Jonah Markowitz’s gay-surfers-in-love movie, Shelter, is a sweet, sexy, sun-soaked valentine to true love and family values—which started with an anonymous encounter in the woods. “Five years ago I was in Colorado, where I grew up, at this mountain lake at sunset,” recalls Markowitz, who makes his feature debut as a writer-director after working as an art director and production designer on such films as Rocky Balboa, We Are Marshall, and Quinceañera. “There were two silhouetted figures talking back and forth in the distance. They were really comfortable with each other. I started thinking, Are they father and son? Two best friends? What if they’re two lovers? I ruled that out right away, like, Oh, they wouldn’t be out here. But then I thought, Well, why not?”
So he sat down and wrote Shelter, trading the Colorado snowboarding scene for the surf culture of Southern California in his story of a diner cook–street artist in his early 20s named Zach (Trevor Wright), who has pushed his art-school dreams aside to take care of his selfish deadbeat sister, Jeanne (Six Feet Under’s Tina Holmes), and her 5-year-old son, Cody. Zach gets knocked out of his funk—and his closet—when his best friend’s hunky older brother, Shaun (Brad Rowe), a disillusioned Hollywood screenwriter, retreats to his family’s beach house to try to get his mojo back. They hang. They surf. They fall in love. They’re Frankie Avalon and Annette Funicello without the chastity.
The script sat in a drawer for a few years until out lesbian producer J.D. Disalvatore took it to Here Networks cofounder and CEO Paul Colichman, who was looking for LGBT features to finance and produce in-house after years of distributing other people’s films. The movie’s surf setting was a major selling point. “It astonishes me how right-wing and homophobic sports are in general,” says Colichman, whose company will be releasing Shelter in theaters in eight major markets, on the Here channel and on DVD over the next several months. “At Here we want to debunk the myth that gay people are not well-represented in sports.” Does he know gay surfers? “I went to Palisades High [in Los Angeles], and there were dozens of gay surfers,” he remembers. “But back in class they tried to act very straight, some more successfully than others. Then at UCLA I found that so many athletes were clearly gay in their private lives yet felt it was an absolute nonstarter to discuss who they were within their sporting lives. Years later I don’t think it’s changed that much.”
Though Markowitz has been a surfer since working in the art department on 2002’s chick surfer flick Blue Crush, if there’s any kind of openly gay male surf scene out there, he has yet to paddle across it. “It’s not an easy place to be open,” he says. “I grew up in resort towns around really macho sports cultures where there just aren’t gay people. That’s why I wanted to do a movie about two guys who fell in love outside—and not, you know, in a bar.”
Once Markowitz had his green light, he and his team had three weeks to pull together the production. “I was unbelievably grateful for the opportunity, but I was nervous about how I was going to be able to keep my own voice,” he reveals. “I didn’t want to end up making the gay soft-porn version of The O.C.”
Actors Wright and Rowe had similar concerns, but meeting with Markowitz put their fears of cheesiness to rest. Wright knew that playing Zach would allow him a chance to really shine—not just as an actor but also as an experienced surfer and skateboarder. “I had three other good-paying jobs on the table,” says Wright, whose resume includes episodes of George Lopez, Boston Public, and NYPD Blue as well the memorable 1989 Paula Abdul music video Forever Your Girl (he was the cocky tyke on the motorcycle). “But this was something I knew would expand my acting,” His instincts were right on. “After the Outfest showing I got calls the next day from the heads of huge studios,” he says sheepishly.
For Rowe, who’s been riding the ebbs and flows of Hollywood for 13 years, the character of Shaun was a way to channel his artistic frustrations. “Sometimes you hit creative blocks,” says Rowe, who recently played a Secret Service agent in National Treasure: Book of Secrets. “Helping Zach reconnect with his art brought Shaun back to a place of creativity again. I really liked that.” Rowe also saw the film as a nice companion piece to his 1998 breakout gay film, Billy’s Hollywood Screen Kiss. “In Billy’s, I was the closeted object of affection,” says Rowe, who’s married to a decorator’s assistant and has a 5-year-old son. “Now, 10 years later, it was fun to turn the tables and be the pursuer of the hot young thing.”
That pursuit is rewarded in a stairway-to-bed love scene at Shaun’s beach house, when Zach finally decides to stop fighting his feelings and shows up unannounced and sexed-up. “I wanted for that moment to have urgency and sexual tension going on like crazy,” says Wright, “you know, when you just grab someone’s face and you bite their lip and you just look at them in the eyes and then do it again.” For the more intimate scenes, Markowitz says he pretty much let the actors go for it and find their own way. “The only thing I really gave them was the question, ‘Have you ever spent a whole day in bed with somebody?’ ” he recalls, “and they both worked off that beautifully.” Rowe didn’t actually realize how good he was in the sack until much later. “When the cameraman shot Trevor close-up, there was no room for me to be there,” he explains. “So I didn’t see what Trevor’s reaction to what I was supposed to be doing until we were actually watching it in a theater. I was like, Dude, everyone’s going to think I’m really great at giving head.” Isn’t that better than people thinking he’s lousy? “You’re right,” Rowe says, thinking it through. “That should be a badge of honor.”
Though Wright and Rowe are probably the hottest guys in most rooms they walk into, they’re not Dante’s Cove types. Considering that the gay media uses shirtless hunks with rippling abs to sell everything from lube to dentistry, one wonders if Markowitz felt pressure to deliver eye candy. “I felt it a lot,” he admits. “You say ‘gay surfing,’ and people just want these ripped, eight-pack, corn-fed guys, but there’s no scene where Zach goes to the gym. We need to move away from that. For me, it’s all about what’s going on in their eyes and face and head. There’s no nudity in the movie, but it’s really sexy and intimate.”
Is he crazy, going around telling the press there’s no nudity? Markowitz laughs. “They gave me a lot of leeway to make the movie I wanted to make,” he’s careful to say, “but in looking at the visuals, I’d hear, ‘Needs to be hotter, needs to be hotter.’ But that’s any movie in Hollywood.” So that explains the thank-you to the Janice Dickinson Modeling Agency that appears in the end credits. “Some models from there just showed up on our set—we’ll put it that way,” says Markowitz with a shrug..
“Actually, I think it was people who had helped with extras casting,” says Colichman when asked who ordered the surprise model invasion. “I don’t think there’s anything more going on there.” Colichman will allow, though, that looks and sex appeal were crucial considerations. “We want our leads to have a sense of reality, but these are the movies and we want people to look like movie stars,” he says unapologetically. “I never have been one who said, ‘Let’s go cinema verité and have everyone just look like normal people.’ People don’t go to the movies to see that.”
What they do go to the movies for, the folks behind Shelter are hoping, is a well-made, deeply felt contemporary story about two gay men finding love where no one loathes, medicates, or offs themselves. “I wanted a gay romance with a happy ending,” says Colichman. “On some level, when gay independent cinema shows gays and lesbians in a tragic light, it adds to the stereotype that being gay means that your life is going to be filled with misery.” Though Markowitz’s original scripted finale was hopeful, it left things a bit more up in the air. “Frankly, I wasn’t happy with it,” says Colichman. So a new ending was shot, complete with a scrappy, adorable pooch.
As positive gay images go, it’s pretty picture perfect. “When we got that page, I was like, ,” Rowe admits, “but people really like that it summed up the theme of the movie, which was a functional nontraditional family.”
“Every festival I’ve been to, people are just loving it, coming up and telling me their stories, hugging me,” Wright gushes.
Love, it seems, has a lot in common with the perfect wave. “The movie shows that it’s out there,” says Wright. “You just need to find that true soul mate, take that step, and don’t have fear.”