Photo: Michael Marius Pessah

“It’s sort of like having a somewhat unusual kid who’s going off to college,” says the out and proud director and writer Hunter Lee Hughes of his film Guys Reading Poems. “… Especially because the kid is different, you’re concerned that he finds the right major and someone to love that accepts him for who he is. I feel like that about this movie.”

Guys Reading Poems is a moody tale about one young man’s recollections of his unhappy (and at times, downright distressed) childhood and how he found solace and strength through the words of various poets. Last year, it was one of the most intriguing and consistently best-reviewed films on the LGBT festival circuit. Camp reported on the film’s big-screen release last May (https://goo.gl/4PU4CQ).

Now, with April being National Poetry Month, it seems fitting to revisit this one-of-a-kind viewing experience that has recently been released on DVD, Blu-Ray and V.O.D. by Gravitas Ventures. Guys Reading Poems has quickly been embraced by a whole new audience, yet the enthusiastic acclaim remains the same.

Hughes says the search for the right distributor/releasing partner for this film, his first feature, began practically when primary shooting started. He says: “This was a six-year journey and stars openly lesbian actress Patricia Velasquez, not to mention some of some of the most beautiful men I’ve ever encountered!”

Even as the film was doing well at festivals, Hughes and his team were also holding special “distributor screenings,” inviting representatives from companies that could help it along to a DVD release.

On a fittingly dark and rainy night at the Raleigh Studios, Daniel Bort, an independent producer’s rep, attended as the guest of Velasquez.

“He had worked on the distribution for Patricia’s earlier same-sex romantic hit Liz En Septiembre [Liz in September],” Hughes recounts, “so he was especially curious to see her work here.”

Bort was impressed with what he saw, and through his connections and recommendation, Hughes and company came into contact with Gravitas Ventures, a worldwide distributor of independent films renowned for its LGBT-themed releases.

Gravitas was supportive and artist-friendly, Hughes said, and they also introduced a new, brighter graphic for the DVD and online release.

“The original poster we had was fine for the theatrical release — darker and more moody,” Hughes said. “It suggested a lot to movie-goers about what they were about to see. But once you’re on a website, you’re listed in a whole line of other releases, and we needed something a bit brighter and more inviting to make us stand out. I feel confident this new design does just that.”

The DVD release also features a director’s commentary by Hughes, which he says will give viewers more insight into the film’s distinctive layers, as well as interviews with the cast and several filmed “shorts” of them reading poems.

Actor Daniel Berilla, an open and proud member of the gay community, plays the role of the assistant. An up-and-coming young talent, he found working with a creative mind like Hughes highly enjoyable and educational.

“When he first approached me regarding this project, my first thoughts were, ‘Thank you Hunter – I don’t get it,’” Berilla says, alluding to the seemingly arcane way that the story unfolds on the printed page. “But Hunter told me what the direction was he was going for with the film, and … he said he had full confidence in me and that this role was perfect for me. He later even added that he wrote the role while having me in mind, so I’m very grateful for that.”

Hughes said: “I saw Berilla’s role as providing some much-needed comic relief in an otherwise dark piece. So I wanted someone who could bring some joy and lightness and fun to the table.”

The role of the assistant, Hughes says, is part of a larger group of characters that becomes kind of a substitute family for the lead character. Berilla’s energetic positivity was precisely what the part required, Hughes said.

“Daniel is just adorable in a very specific way – his size, his features, his charm,” Hughes says. “When you meet Daniel, you almost want to smile straightaway. He makes you feel a little bit happier just by being in his presence. Those qualities come across here in the film and were important for the world we were building. You almost feel like he could be your cousin, so all of what he gives on-screen works.”

What does Berilla himself think he brought to his character that only he could? He says that for practically the first half of his life out in Hollywood, he actually was an assistant to an assortment of celebrities and executives.

“That’s where this whole ‘method’ part comes into play,” he says, “and I was really able to pull from my honest life experiences and portray that through my character.”

Berilla, whose “regular” job is working behind the scenes on the Paramount Network’s hit reality show Bar Rescue, said he found it gratifying that his director really understood the process a performer goes through in connecting with a character.

