Luke Willis, formerly of the San Francisco Ballet and Aspen Santa Fe Ballet, makes his directorial debut with the LGBTQ+ short thriller, The Summer House. Earlier screenings this year included Outfest, The Woods Hole Film Festival with additional showings slated for the Key West Film Festival. Luke discusses his early interactions with the church, excelling at ballet, and how exactly he crafted this haunting watch.
Where did you grow up and what was the attitude there toward men pursuing dance as a form of art?
Luke: I grew up in Jacksonville, which is a very different version of Florida from South Florida and especially Key West. The First Baptist and large non-denominational churches are the largest cultural institutions there. I was lucky to grow up with music and theater in my life, but ballet and dance was definitely a pastime for girls only. My understanding from the people around me was that dance was frivolously effeminate. Boy, was I wrong. It turns out that several studies conducted over the past forty years have consistently found ballet to be the most challenging and rigorous sport, second only to boxing. It also turns out that the world of ballet outside of the USA attracts many more straight males than gay or bisexual ones for the exact reason that it is the most challenging sport around.
Was ballet integral to your coming out to your family about your sexual orientation?
Luke: Not really. I first came out to my parents when I was 14, long before I started pursuing ballet. At 16, I found Jesus and was “healed” of my “sin” of homosexuality until my mid-twenties. If anything, my pursuit of ballet was an all-consuming distraction that allowed me to put off coming to terms with my sexuality.
What did finding Jesus involve?
Luke: Mostly a lot of bible study, Christian praise music, and talking about the meaning of life. It was actually an excellent study of music and good storytelling.
Did SNL’s Molly Shannon’s “Superstar” ever find its way into your path to Christ?
Luke: I love Molly Shannon! Great movie.
When did you start gaining traction with ballet? How soon were you hired into the company and landed positions?
Luke: I had to make a choice after my two years of training while on leave from Boston University. I went to audition for companies and I was offered four different jobs. I chose to join the Aspen Santa Fe Ballet, which was the greatest decision. It is a small company of 10 dancers that brings in some of the hottest contemporary ballet choreographers in the world. I got to work with some amazing people in that intimate setting. No large company offers that opportunity. Plus, I got to live in Aspen, which wasn’t too shabby. Three years into dancing with ASFB, I was invited to audition for the San Francisco Ballet, the oldest and arguably best ballet company in the world [NB: The Paris Opera Ballet (1669) is the oldest company in the world; along with the Mariinsky Ballet, Moscow Bolshoi Ballet & the London Royal Ballet it is regarded as one of the four most preeminent ballet companies in the world.–Ed.]. I wouldn’t really have considered dancing for any other large ballet company beside SFB except perhaps the Boston Ballet.
How smashed are your arches and toes from years of ballet?
Luke: Actually, not too bad. It is one of the rare occasions that I am grateful for the prominent gender roles in classical ballet, which dictate that only women wear pointe shoes. Although they are super fun! I may have a pair in my closet. My knees and lower back are another story, but I retired early at age 32, which was also a saving grace for my body. From what I saw, a lot of the more permanent damage to the body tends to happen as dancers get older and less physically resilient.
You were the Assistant Editor for the critically well received documentary Gay Chorus Deep South. How did that come about?
Luke: That was one of the luckiest things. Right after school, one of my mentors, Jesse Moss, came to me about a project he was producing on the San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus, which he knew I had been a member of in 2013. He got me an interview with the director to come on board as the archival researcher. That quickly ballooned into several other roles including first assistant editor. The work I did on that film was inspirational. I delved deep into the history and the present state of LGBTQIA rights in the USA and learned so much about how to tell a beautifully pointed story from a true master, Jeff Gilbert. Not to mention getting to go deep into the story of Tim Seelig, the director of the SF Gay Men’s Chorus. He is a man, like many who have come before me, who I owe an incredible debt to for paving the way for my generation and the ones following me, to live our lives out and proud.
You’ll soon be showing your LGBTQ+ short thriller, The Summer House, at this year’s Key West Film Festival. How did you make the jump from Gay Chorus Deep South to a darker and supernatural theme?
Luke: I wrote the screenplay for the feature length version of The Summer House a year before I started working on Gay Chorus Deep South. My real passion is scripted fiction. I love movies that guide you on a cathartic journey through an alternate reality. The suspension of disbelief actually allows the artist to tackle topics and scenarios that are too difficult for audiences if they were non-fiction. I jumped into making this short version of the story immediately after my principle work on the documentary was completed.
What makes the plot a thriller?
Luke: It’s a haunting. The main character is on a romantic weekend with his partner. They go to visit a remote beach house owned by the family of the main character that he hasn’t visited in a decade. We can assume he has some bad memories of the place from growing up. The first night he says the “L” word to his boyfriend. Later that night, he is tormented by someone else in the house. Is someone really there or has the ghost of his homophobic father come back to punish him? You’ll have to come see the film to find out.
What was the casting process like and who did you ultimately decide on?
Luke: Casting was really fun. We worked with a great casting director, Shyree Mezick. She brought a lot of great actors into the audition. In the end I picked Tim Torre to play the lead and Nick Zephyrin to play his boyfriend. It was funny because I originally saw them in the opposite roles. It was Shyree who suggested the final casting. I knew seconds after they started the first read that there was this perfect chemistry. I love when the unexpected happens. It adds layers you never even imagined.
How did you select and secure the specific sites featured throughout the short?
Luke: The house is actually the guest home of a friend and longtime supporter of the San Francisco Ballet. It’s located in a funky little oceanside community called the Sea Ranch. I have been going there for years for weekend escapes from the city. When I wrote the screenplay, I was able to write it for that specific house. The beach scene was more difficult because we wanted to have a beach campfire while a large devastating wildfire was ripping through the next valley over. We ended up finding one of the very few campgrounds in Northern California that allows beach fires.
What’s the next immediate project once you’re satisfied with the rollout and reception of The Summer House?
Luke: I’m laser focused on making the feature length version within the next year. I am also currently working on a series of several music videos for a new recording artist called Empress. The first has already been released. It’s called Lovely I am and features several ballet dancers from San Francisco Ballet.