A steam room, five hot guys and the secret to eternal youth. These are the core elements of J.C. Calciano’s latest film, Steam Room Stories: The Movie!, the feature length version of his successful comedy web series of the same name, which will have its San Diego premiere at Landmark’s Hillcrest Cinemas on September 18 as part of FilmOut San Diego’s Screening Series. Among other elements enriching the Steam Room experience this time around is the presence of the iconic actress Traci Lords in the antagonistic role of Shelly Fay, a failing and aging cosmetics magnate whose attempts to possess at all costs the miraculously beautifying waters of the title setting counter those of the Steam Room gang, who on the other hand, desperately try to save their beloved hangout spot from bankruptcy via a series of odd and wacky fundraising plans.
Director J.C. Calciano got into making little films with an amateur camera when he was a kid and soon realized he loved making people happy with them. He particularly loved to make people laugh and was often named among the funniest of his school. Those same objectives are reflected in Steam Room Stories, where laughs abound. However, Calciano also learned that making people laugh is no laughing matter. “It’s very, very hard. Some people may not find it hard but I spend a remarkable amount of time on these scripts. There is a lot of care and time going into them, trying to be clever and having little twist endings.”
Calciano’s cinema is also driven by a desire to tell stories that embrace the LGBTQ community. In fact, after going to film school and gaining priceless experience while working on various film productions, the tragic suicide of a friend facing issues with accepting his own homosexuality encouraged him to take an important life decision. “That was really the impetus for me to come out of the closet,” he says, “and inspired me to make a documentary called Coming Out: A Collection of Stories, where I interviewed people’s experiences coming out.”
Working on the documentary was a positive experience for Calciano, and it encouraged him to further pursue his ambitions of directing and producing his own movies. He founded his own production company, Cinema175, purposefully choosing a name for it that referred to the old German Section 175 law that made homosexual acts between males a crime. “I wanted to own that number as opposed to being afraid of it. And I called the company Cinema175 because It’s part of a past that I want to be proud of as opposed to live in fear of what things were like back then.”
Comedy has always been one of the most effective ways of manifesting representation in storytelling, as well as offering people with an opportunity to laugh away the sorrows. It is also Calciano’s favourite way of expressing his own creativity through cinema. His first fiction feature directorial effort, Is It Just Me? came in 2010, and it was closely followed by eCupid (2011) and The 10 Year Plan (2014). 2010 was another landmark year for his artistic output, as it marked the beginning of his work on a certain long-lasting cult web series.
Given Steam Room Stories’ longevity, it is almost hard to believe it when Calciano tells the story of its humble beginnings. “After I did Is It Just Me?, I had such a good time making that movie and was so excited to be making queer cinema. But I had no money or any other resource to make another film. What I did have was a fog machine. I don’t even remember where I got it! So, I went to Target and I found a shower curtain that looked like tile, and that was my background. I got a bench and a coffee table from IKEA. I called in a couple of hot guys, got a couple of towels and I said, ‘All right, now you’re in a steam room.'”
Calciano calls Steam Room Stories a passion project not least of all because aside from directing, writing and producing every one of its episodes, he also overlooks virtually every other aspect – from props to artwork to packaging. “On the Steam Room Stories episodes, I sit there and make ever prop. I also do all the artwork and all the cover art. I do all the shot lists. When you don’t have the people to do it, you have to do it yourself and it’s very time consuming. Sometimes you have to compromise and compromising is the hardest part… I probably direct 70% of my movies and the universe directs the other 30%,” he shares, quoting one of the things he also tells the students of his directing class at UCLA. “When accidents happen or a location falls and so on, if you don’t freak out about it and just embrace the opportunity to look at something from a different point of view, I think that your work gets better.”
Given the amount of work that is involved in filmmaking, it is not surprising that Calciano should cast the actors of his Steam Room gang according to their personalities. “The number one priority is that they have to be nice; really nice guys who are sweet and pleasant. Just awesome to be around. Before I even know whether they can tell a joke and look at what they physically look like, I look at whether they walk into the audition with a big smile on their face, if they’re nice to the guy who’s reading the lines to them and if they take the time to chat with me afterwards.”
