Before the days of YouTube, webseries and ubiquitous cameraphones, it wasn’t easy to make an independent queer film. That’s a harsh lesson learned by JC Oliva and his partner, Joe Brouillette, who made a short film called Sissy Frenchfry in 2005. The film tells the story of a fantasy high school ruled by a beaming queer student, beloved by all; but his reign is challenged when a motivated homophobe transfers to the school.
With more than a decade since their short came out, Oliva and Brouillette looked back at the production process and how much has changed since then. Short films are often shot on a shoestring budget; Sissy Frenchfry was a $40,000 production — still not much at all for a project at the time.
“At the time there were no SAG options for something that might go online,” recalled Oliva (who now serves as Hornet’s video editor). “It cost a lot of money just to pay the actors the way you were supposed to at the time. There were all these rules that now don’t exist or have been changed to better fit today’s distribution models.”
The shoot took place over just three weekends, with one night turning into morning. They were supposed to start filming at the school after students had cleared out at 5 p.m.; but they didn’t get going until 7 p.m. That meant that time would be very tight, since they had to be out by 1 a.m. “It was a mad dash of shooting,” Oliva recalled. But working with a local high school also came with some advantages: many of the crew were students who didn’t cost as much as an army of film professionals would have.
The film also boasted some impressive talent: Coco Peru has a cameo, as does gay treasure Leslie Jordan. That’s thanks to a casting director who had worked with both at Disney, and was able to forward the script along. Jordan was so supportive of the project that he was able to come back and shoot for an additional day when they ran over schedule.
The short premiered at the Los Angeles Short Film Festival, then went on tour. At the Miami Gay and Lesbian Film Festival, a programmer suggested they enter it for a film award… which the film won. After that, Sissy Frenchfry was quickly picked up for distribution by Wolfe Video, and it began playing regularly on Logo.
“Your typical gay short is about shirtless guys,” said Oliva, “and the fact we were not that was an issue in the beginning. Wolfe was able to sell the fact that Leslie Jordan and Coco were in it. It was the foot in the door.”
There was talk about adapting it to a feature with the independent arm of a studio. “At the time, because of films like Napoleon Dynamite and Juno, those independent arms were going strong,” said Brouillette, but “it was before Glee existed, before Brokeback Mountain. All of them thought that the film was too gay.”
But there’s renewed interest in the project now. “We thought this was such a Bush-era message,” said Brouillette. “Once Obama got into office, we were like, ‘We’re not going to have to deal with a bully as the President anymore.’ And then look what happened.”