Kerem Sanga on writing and directing the lesbian teen love story “First Girl I Loved”

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For a story about a 17-year-old high schooler in LA, First Girl I Loved has caught a lot of us (myself included) by surprise by virtue of its depth. The majority of the credit for this must go to the movie’s writer-director, Kerem Sanga. We caught up with Kerem ahead of his trip to Toronto to attend the film’s screening at the Inside Out LGBT Film Festival, spoke with him about everything from the movie’s “gay panic” moments to the issue of consent it highlights.

Warning: Spoilers ahead

AfterEllen.com: What was the inspiration for the film and what made you just have to write it?

Kerem Sanga: My younger sister wanted to go talk to me, and that’s when she came out to me. I would say that happened about three years ago. While the story of First Girl I Loved is complete fiction and not at all based on her life, the inspiration to write it came from that moment when I think for the first time I really emotionally considered and simply intellectually considered what the point of view of somebody who feels that they have to, for whatever reason, hide an essential part of their identity from the world, what that must feel like. And it was from that initial encounter and that starting point of emotion that I felt really compelled to not only start, but finish the script and the movie.

Mateo Arias, Kerem Sanga, Dylan Gelula and Brianna Hildebrand Getty Images Portrait Studio Hosted By Eddie Bauer At Village At The Lift - Day 4Photo by Maarten de Boer/Getty Images

AE: It does seem like more and more teens are positively embracing their queer identities, particularly in major metropolises. That’s less true in rural areas. But Sasha, who lives in LA of all places, had some major gay panic moments throughout the film. Were you at all trying to say that this apprehension simply hasn’t gone away for teenagers?

KS: It certainly must be true that it hasn’t completely gone away. Being gay is still not unremarkable. It’s still, at least from my point of view as a straight person, something that has to be revealed and “dealt with.” Certainly things have changed and for the better, probably, on the whole, but even more than the negative emotions that individual people face, or positive, when they hear that someone close to them is gay–the feeling of having to do it in the first place… And then how everyone takes it, how all the characters behave, from Sasha to Anne to Clifton is a question of just the characters and what feels emotionally true to me. There isn’t any kind of hidden meaning or agenda, at least that I started out with. Instead, I just tried to reflect what I felt was true and what I’ve seen.

 

AE: I wanted to ask a technical question, but one that obviously ties into the script as well. The non-consensual sex scene between Clif and Anne–it was fragmented. We didn’t get everything at once. Why did you choose not to show it all in one go?

KS: To be honest with you, it just felt right. I think when I make a film I end up learning a lot and on this one, I really started to embrace the power of point of view. By breaking up that scene, what it allowed the viewing experience to be was one in which you were gradually exposed to all of the characters’ points of view a little at a time instead of getting one person’s point of view all at once. What that meant was by the time you did get to the end of that scene, you felt that you, at least emotionally, understood, or I hope emotionally understood, where both characters were coming from. And so you felt a kind of emotional participation in what was happening, instead of just an intellectual participation.

 

AE: Let’s now directly address the issue of consent in this film. Why did you feel the need to tackle this particularly sensitive subject?

KS: Again, it’s only really in retrospect that, or at least after the filming of a scene that, especially with that issue, that I realized what kind of reaction this was going to elicit from an audience and that I am dealing with issues as great as this. It’s not until I was editing the film that I realized how people are going to react to it and that this is an issue, and this is something that in fact happens to be part of a public conversation right now. I didn’t set out to deal with anything. For me, there’s this main character who has this friend, and she’s trying to tell him something, and he’s not listening, and then all of this happens. That scene went through many revisions editorially, not really in the writing process. My guiding principle was to just show everything as evenly as possible.

I really have to highlight how the actors, Dylan and Mateo [Arias], brought that scene to life. Until then, even though I felt like it was true and it felt real to me, it was still abstract words on a page. They believed in putting 100 percent of themselves in it, and they’re both so talented. That day, shooting, is when the movie felt real to me. It felt like I had written something but these people were going to take it and make it real and, frankly, better.

Getty Images Portrait Studio Lounge - 2016 Park CityPhoto by Randy Shropshire/Getty Images

AE: I know you get asked this question a lot, and even Dylan brought it up, but audience members have asked you how you were able to get into a young woman’s mind space so well. How do you respond to that?

KS: When I’m asked something like that, which is relatively often, a lot of things go through my mind. One is, sure there are times I don’t know why–I’m just writing things down, and it feels right. And there are other times when I’m looking at it from not the inspired, emotional position that I wrote it in, but through another lens of making sure that everything has a reason, and people are acting within the limits of their abilities. Meaning their command of the language and how in touch with their emotions they are and what kind of strategies they have for getting what they want. I don’t know how everyone else does it, but it’s always some kind of mixture of these two things. I try to use my, let’s say, dramatist abilities, however good they are, in the service of really capturing what that initial emotional bolt of lightning inspiration was. This scene had a certain feeling. I could feel that, and I knew that kind of all at once. Not to say I knew exactly where it was going, but I knew what the catalyst was, which was she’s going to try to come out to her best friend and her best friend is going to a) not be listening, but b) because he doesn’t want to because he wants to pretend like this isn’t happening so that he can push his own agenda. So there was, like, an emotional start to that, and the rest of it is just seeing it through.

I just have the same discipline in writing and the same inspirational process regardless of who the character is. Whether it’s a man or it’s a woman. Which is not to say that everyone is the same. Every character is a person to me who has certain qualities. That process doesn’t differ for whoever that person is. I think that because there are so few, relatively speaking, complex, interesting, female characters versus male, if you do–and this is just a fact of the current state of media. I don’t think this is anything controversial that I’m saying. But so when you do something that is more rare, it draws questions, and you get asked, “How? Why? What are you trying to accomplish? How did you do it? What was the brilliance behind it?” When it’s, for me, the same.

 

AE: On a lighter note, while we don’t see too much of their interaction, how important do you think it is and will be for Anne to have an older openly queer person in her life like the character of Jasmine?

KS: When we were shooting Cameron [Esposito], who plays Jasmine, told me that she used to go to places like, not exactly the thrift store in the film, but places like that. And I’ve gotten the same from a lot of people who’ve seen the film. They would just go just to see lesbian relationships and just to see people living out without any kind of agenda. It seems to me that’s what Anne is doing. That’s an important thing for someone like Anne and anybody looking for a kind of affirmation that the way that they feel is the way that other people feel as well and that it’s okay. We don’t live in a completely accepting open society, still. So it’s definitely really important.

 

AE: Finally, I wanted to ask if you plan to write more stories that highlight queer women?

KS: I’m trying to tell stories that are a reflection of this world that I live in, or some version of it–it would just happen. It would just come about. So I definitely will be, if only because it’s such a fundamental part of the world that we live in. To think about it as a theme to tackle is kind of like thinking, for me, it’s kind of like saying, “Well in this film I’m going to tackle the male psyche.” Which, I don’t know that people really set out to do that. It just sort of happens. So definitely.

 

First Girl I Loved will play in Toronto on June 3 as part of the Inside Out LGBT Film Festival. Visit the movie’s Facebook page for news of future screenings.

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