Matthew Rettenmund on 'Boy Culture'

by Kilian Melloy

EDGE Staff Reporter

Thursday April 12, 2007

Top pop scholar and novelist Matthew Rettenmund
Top pop scholar and novelist Matthew Rettenmund  (Source:Courtesy of Matthew Rettenmund)

Author Matthew Rettenmund has cast a wide literary net in the world of queer culture, writing or co-writing books as diverse as "Totally Awesome 80s: A Lexicon of the Music, Videos, Movies, TV Shows, Stars, and Trends of That Decadent Decade" and — order your copy now! — "Queer Baby Names: A Completely Irreverent Guide to Naming Your Lesbian / Gay Tot."

And those, together with "Hilary Duff: All Access" and "Madonna: The Woman & The Icon A - Z," are just some of his non-fiction titles; his novels include "Blind Items: A (Love) Story," as well as his best known novel, "Boy Culture," which director Q. Allan Brocka (the guy who brought you "Rick & Steve the Happiest Gay Couple in All the World," not to mention a little flick called "Eating Out") has now made into a movie starring Derek Magyar (Trekkies with sharp eyes and discerning taste might remember Magyar from a recurring role on "Enterprise" near the end of that series' run) and Darryl Stephens (the gorgeous star of the Logo series "Noah's Arc").

Rettenmund's style is sharp, swift, and smart: A trifecta of stereotypical gay qualities, except that, alas, they aren't necessarily any more prevalent among the queer set than anywhere else. It's just that gay voices like Retttenmund's have a way of making the rest of us look good. In any case, it's the style and attitude that Rettenmund adopts that makes X — the first-person narrator of "Boy Culture," a hustler with less a heart of gold than an ache waiting to blossom into a heart — simultaneously endearing and, from time to time, insufferable. Those are qualities that the movie's screenwriters (Brocka and Philip Pierce) capture in their adaptation, and that Magyar embodies to a T.

Mr. Rettenmund took time away from his duties as Editor in Chief for Popstar! Magazine to chat with EDGE about his book, and the movie they made from it.

EDGE: How happy are you with the film version of "Boy Culture?"

Matthew Rettenmund: When I first saw it, it didn't register as a movie. I was just embarrassed to see my original creation reimagined for the screen because it suddenly felt like the confessional aspect was less a literary device than a flat out confession. It's not that the novel is a memoir, it's just that X and the other characters definitely say, do, and think things that I definitely said, did, and thought. Then I re-watched it and — despite being the guy you go to the movies with who never likes anything — was very humbled.

I was shocked that the writers and director decided to interpret my book as honestly as they did. The novel is humorous and can be read on the beach, but it can also be read as intensely analytical, introspective and at times critical. It would have been easy to skip the underlying issues and make another gay movie, so to speak. But I felt the director's respect for the material was obvious, and that he actually brought a lot to my story.

EDGE: How perfect was the casting of Derek Magyar as X?

Matthew Rettenmund: I was thrilled with the choice physically. I saw a picture of him and thought, "Yes, he looks the part." I can't even tell you how I pictured X when I wrote about him. (I do remember that as the movie crept along over eight years, I would send suggested actors' names to the producer, Philip Pierce. He'll back me up that I had a way of picking guys who would soon after turn into superstars — Ashton Kutcher and Paul Walker were among them.)

Seeing Derek in the role proved he had more than the right look. His voice in the voice-overs is mesmerizing, he's able to be a prick and yet convey vulnerability, and I absolutely loved his scenes with Gregory (Patrick Bauchau), in which his character realizes he's met his match.

EDGE: It was an interesting choice for the movie's producers, the way Madonna was turned into the Madonna, among other changes that enhanced the religious subtext — another example being X thinking of his 12 regular clients as "disciples."

Matthew Rettenmund: I had that in mind as I wrote the novel — the Madonna / madonna connection — so I didn't mind. It's a very weird, brief scene, and I think it alerts the audience that the film has an agenda beyond just boy meets boy, boy loses boy, boy gets boy.

EDGE: A more major change was the ethnicity of X's roomie and crush Andrew (and casting the very hot Darryl Stephens in the process),

Matthew Rettenmund: I was royally pissed off when I discovered Andrew's race had been changed. The reason I was angry was I thought color-blind casting would be appropriate for a romantic comedy, but that my novel was a thinly veiled referendum on white, gay male culture. I thought if the director were changing Andrew's race, that meant he was missing my point.

But I couldn't have been more wrong. Allan's vision of "Boy Culture" is anything but color-blind, or anything else-blind. It's a revelation to make Andrew who he is in the film, and I think making him the archetypal all-American, white, ex-straight that he is in the novel (which was written many years ago) would not have worked. Darryl is great in the role, making Andrew mysterious and real.

EDGE: The movie version also changes Andrew's background and the dynamics of the wedding of his ex-fiancee, which he attends. In the book he returns home to a small town full of suspicious, provincial people, whereas in the movie his family is much more sophisticated and the wedding guests much more in the know (and kind of catty, at that). How did that change the shape of your story? Did the result please you?

