Here’s why Scott Sullivan’s ‘Red’ is a coming-out story for our times
Scott Sullivan started his career starring in three small feature films, then found producing, taking a short film to the Cannes Short Film Corner and a documentary to the Napa Valley Film Festival. Today, we’re focusing our spotlight on Red, Sullivan’s semi-autobiographical directorial debut.
Red is about to hit the festival circuit and was also written by Scott. According to him:
“I originally wrote Red as a short story a decade ago while I was still in the closet. I grew up deeply closeted, suffering vast traumas and accumulating endless scars. Fourteen years of daily, exhausting, and absolutely arresting pain and suffering. This is my story.”
Cinematically, Red takes on a raw and simplistic tone, with Ryan Palmer at the helm as director of photography. The film is produced by Annalea Fiachi, Ryan Palmer, Christian Para, and Scott Sullivan.
Actors Ally Ioannides (Into the Badlands, Synchronic), Jance Enslin (The Mental State) and Parker Queenan from Disney’s Andi Mack Show have come together to tell this brave coming out story, Red. These three incredibly talented actors bring to life the personal struggles of the characters James, Aaron, and Lizzy in a quiet rural western Pennsylvania town.
Red is the story of three teens in rural Pennsylvania who are torn apart by the closet. James and Lizzy’s seemingly normal relationship is shattered by Aaron, the guy James hooked up with, who is unable to bear their secret and confronts James.
Ally is well known for chosing positive queer roles and is known as Tilda from the hit show Into the Badlands. Parker is also known for playing strong queer role models as her character Reed on the Andi Mack Show was at the center of Disney’s first open gay relationship story.
“I grew up deeply closeted, suffering vast traumas and accumulating endless scars. Though I wrote the short story ten years ago, it feels as relevant now than it ever has.
“What I feel is unique about Red is that it’s not a typical story of what we see of closeted teen boy films. There is no abusive father. No overbearing teen bully with a love for the other F-word. It is rooted instead in empathy. The heart of this story is its purpose: this is my story. I wanted to expose my emotional reality in as raw a manner as I could and therefore the true trauma of the closet, and how it tears souls apart.”
We were delighted to sit with the dazzling mind behind Red, Scott Sullivan.
Tell us about your history as a filmmaker. How did you start your journey?
When I was young, my only outlet – like so many – was movies. I was a deeply closeted emotional being growing up in this tiny town and the only real escape was my Blockbuster account. Movies were my escape.
Though I went to college after high school, my depression didn’t stop and my being in the closet didn’t stop either and I just buried myself in movies. The passion was undeniable but nobody ever told me I could do this thing, but when I was at the end of some rope I said “F*** it.” I decided to turn my obsession into something; I tried out for a student film and that was really it.
After that I was in a few indie features and found the addiction of a lifetime. It all elevated into producing and ultimately about a decade later Red. But it has always been that childhood passion that keeps me wanting this.
Who are your current influences?
The past couple of years have really given me so much to be excited for. My influences are so evident in the way I talk to my team showing them scenes from this movie or that, but I think it would be hard for me to say that nobody has been more influential than Barry Jenkins. I’ve seen Moonlight so many times and it has never stopped arresting me.
To be punny: Barry is kind of my barometer. What is the most extraordinary blend of style and story and emotion. It isn’t quite as recent but I find the films that draw me in the most are from directors who stick you deep in reality and don’t give you an option like Derek Cianfrance with Blue Valentine or virtually anything Bennet Miller does. Now I’m just listing the movies I gave my cast and crew to watch I guess.
What five TV shows do you think everyone should watch this year?
My tastes vary from my influences because I think anyone in this industry – directors, actors, producers, writers, or anyone – should be constantly watching. Which is why you should watch Schitt’s Creek.
I also just binged Unbelievable on Netflix which was one of the best things I’ve ever watched – it’s one of the most respectful depictions of rape and its aftermath I’ve ever seen and I’ve been a Meritt Weaver addict for years. Which is why you should also watch Godless!
Lastly if you want to get to know me best watch The Leftovers. I’m a plenty cheery guy but I can rewatch the saddest most difficult stuff more than anything and The Leftovers is relentlessly honest and takes its premise so seriously unlike other doomsday programs. Oh, and the ultimate staple, to those who haven’t watched The Wire: go now.
Cat or dog?
Good question – my production company Hudson Roads is actually named after my dog Hudson who passed away in 2016 about 3 months after I got to LA. It was the most devastating moment of my adult life. We rescued him at either 6 or 9 or older depending on which vet we went to and though he was with us about two years it was the most incredible experience.
Hudson could make even people who hated dogs love him – except that a**hole smoking in that alley that one day – and from the day I got him home he and I were inseparable. I called him my special needs dog because he was always needing surgeries and he had a neurological disorder. When he passed the vet took a paw print in plaster and last year I scanned it and digitized it and turned it into the company logo.
