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“Despite having been employed as a health club lifeguard while attending high school,” reads the press bio for the lanky film director whose section of the gay three-parter Boys Life chronicles a waterlogged teen’s coming-out at poolside, “Brian Sloan insists that Pool Days is not autobiographical. Of course, no one believes him.”
“It’d be great if it was autobiographical,” grins Sloan as he hands a Washington Sheraton valet the car keys he forgot to surrender on his way into the hotel restaurant. “I’d still be working at the Holiday Spa in Silver Spring if it had been that exciting.”
Instead, the blue-eyed, 28-year-old Montgomery County native is working the interview circuit, promoting the half-hour film he directed two years ago at New York University—a comedy about a naive, 16-year-old lifeguard whose Red Cross training didn’t entirely prepare him for days spent policing steam-room hanky-panky while fielding come-ons from both a female aerobics instructor and a handsome male club member. Pool Days is powered by adolescent angst. Sloan’s own experience was considerably more prosaic.
“I was 15. You don’t realize at that age that you’re a hot commodity. In hindsight I can see there was a sexual angle to it, but I just thought everyone was being really friendly when they’d take me out to lunch and talk to me all the time.”
Filmed mostly on location in suburban Maryland, near what Sloan calls the “triple-threat, Catholic-military-all-male St. John’s” School at which he spent much of his closeted adolescence, Pool Days is the director’s sixth short film and, at a cost of $16,000, easily his most ambitious. (Among the others he lists Shall We Dance?, which is about two military school students who dance together at their commencement and cause a stir. This, the director swears, is “also non-autobiographical….When I was in school, there were rumors going around that I was gay, and my reaction was to go to parties and make out with women.”)
Such subterfuges are no longer part of his routine. When he sought financing for Pool Days, he sent video copies of Shall We Dance? to prominent gay figures in New York, including Bruce Webber. The photographer put him in touch with a gallery owner who, to Sloan’s astonishment, offered to put up the entire sum after a five-minute conversation.
The leads were then cast in Manhattan (“we had 260 head shots for the three principal roles”) and Sloan filled the edges of the film frame with D.C. actors and relatives (his mom swims by in the opening scene and his brother plays a prospective health club member). While his meticulously worked-out shooting schedule was disrupted when one of his leads got a part in a Dr. Pepper commercial just before filming started (“I banned Dr. Pepper from the set, which only I seemed to mind”), Sloan says the actual shoot went smoothly, including seven days of pool scenes filmed at Takoma Park Elementary School. “I don’t know if the county knew exactly what we were doing,” he says. “We told them what the film was about, sort of—a 16-year-old who gets a summer job working at a health club. That’s all they wanted to know. I closed the set during the kissing scene.”
Though he’s aware that a story about an underage high-schooler being courted by twentysomething grown-ups also courts controversy, Sloan says he never heard those undertones in the plot (which ends with the lad nearly as innocent as he is at the outset). “It’s about a character who’s starting to be aware of his sexuality and is making the decisions himself…though I can understand why people take it the other way,” says Sloan. “In cinema, the image of an older man or woman seducing a young boy is the standard.”
Also standard is the suffering that gay movie characters are generally forced to endure over their sexual orientation. “There’s an incredible lack of any sort of romantic sensibility in gay films,” laments Sloan, explaining why his own movies take a relatively light approach to their subject matter. “Not everyone’s existence is all about angst and AIDS. People live their lives and sometimes it’s funny. I’m working on a script now—a feature-length romantic comedy about a gay couple attending a straight couple’s wedding and how their relationship is affected by it. It’s in the line of screwball comedies from the ’30s and ’40s.”
While Pool Days is inspired as much by Tennessee Williams as by ’30s farceurs, it isn’t confrontational—which may account for the mild reaction it got at its NYU debut. “I thought I’d made the biggest student film flop of all time,” the director remembers. But a few months later, when it was booked into San Francisco’s Gay and Lesbian Film Fest and “played at the Castro Theater to a crowd of about eleven hundred screaming gay men,” the response was so affirmative that an attending distributor expressed interest in building a shorts package around it. Sloan suggested another coming-out film from NYU—Raoul O’Connell’s A Friend of Dorothy, for which Sloan had worked the sound boom—and Robert Lee King’s similarly themed film-fest hit, The Disco Years, brought the package to feature length.
Now the determinedly shy Sloan—who was reluctant to play a small on-screen role (as a health club visitor who stumbles in on that poolside kiss), and whose most prominent previous exposure to live audiences was as Villager 2 in a Wildwood Summer Theater production of Fiddler on the Roof—finds himself called upon to introduce the film in various venues. The Dr. Pepper anecdote comes in handy, he says. So do tales of fog machines running amok during steam-room scenes.
And when in doubt, he reminds himself that while audiences see the film he’s introducing as a tale of sexual awakening, it’s at least as much about conquering shyness and being open to something new: “the rush of having a job and a paycheck, and what a liberating experience it is. If there’s an autobiographical aspect to the film, that’s it.”