CW: Incest, assault, abuse.
Hurricane Aaron is a film about brothers in tragedy. J.R. Howell’s first feature film takes viewers on a series of twists and turns that may leave some queasy, but thoroughly intrigued about the psyche, and rage, of its main characters, Aaron and Cory. There is more than just horror that lurks under the skin of this film. GenderTerror had a chance to interview the director, writer, and score creator, J.R. Howell about his psychosexual thriller and other upcoming projects.
GenderTerror: Why horror, especially queer horror?
J.R. Howell: My first horror movie ever was A Nightmare On Elm Street, which I saw when I was five years old. I love the thrill that horror movies provide. As I grew older, I similarly fell in love with the science fiction genre. One of the things so attractive about science fiction is the social commentary it provides through allegory or speculation. Truly great science fiction can be mind-blowing in that way. Lately, mainstream science fiction feels like it’s lost its soul and offers up action movies in space with tacky tech without really having any deeper meaning. Films like this seem to be evolving cinema to a medium without narrative. Yet, at the same time, horror is picking up the slack. Over the last few years, we’re seeing films marketing as “high concept horror.” Of course the truth is almost all horror is in some way “high concept.” Nevertheless, some horror films have taken a more overt approach to directly assert their attempt at social commentary, which is an astonishing effort when you think about it. Many criticisms of mega budget films that go on to tremendous financial success is that they’re too devoid of meaning so as to appeal to the widest audience as possible across countries and cultures. Yet, there’s a subgenre of horror that’s openly asserting that its making social critiques, come what may. I absolutely love that courage. So for these reasons I wanted to take on the social issues referred to in the film using horror.
Now, why queer horror? Well, first and foremost, I’m a gay actor/director and I wanted to tell a story that spoke to my viewpoint, something perhaps that only I could tell. But also, I love gay movies and the first film festival I attended as a casual viewer was an LGBT film festival—an amazing experience. But, when you go to these festivals, you keep seeing the exact same movie over and over again. The same is true for niche LGBT movies you can see on demand. The touching coming out story, the hot hookup that might turn out to be more, lesbian motherhood, the transgender struggle, and of course the repetitive AIDS themed films that have started to feel like exploitation. For the most part, even though these films offer repetitive themes, you can usually still find them enjoyable as a viewer. But, as an artist, I couldn’t go into that space to create what’s already been done. It was with an intensity I could feel in my bones that I needed to create something that hadn’t already been done before. A few years ago, I saw a movie by Joey Kuhn called Those People. It was a fantastic gay movie that was a relationship drama where the characters were working through issues that weren’t necessarily directly related to their being gay. It was beautifully shot and well-acted—the film felt like a gift. I wanted to be that original in exploring Hurricane Aaron’s themes—but I wanted it to be scary. That’s why it’s a queer horror film.
GT: Hurricane Aaron was written during a hurricane, why do you feel a hurricane spurred your creativity and not some other form of natural disaster, just a coincidence?
J.R.: Perhaps it’s because I’m particularly sensitive to kinetic energy. The power of the wind energizing my spirit plus the thrill of the danger perhaps combined to both inspire the story and create the fertile grounds from which the narrative of Hurricane Aaron could grow.
GT: Where did the characters Aaron and Cory come from?
J.R.: In September of 2016, I was sitting at my horse ranch in the rural south when a hurricane flew directly over my property as it traveled from the Gulf of Mexico to the Atlantic Ocean. That night I had the idea of two homicidal brothers in an incestuous relationship who had killed their parents and were trapped in a town that was completely evacuated because of a hurricane. I thought also of a hurricane as a metaphor for a long developing internal rage finally unleashed. For years Cory and Aaron were physically intimate but while for Cory the connection was only physical, Aaron developed a more complicated desire for his brother. Throughout the film, each character comes to terms with their own issues, working out their demons on other people in often violent and sadistic ways. The characters built from there.
GT: Artists, consciously or not, write ourselves into our work. Which bits of yourself are in each character?
J.R.: Cory has a deep shame for his same-sex actions and feelings. He also has an inner self that is the true version of who he really is, whereas the person he presents to the world is a lie. This further isolates him from the rest of the world because he has this terrible fear that if the world found out who he really is, he would be hated. The character is played fantastically by actor Michael Bonini, who it turns out is a Gemini. I’m not superstitious, but I thought that was an interesting connection to the character because Geminis are said to have that kind of duality.
