An autobiographical comedy about a gay boy and his anti-commie mail-order-bride mother escaping the Soviet Union for a better life in the United States, Wes Hurley’s first feature Potato Dreams of America opened to rave reviews in March at SXSW. We caught up with Hurley to talk about his stunning new film, currently playing in Frameline’s physical and digital lineup.
Congrats on being able to do in-person screenings as well as digital screenings this summer. I know everyone’s sick of talking about Covid, but how did the pandemic affect this project and its release?
We were really lucky with pandemic timing because we finished filming about a week before everything shut down in Seattle, which was one of the epicenters early on. I edited during the pandemic which was kind of perfect because I had no excuse not to work. In terms of release, it’s nice to finally have in-person screenings – this one at Provincetown Film Festival will be the first one that I’ll attend that’s a physical screening. We premiered the film at SXSW which was a huge honor, but it’s just not the same when it’s all digital.
Your film opens with a quote from Quentin Crisp about the universality of American cinema. Talk to me a little about what that quote means to you and the film…
I’ve been a huge fan of Quentin Crisp for a long time. I remember discovering this quote years ago and thinking I’d really love to use it in a film. It really spoke to me because he talks about how American films were this escape into a fantasy world and a totally different. For me growing up in the far east of Russia in a shitty town, it definitely resonated and inspired me and mom to leave and look for a better life. I think, you know, talking to immigrants from different places who’ve come here – it’s funny that the film reference are pretty much the same. The experience is similar for everyone – the films that represent America growing up for them.
The discovery of color TV plays a big moment in Potato’s early years. Tell me about that event in your life, and seeing Jean-Claude Van Damme in full color for the first time.
Yeah. I grew up with a black and white TV – I remember my mom kept saving and saving and saving for a color TV and VCR. It’s funny because she was dating this kind of really lame guy mostly because he had a VCR… and as soon as we had our own, it was like “Bye!” I forget that I grew up with a black and white kind of experience, but you know, you see stuff in color the first time, it’s completely different.
Especially Van Damme…
Especially Van Damme. (laughs) I didn’t have any access to gay porn growing up, or any homoerotic material. Those martial arts movies with him wearing very little were as close as it came to gay porn.
I hear Whoopi Goldberg is a big part of your story and that she gave you props for your short film Little Potato. What was it about her or her films that excited you when you were younger, and uhm, do you watch The View?
Ha, yeah. We do watch The View – my partner got me into that. We were really big fans of Whoopi and fell in love with her films in Russia. Sister Act, Corrina Corrina, Made in America, and Ghost especially. The thing that really that drew me to Whoppi – I don’t remember what year it was but when I was little, she hosted the Oscars she spoke out to the audience and said something like “For all the little kids who are watching somewhere in the world and aren’t in a good place, this could be you someday.” I remember I convinced myself that she was speaking directly to me. It was all really amazing even though it was all in my head. I got an opportunity to eventually tell her that and she was really kind. She watched the film and really liked it and was very encouraging throughout the process. I felt really lucky to connect to my hero.
A VHS copy of Gregg Araki’s The Living End plays a significant role in your film. Is he a big inspiration? What other New Queer Cinema pieces do you enjoy?
I remember when we came to the States and discovering the gay and lesbian section at the video store was really shocking to me – it’s not something you would ever dream about in Russia. The cover for The Living End is so sexy and I remember being really drawn to it and wanting to rent it but being really embarrassed to even look in that section. It took months before I finally got the courage to rent it. It really spoke to me as an angsty teenager… the film has this angsty, angry “Fuck you, I’m gay” energy which is exactly what I needed at that point in my life. And for New Queer Cinema, I’m really inspired by that era and those are the movies I was exposed to early on as a gay person – I’m inspired by the punk ethos of the early 90s queer cinema. I love Derek Jarman – the idea that he could make these epic period films on small budgets, just using his imagination and daring his audience to accept a different aesthetic. For me, making a movie that spans two decades and is a period film. I’m not supposed to make this type of film with the budget I had, and being exposed to Jarman’s work inspired me to be like “I can make whatever movie I want in whatever style I want.”
