Abe Sylvia remembers very clearly the first time he saw Dirty Debbie. The handsome 36-year-old Broadway dancer turned screenwriter-director was then a self-described “friendless, fat gay kid” standing by himself in the parking lot of the middle school he attended in Norman, Okla. “Out of nowhere came this girl running across the quad with her top open, and her huge breasts were bouncing up and down,” Sylvia recalls, laughing in between bites of an egg white and asparagus omelet at an al fresco French bistro in West Hollywood. “She looked so free and happy that that image stayed with me for a long time.”
The impression of the uninhibited teenager not only lingered with Sylvia, it helped inspire his buzzed-about debut feature, Dirty Girl, which opens October 7. The consistently surprising late ’80s–era road trip comedy about a tormented chubby gay boy’s unlikely friendship with the school slut begins with a shot of Danielle, the title character, running with equal abandon. “I’m fascinated by her freedom as a counterpoint to everyone else just sort of toeing the line,” he says.
Danielle, whose behavior irks the conservative, religious characters that populate Dirty Girl, will resonate with film fans who have taken other headstrong antiheroines to heart. If Dirty Girl’s cinematic cousins are comedies such as Muriel’s Wedding and The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert that came out of Australia in the early ’90s, Danielle clearly has forebears in free-spirited females like Christina Ricci’s Dede in The Opposite of Sex. Nimbly portrayed by Juno Temple, Danielle emerges as a fresh spin on the archetypal rebel character.
“A lot of American films have lost the sense that things can be colorful and still try to break your heart, which I also learned coming from musical theater,” he says. “One of the reasons I set the film in Oklahoma was so the characters can have accents and colorful lives that allowed for fun hair and performance. I’m not particularly interested in stories that don’t allow for visual sparkle.”
Sylvia insists any parallels between his teen self and Clarke, Dirty Girl’s pudgy protagonist (played with gleeful cheer by newcomer Jeremy Dozier), are purely physical. “The movie is a fairy tale about my experiences growing up in Oklahoma and my impressions of the people around me,” Sylvia says. “Almost none of the story is true. My parents were very progressive, and I was allowed to be myself in a way the characters in Dirty Girl aren’t.” As described by Sylvia, his mother differs drastically from Clarke’s conservative mother, played by Oscar-winner Mary Steenburgen. “My mother always had gay friends while I was growing up. She knew all three gay men in Norman,” he says with a giggle. “During the holidays there were always gay couples at our family functions. I certainly knew what being gay meant, and I knew that I identified with these people.”
As a veteran dancer himself, Sylvia also relates to Clarke dancing alone in his bedroom to ’80s female pop stars while his mother stands outside listening. “That’s probably the most factual moment in the movie,” Sylvia says. “Like every other dancing boy, I danced in my bedroom for years.” Ambition to pursue a career in theater spurred Sylvia to drop the weight and enroll in a high school for the performing arts when his family moved to Northern California. Then during his junior year at the Boston Conservatory, he got his first break.
“I took the bus to New York, slept all night in Port Authority, went to the audition, and booked it,” he recalls. “Getting my first job like that was pretty magical.” Sylvia quickly became a successful dancer, moving easily from one job to the next. “I was very lucky,” he says about those years. “I never had to wait tables.”
A turning point in Sylvia’s life and career would come in 2001 when he was cast in The Producers, Mel Brooks’s rapturously received Broadway musical, which Sylvia recalls as “a perfect show business experience.” But the September 11 terrorist attacks shook New York and served as a wake-up call for Sylvia. Though it was difficult to leave such a happy workplace, he decided to move to Los Angeles to attend UCLA film school. Still, he remains warmly reflective about his days in musical theater. “Being in a Broadway dressing room informs who I am as a writer,” he says. “Being in a room with chorus kids—you’re never going to meet a more brilliant, verbal, funny, sexually alive group of people. They’re really vital artists and they’re fucking funny, so you’d better keep up. It shows in my writing, I think.”
Nine years later, Dirty Girl, combining his love of performance, colorful storytelling, and funny hairstyles, was a surprise hit at last fall’s Toronto film festival and was instantly purchased for $3 million by the Weinstein brothers after the first screening. Perhaps greater than any financial profit, is a compliment the movie-savvy producer Harvey Weinstein paid the film. “One of the first things Harvey said to me when he bought the movie was, ‘This is like Muriel’s Wedding,’ ” Sylvia says.
As he awaits the release of Dirty Girl, he’s already at work on his next project, an HBO series about recovery he’s writing in collaboration with actor Josh Brolin. Sylvia has definitely come a long way since his days as a chubby kid in Oklahoma. So where’s Dirty Debbie now? “I have no idea what happened to her,” he says. “But I hope her life worked out, and I hope she’s happy with the movie I made about us.”
Watch the "It Gets Better" video featuring Sylvia and the cast of Dirty Girl below.