What was the one movie you saw that made you want to go into film?
It’s hard to say there is one movie to be honest – that’s like asking me my favorite movie. I toss my Letterboxd total around with some pride. Seeing as the things I do myself tend to gravitate in queer spaces it’s hard to distance myself from the first time I saw films from Gus Van Sant or Greg Araki.
I didn’t grow up in a place that told me about the big wild history of queer film so I clung to the things that showed me what I needed to see. It was only in watching movies that I got to be gay (while alone in my room, door locked of course), and now the things I make I think I try and do the same thing for someone just like me.
How was working on Red? What did you learn from the experience?
Red was the biggest production of my life, not just the shoot dates but the whole experience. My producers and I first met back in 2017 to talk about this thing and we didn’t shoot until 2019. It was nothing but hurdles with money and location and actors dropping out but it kept us honest.
We never stopped believing in this story. We took care to pay attention to every single detail and not cut any corners. We knew every thing top to bottom and that honestly made the six-day production relatively smooth (except that Ventura County, CA can be really cold in February). I don’t think I was ever lacking this, but I reinforced the great importance of perseverance.
Tell us about your career before you found film.
Well I don’t think I’ve ever had a career before film. I was in college and was going to be a lawyer. Then realized I would never have been able to live with myself for very long – for lots of reasons. Then I found film. I found acting and it became my life.
When I moved into producing it was something I’d never really knew that much about. One time I emailed Mary Jane Skalski – the prolific producer – asking her to cast me. She was very kind in letting me down. We still correspond every year or two, she’s incredible. Mary if you see this: I still owe you a coffee!
Where did the concept come from for Red?
Red is loosely based of my life growing up in the closet in rural Western Pennsylvania. Short film by nature has to be an amalgamation of sorts because it’s hard to tell one event to encapsulate all that I wanted to say. My goal from the outset was to tell a story about empathy, but also outstanding pain without the trappings of certain queer stories.
Red doesn’t have the homophobic bully or the abusive father who hates the gay son (note: these are important stories, too), instead I wanted to capture a certain crushing emotional reality of the closet; of finding someone and never being able to really act the way your deep and truest self want to.
I never got to have that first kiss as a boy, I never got to have silly crushes and talk about them unless I lied and pretended that Adam the quarterback was a girl (sorry Adam . . . but who didn’t have a crush on you?).
What music inspires you to create?
The amount of times I’ve listened to the works of Nicholas Brittell is slightly embarrassing. The week after Beale Street came out I was driving around LA listening to it on repeat and just found myself in random tears at red lights. Also, Patrick Belaga who is our composer. I’ve listened to Patrick so many times and even while writing Red I had Patrick on. That his music is the score to our film has been a dream.
Talk us through your creative process.
To all the people that have seen me or will see me sitting at coffee shops staring off into space with a blank notebook in front of me have seen my process. Red is an adaptation of a short story I wrote 10 years ago while still in the closet. For a while the process was just exhaustively reading and breaking down each and every beat of the story, but my real process is thinking, or talking to myself.
I play out scenarios and ask questions to myself. I think and I think and I think until there’s this spark and then ferociously I write. The actual writing of the script takes me almost no time. I like to free hand scenes and I probably look like a mad man sweating and dealing with the coffee shakes.
What tips do you have for new filmmakers?
Know what you want and be specific. I have these personal goals that are so specific but for them to happen so many other things have to happen – some small some very big. And I keep driving day after day to make them happen. No matter what rocks are thrown at me I never lose sight of what I want the most.
What part of filmmaking do you geek out about the most?
I am no expert, but the amount of lens tests I’ve watched is virtually incalculable. Lenses are these spectacularly complex mechanisms – dozens of hand-cut and -crafted pieces of glass placed so intricately.
Not that cameras and lights aren’t beautiful and remarkable, but lenses are the watches of filmmaking. I love to watch lens building videos and see as all the pieces come together. Again, not expert, but utterly fascinated.
You’re very hands-on with your projects. How hard is it wearing all the hats?
It is the most stressful during pre- and post-production. It’s very hard to tell yourself no while yourself is not exactly bending over to compromise vision. Certainly having a team you trust is the most important thing – because if you don’t delegate you will go mad.
In September of 2018 we were about to shoot Red, and 24 hours prior we got some devastating news and had to cancel the shoot and postpone indefinitely – that day every hat was on and each was profoundly heavy, but you sort of buck up and remember what you’re doing this for.
On set I try to only wear the director hat and my producers are pretty diligent about deciding when to bring producer Scott in or not. Except for the wad of cash in my pocket that precipitously emptied hourly with much less diligence – gosh movies aren’t cheap.
If you could only watch one movie for the rest of your life, what would it be?
