"Sometimes you make love and sometimes you just have sex," says Michael Sucsy over tea at Hugo's, a busy West Hollywood restaurant. The filmmaker reveals a fondness for metaphors, speaking not about his romantic life, but the level of passion he brings to each project. Sucsy, 39, smiles as he compares the years he spent researching and writing his 2009 narrative film version of the 1975 cult documentary Grey Gardens to lovemaking.
That's not to suggest his commitment to his new film, The Vow, a romantic dramedy, resembles just a quick hookup. But Sucsy's lengthy dedication to his first film had a huge payoff. He won a Golden Globe for producing and was nominated for Emmy Awards for directing and cowriting (with lesbian filmmaker Patricia Rozema) HBO's interpretation of "Big Edie" and "Little Edie" Bouvier Beale (Jessica Lange and Drew Barrymore, respectively), the fascinatingly eccentric mother and daughter who shared a ramshackle home in East Hampton, N.Y., with cats and raccoons.
While spending six years developing the tough-sell film, Sucsy heard from plenty of naysayers, including a close friend who didn't see the project's potential. The bounty of awards and praise that followed the film's premiere was more of an affirmation of choices he'd made much earlier, he says now. Chief among them was forgoing a more stable career to follow his dream. After graduating from Georgetown he was subsisting on a production assistant's salary instead of a more sizable paycheck like his investment banker friends.
Though very determined, Sucsy wasn't naive about his chosen field. "If you want to be a lawyer or a doctor, there's a pretty prescribed path on how to do that, but even going to film school is no guarantee that you'll be a director," he says. "I had to listen to my instincts and not let my head misguide me. It's like the process of coming out and being true to yourself."
Following the success of the HBO film, Sucsy read a lot of other screenplays, including one that focused on a woman living with a houseful of cats. "Hollywood isn't always the most open-minded place," he says. "I wanted to make something for a mainstream audience."
He believes he found just that in his romantic comedy-drama, The Vow, which opens February 10. It stars Rachel McAdams and Channing Tatum as a happily married couple. Their relationship is challenged when the wife suffers amnesia following an accident, and her husband becomes determined to make her fall in love with him again. "I really responded to this notion that we are the sum of our experiences and if that's ripped away from you, you have no emotional attachments to other people," Sucsy states. "The movie isn't about memory loss as much as who are we without our emotional attachments to other people."
The Vow also gave Sucsy another opportunity to work with Lange, whose small but pivotal role added emotional heft to the film. "There are multiple layers to everything she does," he says. "I'm not kidding when I say I'd look over and the grips and prop guys who are obviously watching — but not on the same level that I need to watch — their eyes are bugging out and their mouths are agape. We rewrote scenes and deepened scenes for her because you don't want to waste that kind of talent."
Growing up in a family of four, primarily in New York City, Sucsy was exposed to the arts — and LGBT people — by his mother, the president of a local stage company. His flair for theatrics emerged early. "I used to make my sister dress up as Madonna and lip-synch to music videos," he remembers.
Sucsy feels The Vow will appeal to LGBT viewers. "I think the gay audience will like Channing a lot, and I know they already like Rachel," he suggests. "It's a story that everyone can relate to."
Later this year he plans to film Rosaline, a genre-defying comedy set in the 16th century, which retells the story of Romeo and Juliet, but from the point of view of the hero's jilted girlfriend, Rosaline. Perhaps his attractive cast, which includes True Blood's Deborah Ann Woll and Dave Franco, is a concession to LGBT viewers. "Dave has the best smile," he says. "People should slip him dollar bills just to see him grin."
Earlier in the week he attended a star-studded event for the Trevor Project, the organization that operates a suicide prevention hotline for LGBT and questioning teenagers. On the red carpet, Sucsy was asked by a reporter about the importance of positive gay role models for young people struggling with their sexual orientation.
The director is still contemplating that question. "It's important for people to know about us and for kids to know they're not alone," he says. Sucsy found a dearth of such positive images when he was a child, but laughs when thinking back to 1982, the first time he saw gay characters in a film. "My very conservative father took me to the film of Deathtrap, and when Christopher Reeve and Michael Caine kissed, he said, 'We're leaving.' He yanked me out and said this is not appropriate."
But neither of his films to date, nor the upcoming Rosaline, has included gay characters. For a moment Sucsy becomes politely defensive. "Listen, the majority of people in this world are heterosexual, so the majority of stories tend to be about heterosexuals," he says. "Could this be told with two men or two women? Absolutely. Would that add a layer that isn't there and make the story better? No, I don't think so."
Nevertheless, Sucsy won't make any allowances for homo-phobic humor. "There was a film recently in which they kept using the word 'gay' in a disparaging way," he states. "It really bugged me, because there was a homosexual person involved in that production, so I wrote an email and said, 'You're in a position to not do that. It didn't make it funnier. So stop allowing that.'" Sucsy won't identify the film or the person but admits his friend in question blew off the criticism and jokingly called him a "fag."
Still, he's aware of his responsibility if The Vow is a success. "I also make sure there's nothing slanderous or negative about gay people in my work," he says. "That's something I can control. I'm not looking to be a role model, but if I become one for some kid who knows he's gay and he thinks because I'm doing it that he can, then great. It's not my goal or agenda, but if that happens in the process of me just living my life, fantastic."