“Sorry, I should say right off the bat that I didn’t get a chance to finish it,” I told Michelle Clay, the writer, director and producer of “Better Half.” It had been an unusually busy week, I explained, embarrassed, like a kid claiming the dog ate his homework. So I was only able to get about half way through the film before the Skype interview I’d scheduled with Michelle and her two leading men, Jaimie Fauth and Grant Landry.
“But I’m dying to know,” I asked, suddenly feeling more like a groupie than a journalist. “Does it have a happy ending?”
“Well, we’ve had a lot of people say it’s not the ending they were expecting,” Michelle said. “Which for a filmmaker is always a great thing to hear. But I don’t want to ruin the ending for you. So let’s just say it’s bittersweet.”
“Better Half” follows the story of new gay dads, Leo (Jaimie Fauth) and Tony (Grant Landry), as they embark on their tumultuous path to fatherhood. Though I hadn’t yet watched a scene I’d describe as “bittersweet,” I’d seen enough to know that this was a film that not only gay dads would be able to relate to, but many first-time parents; the main tension in the movie centers on a question posed between would-be parents in bedrooms, fertility clinics, and couples therapy sessions all across the country, regardless of sexual orientation: what happens when one of you wants it less?
A Not-So-Gay “Gay” Movie
For a “gay” movie, the sexuality of the protagonists in “Better Half” is remarkably incidental, which is particularly refreshing in the current entertainment climate where Hollywood seems eager to tell any and every tearjerker LGBT story it can get its hands on, no matter how revisionist. (I’m looking at you, “Stonewall” and “Dallas Buyers Club.”)
I’m not complaining about the increased attention being paid to characters and events in LGBT history in recent years, but this uptick in exposure makes it all the more unusual to watch a movie about two gay parents (who, shockingly, are even played by two openly gay men) where the characters could almost as easily have been conceived as straight ones.
But it does beg the question: if sexuality is secondary to her story – one that is essentially about parenthood, and not same-sex parenthood – why did Michelle choose two gay men as her protagonists?
“Way back in 2007, I was finishing my first feature, and I didn’t know what I was going to do next,” Michelle explained. “I was talking with a friend who was complaining that there are no good gay roles out there; there are films about people coming out and about getting gay-bashed. But there is never a gay character in the center of a story, and the sexuality is secondary.”
This isn’t to say that the sexuality of her characters was completely trivial in her decision-making. “If I’d written the story with a straight couple, then it’s a story you’ve seen before,” Michelle said. “If it were a lesbian couple, then I’d have a conflicted audience that didn’t forgive one of the female characters for not wanting a kid. So a gay couple was perfect to tell this story.”
As a self-deemed “perpetually single girl,” Michelle also said she was interested in exploring themes of “couplehood,” particularly where one partner is unequal to the other in some way. “If one partner is weak and the other strong what happens when your partner asks you to do something that you’re weak at?” Michelle asked. “And how much do you regret doing that? I just wanted to show ‘couplehood.’ You know, the normal, healthy interaction between a couple.”
Could Michelle’s story have been told just as easily with straight parents as the leads? Probably. But with same-sex parents in T.V. and film in such short supply (poor Mitch and Cam have quite the burden to bear), gay dads, at least, will certainly appreciate Michelle’s decision to explore themes of parenthood and “couplehood” within the context of two men. (And there certainly won’t be any complaints over Michelle’s casting choices in the scenes where the “normal, healthy interaction” between her handsome leads turns physical.)
Since “couplehood” is such an essential refrain in “Better Half,” Michelle wasn’t simply looking for two talented actors, but ones that felt like they were part of a believable partnership. “I wasn’t casting a “Tony” and a “Leo,” Michelle said of her process, “I was casting a couple.” To find the perfect couple, Michelle interviewed dozens of actors before finally settling on Grant Landry and Jaimie Fauth. “They were the only ones that felt like a couple. Grant was my first audition, Jaimie was the last.”
Grant and Jaimie are certainly believable as a couple in the film. But beyond their acting chops, this might have something to do with the fact that they’ve known each other for 10 years. “Like all good actors, we were also bartenders and waiters,” Jaimie joked. The pair worked together at the Abbey, a well-known gay bar in Los Angeles. Their pre-existing relationship helped. “We already had a fun bond, and a way we tease each other. It felt like maybe we were cheating,” he added with a laugh.
Art Imitates Life?
Every profession has one or two ignorant questions practitioners are sick of being asked by outsiders. For writers: “Cool, but what do you do for money?” I’m sure this was one of those questions for actors, but I had to ask anyway: How alike are Grant and Jaimie anyway to their characters?