Your film has a rather striking visual palate, especially in the first half in Russia…a sort of baroque style mixed with a magical realism vibe. How did you go about designing and achieving this look?
I had a really amazing production designer that I’ve been a fan of for a long time. Her name is Kristen Bonnalie. Amazingly enough, she also lived briefly in Russia. We kind of had the same vocabulary and I didn’t have to explain to her what Soviet apartments look like, so we really clicked. She was instantly onboard with this idea of baroque paintings being an inspiration and things dissolving into blackness around the edges, and things emerging from the dark. It goes back to the idea that we don’t have a lot of money but can still make a visual aesthetic that’s interesting.
Tell me about the casting process and how you found both actors who play you onscreen. What’s it like directing someone to “be you?”
Most the cast is from Seattle. I was really kind of dreading casting younger people. In the past I would always write roles for people that I know…and then you know what you’re going to get. This was the first time i auditioned actors. We found Hersh Powers (who plays Little Potato in the first half) and I instantly was like “We need make this movie now.” He was a big reason why I kind of freaked out and started to aggressively fundraise for the film because I was like “I want to work with him before he grows up.” He’s so good and has so much personality and presence on camera. Then we found Tyler Bocock, who plays Potato as a teenager. With him – it always amazes me when young actors have so much depth because I don’t know where they get it – they haven’t had as many life experiences. I guess it’s just intuitive or subconscious. We also went out with a casting agent in New York. We met with Lea Delaria who I always wanted to play my grandma – it was a fantasy when I was writing the screenplay that ended up working out and she was really great. And Dan Lauria to play my stepfather. He’s so iconic from The Wonder Years this idea that he represents the American Dad…and (laughs) I thought it’d be interesting to take him to this whole different version of American Dad. And with Jonathan Bennett as Jesus, I was kind of playing with this idea that it was a little clueless gay boy’s idea of what Jesus would be.
Potato’s mom fiercely rejects communism. Tell me a bit about your mother and her politics and how she found the courage to go against the grain in an environment where it can be dangerous to do so.
My mom was the big reason I wanted to make this movie – she just fascinates me. I still don’t know why she turned out the way she turned out. All of her sort of non-conformist beliefs and open mindedness goes against the grain of everything that we were around, including all of our family and friends. I still honestly don’t know where she got this mindset. She would always speak out against things that weren’t right. She’s probably the only reason I’m not a crazy racist repressed piece of shit, because everyone else was not a good influence on me. Even the gay thing – she didn’t really know any gay people or had exposure to it – but I remember times when people said really ugly things about gay people and she’d be like “Why does it bother you?” Even in terms of homophobia, I was lucky that she created a little bit of a buffer, and showed a different perspective.
The coming out scene between Potato and his mother is really sweet. Is that how it played out in real life?
Yeah, I’d say it’s 99.9% faithful to everything how it happened. I tried to keep all the conversations exactly as I remembered them. The coming out scene was one of the few moments during production where I had this realization, like “This is so weird and very Being John Malkovich” – to be directing these actors doing the same thing that happened to me 20 years ago.
What were your first impressions of living in the States? Did all the movies you watched growing up come through with everything they promised?
We came in 1997, so it was during the Clinton years, and it was really good for us. My stepfather of course hated the Clintons, but-
He wouldn’t stop talking about them. But for us, it was all exciting and hopeful. Coming to Seattle, which is such a beautiful progressive and shiny emerald city… the contrast was really big and the States definitely lived up to our expectations. There were so many cultural differences between here and where I grew up. I think if I grew up in Moscow or a normal Russian city, it might not have been as big. Vladivostok was a really a backwards shithole, so coming from there to Seattle was like “Oh my God.” It really felt like we were living in a fairy tale for a while.
Now that both Potatoes are behind you…what’s next? Working on any other projects?
Yeah, I am working on a script based on a friend’s memoirs and the story is super wild and interesting. If i can get the funding, I’d love to do season 3 of Capitol Hill. It’s already written, but I wanna make it with some money. In the past I’d just spend my own money, no one gets paid, all very guerrilla style. Horror is my favorite genre, and that’s really what I want to do eventually.
Potato Dreams of America is currently playing at Frameline