Tim Kirkman: Storyteller of Human Complexity

Published in: January-February 2006 issue.


WRITER-DIRECTOR Tim Kirkman has never shied away from controversy, especially when it comes to deconstructing notions about Southern hospitality. In his theatrical debut, Dear Jesse (1996), a thirty-year-old Kirkman returns to his home state of North Carolina, only to start questioning what “home” means when you are unwanted by a body politic that keeps re-electing the homophobic Senator Jesse Helms. Kirkman’s next film, The Night Larry Kramer Kissed Me (2000), brought actor-writer David Drake’s acclaimed play to the big screen in nine very high-energy scenes that moved from Drake’s early gay awakenings to his arrival into New York’s throbbing, scary gay scene.

A more contemplative tone is struck in his latest film, Loggerheads, which finds Kirkman back in North Carolina. Inspired by a true story, Loggerheads begins as three separate narratives that slowly draw together as the film progresses. The first is that of an HIV-positive drifter named Mark, who’s obsessed with the loggerhead turtles that reproduce on parts of the North Carolina coast. There he meets a kind man, George, who works at a motel. The second narrative is that of a Christian minister and his wife who do their best to avoid talking about their adopted son who’s run away from home, ostensibly after coming out as gay. The third story concerns the woman who turns out to be Mark’s birth mother, Grace, who’s decided after all these years to find the son that she was forced by her own mother to give up for adoption. Set over a three-year period, the three stories are destined to converge and to produce a range of emotional reactions and confrontations when they do.

Kirkman with Kip Pardue (Mark) on the set of Loggerheads

Born in 1966, Kirkman gradated from North Carolina State and received an M.A. from the New School for Social Research in New York. He now spends his time between New York and Silverlake, a hip part of East Los Angeles. This in-person interview was conducted in LA last October.

— John Esther


Gay & Lesbian Review: I understand the story for Loggerheads came about while you were making Dear Jesse and meeting with members of majic (Mothers Against Jesse in Congress). Many of these women had tragic stories to tell, and you chose this one in particular.
Tim Kirkman: I thought it was an incredibly compelling story. The fact that North Carolina adoption laws prevent two adults who want to meet each other is good drama. Here is a man who was gay, who had contracted AIDS and wanted to meet his birth parents and couldn’t. And his adoptive parents had completely written him off. The film is much kinder to them than real life. The mothers didn’t actually meet in real life. The adoptive parents slammed the door when the birth mom came. The emotional journey is pretty much the same except for the ending. I couldn’t put that into the world. I mean, he dies for Christ’s sake.

G&LR: The names of the towns, Eden and Ashville, are appropriate to the storyline. Is that where the people actually lived?
TK: Those are real towns in North Carolina, but no. I put them in there because I wanted to make North Carolina a character in the film.

How have the attitudes there changed toward gays between the 1996 days of Dear Jesse and now?
TK: It’s changed a lot. It’s a totally different world nine years later. I was the first person to come out in my hometown, Wingate. It was on the front page of the hometown paper. That was a very big deal when it happened. They did a story about Dear Jesse in the paper and they did a sidebar about my fear about the story. There was a whole story about the story. They wouldn’t do that today. It’s not a big deal. There are still big issues; I’m not saying we don’t have a long way to go.

G&LR: In the film, the minister and his wife mock the racial prejudices of their neighbors but don’t recognize their own bigotry when it comes to gay people. What can we make of that?
TK: Thank you for recognizing that. That’s how prejudice works. Chris Sarandon and I talked a lot about this; this minister thinks he’s liberal. He’s a man whose heart and mind are battling and his head is winning, the heart being connecting to his son. One of the most important things to me was that he not be a caricature. We’ve seen the bigoted Southern minister before. These guys exist and they are the voice of the anti-gay movement right now.

G&LR: Would it be fair to say that the film has reverence for God while showing irreverence for organized religion?
TK: That’s a good question. I don’t want to say yes to that. I could see how you could interpret it that way, and it’s a valid point. It’s ironic for me that the most Christ-like character in the film is George [Mark’s new friend], and he’s the atheist. He’s the one that’s the least judgmental. He collects strays in his life and is caring. What I would hope it does is to challenge the mechanism of prejudice, which is the system of prejudice. Not everybody in Robert’s congregation agrees with him, but they look to him for guidance. That’s why I have Elizabeth walking out during church because I wanted to make it clear that the story is not really about whether she will go see her son, but whether she’ll take a step away from her husband and her life and take her own stand. Her walking out of the church after hearing a scripture from Ruth is, if anything, about embracing scripture and faith in the most reverential way. Here is a woman who heard scripture and acted on it. Maybe it’s complicated because her husband is a minister, but I think she’s behaving in a way that really respects faith and the Bible.

G&LR: Symbolically speaking, loggerhead turtles seem to refer to Mark’s upbringing. How did you mix this true story with the lives of sea turtles?
TK: I was reading an article about turtles and I thought, “That’s amazing, I didn’t know the babies were left by their mothers.” It’s a beautiful metaphor. Their survival rate is very low—like one in a thousand survives to adulthood. Yes, the journey of the loggerhead is a beautiful metaphor for Mark as a character, who would identify with their struggle about getting to the ocean without one’s mom.

Which character in the film do you identify with the most?
TK: Grace, because I know what it’s like to go home and confront your parents about something unpleasant in the face of very deep denial about some really obvious things.

G&LR: How did your parents react when you came out?
TK: For a while it was horrible. We had a lot of long, difficult conversations. They asked me a lot of questions they would never ask their other children—about their sex lives and incredibly private things. But I answered them and in the process I learned a lot about how to talk to people about being gay. The most effective thing you can do is just ask them questions, because it’s not about the gay person; it’s about them. It’s about my mom and dad’s expectations. It’s about them genuinely wanting me to be safe in a world that’s hostile to gay people.

G&LR: How does the film fit into the issue of gay parents adopting?
TK: I don’t know. I’ve thought about adopting. I’m feeling a little guilty for not having a baby right now, being gay. It feels like a rite of passage in a way. God, if you asked me that in 1996! I would never have believed in 2005 I would be sitting here expressing that opinion.

G&LR: How has the film The Night Larry Kramer Kissed Me been received over the years?
TK: There are people I have met who are obsessed with that movie. They were obsessed when the play came out. I was, too. I was a gay tadpole. I thought it was the voice of that moment. More so as a 22-year-old gay man in New York City; for a lot of people Larry is that face. As I’ve matured I’ve looked to him as the elder statesman of that movement. But for a lot of us David Drake was literally the billboard of the West Village of that rage and that spirit.

G&LR: Why have you only made three films in the past seven years?
TK: The reason is money. The reason is nobody is going to finance this film in Hollywood.

G&LR: Do you find it is hard to raise money because you are a filmmaker who happens to be gay, or is it because of the films you want to make?
TK: Probably the subject matter. The people who finance films don’t care who I sleep with.