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My TV Dinner

Every Friday The Social's digital correspondent, Jessica Allen, answers two questions we face every day. What should I eat? And what should I watch? The answer for one is frequently found in the other.

How Closet Monster director Stephen Dunn tried to sell his film with cupcakes

He thought a sweet treat might sway the producers at Rhombus Media


Three years ago, when Canadian director Stephen Dunn was just 24 years old, he landed a meeting with Rhombus Media and left them a treatment for his first feature film.

He returned a week later to the production office — unannounced, and expecting, perhaps naively, that they’d already read it — and dropped off eight homemade red velvet cupcakes that spelled out “Thanks for reading my treatment for Closet Monster.”

“As soon as I walked out of the building I was like ‘WTF did I just do? They’re going to think I’m insane!’” Dunn recently shared on social media. “And of course, to no surprise, I didn’t hear from them for three months. I was mortified. I assumed my career was over.”

Flash-forward to TIFF 2015 when Closet Monster, a coming-of-age story about Oscar, a gay East Coast teenager who lives with his dad — who tends towards macho, and homophobic — and can’t wait to become a special effects makeup artist anywhere other than Newfoundland, won the Best Canadian Feature Film, and to today, when the film hits theatres in wide release across the country.

Flashback to February 2016 when I saw Closet Monster three times in 48 hours.

I was moderating question-and-answer sessions after screenings between the audience and the film’s star, Connor Jessup, who is 21, at the Kingston Film Festival.

The audience wanted to know about the film’s locations (St. John’s, NL, and Fogo Island, where the film concludes); whether the film was based on true events (they are fictionalized versions of Dunn’s own life); and Isabella Rossellini, who provides the voice of Buffy, Oscar’s pet hamster. (Yes, there’s some magic realism, and it is used to great effect, especially during a Cronenbergian-like crescendo of a scene between father and son.)

I wanted to know if the funny parts were scripted (Mary Walsh has a small-but-meaningful part as Oscar’s boss at a hardware store); if Dunn gave Jessup any preparatory material (Anne Carson’s Autobiography of Red); and any details Jessup could share about a particularly beautiful scene in Oscar’s treehouse, one that puts all those MTV Best Kiss Awards to shame. (Turns out, it’s Jessup’s favourite.)

Quietly, I was in awe of Dunn and Jessup, two 20-somethings — I can’t remember what I was doing at their ages: watching Melrose Place? Failing first-year Calculus? — seemingly confident in making art. Jessup is so magnetic as Oscar that it’s hard to take your eyes off him. In person, he’s articulate, kind, and engaged. And Dunn managed to make a well-structured (it clocks in at exactly 90 minutes), thoughtful and imaginative film that isn’t just about a teenager struggling with his sexual identity. It’s about a messy family, the pangs of first loves, and growing up. And, like true existence, nothing is neatly bow-tied at the end.

“To me, that is one thing I like about the movie, that it shows how everyone struggles with identity at that age, no matter your sexuality. Everyone struggles with their family, their community, with where they are, who they are, who they want to be,” Jessup told Entertainment Weekly. “If you can’t relate to that on a fundamental level, then I don’t know who you are.”

Obviously the producers agree. On the first day of Closet Monster’s theatrical release here in Toronto, Dunn woke up to find a dozen red velvet cupcakes on his doorstep, courtesy of them.

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