Monday, April 22, 2024
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New film ‘Shoplifters of the World’ pays tribute to 1980s queerness

An indie film set in 1987 around the breakup of iconic band The Smiths has LGBTQ appeal.

In the Summer of 1987, four misfit friends in Denver find out that their favorite British band The Smiths, led by rebel outsider singer-songwriter Morrissey, has suddenly broken up. They deal with their grief by partying to mourn what is more like the divorce of their chosen musical family. Record store clerk and Smiths fan Dean (Ellar Coltrane) takes a local radio DJ hostage at gunpoint and forces him to play nothing but Smiths tracks all night as the friends, including emergent queer Patrick (James Bloor), embark on a journey of self-discovery. Featuring a soundtrack of 20 songs from The Smiths, many of which tie into the narrative themes, Shoplifters of the World is an ode to the variety, experimentalism and excess of the ‘80s — and its often unstated queerness.

Written and directed by Stephen Kijak (We Are X, Stones in Exile, Backstreet Boys: Show ‘Em What You’re Made Of), Shoplifters of the World stars Helena Howard, Ellar Coltrane, Elena Kampouris, Nick Krause, James Bloor, Thomas Lennon and Joe Manganiello. We caught up with Stephen Kijak, 51, who is out and proud, and out actor, James Bloor (Nat Geo’s Barkskins), to find out what the film meant to them.

Writer-director of Shoplifters of the World, Stephen Kijak

Stephen, what is your personal connection to this subject matter?

Stephen: I was a little closeted, queer kid in the ’80s. I didn’t come out until college. So, being gay in small town America with not a lot of guidance or people to look up to, or things to emulate, it was tricky. The world was one of confusion and maybe a little fear. And I think, obviously, AIDS created a cultural tone that was antagonistic to gay people and maybe pushed some people back in the closet. Elton John was married to a woman. Boy George was telling us he was bisexual (yeah right), you know what I mean? And Morrissey was ‘asexual’. For people who were older than me and a little more in-the-know, they could see through it and see how really queer and coded Morrissey’s whole world was. He was presenting a very different image of masculinity. He’d buy ladies blouses and Marks and Spencers and buy them three sizes too big, and wear plastic beads, and whip some gladiolas in his pocket. I mean, the iconography was really shocking and very, very queer, even though it was coy and coded. The lyrics had all these little things that you could pick up on, you know, that spoke to you as a gay person even though in my life, I was still kind of hiding and unsure what I could be.

Do you think there was something inherently queer about the 1980s, if not in the US, then what was coming out of Britain musically: Bronski Beat, the Communards, Pet Shop Boys etc?

Especially the New Wave, it gave us costumes and armor and attitudes that we could try on, in which we could be ‘other’ without having to say outright, “I’m gay.” You know, before I really clued into the Smiths, I thought I was Robert Smith from The Cure for a couple of years, so, trenchcoats and crazy hair … we all mimicked these characters. It’s tribal, you find your tribe through music and it gave you solace and protection. Eventually you learned how to be yourself and the music was your soundtrack — and it’s still there.

Elena Kampouris as Sheila and Helena Howard as Cleo

You show in the film how young people create chosen family, which is something queer people have always had to do.

Stephen: The essence of chosen family is very much in the balance of how we create our world. If we’re rejected by our biological families, like a lot of us were… I really wanted to focus on the world of those kids and and sketch out identity through friendships. And small story, windows. You know, there isn’t a huge dramatic arc unfolding. It’s really kind of small scale over the course of a night but it points them in a different direction and puts them on a path for the rest of their life. The Patrick arc is the one that is very much me. He was kind of afraid of himself. We have images that are of such hyper-sexualized youth today but I want to go back and show that we kind of experienced and discovered ourselves in very subtle and small ways, but they were very meaningful, too. Just the act of being let into a gay bar underage was electric and you had a few cocktails and let your guard down a little bit and found out who you might be.

James Bloor plays Patrick in Shoplifters of the World

James, you were in your mid-20s when you took on this role. How did you relate to the world of the film?

James: My dad always says the one thing we can thank Thatcher for is great music. I’m 29 and I didn’t really think about the broader political climate. My one thought was around fear about the HIV/AIDS crisis, that’s something that I thought about around Patrick being gay, and I’m gay. My approach to the film and the character was just a very low key personal one and I was just really trying to engage and access some of my own experiences of emerging as a gay person and what that felt like for me when I was a teenager.

You portray Patrick’s sexual awkwardness very well. How did you get there?

My intention was very simple for this piece, which was to feel as much as I could, to try to be in my body as much as I could, and tentatively take little steps out and then have Patrick realizing that he was outside his template for himself. He was someone who had a strict template for who he was allowed to be. Some of that comes from the script when he’s talking about these icons: Bowie and Robert Smith and Morrissey. He’s got a clear-cut understanding, he says, These people wear eyeliner and they’re not gay, which is his fear around coming out. Even as a 29-year-old I still struggle to say the words, “I am gay.” Trying to move past my own internalized homophobia is ongoing work for me in my real life. I never got to play a gay character before so it was a real joy to do it. Stephen just wrote the part in a way that allowed for all those layers to come out. 

James, what was your favorite scene or moment in the film, which was shot before the pandemic?

James: The dancing. It was a lot of fun doing the house party scenes, and just getting to dance around, just having that musical element was really fun. We were playing the tracks all the time so that we could kind of move to it — I used the word choreographed in a very loose sense but just think up movements and get the camera to move around. That unspoken stuff was a lot of fun. I really enjoyed every day on the set of that film. it. The other actors were fantastic. I think there’s some really good performances in the film. Joe [Manganiello, as the hostage DJ Full Metal Mickey] is hilarious. Ella [Coltrane, as Dean] is subtle. Helena [Howard, as Cleo] is radiant and she provides so much emotional depth. Elena [Kampouris, as Madonna wannabe, Sheila] is like a force of nature with all of the different things she’s got going on. Nick [Krause, as Billy] is so much fun, so light. It was really great to work with those people, see their different styles and bounce off each other. It was real fun. 

Shoplifters of the World is now screening in Theaters, On Demand and Digital. Watch the trailer here:

Merryn Johns

Merryn Johns is the Editor-in-Chief of Queer Forty. She is an award-winning journalist, as well as a broadcaster and public speaker. Originally from Sydney, Australia where she began her career in journalism in the 1990s, she is based in New York City where she became the editor-in-chief of Curve Magazine and wrote for a variety of publications including Vanity Fair, Vogue, Slate, and more. Follow on Twitter at @Merryn1

Merryn Johns has 140 posts and counting. See all posts by Merryn Johns

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