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Interview: 'Henry Gamble's Birthday Party' director Stephen Cone

Written by
Michael Smith

Henry Gamble’s Birthday Party, the most recent film by Chicago writer/director Stephen Cone (The Wise Kids), was one of the standout independent American movies of 2015. After playing three sold out shows at last October’s Chicago International Film Festival (where it won the Silver Q Hugo Award), the film returns to local screens for a week-long engagement at the Siskel Center beginning Friday. I recently spoke to Cone about this affecting coming-of-age drama, which takes place over the course of the 17th birthday party of a closeted gay kid who happens to be the son of a “megachurch” preacher. 

Henry Gamble strikes me as your most ambitious and confident film.

Thanks. It’s kind of the “first film” success I’ve been trying to make happen for a decade. A lot of people make their first or second film and they’ll screen somewhere like BAMcinemaFest, and it’s, “Oh, this is an interesting new filmmaker.” It just took me a decade [of making films] to make my “first film.” John Ford wasn’t held to those standards. Coppola made six films before he made The Godfather. It’s a new, unfortunate cultural thing: this fetishization of the first-time filmmaker.

The beginning of the film is really great: Henry (Cole Doman) and his best friend, Gabe (Joe Keery), are masturbating side-by-side and then they go downstairs to have breakfast with Henry’s family and say a prayer.

That’s what happens when you’re a teenager. You’re not really conscious enough of the nuances of hypocrisy that you’re registering a shift. When you’re a teenager, at 7am you could be at church praying and singing but because you’re living in a teenage body, an hour later you’re at someone’s house talking about sex. It’s not a conscious shift and it’s not anything to even feel guilty about, but it’s a very quick shift from the sacred to the secular. That changes as you get older. It becomes a little more of an internal register. 

There’s an immortal line of dialogue in this film: “Well, Jesus drank.”

Which I heard countless times growing up! It’s used as a justification. I mean, he did. It’s not a bad argument that Larry (Francis Guinan) is making there.

The end of the film, where Henry’s in bed with someone else, beautifully mirrors the beginning. When you were writing it, did you have that structure in mind from the beginning or did you just start writing and see where it led you? 

Those bookends were there immediately at the beginning. The Wise Kids didn’t confront sexuality directly. That was part of the reason why I wanted to do this. The goal was to explore evangelical adolescent sexuality, and that is an essential moment. My mind immediately went back to that 12am, 1am space where you have a friend over. That is the secret dark chamber of adolescent sensuality. So it made total sense to start there.

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