Nico Tortorella (left) and Juan Pablo Di Pace in "The Mattachine Family."
Nico Tortorella (left) and Juan Pablo Di Pace in “The Mattachine Family.”

If you don’t live in Los Angeles, you might never have heard of the Mattachine Steps. In 2012, the outdoor staircase in Silver Lake was dedicated to the late Harry Hay, who co-founded the Mattachine Society – an early gay rights organization – in 1950. 

In Andy Vallentine’s feature directorial debut “The Mattachine Family,” Thomas (Nico Tortorella) considers the steps, and later how his own group of friends, or more found family, connects to that history. The options and the lives available to queer people in 2023 are much more diverse and varied than they were in 1950, but finding the answers you’re looking for can still be just as complex. 

The film follows Thomas and his friends as they navigate their relationships, but specifically focuses on the issue of fertility and the paths to parenthood that exist for LGBTQ+ people.  When Arthur, Thomas and his husband Oscar’s (Juan Pablo Di Pace) foster son, returns to his birth mother, Thomas decides he wants to give fatherhood another try. But, after watching how the loss of Arthur affected Thomas, Oscar isn’t so sure. 

“The Mattachine Family” plays this weekend at Out on Film, Atlanta’s LGBTQ+ film festival. The screening will take place on Sept. 24 at 8:15 p.m. at Landmark’s Midtown Arts Cinema. Ahead of the screening, Rough Draft Atlanta spoke with Vallentine and Tortorella about bringing this very personal story to life.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

Andy, you worked on this movie with your husband, Danny Vallentine. I wanted to start there and talk a little bit about what that project was like. I believe this is your first feature. How did you settle on this subject in particular?

Andy Vallentine: They always tell you, for your first film, to do something where you’re the subject expert. When Danny and I were looking at our relationship, and we were like, what were our big fights and our big issues that we had had, it was that Danny wanted a child and I didn’t. We thought that that might make an interesting film, to explore what that journey is for a gay couple now.

I understand that your daughter was born a month after production wrapped, is that right?

Vallentine: She was. It was like, the two most incredible highs of my life, where I had been working towards wanting to do a movie forever, right? And then Danny along the way convinced me okay, yes, we should have a child. So we knew the child was coming, but [we] got the movie done and then literally less than four weeks later she was born, and then that just rocked our world. 

Nico Tortorella: There’s a very serendipitous story about the baby and the film that I just feel needs to be told, Andy. You need to tell it, not me. 

Vallentine: What are you talking about? Which one?

Tortorella: About New Year’s Eve! About the timing of it. 

Vallentine: Oh, yeah. Danny wrote “The Mattachine Family” before we had done anything with our child. He wrote that Thomas got his child on New Year’s Eve, or New Year’s Day, and he calls the baby Evie. That was our due date for our daughter. And that happened after it was written. She ended up coming early, but wouldn’t that have been fun, if that would’ve happened? It’s just one of those things in life that just like – I don’t know, it’s just one of those magical things, you know? 

That’s so interesting. I did wonder – obviously the process of having a child takes a long time, it can go a lot of different ways. After you had your child, right after production ended, did that change how you looked back at the film, or how you thought about the movie after the fact?

Vallentine: Yes. It’s a very weird thing to have gone through, where making the movie was all about Thomas’s desire to have a child. During that time, I had that desire as well, but I didn’t know what it meant to be a dad yet until the movie was wrapped. Then, you know, really half the job of an independent director, producer – yes, it was that month that we spent filming, but also it was all of that time in post-production afterwards, really crafting the story. During that whole time, I had a different perspective on the film, because at that point, I was a dad. At that point, I was waking up four times in the middle of the night to feed the baby, and having to get up and go edit. 

I think there’s also things that I look back – I don’t know Nico, if you have these feelings too – but I look back and I’m like, oh I wish we wouldn’t have done that. [To Nico] I’m thinking of when you’re in the bedroom at the end writing the letter to Oscar, and the baby’s in the bassinet. But the baby would have never been in the bassinet at that age. 

Tortorella: Thomas would never have known that, maybe not at that point.

Vallentine: That’s true. 

Tortorella: So much of the film is about becoming a parent rather than merely being a parent. I was deep in my own fertility journey, and I wanted a baby more than anything in the entire world. I was like, a year into our process. 

I was going to ask you about that. 

Tortorella: Yeah, I mean, we hit every complication that we could have imagined and not imagined. I mean, at home I had to – in a lot of ways, I was the rock, right? I was holding down emotional structure at home. And when I got on this project, I was able to release so much of that. I found so much of my own emotionality through the process of fertility through Thomas and this project, in ways that I could never have dreamt possible. This movie is so special in the story of who I am as a parent. It’s part of it.

I’m so glad you brought that up. I read that you recently became a parent. When you were approached to do this, or when you came onto the project, how far along were you guys in that process?

