Kevin O'Brien on How He Captured an Authentic Voice between Faith and the LGBTQ Community in At the End of the Day
I had the privilege of meeting Kevin O’Brien at the Oxford Film Festival while we were screening This World Alone. Kevin’s film At the End of the Day pulls off the impossible: an honest film at the intersection of faith and the LGBTQ movement, a rare dramedy that moves you to tears with its authenticity. I sat down to talk with Kevin about how he found his own identity through this unique story and found a large audience who identifies with it as well.
Kevin, tell us a little about At the End of the Day and how it all came together.
At the End of the Day is a dramatic comedy that explores the tension between the church and the LGBTQ community, specifically focusing on LGBTQ youth facing religious rejection. We follow Dave, a conservative, Christian professor who experiences a profound change when he finds himself planted in a queer support group to undermine their opening of an LGBTQ youth homeless shelter. While the movie is not subtle in its topic, from a wider perspective it deals with love, family, and what it looks like to discover your own truth. Most of us don't take the time to listen to or validate the lived experiences of others, and that's a thing that is dividing our relationships. I started writing the screenplay in 2014, spent a few years raising funds, we shot the film in January/February of 2017, and held our world premiere at the TCL Chinese Theatres at the Dances With Film Festival in June 2018. Now the film is out on DVD, BluRay, and Digital.
You're tackling some pretty heavy subject matter here, yet you choose what (on the surface at least) is a light-hearted genre to explore it. Why comedy/dramedy?
My first attempt to tell a story about this subject was much heavier, and a bit melodramatic. At some point I realized that a better way in would be through comedy, as comedy is a great disarming tool for storytelling. It was not a task I took lightly, covering such a deeply hurtful topic with a lighthearted tone, but I got a lot of feedback from my LGBTQ friends throughout the whole process. It was important to me that those who lived these experiences felt heard and represented. The drama, the heart-wrenching moments, were not hard to find, as there is still so much ignorance and fear in the world, especially within Christian institutions. The comedy was so important and nerve wracking, hoping to walk the tightrope.
At the End of the Day is a rarity in that it explores the cross-section of the LGBTQ world with the faith-based world. Was there a fear at any point that you thought, "There's no way either of these audiences will show up for this?"
I've had that fear from the beginning, yes. I've had some people ask me, "How are you going to make a film about faith and have gay people in it?" I've also had the question, "How are you going to make a gay film without sex in it?" My answer has always been, "Because there are queer people of faith, and there are a lot of aspects of life that don't involve sex." I knew the audience was very specific for this movie, and that's who I made it for. I certainly made the kind of movie I wanted to see, and I know there is a large underserved audience for it.
The film has one of the more authentic voices I've ever seen captured on screen, to the point that I was brought to tears a number of times. What's your personal experience with this world and how did you capture not only your own voice, but seemingly the voice of an entire generation who is longing to be heard?
Thank you for that - being authentic was truly my number one priority. I grew up as a straight, white, cisgender male in an evangelical church, so that part of the story I knew forward and backward. I was able to pull from a lifetime of relationships and experiences to write the characters who lived in that world. I did not, however, have any personal experiences within the queer community, so I knew I had a ton of studying to do. I am not a reader, but I know I read more books in the 6 months of writing than I did in the entirety of my life before. Not only did I read a ton, but I asked my queer friends and acquaintances about their personal stories. I asked a lot of questions, and I tried to capture the essence of their experience. While many of the lead characters are straight, I was intentional to make the actual heroes of the story to be the support group, the way they stuck together, and exemplified true love to Dave.
This is a subject matter that could easily come off as "preachy" (for lack of a better word). How did you navigate the difficult balance so well in your writing?
I am not sure how well I did that; I think it depends on who you ask. I did my best. I don't think there's a formula for it, it's more of a gut reaction, and I had to listen to my gut. That process was present all through the writing, through production, and certainly into editing. It even exists in the marketing of the film. It's a hard thing to do to not be preachy, when your film is decidedly calling out a theology that is dangerous and damaging to marginalized people. I am certain that people in stark opposition to the LGBTQ community will consider this preachy, but I didn't write it for them. I wrote it for those who have some empathy they can't explain toward the LGBTQ community. Those who grew up with a narrow world-view, and who, like me, are starting to feel a sense that something is not right with that. I also wrote it for those in the LGBTQ community who have faced religious rejection. I want their story to be heard. I want them to feel represented. And I want them to know they are whole just as they are.
What's the most powerful response you've gotten to the film so far?
I've had so many LGBTQ people who grew up in an evangelical church or attended a Christian school (either high school or college) who have thanked me in tears for telling their story. I've had people tell me that their conservative friends watched it and liked it okay, and a few days later their daughter came out. They still had so many questions, but because of the movie, their first reaction was, "We love you and will always love you." But the most powerful response was probably after the screening at the Orlando Film Festival, when 3 of the 4 youth who shared their real stories as part of the film, watched it for the first time and were honored to be part of it. That was a beautiful moment.
What advice would you give to a young filmmaker out there trying to find their own identity and voice in their work?
There is a quote from Elizabeth Gilbert that I have printed and framed in my office. I also have it as my phone's lock screen. It has been vital to my confidence and my ability to keep going: "Recognizing that people's reactions don't belong to you is the only sane way to create. If people enjoy what you've created, terrific. If people ignore what you've created, too bad. If people misunderstand what you've created, don't sweat it. And what if people absolutely hate what you've created? What if people attack you with savage vitriol, and insult your intelligence, and malign your motives, and drag your good name through the mud? Just smile sweetly and suggest - as politely as you possibly can - that they go make their own fucking art. Then stubbornly continue making yours.” - Elizabeth Gilbert, Big Magic
At the End of the Day is now available on Bluray, DVD, and digitally on iTunes, Amazon and Google Play.