Don’t Look Now, or My Struggles with Autobiographical Filmmaking

Dramarama writer-director Jonathan Wysocki on the perils and pitfalls of making work that draws from one’s own life.

When I started making shorts in film school, I made a choice to avoid anything blatantly autobiographical. Art always came from my imagination. That felt safe.

Years later, I was trying to get an “imaginative” feature project off the ground when the producers asked me to direct a proof-of-concept for investors. I was hesitant – it takes a lot of time, money and effort to make a decent short film. But then inspiration struck: I had an idea for a second short and realized I could shoot both over a weekend with the same gear and crew. One for them, one for me.

The “bonus” film that came out of it, Adjust-A-Dream, became my first venture into autobiographical filmmaking. Based on an experience I had shopping for a mattress with my boyfriend at the time, the film is a bittersweet comedy rooted in fears about commitment and getting hurt. By the time the film was released, however, our relationship had ended. And while the short performed better than anything I made before (and the “imaginative” feature project fizzled), the process of explaining its biographical content on the festival circuit made me squirm.

“What was the genesis of this film?”

“Uh…my, uh, now-failed relationship?”

Why was I so surprised to be asked to talk about the truth behind the fiction? I was compelled to make the film, yet I never considered I would eventually have to answer for my creation. Heart pounding, I’d sit in the theatre watching Jake (Tom DeTrinis) be passive aggressive about not feeling heard by his boyfriend. I recognized my tone in each of his barbs, dancing around his feelings rather than expressing them, until he finally pleads, “You’re not listening to me,” like a wounded animal. I hoped no one would query if that was really me. When asked, I would equivocate: “Oh, you know: I blended so much fact and fiction … I’m not really one character or the other.”

Cue the extreme close-up on Jake’s anxious face.

Regardless, I kept charging ahead into autobiographical territory. It now felt like something inside of me that had to get out. Besides, it performed well – why not follow what the audience wants? My next short, A Doll’s Eyes, was going to be an essay film about my relationship to Spielberg’s Jaws. I felt very confident about it. “I’ve got this one by the teeth!” Loaded with more psychoanalytical references than biographical ones, the film took a major turn in the editing room when a friend observed that the film – or rather the filmmaker – was concealing its actual subject matter. My stomach dropped. Facing the truth, I realized the short was less about Lacan, and really about my shame around being gay. This was the real monster I didn’t want to encounter. I had to make a decision to carry on as intended, or recut the whole thing to reflect my deep, dark truth. I chose the more vulnerable route, and again the film was extremely successful at festivals around the globe. That was gratifying.

Jonathan Wysocki recreating a shot from Jaws in A Doll’s Eyes.

Talking about the film in public, however, was even more difficult this time. I remember screening the short in Vienna – cue Freud! – and the Q&A moderator said something like, “Your film is all about revealing yourself, and yet its recreated footage is entirely concealing. Explain.”

“Uh …Yeah … What an interesting observation …”

She could see me still hiding behind the film form, hoping I wouldn’t have to unpack my bizarre mind games that cause me to disassociate while making something autobiographical. As if I was making a movie with my eyes closed.

Then recently, just like Lucy and the football, the same pattern repeated with my first feature. Dramarama began with me wincing as I re-read my high school diary. I told myself I wouldn’t shy away from the page, wanting to capture all the hopes, fears, and desires my friends and I had before going to college in the early ’90s. As I wrote the screenplay, I took details from my life as a Catholic closeted queer drama teen, added the lives of my best friends, put us all in a blender, and then topped the story off with some layers of fiction. Eventually, the characters took their own shape on the page. I put my head down and worked harder than ever before to get the feature made. The actors and all my other amazing creative collaborators further sculpted the fiction. Et voilà! I had made a semi-autobiographical film! Just like Lady Bird, right?

Jonathan Wysocki and actor Nick Pugliese, who plays Gene, on the set of Dramarama. (Photo by Babak Motamen.)

And then the interviews began. Good interviews. Deep interviews. Interviews where everyone wanted to know: What’s fact and what’s fiction in Dramarama? “I assume the main character, Gene, is you – right?”