On the other hand, to achieve the level of homoeroticism and humour that the series has become known and loved for, the guys do also have to look good and be able to deliver jokes. “That’s the hard part. I know a lot of actors and I know a lot of hot guys, but when I do a casting session and see maybe around 300 guys, out of those guys maybe three have any kind of real sensibility, or are funny, or have that charisma that I’m looking for. I’m not saying they’re not good actors because some of them are great at drama. But I find that comedy is harder than anything. I believe making people cry and be afraid is not as challenging as making people happy and making people laugh.”
The lead Steam Room cast ensemble of Steam Room Stories: The Movie! is made up of Jacob Buckenmyer, Paris Dylan, Chris Boudreaux, Forrest Hoffman and Isaiah Lucas plus the addition of honorary member Eric D’Agostino, who in the role of Neil finds himself caught in the middle of the polar opposite sides of the film’s central conflict. However, Calciano estimates that a little over 60 men have clad towels for the series over its ten-year-history. Some have gone on to have great careers, including Karamo Brown of Queer Eye fame. “Steam Room Stories is a starting point for a lot of careers,” explains the director. “What happens is, the actors get other jobs or they move away, so I have to constantly recast the parts. I understand that and that’s okay. I’m actually happy with that. But all the guys are always invited back in the steam room and I love having cameos.”
The cast ensemble of the film is enriched by the presence of Traci Lords. Being a fan of John Waters, Calciano jumped at the opportunity to work with the star of the 1990 film, Cry-Baby, so much so that when he heard about her interest in being part of his project, he rewrote the part of Shelly Fay, the failing cosmetics magnate ala Cruella de Vil, who was initially intended to be a lot older. “It turned out to be one huge blessing because Traci was amazing not only in the movie but behind the camera. She was so generous in every aspect of the filmmaking process. She brought all her experience to my set and helped the other actors a lot. She continues to be supportive of the film on social media to this day.”
Lords even helped Calciano get in touch with Waters when he had the crazy idea to complement his movie with a scratch and sniff card, as a nod to the 1981 film Polyester’s Odorama presentation, whereby viewers can smell what they see. Waters gave him his blessing, though he had to create the term Cinema Scent due to copyright issues. Two other influences Calciano quotes are Russ Meyer – whose cult movie Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! (1965) he claims to want to direct a male version of – and comedy genius Mel Brooks. “I’ve been told a couple of times that if Rob Reiner and Mel Brooks had a lovechild, it would be my movie. And I take that as a complete compliment.”
Steam Room Stories: The Movie! does indeed appear to share some affinities with the humour of Brooks’ films, as well as a little of the same comedic energy of Brooks’ oeuvre, with a style that bridges the highbrow and the lowbrow, as well as a fair share of absurdism, which is sometimes shamelessly taken to extreme levels. “I think there’s a certain sophistication to that type of humour and the sillier it is the better it is,” Calciano explains. “If you’re going to do it, you have to strip away all the ego and by doing that, you give people permission to not take themselves seriously and laugh.”
Absurdism, like comedy, has been used in the past by wide-ranging artists across all of its forms to address serious social and political issues. In fact, while totally embracing its escapist dimension, Steam Room Stories: The Movie! does shine a light on the anxiety revolving around aging and physical appearance. “As you get older, you can become more invisible,” says Calciano. “I wanted to make a film that was about getting older and that says, if you stop fighting the inevitable, accept who you are and love who you are, that’s when you can find love and happiness. You don’t have to be young and pretty and it’s a futile effort to strive to have that. If you have that, enjoy it. If you don’t, love who you are. And that’s really where the happiness is.”
The film is also driven by an ebullient energy of fluid sexuality, which runs parallel to this well-defined message and sometimes appears to drive it forward. The sexuality of the Steam Room gang often eludes categorization and this is an aspect the director explains was both fortuitous and meaningful. “Because there was so much for me to do an all these episodes, I forgot who was straight or bi,” he admits. Travelling to different festivals with his previous films, he also became involved in conversations and exchanges of ideas that further encouraged him to explore and represent sexual fluidity with this film. “I think for the most part, people have that fluidity,” Calciano concludes. “One of the characters, Tad, calls it ‘vibesexuality.’ That’s kind of where I take the show. Everybody in the film is ‘vibesexual.’”
All pictures reproduced courtesy of Cinema175