"I MAKE FILMS about things that have happened to me," says Portland-based director Andy Blubaugh.
For example, in his short film Scaredycat, Blubaugh speaks with one of the five imprisoned men who mugged him as he biked across the Steel Bridge in 2005. His second film to screen at Sundance, Scaredycat—which also screened on PBS and at film festivals around the world—was one in a string of Blubaugh's short autobiographical documentaries.
But even while Scaredycat was being shot, Blubaugh wanted to make something bigger.
"I've been working on The Adults in the Room for my whole life," he says. Adults is based on a relationship he had, at age 15, with a man who was twice his age. Fittingly, Blubaugh turned 30 in March, the same age as the man pseudonymously known in the film as "Peter."
Blubaugh originally wrote Adults in 2008 as a two-hour drama, but then decided to make the film a blend of documentary and fiction. Adults' dual nature has made it a hard sell: Despite his earlier successes, Blubaugh is struggling to find this film's audience.
At his home in Northeast Portland, Blubaugh sits at his dining room table, folding the cardboard DVD mailers he uses to submit Adults to festivals. He's tired, but makes up for it with gulps of coffee.
"We're kind of reeling now because we just got rejected—uh, 'not selected'—by South by Southwest, which was one of the things we were really hoping for," he says.
Still, Blubaugh knows how the submission process works.
"There's a lot of luck involved in the festival process. I want to be very clear that I'm not complaining—all right, I don't intend to complain—that the largest, most prestigious, most competitive film festivals in the world haven't accepted my film. Even with a glossy Hollywood film with known stars, it's still extremely competitive, and I would have been honored—but also a little bit shocked—to have gotten into Sundance this year."
Blubaugh the filmmaker comes through in this moment: First he says what happened to him, and then he comments on it, expanding a single event to represent a larger issue.
A TOUGH MOVIE TO SHOW
Watching Blubaugh prepare yet more festival submissions, I ask how he's feeling.
"Um, I'm pretty... energized," he says.
He doesn't seem energized. After two years in production, his first feature film is sitting on his dining room table, and the number of festivals that might host its premiere is dwindling. His producers have invested deeply to help Blubaugh make his first feature—and while he wants to pay them back, it's not looking good.
"This is a tough movie to show," he admits. "I don't think the subject of the film is a problem. We'll watch a film on any topic, particularly a documentary. Now, it was a problem in preproduction, because studios and people who are involved in financing films want a pitch. So when I try to explain what this film is about, they want to know if I'm for it or against it."
That "it" is the film's subject matter.
"They want to know if this is a film that's defending sex between an adult and a teenager, or a film that's indicting sex between an adult and a teenager," Blubaugh says. "And it is, honestly, doing neither. That argument is missing the point.
"It's a film about the idea of adulthood and what that means," he continues. "So where sex between adults and teenagers comes in is that this issue brings up a lot of people's reactions about what they understand youth and adulthood to be. We have an obligation to protect young people because they aren't yet adults and can't truly consent, so sexual contact with them is a bad idea. But at the same time, there's some willful ignorance about what teenagers really are, and also some willful forgetting about people's own experiences."
SEX IS THE MACGUFFIN
"When I started making this film, people would say, 'You know, that situation isn't that uncommon,'" Blubaugh says. "And then they'd proceed to tell me their own debaucherous tales of their teenage deflowering. And I always want to say, 'This subject doesn't interest me because it's unique. It interests me because it's so universal.' The way the film is structured, sex is the MacGuffin." (A note for non-film nerds: A "MacGuffin" is part of a film's plot that drives its action, but isn't really present throughout the film. In Raiders of the Lost Ark, the ark was the MacGuffin.)
"You think that this film is titillating in its controversial sexual content, but once you really watch the film, you realize that it's more about why this is such an issue of fascination for us," Blubaugh says. "And if you're seeking to use this issue [the age of consent] as a line to define what it means to be an adult and to be responsible, where else does that line go, and what other metrics do you use? Because a lot of our metrics for adulthood are no longer working."
THE TEENS IN THE ROOM
While shooting The Adults in the Room, the Sam Adams/Beau Breedlove scandal broke—and suddenly, Blubaugh had another way to examine his relationship. The resulting controversy plays out on camera, as the production of the film is affected by Portlanders' attitudes toward adult/teen sex.
Blubaugh teaches film to high school students through the Northwest Film Center, so his new film could become a professional problem—how will parents react when they learn that Blubaugh was in a relationship with an older man during high school?
"I teach young people who are at the age that I was [when I was with Peter], but I have a very different relationship with them. I don't see teenagers as sexual beings in any way. I mean, I realize that they are, but they're not sexual to me. My boss [Ellen Thomas, education director of the Northwest Film Center] has now seen the film, and I was a little nervous—I thought there was a potential that this film could be the end of my teaching. But so far everyone has been very supportive."
He continues, "I worry that this film, if it's not actually watched, could come off as a defense of the relationship that I had with Peter."
It's one more reason for Blubaugh to make sure Adults gets seen.
Two weeks after our first interview, I speak to Blubaugh again—and this time, he's genuinely energized.
"We've been invited to the Frameline Festival in San Francisco in June," he says. "I used to live in San Francisco, and I went to that film festival when I was 17. In those days I was a busboy, then I worked at the Gap as a 'denim expert,' I was a janitor at a gay gym on Castro Street, I was a waiter—I worked my way up."
In addition to Frameline, The Adults in the Room has now been added to the lineups of the Ashland Independent Film Festival, the Sarasota Film Festival, the Miami Gay & Lesbian Film Festival, and the Jacob Burns Film Center in Pleasantville, New York. A Portland premiere is likely late in 2010.
"It'll be nice to go back to San Francisco on the film festival's dime, with my first feature," Blubaugh says, grinning. "I'm gonna go back to the Gap and tell my manager, 'Suck it! Also, I'm stealing all these polos. I know your policies—you can't follow me out of the store.'"