“It all came together with my work study position, a job at Blockbuster Video, and a crush I had on Christina Slater,” states Michelle Clay, casually recalling her start in filmmaking. “I was learning about editing and had access to so many films. So for my first project, I edited a quick promo on Christian Slater.”
Refreshing and down-to-earth, Michelle Clay is a rare writer turned editor turned filmmaker with a passion for identifying stories that typically go unnoticed – the stories that, most often, are right in front of our faces. Clay is one of those few filmmakers with the uncanny ability to tell the story of the everyday and remind us of how very much alike we really are.
“I love writing stories you don’t normally see, interpretations you don’t always get,” says Michelle. “I have been a writer since I was a kid. Editing is really the final re-write.”
Clay’s latest work, Better Half is a heartfelt gay drama about two men who adopt a child. Part comedy, part tragedy, part self-discovery, Clay delivers a touching story about love, commitment, and what it means to be family.
“I’m forever a single girl, so I’m fascinated by couplehood,” says Michelle. “6 years ago, I wanted to do an independent feature and realized there are no gay dramas, no stories about gay couples.”
She goes on to explain, “We as people are more alike than different. This is something we all need to learn and recognize. To see humanity first.”
The film opens as Tony and Leo are happily in love, living together in Washington, DC. A crusader for the less fortunate, Tony often finds himself going beyond the limits expected of a social advocate, which is something Leo criticizes him for. However, when a premature baby is abandoned at the care facility where Tony works, Tony starts thinking about the next phase of his own life, including marriage with Leo and the potential for a family. Though hesitant, at first Leo ultimately agrees to adopt the abandoned child with Tony, naming him Dylan.
The signature of a talented writer, Michelle Clay uses her characters Tony and Leo to share a relatable and honest story. Clay acknowledges the common stigmas surrounding gay marriage and gay adoption in her film, yet chooses carefully not to dwell on these challenges. Rather, Better Half allows the audience to forget this is a gay drama and accept it as simply, a drama.
When tragedy strikes Tony and Leo’s growing family, Leo is left to bear the responsibility for Dylan, which is something he never fully wanted in the first place. The audience begins to see an unsavory side of Leo – a man who is terrified, in mourning, and self-victimizing.
“We acknowledge that they are people first,” explains Michelle. “Tony saw something in Leo that Leo couldn’t see himself. It took time for Leo to see it too”
A labor of love, Michelle spent almost all of 2012 raising the $100,000 budget for Better Half, and 13 months shooting the film.
“The cast and crew was the best, but those guys were stuck with me!” jokes Michelle.
“One of the big challenges was to ‘cast a couple’ for the film. I didn’t just want good actors, they had to work as a couple in the story,” explains Michelle. “Grant Landry matches Tony so well, but I made Jaimie Fauth really work for the role of Leo.”
Striving for the perfect Tony and Leo, Michelle ultimately realized Grant and Jaimie were the ideal fit after putting Jaimie through several casting auditions.
“[This is] a small piece of irony, which I think shines a light on how good my leading men are,” says Michelle. “Grant, who plays Tony, doesn’t really see himself becoming a father anywhere in the future versus Jaimie, Leo, is coming up on his first wedding anniversary and is in the process of adopting a child with his husband. Kinda funny that the roles in life and in the movie are totally reversed.”
Finally comfortable with her casting decisions, Michelle began looking forward to production. However, being so close to her project, she met the conflict that many passionate writers happen upon – there’s a time to “let it go” and trust your crew to get the job done right.
“A writer must trust the director to find chemistry between the actors,” Michelle points out. Needless to say, the chemistry shows up nicely in this film.
When not out promoting Better Half, Michelle Clay is busy at work crafting her next project.
“As an African American female from Baltimore, I’ve always wanted to share more of the world I knew,” says Michelle. “I was moved by Ferguson, so I’m toiling with a Romeo & Juliet story set against the backdrop of the Freddie Gray tragedy.”
Despite layering tragedy upon tragedy, we’re confident Michelle Clay will continue to use her heartfelt stories to help audiences worldwide learn to see humanity first.
All pictures reproduced courtesy of Michelle Clay