When Zombot Pictures, an independent production company run by James Bird, Adriana Mather, and Anya Remizova, decided to make a film about a young woman with terminal cancer, they left behind the usual tropes and instead set out to make a film about love, life, and gender-defying leads who reflected the world in which we live.
Honeyglue follows Morgan (Adriana Mather), who has three months to live, and Jordan (Zach Villa), a gender-bending artist who falls in love with Morgan and takes her on the honeymoon road trip of a lifetime.
On the day of the film's June 3rd premiere, I talked to actor/producer Adriana Mather, and writer/director James Bird. Here’s what they had to say about their unconventional love story.
PRIDE: James, you wrote Honeyglue shortly after your producer Anya Remizova’s father was diagnosed with cancer and passed away. How did the process of writing that script help you cope, and why was that an important story to tell at that time?
James Bird: Well, when it happened we were in the middle of filming a comedy, so I had to push it back, and I refused to deal with it. After we finished with the comedy, that’s when it actually hit me. I started doing all the research, and all the emotion came in. The best way for me to cope with anything is to write it out.
PRIDE: It can be a really sad movie—like bring your tissues—a lot of the time, but it’s also full of a lot of joyful moments. How did you find that balance?
JB: It’s definitely a sad topic. But I wanted to make sure that it came across that death is only just the last part of life, and life can be exciting, and fun, and full of adventure. I wanted to make sure that it didn’t turn out to be a movie about death. It’s a movie about celebrating life, and doing everything you want in the time that you’re given.
PRIDE: Adriana, why was Honeyglue an important story for you to be part of telling?
Adriana Mather: The story itself is beautiful. It’s a story about living instead of dying—about how you use your time, about how you make every moment count. But for me personally, I loved playing that character, Morgan. She had depth, and she had emotion, and humor, and was gender bending. Instead of playing what would normally be categorized as the typical female role, I got to play on an entire gender spectrum, and that was pretty fantastic for me.
PRIDE: There’s this moment in the film where Morgan does this drag king-esque serenade for Jordan in a bar. How did you think about her gender expression throughout the film, and how that relates to the amount of time she has?
AM: I think that Morgan is someone that sees the world for what it offers and what experiences she can have. And Jordan is sort of a catalyst that launches her into a new part of her life. So, there’s this opening there for Morgan to express herself. The lack of time she has left definitely makes her move faster, but I think she may have gotten there anyway.
That serenade—from a behind the scenes perspective—when we showed up at that bar we had an idea of what the choreography was going to be for my character, and how it was going to work. Then James [Bird], and the DP [director of photography], Sefan Colson, decided they were going to change the choreography, and they were going to do a one-take, which meant it all had to turn out perfectly in one go. On top of all that, they were going to do it double speed and then slow it down to be normal speed when you actually viewed it. So, everything I did, I had to do twice as fast and still make it work. That was an interesting challenge as an actor, and I think it actually made the scene more fun. I was getting to play the masculine side of the couple, and I was getting to seduce Zach [Villa] who was looking hot in the bar, and I was lip synching double speed, and stepping over people and trying not to fall, and dancing.
PRIDE: Morgan is also one of the few terminally ill characters I’ve seen who is still portrayed as desirable. It seems like a lot of the time, sick characters are nothing more than sick. How did you find that balance between the realities of her illness while giving her space to be more than just her illness?
AM: We actually wanted to show a progression of the illness in a realistic way, because it’s an issue that touches us personally, and we feel strongly about not sugarcoating that. At the same time, as a character, I’m still a person who has all of the emotions that any person has. I want to have love, and I want to have adventure. She’s living fully, and she has hope, and she wants things. It doesn’t matter that she has three months, because there could always be three months in anyone’s life. It doesn’t matter that she’s sick, because people are sick, and people do deal with all of these things. So, there’s sort of a resiliency there.
But it was also interesting for me as an actor, having to shave my head. Because when they shaved my head and I went off into the world, I couldn’t leave the character behind. People treated me as though I was ill in my real life. They would speak slowly to me, and they would touch me, and they would look at me when they didn’t think that I was looking at them. If you appear different outwardly from the general norm of the population, people will never let you forget it. And people were doing it out of kindness. But it was a lesson to me, because what if it wasn’t about kindness? What if it was about some form of discrimination? This role really had a bigger impact on me as a human being than anything else.
PRIDE: There’s this moment where Jordan asks Morgan why she has an Asian brother (Booboo Stewart), and she just says, 'Because I have an Asian brother.' Which just crushes all these arguments of people saying, 'Oh, you can’t cast so-and-so, because real families don’t look like that.' There’s also not a lot of explanation about Jordan’s gender expression. How did you think about presenting characters or families that we don’t see a lot in film to your audience?
JB: I wanted to show what you see in real life. I know plenty of people that have moms or dads or brothers or sisters of different ethnicities, and you accept it right away in the real world. You don’t need an explanation. So why, in film, do people continue having to explain this when it’s so normal? I wanted to be at the forefront of saying, 'No, that doesn’t need an explanation. There doesn’t need to be a huge reason.'
There are also people who would say, 'Oh, I could never root for a guy that wears a skirt.' But by the end of the movie, since we didn’t preach, we just let that character be who he is, the audience will hopefully see him as a person. That was my attempt to bring all of these opposites that exist in the real world together as one.
PRIDE: You incorporate a lot of fables and mythology into your work. Is that something that influences you?
JB: Yeah, I’m half Native American—Ojibwe—and I’m pretty fascinated and in love with folklore. At the root of every story, no matter what culture you’re in, I think everything is a love story. I love learning about these love stories that date back hundreds and hundreds of years, and how they’re still so relevant today. I just want to be a part of that.
PRIDE: What can you tell me about the film you’re working on now?
JB: We just finished the book trailer for Adriana’s book, and we’re in development for a new movie that I wrote and will be directing as well. It’s called We Are Boats, and that’s about an angel in training. She comes down and has to navigate the real world while at the same time having a mission to intervene and connect people at the exact moment they need to be connected. The whole time, she also never had the chance to say goodbye to someone, so she’s doing two jobs at once.
PRIDE: Adriana, what was the process of writing How to Hang a Witch like, and how did that compare to other mediums? How would you describe the story?
AM: So, my ancestors hanged witches in Salem.
PRIDE: Ah! That’s a little creepy.
AM: Yeah, we were on the wrong side of history, for sure. My ancestor was Cotton Mather, and I’m Adriana Mather, so we share the same last name, and you can’t really get away from it. How to Hang a Witch takes place in modern day Salem, and it deals with that history through ghosts. It’s sort of like The Craft meets Mean Girls. I used the historical hanging of a witch to parallel modern day bullying. So, even though it’s a commercial story with a lot of mystery and romance, there’s also a message there. There is a connection between all the creative things that I do, which is: make content that I love, but also make it with a message that I can stand behind.