People kept saying that the “Wild About Harry” movie was ahead of its time. But perhaps the time is now right.
At least that’s what co-writer/director Gwen Wynne and producer James Egan hope when their 2009 film — based on Wynne’s real life in Dennis and filmed on Cape Cod in 2007 — gets a relaunch. And the story can be turned into a television series.
The new road kicks off Saturday at 6 p.m. with a “sneak premiere” as part of the Hyannis Film Festival’s two-day “Movies on Main” event before “Wild About Harry” debuts on Video on Demand on December 17. The film will then move to an undisclosed major movie streaming service.
So what’s different 12 years after the film’s original release? Greater adoption of gay-themed movies, growing support for female directors and women’s stories, and a pandemic that has left streaming services short of content, Wynne and Egan say.
What’s not different? That the story of two teenage girls in 1973 who realized their widowed father is gay, and what might happen if it gets out, still resonates, they say — especially given the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in June to to confirm that the Catholic Church could refuse LGBTQ couples as adoptive parents.
“The story is timeless, it’s entertaining, it’s still relevant,” says Egan.
It is also largely true.
“Wild About Harry” has “always been an outsider’s movie, because there’s never been such a gay family movie,” Egan said in a joint telephone interview with Wynne. “There has never been a story told by the children of gay parents. … That’s what drew me to the project from the start – that this was a fresh new attitude to a problem we’ve never seen before. And who better to tell than someone who grew up like that?”
The true story
Wynne says her mother died when she was 11, and Mr. Phipps — her widowed father’s lover, named Mr. Gibbs in the film — moved in with the family in the mid-1970s when they lived in New Jersey. The family was exiled there, Wynne says she has since realized, so they moved to Route 6A in Dennis in 1976.
There, Mr. Phipps had a shop at the back of the house and a separate bedroom, just like in her screenplay, and the men befriended many Cape artists, including Richard Howard. Her father helped out part-time in the store so he could be home when his daughters got home from school and no one could accuse him of being a neglectful parent, Wynne says.
“He was very afraid that my mother’s parents would take us,” she says. “I know they were thinking about it.”
Unlike in the film, Wynne – a 1980 graduate of Dennis-Yarmouth Regional High School – and her younger sister did not reveal their father’s unusual living situation or talk to their father about his homosexuality when he was a teenager.
“When we played[the film]at festivals, it was like coming out because I was scared, during my young adulthood,” Wynne says, revealing the family secret. “Nobody knew my father was gay.” She remembers the fundraiser she did for the movie at Cape Cinema in Dennis where high school friends went.
“They said, ‘That’s why you never invited us to your house,’” Wynne says. “My father didn’t want anyone to come to the house because he was afraid we would be taken away. My father was very private, so it was very interesting to see my high school friends who are now adults, mothers, parents etc. and their reaction to (the film).”
The film, she says, “was really important, at least for me artistically, to make. And in a way I found my voice too.”
And giving a voice to others – which could potentially happen again when the film is seen at the Cape, on demand and through its streaming release.
Egan recalls the world premiere of “Wild About Harry” at the 2009 Palm Springs International Film Festival with an invitation to an organization for gay parents and their children – at a time before same-sex marriage was legal.
“There was a standing ovation, I mean a long, emotional standing ovation,” says Egan. “A lot of people came to me and said, ‘This is the first time I see my story. Thank you.’ It was a very emotional experience.”
Wynne, who was originally a theater director and started her own theater company in Washington, DC, says she didn’t write her family’s story until she was in film school in the 1990s, long after Mr. Phipps died of AIDS. After editing the screenplay with a co-writer, Wynne ended up back in Dennis to film it in 2007 and found a supportive community for her efforts.
Location was important for her first directing job. “I kept saying I need this incredible light that only the Cape has, which has brought so many painters and artists to the Cape. I wanted to capture that.”
Egan, who lives in Buzzards Bay, became part producer on the film, Wynne says, “because he got it, he really got what the movie was about.”
