Making Art Out of Life :: Matt Fifer on 'Cicada'

by Kilian Melloy

EDGE Staff Reporter

Sunday November 1, 2020

Matt Fifer in 'Cicada'
Matt Fifer in 'Cicada'  

One of the films that's made a splash at this year's LGBTQ festivals is the Matt Fifer co-written and co-directed "Cicada," described in some quarters as a film that "toes the line between narrative and doc," being drawn as it is from the life experiences of the two lead actors.

Fifer plays Ben, a 20-something New Yorker wrestling with deep personal traumas. Bright and engaging, Ben gets through his days by relying on humor — and, as we meet him, he's getting through his nights with a combination of alcohol and sex. Ben has recently been engaged to a woman, but now he's sleeping with men once more — as his sister puts it, "You're back on the dick" — and his life is a dizzying merry-go-round of one-night stands.

Sheldon D. Brown plays Sam, whom Ben first meets as they both browse books at a bookstore. Sam is quickly charmed by Ben's amusing patter, but then something unusual happens: Rather than jump into bed, the two spend hours together, talking and getting to know each other. Hours stretch into days, and when they finally do move toward intimacy, Sam reveals that he's recovering from having been shot. Under his shirt he wears a colostomy bag. Intimacy with him means seeing the aftermath of Sam's own trauma.

As the two work through their individual sources of pain and fear, differences and tension start to emerge. Sam isn't out to his religious father; moreover, he's "the only Black guy at work," for which reason he's less than enthusiastic about Ben showing up with a bouquet of flowers and waiting to greet him as he leaves for the day. Issues around race crop up in other ways, as well. But the most difficult obstacles they face stem directly from the different sources of trauma they've survived.

"Cicada" has drawn favorable comparisons to "Weekend" — not really a surprise, since gay cinema over the last few years that focuses on romantic relationships between men with a sense of depth and honesty are always compared to "Weekend" — but in this case, the comparisons don't feel wholly adequate. "Cicada" is its own work, and stands apart. This may well be the movie against which films in the coming years are compared.

EDGE had a chance to chat with Fifer and hear about how people have responded to "Cicada," and how life informed art twice over in the creation of the film — both in Fifer's original conception of the movie, and in how Sheldon D. Brown's real-life shooting changed the story's trajectory.

EDGE: You had to re-write and kind of recalibrate what you were doing with the movie before you began production because your co-star, Sheldon D. Brown, was injured in a shooting. Could you talk a little about how you and he chose to incorporate that trauma into the movie?

Matt Fifer: When I started writing the project I always had Sheldon in mind. He is a phenomenal actor from Chicago. We had met in 2016. We had a similar experience to how Sam and Ben meet in the film, and although he was from Chicago, so we only spent a few days together, that weekend stuck with me, and really there was no other person in my head to play Sam, ever. Also, this is an indie film, so it wasn't like we were going out to [have] a huge cast of people.

When he was shot, it was devastating and we didn't know if he was going to be okay, and we didn't know if he wanted to continue. I went back and forth with my co-director, Kieran, who was very supportive and loving and loved Sheldon just from the one conversation they had on the phone. When Sheldon got out of surgery and it seemed like he was well enough to come [to New York for the filming], we said to ourselves, "Well, this is a gay film where we're both going to have our shirts off, and Sheldon's also going to have an ostomy." When you watch the film you see these scars, and you see this ostomy; none of these things is a prop or special effects, They are exactly what Sheldon was going through. So the film had always been about trauma and negotiating the truth in the moment, and this just seemed like... I don't know, like this was the story that we were always going to tell. Sheldon's wounds were very much on the surface, and my wounds were buried deep inside, and I like that dichotomy.

So, Sheldon came on as a writer and we worked through a few different scenes, and when he came to New York we started working with [those scenes] on our feet, and that's how it evolved.

EDGE: You are telling the story of an interracial gay love affair in this movie, and the two characters have some hard conversations about being in an interracial couple. Did you and Sheldon D. Brown have those kinds of conversations in order to keep the film authentic?

Matt Fifer: Oh, absolutely, We worked through them over and over and over again, and I think that they wouldn't be as authentic unless we had done that and gotten the words on their feet and acted them out in the moment.

EDGE: The movie is about trauma, the wounds the characters have suffered — some are recent and on the surface, as you said, and some are very old and have been buried. As the film has progressed through the festival circuit, have you heard from audience members about their responses and what the film means to them?

