Independent film has long been a refuge for LGBTQ storytellers. And Matt Fifer’s first film, Cicada—currently making its way through the film festival circuit (it played all four of the largest North American queer film festivals this year)—is a powerful new entry in the queer canon. Co-written by Matt Fifer and Sheldon D. Brown, who also co-star (Fifer also co-directed along with Kieran Mulcare), the film explores the intricacies of falling in love and how that can go hand-in-hand with uncovering uncomfortable truths about one’s self along the way, while also exploring inter-racial relationships, bisexual identity, sexual abuse, and more.
We caught up with Matt and Sheldon to learn more about what went into making their powerful new film, which is getting very strong reviews across the board as it continues its march across the festival scene.
FOR THOSE WHO HAVEN’T HAD A CHANCE TO SEE THE FILM YET, WHAT IS CICADA ABOUT?
A young man, Ben, meets a handsome stranger, Sam, at The Strand bookstore in New York City. As they grow closer, Ben’s childhood trauma begins to crawl to the surface and Sam’s own PTSD is revealed, testing the waters of their relationship. It sounds like a bucket of tears but it has laughs, I promise! It’s also a deeply personal story for my co-star and I, we’re reliving parts of our own lives. It stars Scott Adsit (30 ROCK), Colbie Smulders (HOW I MET YOUR MOTHER), Michael Potts (THE WIRE), Jo Firestone (HIGH MAINTENANCE), and SNL’s Bowen Yang.
HOW DID THE FILM COME TO BE?
I was really depressed one winter and writing this script was the only thing that got me out of bed. Maybe a week later, Oprah gave her speech at the Golden Globes for the Cecil B. DeMille award and said “speaking your truth is the most powerful tool we all have.” That really sealed the deal. I dove headfirst into writing and somehow six months later we were shooting this film. So, the short answer is Oprah.
THIS IS YOUR FIRST FILM. WHY DID YOU DECIDE TO MAKE IT AND WHY TELL THIS STORY?
It was the secret I never wanted to tell. It was born out of necessity. I was tired of seeing the same abuse story told over and over again— trauma for the sake of drama, pain without levity, filmmakers representing experiences they had little experience with themselves. One stat has it that one in three girls and one in five boys will be sexually abused before the age of eighteen, but boys are often far less likely to come forward. When I read that it struck me– boys are loud, they speak their mind, often too much, how could this be? Yet here I was, a living example of it, I had never come forward; and I had never had closure; I could only live vicariously through the televised trials and victims. I needed to tell a story that was closer to my own. I needed others to know it’s never too late to come out.
HOW DID YOU FIND THE STRENGTH TO BE SO VULNERABLE? AND HOW WAS THE PROCESS CATHARTIC FOR YOU?
Really my co-star, Sheldon, and co-director, Kieran. Kieran and I meditated every morning, he was really my rock and therapist through this whole production. And Sheldon, I mean not only is that face really nice to wake up to on set every day, but he was such a beacon of light and an inspiration. His wounds were only months old, and his courage and bravery gave me the strength to keep going.
SHELDON, WHAT WAS THE PROCESS OF MAKING THIS FILM LIKE FOR YOU?
Matt and I met back in the spring of 2015, while I was doing a show in NY. I’m based in Chicago. Through the years we kept in touch, became friends, and would catch up when I would visit. Jan. 2018, we met up for drinks in a bar in Brooklyn where he told me he was writing a film based on his life and that he wanted me to be in it! I was stunned, at the time I had minimal experience on camera and he had never seen me perform. A few months later, while coming home late one night from a friend’s party, I was shot in a drive-by shooting. I spent the next month in the hospital recovering. I had suffered severe injuries and didn’t know when I would perform again. However, in deep conversation with Matt, I decided to not only act in the film but come on as a writer and incorporate my own experiences with trauma to intertwine with Matt’s. After one month in the hospital, two months of recovery, and 21 days after in NY, we shot this film. This journey has been insanity in the most beautiful and miraculous way. It was painful, it was releasing, it was grueling, and it was joyous. I’m grateful for being able to process all of what I went through into something truly powerful. I’m grateful to let it go into the world. And I’m grateful for Matt and an amazing team for trusting me and taking me on this journey with them.
During this pandemic, much of my work has transitioned from the stage and camera to the virtual classroom. I’m a teaching artist at a few theatres in Chicago, working with high school students. I’m coming on as a board member of an LGBTQ theatre company in Chicago, About Face Theatre. And exploring more of my directorial eye with For You Productions, filming my own creation inspired by a series of conversations I will have with an elder. Excited to collaborate with Matt again, so keep your eyes peeled.
MATT… CICADA MADE ITS WAY THIS LATE-SUMMER AND FALL THROUGH THE FOUR BIG NORTH AMERICAN QUEER FILM FESTIVALS, WHAT HAS THAT BEEN LIKE… DEBUTING YOUR FIRST FEATURE FILM IN THE TIME OF COVID-19?
When I pictured this year it definitely involved some hugs! So, I’m looking forward to that one day. But I feel incredibly lucky to be a part of all of these festivals. The programmers and their teams have done everything in their power to make them feel special, we’d be nowhere without them. So thank you Outfest, Frameline, InsideOut, and NewFest! Queer filmmakers need you more than ever.
It’s been really nice to get some sweet DMs. And it was very cool to see some of the pictures and videos of the first drive-in— people honking for our film, cheering, crying. If I’m being honest, I made this film to get people to cry in their cars.
WHAT WOULD YOU LIKE TO SEE COME FROM THE NEXT GEN OF QUEER FILMMAKERS AND STORYTELLERS?
A queer Homeward Bound! I know that’s really specific but I think we’re ready for it. As a nation. Katya Zamolodchikova would play Sassy? Billy Porter would be Chance, Sally Field would play Sally Field of course. Instead of trying to get home, they’re all running away, to some queer land like Provincetown. And it’s called something very subtle like, “Your Cat is Gay. She’s Never Coming Back.”
Other than that, I want to see filmmakers exploring genre. And a new generation of queer stories told by queer filmmakers. Straight cis directors will continue to make queer films, and that’s great, we need allies, but I’d love to see a new fleet of powerful stories told by queer storytellers. As well as cast queer actors and queer crew to tell them!
MATT, WHAT COMES NEXT FOR YOU IN YOUR LIFE AND CAREER?
I’m working on a queer horror film for the spring, and a TV show for the future. I’m watching a lot of British Bake Off, and going through a really confusing Sheryl Crow phase right now.