Tortorella: We were a year into trying to have a baby, and we had just started having conversations with fertility specialists. We actually wound up getting pregnant immediately after the film, and wound up having a miscarriage two, three months after that. You know, there is the entire miscarriage story in the film too, and so I had just come off of experiencing that in tandem through this character that I was playing, and then we experienced it in real life. The parallels are and will continue to be wild. I’m still wrapping my head around how similar my life was at the time. Two totally different stories, right? But same objectives. It’s so special, and to continue to have these conversations and promote this film in this way and talk about why this film is so important right now, especially in this country, it’s such a gift. It’s such a blessing. 

Yeah. I don’t even know if I have a question about this, but I feel like you rarely see – thinking of IVF specifically, I know people struggling with that – and I feel like that’s something you really don’t see in movies, and you don’t talk about. Pregnancy and becoming a parent is just such a complicated process for anyone in general, so it was nice to see that reflected. 

Tortorella: For sure. And we’re taught not to talk about it, you know? If anyone’s experiencing any form of infertility, it’s encouraged  to keep it on the hush, right? Even when you get pregnant, you’re not supposed to tell people until a certain point, and there’s all of these secrets around the most magical creation that exists on this planet, that really brings us all together. We were all born, at some point. It is the only thing that really unites us all, and we’re so limited in different places, on what we’ve seen and what we can and can’t say. So much of my family’s process in all of this has just been to share our experience. This film was the beginning of all of that for me in a lot of ways. 

Nico, you mentioned you really wanted a child, and Andrew for you it was your husband who really wanted a baby at first. One thing I appreciated about this movie is I felt like the dynamic between Oscar and Thomas sort of flipped at some point. At the beginning, it’s Oscar who’s like, should we have a kid? And then it flips to Thomas. Was that something you thought of early on, for there to be a switch like that? Or did that come naturally?

Vallentine:  I think it’s always great to have complicated characters, so I think that that was the desire. At the time when Thomas and Oscar had Arthur, life was good for them. It worked out in that moment. One of the main drawbacks for Oscar of not wanting a child again, was seeing how Thomas was affected by that loss. Which I think Juan Pablo [Di Pace] really portrays throughout the movie. You don’t experience that until that moment, until you see that loss, until you see your partner struggling with that, you know? It was one of those filmmaking tricks, I think, that adds layers to the character. 

Speaking of Juan Pablo, Nico I thought you and he had great chemistry. As an actor, I assume that doesn’t always happen all the time. What is it like to work with someone and realize you have a verve like that? And Andy, what was it like for you to feel like you got it right? Which in my opinion, I think it worked really well. 

Tortorella: Yeah, it worked so well. You know, our job is to fall in and out of love so quickly, as actors. The first time JP and I read anything together, there was just this knowing. It was over a Zoom, actually. We got on set, and the first scene that we shot together, day one, was one of our biggest fight scenes. One of our most emotional scenes. We had dinner a few days beforehand – we didn’t really work through much, we just jumped in. There was just this trust. 

Especially on an indie film, you’re chasing the clock, you’re chasing the budget. It is a f-cking marathon. To be able to show up and just trust and believe in each other is so rare. And when it works, it’s so beautiful that it feels like something else is going on. We just got lost in each other for the majority of the film. And that’s one of the reasons I do what I do. I’m able to step out of myself and step into the character, you know? It’s not an easy relationship between the two of them, because like you said, they’re playing opposite ends of spectrums and going back and forth. Yeah, I love me some Juan Pablo. I mean, who doesn’t? 

Vallentine: I think as a director, that’s one of my greatest fears – or it was one of my greatest fears – that Nico and Juan wouldn’t click. But I saw something in them. Of course, I would have loved, like – hey, let’s go on a week retreat, right? We’re going to work through our characters up at Big Bear for a week, and we’re gonna get to know each other and we’re going to form this tight bond in a couple of days. Maybe the car will break down, we’ve got to fix the tire – you know, to establish something. And with the movie, it was literally like – hi, Nico, nice to meet you! Let’s do an hour rehearsal with Juan Pablo, and then we’re shooting tomorrow. 

You get fortunate, I guess, with the people you cast. I was obviously very fortunate with you, Nico, and with Juan and that magic existed once you got together. 

Tortorella: We just have a similar work ethic, too. We just show up and want to be part of the larger creation of the project. There’s a kindness that Juan Pablo shows up with to set – this open heart. And that is for me, the majority of the work. If you show up and people want to work with you and you make the day enjoyable, the rest of the stuff should come easy. Unfortunately, that’s not always the case with actors. 

Wow. Doing a chemistry read over Zoom must be surreal. I guess we’ve all gotten used to it at this point, but it still feels surreal. 