I’ve only ever had one deserted island movie: Die Hard (the first one of course). I love Die Hard for all the reasons – Alan Rickman was robbed of a supporting actor nod! – but I’ve always figured if I can only choose one of thousands, it might as well be the most fun damn movie that I can find. I know every line.
What’s your next project?
I am currently writing something similar to Red right now but the feature version. I have no idea how long it’ll take because writing is not something I’m equally as good at compared to other things – and the subject matter is pretty tough for me. I’m also very much in the market for other work.
Have you worked with mentors in the past? How would you recommend people go about finding them?
Every chance I get to look up and observe I take that opportunity as a sort of quasi-mentorship. I’ve gotten to work with a lot of people with a lot more experience than me and I cherish the moments.
Every day we’re surrounded by people who know so much more than we do, so maybe I don’t know how to recommend people find a mentor, but I will stress with a fist pound that everyone should be studying and listening.
There’s virtually no gain whatsoever in pretending you know something – just go ask and actually learn it. You would be incredibly surprised how many people will respond if you ask them for coffee because you just want to hear their story.
What has been your biggest failure?
Failure has been the predominant narrative of my life, and for so long it manifested itself as regret which is really a cancer of the spirit. Learning that made me pretty keen to leap at decisions that I might not if I was afraid of failure. So really my biggest failure are the ever-persistent micro-failures of me being indecisive.
I can’t get those moments back where I straddled an idea or lazied my way out of progress. Failure is invaluable, and when you figure that out you have freedom to make strong choices that just might not blow up – and how fun is that?
What’s your filmmaking mission? Name the most important thing you want viewers to experience when watching your movies.
I just really want people to walk away and still carry this story with them. For me to have somehow written characters and captured actors playing them well enough that the emotion I’ve engraved in this project’s DNA sticks with them.
I don’t necessarily want people to be sad, I just want people to understand profound sadness. The ideas for future work I have in my head are all pretty much centered on my battle with sadness. So I guess my work can be described as a hybrid of the therapy of sadness and the philosophy of sadness.
What has been your biggest success?
It might sound obvious but Red has been the work of my lifetime. I have never accomplished something this important. When I say I, what I’m saying is we. My team Annalea Fiaci, Ryan Palmer, and my long time collaborator Christian Para have for two years kept me afloat as I tried and eventually did make this story a reality.
Not only has Red itself been a massive undertaking, but on the sidelines we developed a bit of a following online of thousands of young people who ask me all the time when this damn thing is coming out, but more importantly have used this film as a vehicle for their own issues regarding sexuality, gender, and the pressures of being young and not always being okay. Red has been the greatest experience of my life.
Can we expect to see any episodic television from you anytime soon?
I don’t think there’s anything in the pipeline for me as a writer or director, but I am certainly eyeing the producing side of episodic content – especially short form content. I think the shell is slowly cracking for that kind of media, and it’s sort of the democratization of Peak TV like DSLRs democratized HD moviemaking. I would love to find a short form project to sink my teeth into.
What’s your five-year plan?
This is definitely the producer side of my brain’s question and answer, but I really want to start thinking and acting like a mini-studio. I have this belief that good story resonates, and there are so many fantastic storytellers out there waiting to get their movie made, but we all know the greatest barrier is money.
I would love in five years to have a company that can be the foundational slush fund for important independent and emerging filmmakers to get their films made.
As the business and profits start to look like the income inequality scale where the biggest films just keep making more and the apparent indie film keeps making less, I’ll die in my attempt to prove that there’s a sweet spot of craftily budgeted and shot indie films with great stories can make a profit.
In the tech world, VCs fund dozens of companies hoping one of them makes a billion, and as all this money swirls around I hope someone steals that idea – whether it’s me or not.
What indie filmmakers should be on our radar?
I think that we all need to fill our radars with more women filmmakers and DPs. I saw a list of films from the 2018/19 season of women-made films that didn’t get nominated for best picture or director, I think it was like 9-15 films, and honestly the films listed were better than the majority of the nominees and winners.
What’s your favorite film of all time, and what did you learn from it?
Well here’s a pickle. I bagged on this question above. I genuinely do not have a favorite film. I have a favorite film of the moment, and even that has a caveat. By tomorrow it’ll change.
However, recently I re-watched Arrival and it totally spoke to what I said above about having something touch you profoundly. The writing in that film is so sharp and deeply layered, the second it gets to the end sequence, even though I’d seen it before, just instantly opened up the waterfall and I was sobbing. And I didn’t stop sobbing until long after the credits.
Our world is so f***ing complicated, love is so f***ing complicated, and you’re crushed by what you see and also who you don’t see at the end. Movies and TV and story are the absolute window to our lives.
We have this gift but also this obligation through our hyper-reality to let people see what in their own lives they feel but often can’t really understand. What a terrifying duty to truly encapsulate the end of love or the end of life, to make it all so raw and simplified, but what a treasure.