Eric Rosen is entering the world of movies with his short-film thriller, Netuser.
However, theater fans in the Midwest, and especially Chicago, will remember Rosen from his time as co-founder and artistic director of About Face Theatre from 1995 to 2008, and as co-founder of About Face Youth Theatre. ( He is also a member of the Chicago LGBT Hall of Fame. ) Rosen then went on to the Kansas City Repertory Theatre. Among other accomplishments, he directed the original production of A Christmas Story: The Musical, which opened on Broadway in 2012 and was nominated for a Tony Award for Best Musical.
Netuser stars acclaimed actors Denis O'Hare, Claybourne Elder ( who's also Rosen's husband ), Johanna Day and Tatiana Wechsler in a short about an activist whose life unravels when a nightmare about a gay political candidate turns true.
Windy City Times: I'm going to start with a subject that's currently affecting everyone: How has your life changed because of the COVID-19 pandemic?
Eric Rosen: Well, now we [Rosen, Elder and their son] are in upstate New York, away from New York City. We've been living this bucolic life that we never really anticipated. Now we're stay-at-home dads and, most of my days, I'm working on film stuff or we're taking care of each otherwhich is challenging, yet extraordinary. I feel like I know our son so much better now than if he were in day care.
But it's nice to able to walk five miles or so without seeing anyone else. But who knew the apocalypse would be so boring? [Laughs]
WCT: [Laughs] You thought it'd be like Mad Max?
ER: It's like Mad Maxin very slow motion. [Laughs]
WCT: You have a deep Chicago connection. We didn't conduct a full "exit interview" with you, but did you leave About Face because it felt natural?
ER: To be honest, I was going through some personal things and the opportunity to go to Kansas Cityand run a bigger companyarose. It was heartbreaking to leave Chicago; I miss Chicago so much. Kansas City was a break; it was never home. But I quit [Kansas City] almost two years ago, when my son was born.
WCT: How did theater prepare you for film, and how was making a movie different from leading a theatrical production?
ER: The advantage of knowing how to write a play made writing Netuser a lot easier; the storytelling is exactly the same. What's different is that, in film, the actors are the first big thing you work with, and there were elements I hadn't done before, such as the editing process.
The film shoot was about a week and it was very intense, with 18-hour days. But you do things in reverse order than theater. I had to learn the nuts-and-bolts of filmmaking. It took two solid workdays to put together that sequence where Denis is making the video. I had to find the perfect image to explain who that guy is.
WCT: The cast is pretty impressive.
ER: Denis and I have been friends for a really long time. Last spring, he came to our place for lunch. I was working on the script and asked, "Denis, who's an actor like you who could do this part?," and he said, "Well, I would do it." I said, "No, you won't." [Both laugh.] But we went from a small budget to a larger one that allowed us to get a crew, thanks to Denis' involvement. He's an amazing collaborator and actor.
Johanna works with Denis, and was on a very short list of people he thought of for the role. Tatiana actually did a play, Benny and Joon, with Clay.
WCT: Was this made before Pete Buttigieg announced his presidential run [in April 2019]?
ER: The movie was shot in September. I wrote it about a year ago right now, and it was inspired a lot by his candidacy. Frankly, some of my LGBT friends, on social media, didn't seem excited about Pete and were, in fact, kind of resentful of him. That haunted me, and then I had a dream that he was assassinated, which freaks me outand that's how this film happened.
I didn't guess that his campaign would go as well as it did; when I wrote this, I assumed he'd be off the trail for a long time before the film [debuted]. But when we started sending this out to festivals, he won Iowa. I started saying, "Oh, my gosh!"
What changes so quickly in our culture versus what's so insidious and regressive in our culture is at the heart of what I was thinking about.
WCT: There's a scene between Peter [O'Hare] and Jenny [Wechsler] in which you had Peter break through the fourth wall.
ER: In the script, he says it to her. But it seemed like something Peter would be thinking so he turned to the camera and I think we took the first take. But he did it, and the whole room went silent. But in the editing room, we thought, "This has to break the rule of how the character functionsespecially as the character talks to the camera when making media content." His performance at that point is incredibly moving and unsettling.
WCT: Interestingly, I had a different interpretation of that scene when I initially saw the film: that what he said was more important than what Jenny was saying.
ER: Oh, I hope not. What I love about [Peter] is that he's kind of an asshole. I think he's wrong all the way through. It's like a mark of Greek tragedy; his character is so full of hubris that he can't see anything but his own perspectiveand that's what gets him into trouble. He ignores Jenny and he ignores Johanna's character.
WCT: Also, when Clay's character asked Denis' character "Why did you do it?," I wasn't sure he was referring to the cheating or the political post.
ER: I think he was referring to the cheating, but I'm okay with that being ambiguous. At one point, Clay's character said, "I feel like you're two people." Denis' character is very compulsive, and I think Clay's character is asking, "Why did you give him your phone number?" A lot of my gay friends, when watching, have said, "Oh, yeah. I've given my phone number so many times. I never think."
And there are privacy issues. When I started writing this, someone told me that Grindr is now owned by a Chinese company because gay military members can be tracked through that app. It's so scary, but the point is that you really can expose yourself by sharing personal information.
WCT: China sold Grindr for $600 million last month, but I get your point.
ER: Well done, China. [Both laugh.]
WCT: One minor thing: There's an actual phone number used in that movie, and it's not one of those "555" items.
ER: You can't see all the digits.
WCT: Actually, you can. [Interviewer Googles the number.] It's for a "James McKay."
ER: Oh, I didn't catch that! That is funnyhe is the producer of the film.
WCT: This film covers themes such as technology, social media, racism, paranoia, politics…
ER: And gay parenting.
WCT: Yes. What do you want the viewer to ultimately take away from this film?
ER: What connects this with working at About Face and a lot of the theater work I do is that people will thinkspecifically, about their own impact on the world and what they're doing and the complications of [what's done] in the moment. These are all good questions for us to consider.
People can access Netuser for free this week by visiting NetuserFilm.com .
Also see: www.windycitymediagroup.com/lgbt/MOVIES-About-Face-co-founder-writes-directs-Netuser/68404.html .