Matt Fifer: Even after a few of the initial screenings we had in the rough cut, I had a few people come up to me and say, "This film means so much." Then they would tell me their stories. The day after we screened at Outfest, Sheldon and I got [a message] from a guy who had been in an interracial relationship, who had been abused as a child, and who had difficulty coming out to his parents. Like, he checked every single box of what was going on with the film. I knew after I got that message that it was all worth it. Even if it was just that one guy, that was enough for me.

EDGE: I saw your interview with Roger Walker-Dack at Queer Guru — Roger is also a film reviewer for us — and in that interview, you talked about how coming out was not the path to inner peace you had hoped it might be. Getting therapy was also not the path to inner peace you hoped for. But has making this film been a cathartic experience for you and given you some peace?

Matt Fifer: When I think about things retrospectively, they have all chipped away, and I think I'm getting there. I think that it has been an incredibly purgative and cathartic experience, but not being able to go on the festival tour, [due to] the vicissitudes of being in this pandemic, has definitely been a little weird. It's been a little difficult to not connect with people. Like, it's beautiful getting a message in your DMs or in your email, but when you actually, like, get to look somebody in the eye and give them a hug, I think that's an experience I'm looking forward to in the next year. I think I'm halfway there.

Sheldon D. Brown and Matt Fifer in 'Cicada'  (Source: Provided)

EDGE: Relevant to that, one of the conflicts between Ben and Sam is that Sam isn't out to his family or at work, and he's uncomfortable with public displays of affection. Are you, like Ben, the sort who will hold your boyfriend's hand in public, or kiss in public?

Matt Fifer: Oh, my god, I'm the worst! A PDA is my thing, as gross as it is.


Matt Fifer: I think it's important to hold hands and kiss and show affection wherever you are. In New York you see it all over the place; in L.A., as well. I love holding hands in public, and I also think I'm making up for lost time, so don't date me if you don't like that.

EDGE: You build the film out of lots of small but very important character moments. When you were writing, is this how you envisioned the story? Or was there a lot of on-set improvisation? Or did you have longer scenes that you whittled down to give the film its shape and style?

Matt Fifer: We cut about 45 minutes off the film, so a lot of scenes were much longer, certain characters [had more screen time] — Bowen Yang, for instance, was on set for three or four days, but in the end, he was only in a couple of shots. But, yeah, when we were writing Sheldon's story we had to make room for that, so we had to whittle a few things down. But I think you still get the ethos, the vibe of that the scene was always meant to be.

EDGE: You brought Kieran Mulcare in to co-direct — you had worked with him earlier, on the web series "Jay & Pluto." I'm curious as to why you didn't let him shoulder the whole load of directing the film. Did you feel a need to co-direct in order to shepherd the movie to where you wanted it to go?

Matt Fifer: Kieran Mulcare is so fantastic! He is just such a brilliant actor. I had seen him in acting class — the only acting class I had taken. He was doing a scene about trauma, and that's how he came onto the short that we ended up working on together called "Pop." Kieran had never directed before, and it was more of like, "Well, if Kieran comes on and he helps with the direction for certain scenes, then I think that we can do this." He came on and just became my co-pilot. I was definitely thinking more about camera and movement and pacing and tone, and Kieran was like my therapist, and was so much of the "Ben whisperer." I don't think I could have done this without him coming on as a director. I think in a lot of ways it worked out best because, yeah, there's no way I would have given up this story [to another director] without being able to do it side by side with him.

EDGE: This film has gotten great reviews and responses as it's been on the festival circuit. Were you surprised that it's been such a hit? Or did you have a feeling from the start that you might connect with audiences the way you have?

Matt Fifer: Thanks! It's been a hit?


EDGE: From what I can tell, yes. It always seems to be a favorite.

Matt Fifer: I, you know, was just taking it one day, one week at a time. When I first set out to write this, I didn't have any money, I didn't really know what I was doing. Five months later we were filming it, and then we didn't have enough money for post-production, so we were sort of, like, "Oh, god." Then we won this amazing grant from San Francisco Rainin, and that saved us. And then when we were trying to get finishing funds, Tribeca then swooped in, and the Tribeca Film Institute invited us, so that saved us again. So, every part of this process has been just — yeah, trying to stay afloat. The fact that we've gotten into one festival, let alone with the dozen that we've played at, is really such a blessing. Sometimes I wake up and I say, "Wow, did this really just happen?" We played in London over the last week, and it blows my mind.

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Assistant Arts Editor. He also reviews theater for WBUR. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.

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