Grant and Jaimie looked at each other quickly, and then started laughing. “Not at all,” Grant said.
A quick synopsis of the characters in “Better Half” – no spoilers, I promise – will help here: Grant’s character, Tony, is a social worker and all around do-gooder; in other words, the “better half.” But Tony’s devotion to his job and advocacy work sometimes comes in the way of his relationship with Jaimie’s character Leo, who, while not necessarily a bad guy, is less socially minded than his altruistic other half.
We could maybe sum up the main difference in their characters like this: While both Tony and Leo probably make generous donations to charity each year, Tony does so out of a sense of social responsibility whereas Leo’s mostly in it for the tax breaks.
The drama picks up when Tony makes a move to start their family; he has always wanted to be a father, but the demands of his job, and the reluctance of Leo, had thus far prevented him from doing so. But when a child is abandoned at the agency where Tony works, he sees it as a sign. Tony convinces Leo to adopt the child with him, but in return, he promises to quit his high-stress job in order to do the bulk of the work of caring for his new son, Dylan. Tony, unsurprisingly, takes naturally to fatherhood, while Leo flounders at first, particularly when he finds himself shouldering more of the burden of raising Dylan than he had originally hoped.
I’m not sure why it’s always so astounding to learn that actors are nothing like the characters they portray on film and TV. (You mean Hugh Jackman doesn’t have adamantium-laced claws and bones?!) But I was still more surprised than I should have been to learn that, unlike their characters, Jaimie has always wanted to be a father, while Grant, for now anyway, has no interest.
Jaimie, in fact, is close to becoming a first-time father; he and his husband are in the middle of the foster-to-adopt process. They recently finished all of the required certification classes and have moved on to the home studies, interviews and “mountains of paperwork,” as Jaimie said.
So the filming of “Better Half” came at an interesting moment for Jaimie. “I met my husband in the summer of 2011,” Jaimie explained, “and we started working together in the fall of 2011. As I started to fall in love, and my relationship was coming together, it gave me a lot to think about in doing the film.”
Like the stresses Jaimie’s character encounters in the film, for instance, there have been times in the foster-to-adopt process that have been challenging for him. “But then the fear subsides and you realize you’re up for the challenge,” Jaimie said. “The decision you’re making is whether or not you want your life to change dramatically. And I’m like, Yeah, I want a big change. My husband and I are both really passionate about this. We have a lot of friends, both straight and gay, who have adopted children with a lot of success. It’s a big change, but it’s exciting.”
Jaimie has always felt strongly about adoption being his preferred path to parenthood. “That’s not a judgment on anyone else,” he clarified. “Because you have to really want this. If you feel bad about the state of the foster care system, then just write a check. You have to really want to parent, and discipline, and make sandwiches, and wipe up throw-up. If there’s anything I can do, to help a child already on the planet whose path might be a little bit murkier … ” Jaimie trailed off. “It just pulls at my heartstrings.”
Not so unlike a plot point in “Better Half,” Jaimie also knows that any child he adopts through the foster care system may come to him by way of a difficult set of circumstances. This, he notes, brings with it an added layer of parenting challenges, so the education he and his husband have received in undergoing the foster-to-adopt process has been vital. “I know that by their nature this kid will come to me and my husband because of a trauma,” he says. “It’s been important to learn about some of the challenges some kids in the foster system face, like children born addicted to certain drugs.”
Jaimie’s experience with the foster-to-adopt process so far has also given him high hopes for what “Better Half” can achieve in terms of increasing acceptance for LGBT foster and adoptive parents and their children. “There are so many kids in the foster care system who need fostering or full adoption, so I hope this film can help garner more attention for that cause,” he added, noting that laws on the books in many states still make the adoption and fostering process more difficult for LGBT parents. “That’s how I felt watching ‘Will and Grace’ 15 years ago. People were like, O.K., it’s on TV. They were exposed to it, and came around on gay people. Hopefully someone clicks on this movie in 2016, and they come around on adoption.”
Unlike his character in the film, who becomes responsible for a newborn, Jaimie hopes to adopt a slightly older child. “Everyone wants a baby,” Jaimie said. “And a lot of older kids need homes.” But, he admits, there might be just a touch of self-interest involved in his preference for adopting an older child. “Adopting a 6-year-old also makes me six years younger when the child was born,” he laughs. “I mean, seriously though, as I’ve gotten older, and the clock started ticking, the idea of adopting a kid who is maybe 5 or 6 started to become more appealing.”
