They/Them director John Logan on the horrors of ‘gay conversion therapy’
John Logan wrote many evil characters for the screen, like Sweeney Todd, Silva de celestial fall, and The Aviator’s version of Howard Hughe. But Logan created a more ambiguous con man in his new Blumhouse film, They they: Owen Whistler, head of his family’s LGBTQ+ conversion camp, is played by Kevin Bacon. He soothes his wary gay campers using calm, therapeutic rhetoric; he does this to disengage campers and gain their trust.
Or – as Logan puts it Filmmaker — “use the language of angels to serve the devil”.
They they is no ordinary summer camp. His counselors throw campers into another loop when they say conversion is optional, but those who engage in therapy experience a “new sense of freedom.” The façade of “choice” is revealed as Whistler counselors psychologically break down every camper, even those who don’t want to participate. A final threat emerges when a mysterious killer begins claiming victims, forcing the campers to fight for their identities and their lives.
John Logan is one of Hollywood’s most in-demand screenwriters, but surprisingly he’s never directed a feature film before. They they. He told us about his lifelong obsession with horror movies, and why he chose They they as his first stab in the genre. Logan talks about his discovery that not all LGBTQ+ conversion camps are religious, and why, as a gay man, he believes writing trans and non-binary characters isn’t a voidable offense. He also gives his take on “high horror” and how some LGBTQ+ people find themselves coming to terms with the conversion therapy fraud.
Joshua Encinias: You have always been beloved monsters, but in They they, the monsters are those who try to change LGBTQ people. Why is your story about a different type of monster?
John Logan: It was my own experience of loving horror, so since I was six years old, and being in love with watching horror movies. But, as I grew and became more aware, queer people in horror movies were either non-existent or when present they were jokes or victims. It always bothered me because horror has a very complicated relationship with gender and sexual identity. So I wanted to write something specifically about the genre in a horror genre context. And I met people who had gone through a so-called “gay conversion”. They shared their stories with me, which were terrifying, and not so much for the physical restraint – which was extreme – as for the psychological play and the psychological attacks that chipped away at their identity. This resulted in wanting to write a movie with queer heroes. The kind of film I would have liked to see when I was twelve. And that’s what I wrote.
Joshua Encinias: Horror movies are usually made by up-and-coming filmmakers and a few directors who hang around in the genre, but not Oscar-nominated writers. What pushed you to go in this direction?
John Logan: I have the luxury of being able to write whatever I want, whether it’s a play, a TV show or a movie. And when the COVID lockdowns started, everything suddenly stopped, so myself and all the writers I know suddenly had a moment to sit down and think for a second. We’ve all asked, “What do I want to say, what do I want to write, and what do I want to create as an artist?” I kept coming back to this idea as being very personal. When I wrote it, no one knew I was writing it. My husband didn’t know I was writing it. My agents didn’t know. I just wrote it because it was very personal to me and I wanted to write something unique. That’s what led me to this and I had the freedom to do it. And luckily, Jason Blum loved the idea as much as I did.
Joshua Encinias: Have you researched real conversion therapy camps for inspiration from the Whistler camp? What have you learned?
John Logan: Yes, oh my God, yes. I learned that they are everywhere. I’m from California and I learned that I could get in my car right now and go to a gay conversion camp. It is believed that at some point, liberal humanism became the doctrine of the country, and I realized that for much of this country, that is not the case. So, first of all, the extent to which it was happening, and the extent to which it wasn’t always religious, really surprised me. I assumed there would be a religious patina on most so-called “homosexual conversions”. And this is not necessarily the case. Sometimes it is formulated in other words. When you meet survivors from these places, it’s hard not to be moved by what these individuals have to go through to fight to be who they are against all odds. The playwright in me is attracted to the underdog having to fight against a powerful force. The human being in me is touched by this, because it’s not always easy to be queer. We are not always loved. We don’t all live in California and Greenwich Village, and sometimes it’s a tougher world. Tackling that in artistic terms was something I felt I had to do.