Aaron by contrast is fearless and open, but he has a deep inner wound. Whereas Cory is afraid that the world would hate him, Aaron actually lives that truth. Aaron is physically repulsive, often dirty, doing all of the menial work around the house. Cory’s fiancée, Cass, doesn’t hide her disgust for Aaron. Aaron’s response isn’t to hide or live in fear as Cory does, Aaron doesn’t do shame. He doesn’t do pride either. Aaron brings wrath. When the world hates him for who he is, Aaron responds with utter destruction.
GT: Violence is a large factor in your movie. What draws you to exploring such harsh realities and ideas?
J.R.: Before the night of the hurricane, I had considered for a long time a variety of questions concerning the source of violence in the individual as well as its relationship to acts of violence in society at large, both nationally and globally.
In terms of gender, how do we begin to understand the male proclivity to violence? The entitlement to sexually exploit? The power plays, the urge to dominate, the myth and obsession of the alpha male? Shared language of violence that reinforce and are reinforced by rituals, behaviors, and thoughts—where does it all come from? These were a handful of the concepts I wanted to explore in Hurricane Aaron.
A few months after I had begun writing the screenplay, beginning with the November defeat of the first woman nominee from a major party for the United States presidency, the country would learn the extent of the depravity of seemingly routine harassment, assaults, and outright attacks to which women are subjected. As the deluge of victim testimonials sprang forth, so did my anger, which led me to reflect: isn’t that where it starts?
Patterns of violence tend to repeat. Self-violence—the harms you do to your own heart when you start seeing yourself the way the world sees that you are not, when you lose sight of the complete, valuable being you are just as you are—extends outward. At one point, you were some abuser’s victim and, although you may not have been your first abuser, you were your own first victim. Abuse—physical, emotional, psychological—can be a cycle.
Is it any different for the male experience, especially in the United States?
In the film, there is a revelation that Cory and Aaron, who are both brothers, had a long term sexual relationship with one another. That experience occurred while Aaron was younger and a victim of their father’s own physical abuse. When Cory seeks to end that relationship, Aaron consciously endeavors to induce his brother’s affection with a pattern of brutal attacks followed by soothing rewards. At one point, before Aaron forces himself onto his brother, Aaron, who has only ever known kindness from the hands of his many abusers, states, “This is what love is.” So the film’s strong depictions of sadism, particularly when coupled with nudity or sexual symbolism, suggest a deeper meaning, not just for the characters and not just for this story.
During the post-production process of the film, in the final week of July 2018, I lost my mother to cancer. That it happened on my birthday made the loss that much more painful. I lost my mom, but that week, I wasn’t the only one. Across the news and social media were the horrifying images and sounds of migrant children encaged in the United States, children ripped from their parents by American border agents. The news that followed included terrifying reports of sexual molestation, physical abuse, baby theft, inadequate medical facilities, overcrowding, and death. Cycles of abuse can be national.
In the film, acts of violence have tragic consequences for every character. Cory’s wheelchair is symbolic and a constant but subtle reminder—he has to live for the rest of his life with a disability that resulted from his own act of murder. Cory spends the entirety of the filming seeking forgiveness for his past misdeeds and although his experience suggests that forgiveness is a powerful means of breaking the cycle, he emerges from the hurricane surrounded by wreckage. The cryptic visual fractures of identity, double and multiple exposures, and flash frames, asks you to consider that Aaron and Cory are two violent parts of the same whole.
GT: Where do you feel the film industry fails queer people? Specifically, queer creators?
J.R.: There are many areas where the industry has room for improvement with respect to queer people. For talent across the board—actors, writers, directors—there just isn’t easy access into the industry no matter who you are, unless you’re well-connected. So, for people who identify as LGBTQ, you’re now further at a disadvantage. If you’re LGBTQ and speak with an accent because you have a non-white or non-USA background, you’re further disadvantaged. If you’re black or brown and LGBTQ, the odds of making it in Hollywood are stacked against you and there just isn’t enough being done from the industry side. Right now playing on the festival circuit is a documentary by Mark Patton, who played Jesse Walsh in A Nightmare on Elm Street 2, Scream, Queen! My Nightmare on Elm Street, that talks about his struggle getting work as a gay actor.
