Making “Gray Matters”

Gay-themed movies can usually be counted on to have a gay or lesbian filmmaker at the helm. Then again, brothers and sisters can usually be counted on not to mack on the same woman.

Turning the tables on both of these Hollywood conventions is filmmaker Sue Kramer (pictured above, left), the writer-director-producer of Gray Matters, a romantic comedy with a gay twist, opening on Feb. 23. It stars Heather Graham (Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me, Boogie Nights) as Gray, a flighty New York City ad exec questioning her sexuality; Tom Cavanagh (TV's Ed) as Sam, her goofball brother; and Bridget Moynahan as charming Charlie, the gal they both go ga-ga for.

Kramer, who lives with her husband and 2-year-old daughter in the gay-friendly neighborhood of Park Slope in Brooklyn, N.Y. , cites her sister Carolyn, who is a lesbian, as her inspiration for this lighthearted romantic comedy. “Carolyn always had crushes on many of my friends, and at first I remember thinking, ‘Wow, that's so weird, she likes my best friend,'” Kramer recalled.

“And then all of a sudden, this big light bulb went off in my head, and I was like, ‘Of course she would like her. We're so close; we like everything in life the same; we have the same taste in everything. Why wouldn't she like my best friend?' So I thought, ‘How can I make that interesting?'”

The answer is the fun, frothy Gray Matters.

Kramer drew inspiration from 1940s comedies to make the film, which took six years — and several casting changes — to complete. “I'm a cinephile to begin with, but I love Billy Wilder and Preston Sturges and William Wyler, and I love bantering dialogue,” Kramer said. “I love dialogue that kind of goes over each other and that is real, and I was very inspired by those movies. I wanted to pay homage.”

One particular old-school tip of the hat is sure to spike the blood pressure of modern lesbian audiences: a sexy pas de deux featuring Graham in a sharp suit and Moynahan in a provocative negligee, re-creating the “I Won't Dance” scene from the 1946 Jerome Kern biopic classic, Till the Clouds Roll By. “That's actually one of my favorite scenes in the movie. That was something that I had just visualized for so long,” Kramer said. And beautiful women dancing together never hurt a lesbian film's grosses.

While it will obviously appeal to gay audiences in search of queer content, Kramer hopes the film will also draw in straight crowds: “I feel like it's a film for everybody.” But why would a straight writer-director spend time, energy and Hollywood capital on a lesbian-themed movie? “I don't think that you should be in any category in life, so I don't think that there should be gay writers only doing gay stories and vice versa,” said Kramer, adding that she “wanted to write a movie that [my sister] could take my parents to, that she could take her straight friends to, that she could take her gay friends to, and that it could be somebody on-screen that she could relate to as a lesbian.”

Acknowledging that most portrayals of lesbians on the big screen tend toward the stereotypical, the psychotic, the tea-drinking or worse, Kramer said: “It's not like gays have been portrayed as smart, funny, interesting, pretty women. I wanted to do something that could kind of encompass everything Gray was feeling about coming out, but also put it in the right format, so it could appeal to a bigger audience than a small art film.”

Kramer described the character of Gray as a combination of herself and her sister. “I tried to make a character that was gray in every way,” she explained. “Everything from the title to her name to all of her personality traits are all about [the fact] that she can't commit to here or there. She's not black or white. In terms of what she orders, she always has to order two things, and she can't decide what to wear, so she has to buy four outfits instead of one. Everything that she does is just indecision, which is just part of the whole coming-out process and not being ready.”

Coming out is a topic Kramer knows about firsthand from her sister Carolyn, and one that plays a prominent role in Gray Matters. When Gray finally admits to her best friend/brother that she's gay, he tells her that he has known since she was in the second grade. Was that the case with Kramer and her sister? “Oh, my God, it was so the truth,” she said. “I was 10 and she was 16, and she was depressed, and I was like, ‘So, why are you depressed? Is it because you're gay?'”

Though Carolyn denied it at the time, she eventually did come out — years later. “She made it like this huge, big deal, like, sit me down, ‘You're never gonna believe in a million years,'” Kramer recalled. “And I was rolling my eyes, like, ‘OK, I've known since I was at least 10, if not sooner.”

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