Sex American Style

Wendell Pierce in Joshua Sanchez’s “Four.” | 306 RELEASING

“Four” is an outstanding character study, directed by Joshua Sanchez, who adapted the play by Christopher Shinn. The film depicts two couples who meet up for sex on the same Fourth of July. June (Emory Cohen) is a shy, gay teen who arranges a hook up over the Internet with Joe (Wendell Pierce), a gregarious African-American married man. Sanchez deftly captures the awkwardness and strained intimacy of their encounter, which is contrasted with Joe’s daughter, Abigayle (Aja Naomi King), reluctantly meeting up with the smooth-talking Dexter (E.J. Bonilla).

Joshua Sanchez shows us two very different gay men grappling with a connection

In a recent Skype session, the out writer and director talked about the queer content in this amazing film.

GARY M. KRAMER: What were you like as a teen — shy but adventurous, like June, or more flamboyant like his gay friend Todd (Liam Benzvi)?

JOSHUA SANCHEZ: [Laughs.] I was probably much more like June. I grew up in Texas. My parents were very religious. It was not a welcoming environment for a gay kid. I was not unhappy as a teen — I struggled with my sexuality, but I had other things to keep me afloat — I was into punk rock, skateboarding, and film. I wish I was more like Todd. Gay kids are like that now — the acceptance is greater.

GMK: How do you think “Four” speaks to the issues it raises about race, class, and sexuality?

JS: Gosh, I think it says so much! The questions I get asked most are about Joe and the controversial elements about an older African-American man in the closet, who finds himself in that situation in his life. What that says about African-American men in general and their being about to deal with gayness. I’m not sure that it’s a film that gives a lot of easy answers.

GMK: How do you think audiences in general and gay men in particular, relate to the characters of Joe and June?

JS: I feel that a lot of gay men have a reaction to Joe that is nuanced and complex. You can read all kinds of unsavory aspects to his character, but to me, he was a man who was dealing with a lot of common gay male stuff. It was normal in my view of how gay men develop and the challenges they face. It makes folks uncomfortable to see the younger man-older man gay male relationship, which is common for younger guys who look to older men to show them how to be gay. One of the aspects of June’s character is that we don’t see him as a victim.

I thought of Joe as someone who had so much potential, intelligence, and sophistication, but when you’re not able to be who you want to be or who you are, that’s a sad thing. That’s not to say Joe is without hope, but he’s struggling with it more than June is.

There are aspects of June I related to — I was more introverted, and not outgoing, but I’ve gotten to a point in my life where I’ve recognized my own ability to stand on my own and be confident and this film was part of my journey to that.

GMK: The film has themes about being big, being proud of one’s self, and believing in one’s self.

JS: I guess that Joe himself — that moment where he asks June to “be big, be American,” is right after they first meet, and in a way it is the inciting aspect of the movie. It’s setting the tone of the rest of the film. It brings this confidence out of June. It’s also hypocritical because Joe has such a twisted notion of what that means for himself.

GMK: And you did that, coming out? What are your experiences as a gay man?

JS: When I came out I was 23 and it was in 2000. It was not the easiest thing. I came to New York [for school], and I knew I had to get out of Texas. It was about getting that distance away. I needed that space to come into my own sexually and otherwise. I had a few boyfriends before I landed into a long-term relationship with an older man for seven years. He’s still a huge part of my life, but I’m in another long-term relationship now, with a guy whose more my own age. I felt that “Four” was honest to my experience.

GMK: What makes your film so effective is how you frame the characters. A scene between Joe and June in the car is amazing — you cut back and forth between them, visually isolating them even though they are sitting side by side.

JS: We used a handheld camera to tell the story effectively. We shot it in scope — a long rectangular box — which could keep two characters in the frame at the same time and then pull focus since it was so much about two characters in the same scene.

GMK: What can you say about the spaces in the film? Viewers are practically eavesdropping on the characters in their cars, bars, and bedrooms.

JS: The locations had a very specific sense of anonymity and privacy in different ways. It’s set on the Fourth of July, a summer holiday. You’re supposed to be a patriotic soul and you’re supposed to think about what that means, but it’s ripe for transgression, and those locations are perfect for transgressing.

GMK: How did you decide to film the sex scenes? They are passionate, but not erotic. What was your goal in depicting sex in “Four”?

JS: I approached it by, “What would typically happen in a situation like that?” Staging it was hard for all of us. We shot the Joe/ June part in a real hotel room, which adds an authenticity to the vibe. The talented actors were very unafraid — they wanted to push it even more than I was comfortable pushing it. They wanted to tell the truth of the situation.

But also with [the straight couple], it was going to be raw and lustful and not the best sex they would ever have in their lives. What made the difference was giving the space and time to the actors to do what they have to do to discover the beats of the performances to bring out the emotions.

FOUR | Directed by Joshua Sanchez | 306 Releasing | Director, cast appear at BAMcinématek | Peter Jay Sharp Building | 30 Lafayette Ave. at Ashland Pl. | Sep. 10, 7:30 p.m. | | Opens Sep. 13 | AMC Loews 19th Street East 6, 890 Broadway at 19th St |