Another motivating factor in Jaimie’s decision to adopt an older child? “I’m not a huge diaper person,” Jaimie said, adding that he at least shares that part of his character’s perspective on childrearing.
So was it difficult, otherwise, to play a character that is more detached and ambivalent about children than he is in real life?
“The baby we got to play the part was unbelievably cute,” Jaimie said. (“Even I thought so,” Grant agreed.) “So I had to work against being very cuddly. It was nice then for me when the story comes around and I get to embrace the notion of fatherhood a little more.”
And what about Grant? Did any part of playing the World’s Greatest Dad rub off on him?
“It didn’t change my mind,” Grant laughed. “I still don’t want kids.” And as an actor, his ambivalence towards children made him work a bit harder. “I had some stranger handing me their kid and I’m like, Oh my god. What am I supposed to do with this?”
Grant quickly clarified that he was exaggerating. “I’m not petrified of children,” he said. “I actually used to work with kids, and I’m good with kids. I just don’t have any desire for personal fatherhood. It was good to explore it and try on those pants for a little bit, and to rise up to the challenge of playing the best dad in the world, basically.”
While Grant doesn’t see fatherhood happening for him anytime in the near future, he did come close to a fatherhood of sorts a couple of years back. “I had a friend who was having trouble getting pregnant,” he said. “And they were looking for a sperm donor, and they wanted that person to be involved. I had agreed to it and was ready to take that half step.”
In the end, Grant’s friend was able to get pregnant on her own. But what if it had gone the other way? What if he suddenly had a child that he helped bring into the world that he needed to worry about?
Grant’s response seemed to mirror the central parenting conflict explored in “Better Half”: “If I were suddenly entrusted with a child, I’d like to think I’m the sort of person who would step up. When you’re given that responsibility and that gift, you have to think about more than just yourself. You need to step up and take care of this new life in your control.”
And even if Grant isn’t looking to become a father anytime soon, he, too, hopes the film can help change hearts and minds about gay adoption. “It’s great that gay marriage has passed,” he said, “but there’s still plenty of laws on the books where gay couples can’t adopt, and people can still be fired for being gay. Hopefully this film can help speak to that.”
The Little Gay Dad Film that Could
Impressively, the end result of “Better Half” doesn’t betray the amount of blood, sweat, and tears that went into the making of it.
“I did everything I was told to,” Michelle said, reflecting on the process. “You’re told to make a short or promo so funders see what kind of filmmaker you are. Then they give you money if they like it.” But this isn’t always how things went for “Better Half.” “Finding funders was definitely the most difficult part.”
The completion of the film was never a sure bet; Michelle raised the money to make the film through crowdfunding companies like Kickstarter and Indiegogo. Through these efforts, she’d raise enough money to work on the film in a piecemeal fashion, but when funds ran out, which they often did, she’d have to put production on hold while she continued fundraising.
Michelle started with a “humble Kickstarter,” and squeezed out five days of shooting from the money raised. “We shot a minimum of 3 scenes each day,” she added. “We were fast, light, and economical.” The end result would be enough material to use for more promotional material and to conduct another Kickstarter.
Over the course of the thirteen months it took to make the film, this is how things went. “We shot and raised money, shot again, raised more money.” In all, Michelle conducted five Kickstarters and three Indiegogos. Two of the Kickstarters failed, Michelle added, meaning she often paid for the movie’s production out of her own pocket.
Fortunately, through Michelle’s dogged determination, fundraising picked up eventually. “After a while, we got some true believers, maybe six or seven people who were giving us $1,000 at a time,” Michelle said. With production costs running about $1,000 per day, she added, these donors greatly helped support the effort.
“The film has over 30 speaking parts and a dozen locations,” Grant pointed out. “People often make a movie with four people and one location with the same amount of money. So props to Michelle for taking a micro budget and making a movie that would normally cost three times as much.”
In addition to her fundraising efforts, of course, Michelle also wrote and directed “Better Half.” What was it like to make a feature length movie, basically on her own?
“Forget ‘basically,’” Grant said quickly, before Michelle could answer. “Entirely! Michelle was our writer, director, producer, editor, cheerleader, psychologist … ”
“Cafeteria lady,” Jaimie added.
“Yeah, exactly,” Grant laughed. “There are so many people in Los Angeles who talk a big talk. But this one woman put her money where her mouth was and endeavored to tell a story she wanted to tell, and made this beautiful film.” Grant added that he had been part of a previous effort to produce a film primarily through crowdfunded efforts that failed. So why did “Better Half” succeed where others did not?
