At the recent Florida Film Festival, a gay man approached director Tom Bezucha, whose feature "Big Eden" had just won the award as audience favorite. The man in the crowd embraced the 37-year-old filmmaker, saying, "I want to thank you from my heart." He explained that, although his partner's parents were deeply supportive of their relationship, Bezucha's movie was the first film with a gay theme that the older couple really enjoyed -- and they had seen them all. The director smiled warmly, obviously moved.
Bezucha's road to becoming a filmmaker has been an unusual one. A graduate in fashion design from the Parsons School of Design, the native of Amherst, Mass., became senior director of creative services for Polo/Ralph Lauren and then vice president of creative services for Coach. Craving a simpler life, he considered chucking it all and moving west to be an elementary-school art teacher. Instead, he spent three years secretly writing "Big Eden," which won the attention of producer Jennifer Chaikin.
"My background is visual," Bezucha explains. "For me, the writing process is finding the words to describe what I see. I think that also may have been what gave me the courage to want to direct it. I felt like I'd already seen it, so I knew what it looked like."
His experience at Polo also helped. "The work I did, whether it was a window display or building an entire store, so much of it was to create an environment that evokes a certain mood or set of emotions. It's not that different from directing a film."
Bezucha wanted to make the kind of movie that shows gay characters spending time with their families and friends, gay and straight. "I was a little tired of not seeing myself [on screen]. It's that simple," he confesses. Everyone in his small town of Big Eden has a heart as big as the Montana sky; there is a generosity of spirit, respect and kindness.
"Much of the success of a project has to do with the tone that you set," Bezucha says. "For us, it was like camping. It really was a family situation" among crew and cast.
The acting ensemble spans the generations and features several seasoned players, including Louise Fletcher, George Coe "The Mighty Ducks" and Nan Martin "The Drew Carey Show." The leads are Arye Gross "Ellen" in the role of an average-looking gay man who learns he can be attractive to others and Tim DeKay "If These Walls Could Talk," a handsome but shy guy who must come to terms with his sexuality. Eric Schweig also has a key role as a Native American cook who proves that the way to a man's heart is through his stomach.
With their crew, the players spent five weeks shooting in Glacier National Park. It was off-season, and they had no telephones, no television, no outside visitors. It created a strong "sense of community," Bezucha says. The natural beauty of the setting and the lovelorn soundtrack -- featuring Lucinda Williams, George Jones, Buck Owens and Dwight Yoakum -- give Big Eden considerable potential for crossing over into the mainstream. While the film has played numerous festivals, mostly gay ones, it recently gained national distribution and has opened in several cities on both coasts.
The director says he wanted to make a film that presented gay life not necessarily the way it usually is, but the way he'd like it to be. He's a bit bewildered that some critics have dismissed the film as unrealistic because he set his story of gay love in Marlboro country -- and so shortly after the murder of Matthew Shepard in Wyoming.
Bezucha's response is direct: "I'm staggered that anybody could think I didn't know who Matthew Shepard was and that it wasn't factored into my decision about where to place the film." Despite criticisms, Bezucha's vision of a utopian Eden remains unclouded: "There is no town of Big Eden on any map, but its population grows in spirit each time it is viewed by those with an open heart."
Bezucha has secured financing for his second film, which has a working title less idealistic than his first. Still, "Fucking Hate Her," which will begin shooting before the end of the year, is a romantic comedy. It's about five adult-children who return home to celebrate Christmas. The eldest son, everybody's favorite, brings home the woman he plans to propose to. She is, of course, the title character. Bezucha says the plot has an element of "A Midsummer Night's Dream" with partners ending up with different people.
He says it's easier making a second film, "but it's still difficult in that this is another ensemble piece. In Hollywood they really don't like them. They don't know what to make of them." But fans of Bezucha's Eden family do -- and are eagerly awaiting his next big clan.