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April 13, 2007

Alum revisits Boy Culture at U of C

Matthew Rettenmund (A.B.’91) may not have the literary cachet of fellow alumnus Kurt Vonnegut (R.I.P.), but did Vonnegut ever write a “critical assessment of white, gay, male culture”? We think not. As the smash-hit film adaptation of his ’95 novel, Boy Culture, enters its second week at Landmark’s Century Centre Cinema, Rettenmund takes the time to talk with the Maroon about scandal, scholarship, and, of course, sex.

Chicago Maroon: How did you choose the U of C for your undergraduate education?

Matthew Rettenmund: When choosing colleges, I had a garbage bag full of flyers and brochures. I think I liked that the U of C was Ivy League caliber and was both far from and close to my hometown. I visited the campus with my parents and vividly recall seeing a lone flyer for a gay group. I had nothing to compare this to, but I thought the U of C must be this amazingly open place where I might encounter other gay people. So as silly as it sounds, while I considered the U of C for its academic standing, I chose it for its (imaginary) gay subculture.

CM: How did Boy Culture complete the trajectory from short story, to novella, to undergraduate thesis, to published novel?

MR: The short story, about a guy in love with his roommate, was scandalous when it came out because people assumed it might be about me and my roommate (it wasn’t). Also, it was blatantly sexual, something that could not be said of the mood at the U of C. I remember a gay peer sneering about this horrible story and how it was so sleazy, and then my roommate and I told him it was by me. It was worth publishing just to see his shock. Since I was majoring in creative writing, I made the story my thesis and worked it into a novella. Later, when I was working at St. Martin’s Press and after I’d published a non-fiction book on Madonna, I persuaded a young editor to give my book a read. I’d expanded it to a novel over the years. I had an offer from the gay publisher Alyson, but SMP topped it and my first novel was on its way to publication.

CM: You speak of the “almost invisible gay subculture at the University.” Were you out on campus?

MR: I was openly gay pretty early on. It took me a semester, I think. I lived with a sweet Korean guy who was quite macho. In his surfer accent, he’d lie in bed and say to me, “Dude, someone said someone’s gay in our dorm. Can you believe that? Someone’s gay here, like, maybe even on our floor?” I didn’t have the heart to tell him he was sharing his room with a gay dude, or that I was only one of probably tons more. Once he left and I had the room to myself, I decorated it in an openly gay way, including a postcard of a Mapplethorpe image of two men embracing. A future BFF and roomie saw this in my room, and also took note of my gay-lit collection. “Gore Vidal...” he said between puffs. “Are you a fan of his work...or his life?”

CM: Were you involved in any queer organizations on campus?

MR: I only went to the gay group’s meetings once or twice. I do remember a protest against Hanna Holborn Gray regarding a gay-rights issue.

CM: You mention that “one character [in the novel] clearly lives in a version of the Shoreland.” Did you live in the Shoreland?

MR: I lived in the Shoreland all four years. I loved it! It was luxurious, baby.

CM: How do you feel about the University’s impending sale of the Shoreland?

MR: I’m not surprised someone wants to turn it into condos. Maybe I’ll buy one. It has to be one of the most unnecessarily prime pieces of real estate that’s inhabited by students! But it’s a shame someone finally figured that out.

CM: Do you have a favorite memory from the dormitory system?

MR: Well, there was a time when we found gay porn in the recycling room and made like Nancy Drew trying to figure out whose it was based on what periodicals it was sandwiched between.

CM: Tell me more about your story’s transition from page to screen.

MR: I met with [screenwriter] Philip Pierce like eight or more years ago when he was optioning the novel and found him to be very respectful of my work and of me. I felt in good hands. I never really dreamed I’d have a movie made of my book, so it was no skin off my nose to let him try. It’s been so long.... I suggested actors who are now famous—Paul Walker, Heath Ledger. [Producer] Victor Simpkins had inquired about the rights to my novel just after Philip snatched them up, so they joined forces. Victor was a producer of Swingers. They went through a couple of collaborators, but settled on [director Q.] Allan [Brocka].

