An Interview with Riley director Benjamin Howard and star Jake Holley

Riley was screened at this year’s BFI Flare Festival to sold out audiences and Jamie Carlstrand got the opportunity to sit down with its director Benjamin Howard and its star Jake Holley.

The film Riley tells the story of a young high school American Football star who is struggling to deal with his sexuality and is based on Benjamin Howard’s own experience as a closeted teenage player. The film provides many firsts for Howard as it marks his directorial debut and bringing it to London is his first time in the capital. In amongst giving him advice on which tourist attractions to seek out and which to avoid I had a lively and insightful conversation with him and his star Jake Holley which began with the personal elements both of them brought to the story.

Jamie Carlstrand:  To start with you Ben, you’ve described the film as a highly personal one for you. Could you talk a bit more about how your own life and past experiences impacted the making of this film?

Ben Howard: For me it was this fun challenge of trying to open up or re-explore some of these moments from high school. I knew I wanted to write something really genuine from my own experience and I wanted it to be as authentic as possible. And that came with this responsibility to go back and reopen some of these wounds that I had experienced as a high school athlete.

So there was some anxiety there trying to reopen and see what my mindset was like back then. But at the same time there was a catharsis in purging those thoughts and feelings and putting them onto a page and knowing at some point we’re going to bring actors in, and a camera in, and we’re going to bring this to life in a cool way that maybe would allow me to turn the page on it one last time.

It was a mixture of different thoughts and feelings, but I would say cathartic would be the key word for me as a screenwriter.

JC: There’s a lot of times when Riley looks in the mirror and he’s looking back at himself. Making the film did you feel like you were looking at a reflection of yourself?

Jake Holley: Good Question!!! Haven’t been asked that yet.

BH:  Absolutely, yeah. I mean, Dakota’s looking at himself in the mirror to better understand himself and I think as a storyteller that’s exactly what I was doing too. I was trying to look back on who I was then and who I am now. How did that version of me back then inform who I am now?

So those moments when he’s self-reflecting, and he’s judging himself, and he’s telling himself he’s not enough, or he’s trying to tell himself he is enough, in a way absolutely that’s me trying to find out what’s going on.

Jake Holley: There’s a funny moment on set with this actually because it takes a certain kind of person that every time they’re in the mirror they’re not just checking their hair but they’re having a moment with their soul in the mirror.

I told Ben I totally do this. I look in my eyes and have come to-yourself moments in the mirror, and I’m so drama for that. And Ben goes, “oh no, me too, me too!”. It was just meant to be! Me, you, and Dakota having these existential mirror moments.

BH: Absolutely. I think a lot of people are guilty of it.

JC: And as an actor when you’re taking on the director’s own life does it feel like a weight or a burden or is it just helpful that you have a source there that you can ask all the questions you want??

JH: I’d say yes to both of those. It was not a burden, but it was definitely a weight. But the good kind of weight.

I’d say 90% of the time, unless you’re at the top of your career, most of what you’re acting in at the beginning is a product. People are making things to get it on their resume, to make the next thing, or to try and somehow climb the ladder of the film industry.

Not all too often are you telling someone’s personal story. We’re trying to make something we’ll be proud of forever, and so it was a weight to be doing something which felt more important to be told and more urgent. But it was a healthy kind of weight where you want to show up and do nothing but tell the truth, and almost get out of the way and let the story tell itself and anything that’s not the right thing here, get out of the way and let the story happen.

And Ben was very helpful because a lot of this I would relate to but some of it I would not. I was not good at football, and I did not have some of these experiences, so I was able to ask how were you feeling here, where should my head be, and that was very helpful.

JC: On American Football was it hard to get into the physicality of the role?

JH: I had two months to prep which was awesome as usually you do not. I’ve done jobs where you find out the week of that you need to be on set. And I don’t workout so I had two months to get into a way different shape.

And it’s not just about looking a certain way. I actually felt like a hyper-disciplined athlete by the time we got to set, and it told me more about who Dakota was. It made clear that whatever Dakota can control in his life he will dominate. So certain things may be out of control but my physique and my physical abilities I really will be in full pristine control of, and so that was a cool segue into the character.  

And by having two months to work out and read the script by the time we came to shoot I felt really confident even with this demanding role.

JC: The workout scenes and the football scenes have a strong homoeroticism to them and I was wondering how you went about constructing that?

BH: Those are pulled straight from my own memory of being in that locker room with my teammates and I can recall specific moments of tension like that.