LGBTQ films and television shows that feature LGBTQ story lines continue to present the same themes, year after year, with some standout exceptions. Every other year, we’re treated to the tortured or touching coming out story, the AIDS story, the lesbian dealing with a bisexual partner family drama, or the downtrodden transgender person—never a successful, inspiring trans person. It’s been this repetitive cycle for decades. Again, there are some notable standouts, but the industry needs to recognize that this is a diverse audience that is starving for diverse themes.
The trans community is especially affected by the industry’s current model. Although we’ve seen some improvements in some areas for opportunities for trans creatives, there still aren’t enough opportunities for trans people to get into the stream of talent from which professionals are hired in the first place. And that’s actually one of the main reasons why cisgender actors playing trans actors is so offensive whereas heterosexual actors playing homosexual roles is less so—it’s because trans actors can’t even get a job playing any other part and then they’re not even allowed to play the trans parts. That doesn’t make sense. So there’s some real work to do for the industry there.
The same is true for indigenous two-spirit people, whose rich and amazing stories are ostensibly ignored, when Native American or First Peoples’s stories are told at all. And, even then, the industry continues to follow an exploitive model, continuing a legacy of colonization by exploiting indigenous culture and art. When it comes to these issues, the industry needs to work a lot harder on coming up with appropriate ways to share outcomes and successes with cultures, especially native cultures. People are waking up to the fact that the take and exploit model is outdated and wrong.
But at the same time, while the industry has more work to do, we as audience members should remember our part: we have to show up. The same year that a famous actress was pilloried for taking on a trans role, which she eventually abandoned, there were a number of fantastic trans feature films and documentaries that people slept on. It’s a shame that the same energy isn’t out there to support the LGBTQ artists who are out there doing the work as there is in calling out people for offensive conduct. We need to show up and show our support for our own community.
And, artists, writers, and creators have to be brave enough to be ourselves and to put forward our unique abilities. Yes, it is hard and there is opposition. There really is. There are horror stories all over Los Angeles about LGBTQ people criticized or not hired because of their gender non-conforming attributes. Often, these are indignities we suffer privately or we may not know about them at all. But we have to be fearlessly ourselves—we got to where we are in this world because people like Ellen DeGeneres risked absolutely everything to make the advancements we now take for granted. We can’t be complacent so we need to keep living our truths.
More than that, LGBTQ people in this field have either the ability to create or to communicate and we’ve been experienced life in facets that others have not. These are gifts. Where would we be if Alice Walker had been afraid? I don’t want to think about it.
GT: Where is your favorite place to write?
J.R.: I lived in Los Angeles for 7 years and couldn’t bring myself to write a single word. I may be the first screenwriter to leave Los Angeles to enter the industry. I have a farm in the very deep south, so deep General Sherman’s fires didn’t reach down here on the Georgia-Florida border. My front yard is five acres of pine trees and a pecan grove overlooking a dense green lawn which in the evenings through southwestern facing views offer sunsets that are either full of twilight’s still magic or gothic displays of solar drama. I have a solid wood desk that is 6 feet long and 3 feet wide facing two enormous windows where I sit and do my writing. That is not just my favorite place to write. It’s the only place I do.
GT: What inspires you the most?
J.R.: F. Scott Fitzgerald said that the only thing worth writing about is the human heart in conflict with itself. I think that’s where it really starts, the human condition and the journey each of us is on.
In my time as a civil rights attorney, I counseled people in some of their absolutely worst moments. In private meetings, people would confess to me not just injustices they may have suffered, but in the interests of their own cases, would make full disclosure of what may have been their own shameful or ugly secrets. They exposed me to courageous vulnerability. Not only did those experiences force me to become a better listener, for we learn far more by listening than we do by talking, but also my tendency to judge people very quickly fell away: people, often minorities or marginalized in some way, came to me seeking help with humility and bravery. They changed me in deep and profound ways. Everyone is carrying some heavy burden, from those who put on the appearance of a perfect life well-lived to those who society can’t even see, who carry their burdens in forced secrecy.
After hearing that, now re-visit the Fitzgerald quote. It’s the people I see all around us that inspire me. And, not always as characters that I want to replicate. Sometimes I see people and I think, what if I took this person and made them as an opposite?
