work with actors, but I’ve found that my approach works for me, especially when you’re asking actors to improvise for you and take that aspect of the direction seriously. When you’re asking actors of all sexual identities to disrobe, those things need to be handled delicately. In my experience you’ll get so much more from the actors than if you don’t handle it that way.

SF360: Especially if they aren’t being paid a lot of money.

Boswell: In some ways, The Stranger In Us is an experiment in what can you do with no budget. My goal was to make a feature without relying on external revenue [i.e., outside investors]. Can we gather cast and crew, can we pick up a camera and step outside and shoot a film that’s worthy of being made or seen or distributed?

SF360: Given that The Stranger In Us is somewhat autobiographical, did the process of making the film enhance your feeling of belonging in San Francisco?

Boswell: I think that people always kind of question and affirm their living circumstances. So the film gave me more ownership of San Francisco in the sense that it allowed me to explore an experience that I had. It allowed me to spend some time representing a neighborhood that I’ve always been fascinated with, which of course is the Polk Street-Tenderloin area. I’ve considered working on a documentary. I’m very interested in why youth end up there. It’s a cultural phenomenon that is unique to San Francisco in some ways and common in other ways, But I believe there is a mythology around San Francisco, and young people come here seeking something that they typically don’t find. And I see it as a societal ill, that young people become homeless, drug addicted, selling their bodies. There are some great social services for them, but it’s an ongoing problem. Having made this narrative project sparks my interest in shooting what might be considered a companion piece. In terms of exploring that particular neighborhood and the subject of homeless youth, I feel like there’s more to say.

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