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.”