Consider a prevailing worldview of homosexuals, especially gay men, as useful people. Gay guys can do your hair, take you shopping, decorate your house—and be harmless and cute while doing it. Perhaps that’s why men’s gay bars are often the target of wild bachelorette parties? If you haven’t seen one of these events, one night you can be at a gay bar living your life when a raiding party of young women, usually inebriated, donning sashes and plastic tiaras, invade to pillage one of the few places you can congregate without heterosexual norms dictating your thoughts and behaviors. They condescend and patronize and treat you like the adorable and cute stereotypical Service Gay. Those experiences and more, in part, inspired the character Aaron. Aaron is the opposite of everything society tells us about homosexuals. Aaron isn’t cute or especially useful. He’s ugly. He’s filthy. His clothes fit poorly. All of this leads us to the truth that gay men aren’t just the harmless service gays, they’re also society’s serial killers, notorious predators, and fearsome lone wolves: Andrew Cunanan, Jeffrey Dahmer, The Butcher of Hanover, Nathan Leopold, Richard Loeb, and Erik Menendez. Aaron is a reminder that there’s a reason why they call it HOMOPHOBIA.
Beyond that, it’s music. I am exceptionally sensitive to sound. I wrote much of the Hurricane Aaron screenplay to Stevie Nicks’s “Has Anyone Ever Written Anything for You” from her Rock a Little Album. Within the context of Aaron’s experience, I found the song’s music haunting and the lyrics tragic, for Aaron is a person who no one ever really loved and who fell in love with his predatorial brother, Cory. He was physically and emotionally abused by his father and his mother was an alcoholic who drank to numb herself from her inability to cope with the fact that Aaron’s brother, Cory, was sexually molesting him. Out of all of that, I composed the score from pure feeling.
GT: Can you tell us about any other projects you are working on?
J.R.: Sure, actually I just returned from British Columbia where I was conducting informational interviews with tribes of the First Nations People, how the Canadians refer to the indigenous cultures that we call Native Americans, to learn more about their concept of two-spirit individuals. This is in furtherance of a documentary I’m filming called See Us Hear Us about a suspected serial killer hunting transgender women of color in Jacksonville, Florida. The reason why I was interviewing indigenous people is because while filming, an unexpected angle developed. For several decades, American society has treated trans people like they’re physically or mentally sick. And there’s a history in some religious circles of treating trans people as deviants. So, I wanted to explore a comparative culture.
I decided to find a culture that pre-dated the United States. A culture that pre-dated Christianity. A culture that pre-dated even Jesus. I found it. The people who lived here first. The native tribes that lived in North America had histories that were thousands of years old before Moses was even born. What I have found is a long history of trans people who were accepted, treated equally, and played meaningful roles in their tribes. In fact, the Navajo story of the creation of the Earth includes people of multiple genders. Contrary to what many people would have us believe, trans people aren’t sick or crazy. Look around. It’s our society that’s sick and crazy. So what if some trans, queer, non-binary, and gay people aren’t well-adjusted to it? What does it say about you if you can conform to a society like this? Meanwhile, trans people, especially trans people of color, are facing serious and violent threats without an adequate response from law enforcement. Meanwhile, the gay guys like me who were all up in arms about marriage equality and AIDS seem to have settled in to the mainstream and are too often sitting on the sidelines when it comes to justice for trans people.
See Us Hear Us will attempt to raise awareness, create change, and give a voice to those trans people of color and their families who too often are outright silenced. The documentary is fiscally sponsored by The Film Collaborative and will be finished filming in early 2020. In addition to filming, I’m also working on an innovative plan to share the film’s success with the people whose stories are shared in the film and the community the film is trying to help. I’ve been very bothered by what I think is Hollywood’s approach to marginalized communities, especially in the age of social media. Studios take the story of a marginalized person or group of people, connect that story with a marketing campaign aimed at a targeted group online, co-opt the energy of a group of people who finally feel heard, take their money, and that’s it. There’s a word for this approach: exploitation. I want to change that approach. That’s why I’ve created an advisory committee for the documentary, consisting of trans individuals and allies not necessarily affiliated with the film industry, who are working on a plan to maximally share the film’s successes back to those affected. That process remains ongoing so stay tuned.