Matthew Rettenmund: I think it made for a better movie. I missed my version of the wedding just because I've been to weddings like the one I described. And yet, I think the wedding in the book has been documented in other places by now, so I was perfectly happy with Philip and Allan's rewritten version. Forget gay, how often is a middle-class Black family shown in a movie?

EDGE: How did you respond to the script, especially the way the writers managed (somehow) to come up with one liners almost as witty and caustic as the ones that you originally wrote ("I'm a gay man and they've made a movie about me, so of course I'm a hustler...")?

Matthew Rettenmund: The truth is I don't even know where their lines begin and mine end. I watched it and was convinced certain lines were mine, then re-read my novel and realized, "Nope." I think all the humor they added compares favorably to my own. Philip (a producer and the co-writer) values wit and it shows in the script, and Allan of course is hilarious — from his involvement with "The Big Gay Sketch Show" to "Rick & Steve," I knew I was in funny hands.

EDGE: I also wonder about the shift to a Seattle setting. Is gay life/culture in Seattle somehow more cinema-friendly than the book's Chicago setting?

Matthew Rettenmund: I don't think moving the story from Chicago to Seattle harms the story, but I did find that a little disappointing. I liked that the novel took place in the heartland, and of course based it on my intimate knowledge of that city. But Allan based the film's Seattle setting on his intimate knowledge of that city, so it pans out. Plus, it was cheaper.

EDGE: In the novel, you give X some dialogue about why he became an escort, but I wonder what brought you to this story about X, and about his being an escort, versus writing about a club kid or a middle-aged party boy.

Matthew Rettenmund: Conceptually, it was a commentary on how contemporary gay-male life could be likened to prostitution — lots of partners often called tricks, a very utilitarian approach to sexual needs, the commodification of our looks. More directly, I had a friend who was in love with a childhood friend who'd had sex with a family doctor for money. Though I never knew much of the rest of that person's story, that idea intrigued me, partly because coming from a town as small as the one this guy had come from, I couldn't imagine that sort of thing going on.

I was very intrigued by the mystery of how people behave as opposed to how they want you to believe they behave. (That reality vs. perception issue has a lot to do with homosexuality in general, since it's a taboo as we're growing up, then we begin to explore it, then at some point we have to expose that it is actually how we identify — due to how it's perceived, we're all so sneaky by nurture.) I wanted to write about some of the facts and fallacies of being gay, and of what it feels like for a boy.

EDGE: One thing about "Boy Culture" that makes it so funny, and so smart, is the honesty with which you allow X to make his observations and describe his history. Most readers will appreciate that you're not talking down to them, but did you have to weigh the need to engage your target readership against the possibility that hostile straights would cherry pick story elements to depict the book in a negative light, or who would find their prejudices reinforced by those passages?

Matthew Rettenmund: I was not well-versed in the gay-lit tradition when I wrote the book, and I honestly thought I was writing something very radical and new. So, I didn't think of it as something that would fit into any sort of context. And I never thought of how straight people would receive it, either. I just wrote it for gay people. It's great if straight people like it — many have told me they have, right after we have sex, ha — but I think it's perfectly okay to write a book for a specific audience and not care about anyone else. It was about time, at the time I did it. And it's still about time.

But, to be fair, plenty of gay people dislike my book because they feel the critical, non-rah-rah elements are tantamount to homophobia. There is a perverse morality in the story that can be challenging. I think what's important is that gay people are not only existing outside of traditional straight society with all our own rules and regulations — even more confusingly, we have no rules and regulations as a community. We each make it up as we go along. So that leads to a lot of varied results — people who say fuck the world and are absolutely lawless morally, people who are thought of as hetero-wannabes with their desire to marry and sire children and stay faithful, and then all the rest of us who have it both ways. All I was saying was that being gay is not as codified as being straight is, and that our choices are not above questioning. I think X's whole motive in confessing and in laundry-listing his opinions is to furiously try to codify the world he's living in, in order to better own it.

EDGE: One of the novel's central themes is virginity: X has this charming, sort of paradoxical insistence that even though he's had lots of sex for hire, in an essential way he's still a virgin. It's sweet how he makes that distinction, and that it bothers him.

Matthew Rettenmund: I've always referred to "Boy Culture" as anal-sex drama. I think with X it has a lot to do with asserting control over a world he learned early on is uncontrollable. Intercourse is controlled in that he enforces limits, and also in that he charges money for any [sex] that happens. It's a parallel for love. When he learns to relinquish control and let love happen (come what may), the sex part sorts itself out, too.

EDGE: Now that your own book had been made into a film, do you suppose you might try writing screenplays, or adapting other novels at some point in your career?

Matthew Rettenmund: Well, I haven't done a good screenplay; I took a stab at "Boy Culture," but handed it over to professionals early on because I was sick of writing that story. I'd done it as a short story, then a novella, then a novel. I was like, "Enough." But I'm interested in trying again, and might do so with my other novel, "Blind Items: A (Love) Story."

EDGE: What projects are you working on currently?

Matthew Rettenmund: All the attention on "Boy Culture" has inspired me to make time to do writing, and not just pop-culture, non-fiction stuff like I've been doing. I'm pretty sure I'll have something done in the next year. Maybe a sequel to "Boy Culture." "Man Country?"

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Associate Arts Editor and Staff Contributor. 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.