Close Encounters of the Celebrity Kind...
Todd Graff Goes Back to High School
Expanded Edition of 8-12-09 Windy City Times Interview
by Richard Knight, Jr.
Out Director Todd Graff returns with Bandslam, another teen film driven by its music, the poster for Used People, the winning film
(and KATM favorite - get it NOW) based on Graff's biographical "Grandma Plays"
Out writer-director-producer and sometime actor Todd Graff has had an unusually broad career stretching back to his stint as a
performer on the children’s show “The Electric Company” in the mid-70s. Since then he’s acted, written, and produced in a wide
variety of film genres (everything from The Abyss to Used People). But Graff is perhaps best known for Camp, the hilarious and
touching 2003 movie about a summer camp for high school musical theatre teens he wrote and directed based on his own
experiences. Now Graff has returned to features with Bandslam, another teen movie, this one centered on a rock band contest and
featuring a pair of Disney Channel starlets, Vanessa Hudgens and Alyson Michalska who co-star with newcomer Gaelan Connell and
gay audience favorite Lisa Kudrow. Excerpts from Graff’s exclusive interview with Windy City Times:
WINDY CITY TIMES (WCT): Why did you want to make another teen movie after Camp?
TODD GRAFF (TG): It’s not so much that I specifically wanted to do another teen picture. I was interested in doing another music
driven picture and I was interested in doing a studio picture where I had an actual budget and some actors who were in the union.
WCT: (Laughs) And a little craft service perhaps?
TG: Exactly. So I was certainly in the market for that and this came my way. It existed as a script when it was brought to me but in
an extremely different form. Like unrecognizable. It was based on “Charlotte’s Web” and it was about Charlotte dying of cancer.
There was no bandslam, no Sam character; no rock-n-roll. It was a very, very different movie and so although I was not interested
in doing a teenage cancer movie there was some really good stuff in the writing and Josh Cagan who wrote the original draft had a
really idiosyncratic style and seemed to be into music in the script. I presented a version to the studio that took the character’s
musical interests and wrapped the movie around that. And they went for it. I think they were nervous about the movie that they
had not being commercial because teenage cancer is a very difficult subject matter.
WCT: But High School Musical 4 probably sounded probably sounded pretty good…even though this isn’t exactly that.
TG: The truth is I could only write the movie that I could write and I can’t write a High School Musical kind of movie. I probably
would have a much nicer house if I could (laughs) but I don’t have that skill set. However, I’ve been in bands and I was raised by
two musicians and I played CBGB’s and that world is something I’m very passionate about and comfortable with and so that became
the story I was interested in telling and happily for me, the studio said okay.
WCT: Did those kids know who any of those punk icons that are referenced in the movie were – Patti Smith, David Bowie, The Velvet
Underground, Bad Brains, etc.?
TG: No. There was a lot of rock school going on but that was fun. I don’t think it changed anybody’s mind. I don’t think that
they're out there buying “See No Evil” by Television but as actors they embraced it because they needed to do that for the character’
WCT: We just lost John Hughes, king of the 80s teen pictures. Having helmed a couple of these yourself, any thoughts on picking
up his mantle for a new generation?
TG: Listen, I should only ever be a patch on John Hughes’ garment – I don’t kid myself. It’s not that I don’t like this niche that I’m
in but I’m in this niche and a lot of stuff that I get sent or things that I present to people are music driven and have young
characters. I mean, I don’t think I’m going to do another exclusively “teen” movie like this one but I certainly am fond of the idea
of there being teen characters. The nice thing about actors that age is they have no idea if you’re right or wrong so they don’t
question you. They just kind of do it so you don’t have to worry so much (laughs).
WCT: I’m sure it was great working with Lisa Kudrow.
TG: Yes, she’s not just talented and funny she’s truly one of the nicest people in the business.
WCT: She has this new hilarious web series, “Web Therapy” that out director Don Roos.
TG: It’s fantastic.
WCT: I love it too. Now he recently said something to the effect that maybe young gay leading man type actors in Hollywood
should stay in the closet – this was following up on comments made by another out director to the same effect, Todd Holland.
What's your take on this?
TG: I don’t know the specific context of what they said and they’re both friends of mine and I love both of those guys.
WCT: As do I.