“Uh …Well … Sort of, yeah …”

There are two male best friends in Dramarama: Gene and Oscar. Gene, who is going to the local community college, wants to come out to his friend group before they leave for their esteemed universities. Gene is also in love with Oscar – and frustrated he can’t bring himself to tell him. Oscar is also gay, however he’s eons away from accepting this fact, living in a world of denial that only confuses Gene more.

In reality, there were three boys in my close high-school friend group: Closet Case Me, Closet Case Bestie, and Straight Bestie. I designed Gene to be our “eyes in” for the film, and like Gene, I was in love with my best friend in high school – but the straight one. While I don’t want to downplay that key autobiographical aspect, the unrequited love plot was largely as far as I went in making Gene “me.” Gene’s loss of faith and being “left behind” came from my Straight Bestie, and Gene’s knowing he was gay and his anxiety about coming out were my Closet Case Bestie. So, where’s the rest of adolescent me?

A teenage Jonathan Wysocki with some of his best friends.

Cue the Oscar character. A charming-but-sheltered Catholic boy, Oscar spends much of the film putting on an act about who he is and what he’s accomplished. For me, he’s cringey because he’s so blind to his own identity. He’s the religious closet case who parroted the conservative adults in order to be liked and feel safe. The kid who toed the line, saying, “God punishes gay people with AIDS,” to pass as straight at school. The naïve sentimentalist who dramatically fell apart when saying goodbye to his best friends. The aspiring Hollywood actor who never had the self-worth to follow through with his acting career.

And while I gave Oscar much of the magnetic glow that attracted me to my Straight Bestie in high school, most of Oscar’s weaknesses are from me … the me I try to forget. My subconscious casting choices aid the disguise: Nick Pugliese (Gene) looks more like young me, while Nico Greetham (Oscar) does not. I understand why any viewer would assume Gene is me. But correcting them means opening up my wounds more, so I default to my vague smokescreen.

If I’m going to reckon with my creation, however, I have to bring some grace with me before I beat myself down in this lonely boxing ring. My first reaction to Oscar might be cringing, but my second is to hold and comfort him. Oscar is not fully formed – he’s a work-in-progress, like I was. He’s damaged. My heart bleeds for him when he leaves for college at the end of the film. He has so much to learn about himself, and it’s not gonna be easy. I know that firsthand.

Danielle Kay and Nick Pugliese as Ally and Gene in Dramarama.

I think this is why I wrote the last scene the way I did, too. It features with Gene and Ally, the more liberal straight girl in the friend group who can see Gene and Oscar are in the closet but not ready to come out yet. Ally lets Gene know she loves him no matter what, leaving the door open for any future confession. That didn’t really happen to me, but in rewriting history, I needed that cathartic moment of acceptance. I needed to shed some unconditional love on the former versions of myself, warts and all. And if you know me, you understand why I gave that role to the wise girl – she’s always the safety net I seek in life. She knows me better than I know myself.

The paradox of making and screening an autobiographical film is that you’re both healing your wounds and exposing them at the same time. Will I trick myself into doing it again? Perhaps.

In the meantime, if in my next interview I dodge the question of whether or not I’m really Gene, please forgive me. Sometimes the truth is just too painful.


Featured image shows Jonathan Wysocki on the set of Dramarama with actor Nico Greetham, who plays Oscar.

Jonathan Wysocki is a Sundance Screenwriters and Directors Labs Fellow as well as an Advisor for Sundance Co//ab. His first feature, Dramarama, loosely based on his beloved past as a teenage drama nerd, is currently playing on the festival circuit. He’s made five award-winning short films. His latest, A Doll’s Eyes, screened at 50 festivals across six continents and was translated into eight languages. Film accolades include the Sundance Lynn Auerbach Screenwriting Fellowship, the Busan Cinephile Award, the Stanley Kramer Award, the James Bridges Award, and two Annenberg Grants. Previously, Wysocki worked as a programmer for the L.A. Film Festival, as a producer on the indie features The Hammer and Thrasher Road, and for major studios such as MGM and ABC. Wysocki is a UCLA alumnus, a Project Involve Fellow at Film Independent, a Berlinale Talent Campus alum, and a lecturer at Occidental College, Chapman University, and Cal State Long Beach. Wistful about his drama nerd days, he compensates by being as dramatic as possible in the present.