For me it was a specific type of tension, but I think for them, it was just a tension of being this ambiguously horny teenager and they wouldn’t want to take it to a certain level, but they’ll be okay taking it to this level. Those locker room moments were what I experienced as an athlete and I maybe embellishing them a little bit for narrative but they are very truthful.

There was one line that was improvised by one of our awesome actors who says to Jaden [Dakota’s best friend in the film] something like “Jaden put your abs away dude you’re looking too good”, and Jaden says “what, are you going to get a boner just looking at me?” and he says “Oh yeah, I might. You want me to?” Someone suggested to take that out because it’s too gay and not the gay they want. But I said no because that was a genuine thing that would happen in a locker room. Because it is very gay in there to a certain extent, and it is guys razzing each other and that was pretty true to my own lived experience as an athlete.

JC: I went to an all-boys school, and I know what you mean. I almost had times thinking am I really the gay one here.

BH [Laughing]: Absolutely

JC: One of the most striking things I found in the film was the relationship between Jaden and Dakota and its blurring of the lines between friendship, infatuation, and sexuality. What was it like to play those scenes as an actor? 

JH: I knew before we even shot there was going to be such a balance to hit the bullseye on this and the best answer I have is Colin, the other actor, is brilliant. So, I had a lot of confidence knowing my scene partner is really good so we’re going to find whatever that bullseye is supposed to be.

I also thought it was such a fun thing to explore. How we’re all humans on this earth and we all want to connect whether that’s romantically or something else, we’re all terrified of being alone. Oh my god, I’m terrified of it!  So even if Dakota knows almost with full certainty Jaden is not what he is, I still think he loved this connection of but he’s letting me in close. I don’t necessarily mean physically but he’s letting me be one of his best friends, he’s letting me be so close to who he is, and that feels comfortable, and he’s getting close to me. 

To have people draw near to you and for you to be allowed to draw near to people, whether romantically or not, it’s still such a beautiful thing. I think that was a fun thing to explore, not really as a theme of the movie but as a super sub-theme, these different forms of connection. He also felt a connection with this girl [Dakota’s girlfriend Skylar] that he knew was not his forever person but he still felt a level of comfortability to be a different version of himself around her than he did with any of the teammates. I think it was a cool little under theme in a lot of ways.

JC: In films like this the girlfriend character is often side-lined which doesn’t happen here. Was it important to you as a director to show that during an exploration of identity there are other people around the individual who can be impacted just as much?

BH: It absolutely was! There’s a lot of moments in the film that Dakota is not only self-sabotaging but he’s acting out, he’s betraying his girlfriend, and he’s lying and trying to put on this front for the sake of his own self-preservation. And that was intentional. I’m the first person to say Dakota’s not a perfect character, he’s super flawed, and there’s these people that are being impacted by his choices.

I wanted to make sure those characters weren’t side-lined, and the girlfriend character plays this really helpful role in allowing Dakota to understand himself better but then how are we portraying that relationship and that character? I didn’t want that character to just be a device I wanted her to be fully fleshed out and have some sort of voice. We tried our best have a well-rounded arc not just for Dakota, but for her as well, and for the best friend, and for the gay classmate, and so on.

JC: There’s a Grindr meet up which frames the film and Dakota’s hook up demonstrates quite a binary attitude to sexuality and gender as he talks about Dakota wearing a girl’s shirt and demonstrating beta male behaviour.

Why did you include that in the film and do you think it reflects a binary attitude to identity within the gay community?

BH:  That is a fascinating question. I think whatever I was trying to explore was pulled from my own personal life experience. I think a lot of people operate in a binary frame of mind of it’s either this or the other, and certainly that’s the case for Dakota. He can think in black and white terms probably to a fault, and sometimes it’s okay to explore that grey area more.

But I don’t know. I didn’t necessarily have explicit intentions on exploring that too much. I more wanted to explore just this character who is unsure about this thing and wants to understand it better.

JC: The term hazing gets used a couple of times in the film and it’s something which seems particularly ingrained in American society.Could you talk about your experiences with hazing and why it shapes social interactions and social hierarchies so much?

BH: These are home-run questions.

JH: We have said a lot of the same stuff and I love we’re getting to talk about all these different things.

I was not a great football player so I never got sports hazed. But I will say as young people even just in class we have this thing we do where, whether it’s to insert yourself as superior or people are just trying, it’s all maybe a form of young adult elitism.