CM: How involved were you in the filmmaking process?

MR: I was out of the loop on the changes made because, hey, it’s not my movie! But later on, I was told Allan had insisted on changing the race of Andrew (and not in a color-blind way, but in changing his race and entire being) because as a man of color he didn’t want to do another movie with no people of color in it. My initial response was to be very upset, because I assumed he was changing Andrew’s race just for the sake of representation and therefore was overlooking the subtext of my novel—sure, it’s a fun gay romance, but it’s also (supposed to be) a somewhat critical assessment of white, gay, male culture. But my fears were unfounded. Allan “got” me completely and his change only broadened the scope of what I was trying to say.

CM: According to the U of C’s online catalog, Boy Culture is not shelved in any University libraries. How do you feel about this?

MR: Interesting! I had no idea. To be honest, I’m not shocked.

CM: As a writer of fiction, do you feel supported by the U of C’s culture of theory and academic writing?

MR: My feelings about the U of C are conflicted. On the one hand, I think it provides a superior education and I’m grateful for so many of my experiences there. On the other hand, it was—for me, at that time—a pretty humorless, academically relentless place. It wasn’t a “fiction” kind of school. I don’t mean to slam the school, but I just never put too much stock in colleges outside of making sure I went to one.

CM: Have you received any congratulations from the University on your success?

MR: I haven’t gotten any formal congrats, but I haven’t expected any. I’ve gotten lots of requests for moolah, but I think I gave them enough of that when I attended.

CM: Did you have any hesitation about a veteran of the Eating Out comedies taking over the reins of a relationship drama?

MR: I wasn’t a fan of Eating Out, so I wasn’t sure what to think. But I loved what he did with Boy Culture. And incidentally, I thought Eating Out 2: Sloppy Seconds (which Allan co-wrote, but didn’t direct) was hilarious and charming.

CM: What was it like working with the talented trio of lead actors?

MR: The actors are so great. Derek [Magyar] is ready to be on Entourage or something. Darryl [Stephens] has movie-star magnetism and is so witty.... His e-mails are like screenplays. Jonathon [Trent] is the nicest, most laid-back guy. Jonathon and I watched several screenings side by side and laughed about the movie and the questions that came up after from the audience. The best is, “Are you gay? For real?” He’s not. Which is hard to believe, watching his [character] Joey.

CM: The film’s poster—featuring the main characters entangled in a nude embrace—is pretty provocative. Did you have any reservations about the marketing?

MR: I’m not in charge of marketing the film, but that’s weird that you say this because I do think one strike against Boy Culture (which has done terrific business so far) is that some audiences are numbed by an onslaught of gay films they think are generic and uninspired.

CM: Did you fear that your thoughtful, sensitive “think piece” on contemporary queer culture would be mistaken for (to quote the title of another recent film) Another Gay Movie?

MR: Another Gay Movie wasn’t for me, but even that film does not fit the profileI’m talking about, because it was more of an out-there, gay American Pie experiment. I think it’s hard to avoid attempting to capitalize on the sex angle because the film, while not gratuitous, has sexual themes and sexy men, and while you might try everything under the sun and still fail to lure art-house audiences, skin does bring in a large number of people. If the movie is great—and this one is—that leads to word of mouth.

CM: You say you’ve been writing and editing since the publication of Boy Culture. Can you tell me about some of your other projects?

MR: The main reason I have not published any fiction in a while—since my second novel, Blind Items: A (Love) Story—is I founded and edit a tween-entertainment magazine called Popstar!, which takes up all of my time.

CM: Are you currently working on a piece of fiction?

MR: I’ve done non-fiction works here and there and blog profusely at www.boyculture.typepad.com. But I will write fiction again. I have the ideas and have never had writer’s block... I just need time.