“Hunter is very good at getting actors to kind of become ‘methodic’ before even going in front of the camera,” Berilla says. “He loves to work one-on-one with an actor and really listens to their points of view and ideas. That can be pretty rare anywhere, but especially for those at the relative start of their professional careers, so I was pleased to find that he puts the time and effort into really making the actor become their best for their character. He also made the environment so relaxing and accepting.”

During the interim between the movie’s film festival success and its release onto DVD and V.O.D., Hughes initiated an unusual form of marketing by holding monthly poetry readings, inviting members of the community to the microphone to recite poems that they’d written themselves or that had some significance in their lives.

One such reader who was called upon to participate was a certain writer for this very publication (my selection was a dramatic recitation of Stephen Sondheim’s song “Finishing The Hat” from his 1984 Pulitzer Prize-winning musical Sunday in the Park with George).

“With all the waiting, I felt, when in doubt, it’s always great to try and give something back,” the filmmaker explains. “Hence the idea behind these live, open-mic poetry readings.”

At another of these events, Berilla read a poem that he wrote himself.

“I like to write,” Berilla says. “And I have written a few poems in my life, but poetry was just a hobby of mine to cope with life when I was growing up. I won’t claim any particular poet has influenced me or what I put together — and it was definitely nothing like Hunter would give you, for sure!”

GRP Open Mic - Hunter and Daniel. Photo courtesy Gravitas Ventures.

Now that the film is more widely available, Berilla is eager to share Guys Reading Poems with different audiences.

“I have seen the film now seven times in its entirety,” he says. “The things that always stand out to me are the great acting chops the ‘Guys’ that actually read the poems possess. They’re so real, raw and beautiful! Also, Hunter has his own poem that he wrote just for this film, and it is amazing! You can see his true self as a human being come out during this poem.”

As far as his favorite scenes in the film, Berilla says: “I like that people always laugh when I get spanked on the ass in one of the scenes. I also like anytime the camera is inside the ‘puppet box.’ Those moments are beautifully created by our production designer, Nathaly Lopez, and our cinematographer, Michael Pessah. Our cinematography throughout is absolutely gorgeous!”

Hughes plays a supporting role in the film, besides writing, directing and producing it. What was his own favorite scene involving Berilla?

“I’m not sure he’ll like my telling you this …,” the director says. “In the scene where the guys are playing poker, we were setting up and they were all seated, when we realized that Daniel’s feet weren’t touching the floor because ... well ... he’s pretty short in stature. But it was so cute to see his feet just dangling like that, not quite making it to the ground.”

This observation became the inspiration for an impromptu shot included in the finished piece, he says. “After seeing this, we quickly put together that because the guys were going to cheat at poker anyway, it would be great to add a shot of what was happening underneath the table, and to then see the boy’s feet just in mid-air like that. It’s still one of my favorite shots in the film.”

Berilla says: “My realistic hope for GRP is to spark conversations which will allow it to acquire the momentum that we had during its time on the festival circuit. I want everyone to know going into it that this is a very, very unique movie, and to go in willing to accept what’s on the screen. Once they do, they’ll be drawn in piece by piece and be captivated by everything as a whole – the acting, the black-and-white cinematography and the very specifically chosen poems for that exact moment of the film. I also want people to see how this inventive writer and director named Hunter Lee Hughes made a movie that everyone should experience – no matter who you are.”

Hughes remains unabashedly thrilled with the end result of his years of preparation, production and promotion.

He says, “I know it’s an unusual film that escapes easy categorization. It’s black and white, framed by 32 poems, and hops around between two different time periods and an imaginary world, but I hope it continues to find its soulmate audiences. From the considerable amount of feedback we’ve all gotten, I know they’re out there.”

Guys Reading Poems has been released across all major online platforms, including streaming on Amazon Video, Google Play and iTunes. For more information or to view the trailer, go to: http://guysreadingpoems.com/ or like them on Facebook at: /u>. To keep up with Daniel Berilla and his latest projects, go to http://danielberilla.weebly.com.

 

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