I think maybe that’s where our fronts come from as you have these people in your life, whether it be athletes or whether it be classmates or whatever, who do try and insert themselves as above you and as a result make you question and doubt all of these parts of yourselves, and feel the need to appear big and appear strong.

And so I would say, at the risk of sounding super general, this culture that exists in young people of hazing or putting folks down is probably where most of our masks develop to begin with. Having folks who make us feel less than, makes us come up with these masks to make us look stronger and it’s just a nasty cycle that seems to be what we do in young adulthood. Hopefully we shake it off by a certain age, or at least become aware of it by a certain age.

BH: I was just thinking was I hazed? And my first reaction was I wasn’t really because I was a decent player and I fit in on the team But as I’m sitting here I realise that I was fitting in because I was pretending. I wasn’t explicitly hazed, but the hazing I witnessed was my friends and teammates calling someone gay which was a total slur back then. You didn’t want to be gay, but I knew I was so that was a problem for me.

I would hear them call people gay and I think well that’s not me, and so I put on that mask. There is certainly an element to hazing which conditions you into putting a mask on, being a certain fraudulent version of yourself, just to survive. Especially in high school when all that matters is your reputation, and what other people think about you.  Hazing, unfortunately, kind of acts as a conditioning device for young people.

JC: It’s interesting you both talk about masks as when Dakota’s playing football with the uniform and his eye paint it felt a bit like he was donning his own mask.

Did it feel like that for you when you were playing American Football? Did the uniform feel a bit like your armour to get through high school?

BH: In a weird way I would say off the field, was where I could lean into that mask and that armour. On the field the only thing that mattered for me was playing and was executing, and in the same way the only thing that matters for me now is filmmaking, and storytelling.

When I was suited up the only thing I was thinking about was running a good route and catching every ball that’s thrown to me. But then it’s off the field where I’m dealing with these friendships and these relationships, I’m dealing with myself, and yes I’m a football player but I also know that deep down I’m something else. I don’t know that I’m ready to navigate that just yet but I can use this football persona to disguise what I’m going through.

I certainly leaned into that through high school, that was a helpful saving grace for me.

JC: Do you think are there similarities between being an athlete and being a filmmaker?

BH: Absolutely, I learned so much as a football player that I’ve applied to filmmaking about camaraderie, about collaboration, and about working as a unit.

There are so many different positions on a football team that all have to do their own job for the success of the team, and filmmaking is exactly the same way. Every single person has a vital role and I learned all that from sports growing up, and it’s been really fun to apply what I’ve learned into what I’m doing now.

JC: What were some of your aesthetic influences for the film?

BH: This film called Davion that played Sundance a number of years ago. It’s movie about this young kid whose brother dies, so he tries to fit in with a gang. And it’s essentially a movie about trying to fit a square peg into a round hole. We also pulled from The Rider by Chloe Zhao in looking at how athletes take themselves to extremes in pursuit of their sport.

Our cinematographer’s favourite film is Weekend. He loves everything that Andrew Haigh has done. So we leaned into that aesthetic too. We wanted it to be observational and somewhat naturalistic, but also raw and gritty and a little dark at the same time. We knew we weren’t making this high-key romcom and it was going to explore certain deep feelings, and we wanted it to look as such.

JC: The hot tub is such a Romcom and coming-of-age staple and it features a lot in this film. Was that because of its cinematic iconography or was it drawn directly from your upbringing?

BH: I grew up in a neighbourhood where hot tubs were a thing. You’d go and hang out with friends, and I’d have these girlfriends.

Hot tubs were totally part of growing up. They almost encourage you to find some part of yourself. It’s hot, it’s steamy, you’re in the water. You’re underneath, you can’t see below the surface because the bubbles are going. It was totally intentional to set some of those important scenes in a hot tub because of that.

JC: How has the festival been so far and what does it mean to be at a festival like Flare dedicated to LGBTQ+ stories.

BH: Incredible! This is the first queer festival that we’re playing at, and to have it here is just a dream come true. We feel so blessed.

JH: This was one of our biggest goals! BFI Flare was one of our biggest!

BH: I’ve never been to London so on so many levels it’s such a magical experience and we have two sold-out screenings this weekend, which I would never have expected. The response we’ve gotten, and we haven’t even played yet, it’s been overwhelmingly positive and enjoyable.

My goal is to have the film seen. I think so many young queer athletes in particular but so many people in general would find themselves in this character. And as many eyeballs as we can get on it to give that message of hope is what we want to do.

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