The First Life of ‘Harry’
Originally titled “American Primitive,” the film stars Tate Donovan (TV’s “The OC,” “Damages”) as the character based on Wynne’s father; Adam Pascal (Broadway’s “Rent”) as his lover; Danielle Savre (TV’s “Station 19”) and Skye McCole Bartusiak (“The Patriot”, “Riding in Cars With Boys”) as the sisters; Josh Peck (TV’s “Drake and Josh,” the new “How I Met Your Father”); James B. Sikking (TV’s “Hill Street Blues”); and Susan Anspach (“Five Easy Pieces”).
“Wild About Harry” was a hit at film festivals. But it never got national distribution, in large part, Wynne and Egan say now, because of the then business model of selling DVDs and the refusal of some major marketers, like Walmart, to sell gay-themed movies.
“We made it at a time when there were no gay family movies,” says Wynne, noting that “Wild About Harry” is actually the teenage sisters’ story and told from their point of view.
Egan adds: “At that time, female protagonists in the (film) theater were not considered financially viable. It took Thelma and Louise going over a cliff to convince people there was an audience for women. …Unless it was a Disney movie and she was a princess, you wouldn’t get any (major studio) to take that kind of risk.
Times have changed somewhat with regard to women, however, and that DVD business model has been turned upside down by streaming services like Netflix and Amazon Prime, they say, especially since the pandemic began.
In the meantime, both Wynne and Egan continued with multiple other projects. Wynne has two production companies, including Cape Cod Films, and launched a new global initiative, the Eos World Fund, to support female directors and minorities by funding and promoting their films. Her focus on “Untold Stories” includes the PBS show “Tyrus,” about a Chinese immigrant who became a top Hollywood artist; “Al Garib (The Stranger)”, set in the occupied Golan Heights, which she co-produced with director Ameer Fakher Eldin and just premiered at the Venice Film Festival. and an ongoing episodic spy drama about intelligence agents during World War II.
Egan has focused his writing/producing on ‘media that make a difference’, including 2019’s award-winning ‘Raise Hell: The Life & Times of Molly Ivins’; ‘Kimjongilia’, about survivors of the labor camps in North Korea; and the in-production “Fightback,” about women around the world teaching others self-defense to stop physical and sexual abuse.
Wynne says she didn’t realize how difficult it would be to work as a female director in Hollywood and Egan, who has worked largely with female directors, says he’s happy to see some more opportunities now, including recognition for Wynne.
“It’s important for us to hear the point of view of women in the media because it changes our lives,” says Egan. “We need new solutions. And women have that perspective, as outsiders, to give the world a new perspective. As artists, they can make these changes because we need them…and women are that powerful voice for change.”
The Second Life of ‘Harry’
The idea for them to revisit “Wild About Harry” arose in part because Egan’s partner, Dan Perdios, wrote a book, published earlier this year, called “A Golden Retriever & His Two Dads: An Adventure on Cape Cod. ” The story is set on the Dennis set of “Wild About Harry” and the couple rewatched the film to get the details right.
“I said, ‘This is a great movie. We need to get this movie out,’” Egan says.
And with streaming services now welcoming gay topics and a lack of content with filming being halted during the pandemic, Egan said, companies were suddenly interested.
“The great thing is that the paradigm for distribution has changed drastically,” he says. “Netflix and Amazon turned everything upside down and COVID made people desperate for content and… suddenly we were now viable in the market.”
Participation in the Martha’s Vineyard African American Film Festival this summer helped Egan connect with those who are now working to get “Wild About Harry” a wider audience. “We immediately had five or six digital platforms that were interested… and the film will finally reach the public.”
Beyond the future of the movie itself, the story continues as a possible television series, which Wynne and Egan are now working on. She hopes to engage other parts of 1970s Cape Cod — the Indigenous community, people of color, the fishing community, immigrants, LBGTQ friends — to learn about different aspects of what it was like to live here nearly 50 years ago. live. She even mentions the possibility of using local artists, such as Edward Gorey, as characters.
A TV series based around the ‘Harry’ story would be “a way to preserve history, because the ’60s and ’70s, all that time, were a very rich moment at the Cape,” she says.
And would she also return to film the TV series on Cape Cod? ‘We’d love to do that,’ says Wynne. “It’s a fascinating place. I love it.”