“The movie got made because so many people believed in the story,” Grant said. “And because when you have someone as passionate as Michelle, presenting you with this amazing story, you say yes.”
Still, the on again, off again nature of making this film must have posed some challenges to the cast and crew, right?
“Yes, of course,” Michelle said. “But I warned the cast that we’ve got to do this piecemeal or I can’t make it happen at all. And to their credit, they stuck with me over a year,” which, she noted, is a particularly long time for actors to be committed to one project. “Actors have to be able to change their look,” she said.
“Yeah, over 13 months, I gained and lost 20 pounds,” Grant said. “There’s a couple times where we needed to reshoot things because I ballooned in between scenes. I also filmed a couple different projects, one which required me to grow a ridiculous Robin Hood mustache. So we couldn’t do much while that was happening.”
Apart from those challenges, “it’s also a bit hard to get back in the same headspace,” Grant said. “You need to try and remember what your performance was like from the scene prior that you could have shot weeks ago.”
Jaimie’s main frustrations were associated with the harsh realities of fundraising for a project in which he was a major believer. “I fell in love with the script, and always knew what the mission was,” he said. “I did have to turn down some auditions for this. But I knew there would be a conflict with shooting dates. So I don’t regret it. I’m proud of it.”
An Audience Favorite
So when can Gays with Kids readers, clearly a natural audience for this film, get the chance to see “Better Half”?
“Unfortunately, there isn’t a set date just yet for wider distribution,” Michelle said. But that doesn’t keep Michelle, Grant, and Jaimie from having high hopes for the film.
“You just need to keep your fingers crossed for us; the film circuit has not been kind to us,” she said. But, she added, it hasn’t been kind to a lot of people these days due to increased competition at many festivals. “I have been in the unique situation of having run a festival, and also being a filmmaker trying to get into one. The increase in submissions has been enormous. They’ve literally quadrupled in recent years.”
But support for the film is growing. After spending eight months submitting “Better Half” to various festivals, the film was accepted into festivals this year in North Carolina and Palm Springs. It racked up the Audience Award at the former and a Festival Favorite award in the latter. And in just a couple of days, “Better Half” will be shown as part of a festival in Cincinnati. (So go get your tickets now if you’re anywhere nearby!)
Apart from the excitement of gaining exposure for the film, the festivals are also providing Michelle and her leading men an opportunity to gauge the film’s impact on an audience. “When we screened it at North Carolina, it was the first time with a completely impartial audience,” Jaimie said. “So it was great to see, you know, when they laugh and when they cry, how they react. It was a really great to see audience reaction.”
And the reaction from audiences has been positive. “People love the relationship between the two characters,” Michelle said. “They’re relatable. I’ve heard so many people who comment on the film by saying ‘I’m a Tony, he’s a Leo,’” Michelle said. “I think it’s exciting for people to see themselves reflected on screen.”
“As it gets more exposure from these festivals, hopefully it’ll get into even more festivals,” Grant said, “and then we can find a way to distribute it so that we can show the story to as many people as possible.”
“It would be great if this film ended up on something like Netflix,” Jaimie said, when I asked about his hopes for the film. “Then it’ll be available everywhere.” Living in the bubble that is Los Angeles, he added, he doesn’t encounter much resistance to being gay or adopting a child. “I have support from every single straight person I know. This film reaches out. I think it’s another drop in the bucket in terms of making people understand that this is good. Children need to be adopted.”
“I love the modern honesty of it,” Jaimie said. “It’s right now, it’s in the climate we live in. It’s a fight for my character, Leo, to overcome fear and to face challenges, to dig deeper. I hope that anyone watching will be like, O.K., this is one dude and his partner making their way through uncharted territory.”
“We tried very hard to make a film that creates a lot of avenues and points of entry for people to see themselves and to relate,” Michelle said, when I asked if she had anything left to add at the end of our interview. “And I think we succeeded. I think we have a really strong, bittersweet, emotional film that will surprise people.”
Uh oh, another “bittersweet” reference. So should I prepare for a dramatic ending?
“No, it’s not really a drama,” Michelle said. “It feels like a real story. Because it is a real story.”
After I ended our Skype call, I curled up on my couch to finish my homework, and watched the second half of “Better Half.” And about two scenes in, I understood what she was talking about. I’m not going to spoil the ending for you, so you better keep your fingers crossed the film comes to a theater near you soon. But I will leave you with the same cliffhanger that Michelle gave me at the start of our interview: “Better Half” is a beautiful, relatable story, and the ending is most certainly bittersweet.