Joshua Encinias: In your opinion, not all conversion therapy camps are religious in nature, they are almost universally portrayed that way in all forms of media. Are you talking about the Whistler camp approach and why they don’t use religious rhetoric?
John Logan: We wanted to create a sense of upheaval for the campers getting off that bus, because they don’t know what they’re getting into. They came in a beautiful setting, so together with our Director of Photography, Lyn Moncrief, we wanted the camp to be beautiful with beautiful buildings where the sun is always shining…because it’s a great scam. The idea that they are welcoming and that you don’t have to fear them makes children vulnerable. So we wanted to make the camp more and more sinister as the film progressed. We reveal important locations like the shed at night, and we start filming through the trees, which adds to creating a sense of dread for everything. This matches what Kevin Bacon’s character Owen does. He seems so approachable, and little by little this mask fades. You know, some of the kids I’ve talked to who have gone through conversion therapy talk about it. The first day is not so terrible. They think they’re just going to give them a little lesson. And then, over the weeks and months, it can get more extreme.
Joshua Encinias: You mentioned liberal humanism, and Owen Whistler attacks it in the film. From my point of view, it is attacked by the right by depriving people of their rights, and attacked by the left by controlling the discourse. What shape is liberal humanism in and can it recover from it?
John Logan: I think he is in a treacherous state. Yes, he can recover. But I think it’s in a treacherous state. I mean, the assumptions that I made about empathy and understanding between human beings, between Americans, have been seriously threatened in recent years and continue to be threatened and now codified legally, which is even more terrifying to me personally. But I believe that we are hardy and liberal and empathetic people at heart. So I can only hope that as we move forward, we move forward with civility and with some understanding that the differences between us make us more glorious and stronger than the opposite.
Joshua Encinias: How have you handled writing and directing trans and non-binary material in They they that some might say is not yours?
John Logan: I don’t really believe in ownership of myth and storytelling. I think artists should be free to imagine, to dream, to create with voices other than their own. And nationalities other than their own, and races and genders other than their own. That said, it was important to me to be very responsible to non-binary actors, to trans actors, and to be open to communicating with them. So even though I think as a universal statement, that I think any writer should be able to write anything, and any director should be able to direct anything, and any actor should be able to play n any role in this world of ours — and it’s something we’ve been doing in theater for 50 years, the colorblind cast and the colorblind cast — I think it should be done with respect, and you should be an adult about it. So when I started working with Theo Germain, who plays Jordan, I said, “Look, I’m not transgender. I am not non-binary. So help me. Help me write the most authentic version of this character to serve this story. All the actors have been very generous with their own experience and I think the film benefits from the authenticity of these actors.
Joshua Encinias: Do you think horror movies need to be “elevated” with a message for them to be valuable in 2022?
John Logan: No, no, of course not. I think that entertainment, in itself, is a great liberation and a necessary therapy. We need to tell ourselves stories, whether they are stories that provoke our minds, or make us laugh, or inspire our hearts, it is a necessary function of being human. They they for me, it’s a popular movie – it should be an entertaining movie for the general public. Do I believe there is a human purpose in this? Yes of course. But first and foremost, it’s meant to be entertainment.
Joshua Encinias: The scene where Zane and Sarah look at photos of the same-sex campers they find attractive so they can have sex together is a brief glimpse into the powerlessness of these camps to actually change people. Why do you think people accept it even though conversion therapy is a fraud?
John Logan: I think people want to be accepted by their families, by their schools, by their congregations. And not everyone lives in a world where you can be accepted as a queer person. So the idea of wanting to move on, or staying in the closet, or pretending to be something that you’re not, that’s a powerful pull for a lot of people around the world. One of the things that I hope this film will say very clearly, in bold letters, is that you are perfect just the way you are. Celebrate yourself for who you are. Not everyone will love you for it. Not everyone will accept you for this. But without that sense of empowerment, I don’t see that life is really worth limiting.