TG: Yeah, yeah, yeah. I would say this myself: I was a young actor and it wasn’t like I went to The Advocate and said, “I’m out”
when I was on Broadway but I never hid anything either. As soon as anybody did care and I was interviewed by Out and The
Advocate it wasn’t an issue and it was fine. But I was never a real leading man type so maybe the thinking is more about if you’re
the guy who gets the girl and shoots the guy and fights the alien. Yeah, maybe there are a lot of narrow minded people who would
have a problem with that. I don’t know. I think you have to live your life. You can’t really stand in other people’s shoes. They
have their own reasons. Outing in general, obviously, is very divisive as an issue. Whether you’re a young actor or not. If you’re
Michelangelo Signorile it’s, “Why should there be a problem with everyone being gay?” but it’s not you – that’s fine for your life and
nobody’s going to tell you you can’t. So, although I would have no problem with it and if any friend asked me I would counsel them
and say, “Live your own life and fuck them and who cares” but I would never really judge anybody who didn’t have the immediate
courage to do that.
WCT: I think everybody should be out but I’m not a young leading man type in Hollywood trying to get jobs.
WCT: It would be nice to see this change – to have a Rupert Everett not regret his decision to come out, for example.
TG: But you know things do change. I don’t know. I’m casting something now and I have no idea and don’t care about the
sexuality of the hottie older teenage guy who I’m casting for the lead in it and I would have no issue with him being gay and out and
I would have no issue with him being straight. The character he’s playing is straight and I think at the end of the day no studio is
going to say I can’t cast the lead in my own movie because that’s my job as director. So I’m somebody who is in charge of
somebody getting exactly something like this and for me, there’ll be no downside to being out. Down the line when they have to
market the movie? I have no idea what issues that pop up for that part of the studio’s machinery. But in terms of getting the job
one just has to hope that the individual doing the hiring is not a Luddite in this area.
WCT: So what is this next project?
TG: Well it hasn’t been greenlighted yet but it’s looking good. It’s called Joyful Noise and it’s another music driven movie. It has a
lot of stuff with gospel choirs. It has two women adult relationships that I’m ripping off from Anne Bancroft and Shirley MacLaine in
The Turning Point and Arthur Laurents (the writer of that) at 91 I count on one hand as one of my best friend in the world. And so,
with his blessing (laughs), I’m doing that. There’s also a younger love story as well – like an interracial love story. It’s not like High
School Musical at all but that Benetton world is, I think, really fascinating because we’re so much further along than we ever were –
we’re just not as far along as we think we are.
WCT: I’m waiting for Slammer with Sarah Jessica Parker and Bette Midler – is that going to happen?
TG: Nope (laughs). It’s certainly not going to happen like that. The last version of it that was floating around was Queen Latifah
with Garry Marshall directing and then I heard that’s not happening and I don’t know. I want Latifah for the gospel movie so I’m
happy to have that possibility happening.
WCT: Fingers crossed. Now, I have to talk a little about Used People because my husband and I love, love, love this movie so much.
TG: Oh, that’s so sweet!
WCT: We actually listen to it in the car when we go on vacation because the dialogue is so great – it’s a pleasure to listen to on its
own – like All About Eve or Moonstruck. I really mean that.
TG: (delighted) Oh my God! Thank you!
WCT: I wasn’t a film reviewer when the movie came out and I went back recently and read some of the reviews and I don’t really
get the mixed reaction it got. That must have been hard because it’s obviously such a personal project.
TG: It’s funny because I’m talking to you from a room in the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel and it’s actually the room that I wrote Used
People in – so there you go.
WCT: That’s a nice bit of serendipity.
TG: As soon as I could make a living as a writer I stopped acting and I was doing an HBO movie called Framed with Kristen Scott
Thomas and Jeff Goldblum and they put me up here and I spent all my spare time writing Used People thinking, “I have to stop
acting in order to complete a movie” and this is where I found the time to write it – on spec obviously and sent it out into the void
and it sold miraculously and even more miraculous got made. So it was really a kind of a charmed thing and to this day the woman
who directed it – Beeban Kidron – is a very close friend of mine. Her son is my God son. Really – if nothing else – getting that
relationship in my life would have made the whole experience worth it. Then add the bonus that it was about my family and they’re
all hams and they love that they’re immortalized forever and were played by movie stars. Of course I would have liked it to have
done better but I have found in my career that almost nothing has done all that well. Somehow I keep working, which is nice and
somehow I have what would appear to me to be smart people who really like the stuff that I do and let me know. But I really think
what I do is not for everybody. I think my sensibility is just narrower than the mainstream. The people that love it seem to really
love it but it’s not that many people.
WCT: Well, as a wise friend said to me years ago, “Not everything is for everybody.”
TG: Yes – it reminds me of that line from “Title of Show” when they sing, “I’d rather be 10 people’s favorite thing than 100 people’s
tenth favorite thing” – I can relate to that.