An Interview with Filmmaker Paul Rapalee

by Tony Leuzzi

Anyone familiar with cultural life in Rochester’s gay community probably knows Paul Rapalee. After all, it isn’t everyday our city produces an innovative filmmaker willing to tackle hot-button issues like race, drug use, and the daily rhythms of the hustling underworld. What’s more, this aspiring film artist manages to pack a good deal of heat in each punch. Though no piece exceeds the ten-minute mark, each explores some of the aforementioned themes while invoking and critiquing certain film conventions: in Thank You, Boys, a string of paid-for sex acts are performed against a backdrop of urban decay; in Anatomy of Absolution the blunt depiction of the performer’s heroin use is ironically softened because the actor’s eyes are shielded; and in his newest creation, A Leaf in May, the lifespan of a fallen leaf cuts across several strata of the culture, thereby connecting seemingly separate people and their problems in unlikely ways.

With several short films to his credit, Rapalee has become a welcome presence in the annual Imageout film festival, where his locally filmed and produced works have met a generous reception. But he’s more than just a “local artist.” Rapalee admits he’s interested in developing longer works for a wider audience. That just may happen, as he’s already beginning work on his next film, a project that will take him to New York City.

I recently sat down to chat with the vibrant Rapalee. A long-time acquaintance, I was stunned by how this usually playful, extroverted man could be so reflective. In fact, despite his easy-going demeanor, Rapalee himself seems as multi-faceted as the subjects he explores in his films.


Tony Leuzzi: Tell me about the newest film, A Leaf in May. It’s a departure from the others. Rather than exploring contrasts between two characters or playing with audience perceptions—two of your previously favored approaches—this film is a series of micro narratives stitched together by the movements of a wandering leaf.

Paul Rapalee: Yeah, my films are usually on the aggressive and on the seedy side. This one’s a pretty flowing, long brush stroke.

TL: Is your conception of filmmaking connected with visual art? In other words, when you make a film are you thinking of it as a film or as a visual piece?

PR: Sometimes I see them as visual pieces, yeah. But I also like to think of myself as a filmmaker. Sometimes, I get ideas from an article in the paper.  I made a film a long time ago called Mi Muerte, which was inspired by a newspaper story. The article was accompanied by a photo of two Korean children walking home from school. In the distance was a dead soldier in the field. But those kids didn’t appear to be phased by the decaying body. And so with Mi Muerte I wanted to study at what point we as humans get frustrated with seeing things on the road. I remember when I first got my driver’s license. I was seventeen living in Southern California. I was driving and hit a squirrel. I pulled over to the side of the road and started crying. I was so frustrated that I had killed something. Later, when I moved to Rochester, I remember seeing a dead deer by the side of the road and flipped. I thought, “This is wrong! This is anarchy!” But soon I became so used to seeing dead deer that it no longer touched me. So, in the story in Mi Muerte a man dreams of animals, and the animals get bigger and bigger each time as the film progresses. And the last animal to appear in the sequence is a person. That’s when the dreamer wakes in a cold sweat.

TL: That’s fascinating. One can become used to almost anything, but even then there will always be a boundary. This film reminds me of the three stories in The Hustling Trilogy insofar as you are, in each of them, concerned with a moral issue. Knowing you and how playful and open-minded you are, I was kind of surprised by this.

PR: Yeah, you and a lot of people in the gay community see me as playful and outgoing. But there are dimensions of my personality that come through most clearly in my filmmaking. Through filmmaking I get to express other sides of myself. For example, the film The Pick Up came about because I was frustrated with problems of race in this country. How frustrated do I get when I see a little white girl on a milk carton but I don’t see a little Hispanic girl on it! When a kid’s kidnapped from Perrington it’s all over the news and you flyers at every Wegmans. But the little black girl from North Clinton who went missing? I didn’t hear a heck of a lot about that. So, in The Pick Up I wanted to create a family where there were many disparities that challenged stereotypes: a black thug in a Mercedes. As viewers we think the little white girl is getting kidnapped, but she’s really an adopted child of the two black men, who happen to be a couple. I wanted to show them in their daily routine a routine, which is bound to be misread by most viewers because of their perceptions about race and families.

TL: You’re just a moralist. Your values are clearly defined. You’re not a relativist. It’s not that you’re conservative, but that you have clearer definitions than I’d expected.

PR: I like to study the understory of things. Take A Leaf in May. This one’s literally a pretty simple story about a leaf that falls prematurely. Leaves usually fall in September and October. This one falls in May. Although it fell, it still had a complete life. Symbolically, that represents a person who has died before old age but still lived a full existence. Inside that narrative frame there are a series of small vignettes. Each vignette represents a period in a person’s life: adolescence, the sex years; the party years; the business years; and then there’s the death years.

One viewer, however, read the film differently. This person said it’s about living our lives and not seeing what’s going on around us. I could see that, because in each of the film’s vignette’s the leaf is never recognized. It ties all the stories together, but no one pays attention to it. Eventually, the custodian sweeps it up and puts it into the trash. He doesn’t think “Oh, look at this leaf I picked up. He just does his job.”

And then there’s a personal backstory for A Leaf in May, which is a response to a friend’s death. I don’t want to say more because I want viewers to interpret the film as they wish.

TL: Good metaphors can be read in more than one way.

PR: Yeah! I love that. And there is a bit of ambiguity in my films. Perhaps this is so because so far I haven’t used any dialogue.

TL: Why is that the case?

PR: In college, I studied non-verbal communication and I was very much interested in the possibilities inherent in that. But also, when I started, I didn’t have any actors to work with. The work was experimental. I walked around with a camera, saw things and said “oh, yeah, I’m gonna’ shoot that.” And that was it. Maybe it’s a matter of progression. Maybe I haven’t progressed yet. I’ve written a screenplay with dialogue, and one of these days, if I get a million dollar budget, I can shoot it.

TL: So, budget constraints prevent you from using dialogue?

PR: Partially. But it’s also because I think there are things out there to study, to look at, that don’t need dialogue. We can talk about them non-verbally. I don’t think any of my short films would be enhanced with dialogue in them. I like to use montages of inanimate objects. An old rusted wheel, or old barns. Those things, edited the right way, can evoke a particular emotion in the viewer and help tell the story without words. So part of my goal is to find ways to talk about things that are important without talk.

TL: Are you committed to living in the Rochester area?

PR: I should be committed. (Laughs). My father was in the military so as a kid I moved around all the time. This is the longest I’ve lived in any one area. I’d love to visit San Francisco, find a job there. Sometimes I dream of going to Europe or living in New York City. Sometimes I get bored in Rochester seeing the same five people. And yet, I like it here. I’m fairly successful here. And the place is conducive to filming. I like to ride around on my bike and scout out locations. I’ll often try to find my five favorite spots for certain themes: my five favorite gardens, my five favorite alleyways, my five favorite junkyards. There are a lot of unnoticed gems here. Because we live here, people don’t notice them. They take their environment for granted. But my films celebrate the forgotten or the overlooked.

TL: What would you like to tell people with regards to your films?

PR: My stories are layered. I have certain themes but I also think my stories can be read in more than one way. I want viewers to interpret what they see as they see it.


This article was originally published in "The Emply Closet" and is republished with the kind permission of the author.