Tortorella: There isn’t that real energetic exchange. You can play it as an actor, right? But I can’t feel your waves. I can’t feel your heart over this. And that’s so much of what being an actor is. It really sucks that we’ve gotten to this point. I can’t remember the last time I auditioned in a room for anything. The last handful of things I’ve gotten cast for have been over [Zoom]. You show up to work, and all of these people are cast off of a camera at the house, and you get to meet them for the first time in person. It’s not just the actors meeting each other, it’s the directors meeting the actors for the first time. It’s everybody meeting everybody together for the first time. It either works or it does not at all, and I’ve been on sets where both of those things are true. It’s weird. It’s a weird time. 

Speaking to the casting process, just over the course of this conversation you guys have talked about how personal this movie was. I wondered, Andy, if you could talk a little bit about the casting process and bringing the cast together. I’m also interested in how these characters evolved once there was an actor attached to them. 

Vallentine: We had a great casting director, Scot Boland, who produced the movie. Scott is Robert Zemeckis’s casting director, and he did “Flight” and “The Hobbit.” His credibility, I think that’s why we got such talented actors to join the film. Once we had our Thomas and Oscar, we started building out the chosen family that way. It was important for me to cast LGBTQ+ folks in not all the roles, but in most of the roles, and then also try to put people in that I was a fan of. I was a fan of Carl Clemons-Hopkins from “Hacks,” and love Heather Matarazzo, right? A gay icon. 

To your second point, there are some directors who are people who need to control every aspect of photography and of their film. I am not necessarily one of those people. I am one of those people who feels like I”m driving the ship, but I need the rest of the crew to help out and bring their expertise. I welcomed – or Nico can speak [to] if I did welcome – I wanted [the actors] to put as much of themselves in the character, but also bring what they wanted. We didn’t have these massive rehearsals, so I relied heavily on what the actors brought to the table in that particular moment. 

I always have been a fan of Nico’s style. And Nico, you brought your own style – whether or not because you hated the costumes that we had … you were like, you know what? I’ve got a better shirt over here. Let me go put this on! But it improved the film, and it fit within the character, right? Thomas was this artist, this photographer from Los Angeles. Who is better to know who Thomas is than Nico? 

Tortorella: At one point, I even tried – I wore this hat to work, and there’s a scene where Carl is wearing a hat. He put this hat on, and I was like ooh – this hat’s not really it. You should try this hat on, Carl! And Carl was like, no I really like the hat that I have on. I go, okay cool [laughs]. I totally hear you, sorry! 

But it goes beyond the wardrobe. Especially on an indie, you have a time, and an amount of pages, and a limit to what the day looks like. You have to show up and you have to make strong choices, and you’ve got to go with them. There really was a collaboration on this set. Because we all were so interested in telling this story, and a story that had never really been explored in film, there was such a deep, deep respect for the content and the narrative from the get. We all just showed up and were like, okay –how can we best bring this story to life? You know, after a couple of takes, we got what was on the page and then we got to explore some. To have that type of energy fostered on a set, is just, you know – that’s where the magic really comes alive. 

The sort of expository device used throughout the film is a set of photographs. The Thomas character is a photographer, but did that idea spring from the character? How did you come up with that?

Vallentine: Danny always writes these prolific kinds of things. How do we incorporate that into a dramedy that can relate to everybody? Those became the voiceover moments, where we got an opportunity to look inside Thomas’s head. I think the photos were always just a device to help tell more of the story, to give little brief moments. I think it was partly because A, it was an interesting creative aspect, but also B, because we wanted to tell a lot bigger story, but we only had time and money to take some quick photos of this little particular moment. You know, we can’t film the funeral scene, it’s just a quick little thing. 

I think that I pushed us in that direction as well, because I do come from a background of directing music videos, so music plays a crucial role in the film. I wanted these moments of the film that we could breathe with music, and I could push the viewer in a certain direction. So every choice that was made with the music, with those images, it was to try to push the audience in a certain direction. 

The screening is this weekend. I’m sure you guys have seen it on a big screen at this point, but what is that feeling like?

Tortorella: It’s so cool. I’ve only seen it once on a large screen, and that was actually my second time watching it all the way through. Tonight, we’re actually in Chicago, which is my home. I’ve seven family members coming to watch it in a theater tonight, which will be interesting, to say the least. This isn’t really their genre. They haven’t ever seen me in a role quite like this, both in terms of storyline, and also just I’m pretty much every frame of the movie. So to have them there for this movie tonight, and to be home, and to be in this theater that I have a close relationship with, it’s just really special. This story feels like it brings people together, and when there is a large theater full of people – especially at a queer film festival – that appreciate this content and are craving more of this type of story, it’s unbelievable. The love that grows in this room as the movie progresses is just so special. We can’t wait to be there with you guys this weekend too. 

Vallentine: I think there’s nothing better than sitting and watching an audience laugh and cry with your film. So I’m really taking enjoyment in all of these festivals, to be able to experience that. 

Sammie Purcell is Associate Editor at Rough Draft Atlanta.