Luckily, Cunningham (author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning "The Hours" as well) accepted the director's invitation three years ago to adapt his novel. The friends bounced ideas around and, in the end, some characters were lopped off, some condensed, one character's fatal illness was absorbed by another. But there's one substantial redesign in the movie version that readers of the novel will notice from the first few scenes: This is Bobby's story, the straight boy's story. It'd be interesting to gauge the reaction of the novel's most devoted legion of gay readers, many of whom have held Jonathan's perspective as a touchstone to their own lives. Some may even entertain the idea of foul play: In one of the few great pieces of literature that the gay community can also call its own, the straight guy (or the bi guy) beats out the gay guy for the lead role.
"Look, I'm Jonathan when I read the book," Mayer says. "But a movie of a heterosexual guy in love with his gay best friend, that's a story we have not seen before. It's something we don't know. We've seen plenty of stories of gay boys in love with their straight friends. This is the way Michael wanted to tell the story cinematically."
Although the novel has four narrators -- the fourth is Jonathan's mother, Alice, played in the movie by Sissy Spacek -- Mayer makes a case that the story is really about relationship triangles. After Mayer does the geometry, connecting the points in the air with his index finger, he proves that Bobby is the vertex. And for a character who has buried his family by age 14, "the search for calm at a home at the end of the world articulates Bobby's longing more powerfully than any other character."
Could Farrell do it?
With the center of Bobby locked down from the very beginning, the more pressing question was whether Farrell could embody the "passive, gentle soul" of the character. All of Farrell's past roles told Mayer, well -- no.
"I frankly didn't know who he was at the time," admits Mayer, mentioning that an agent at Creative Artists Agency was able to get the script into Farrell's hands without an offer to go with it, a rare feat in Hollywood considering Farrell's A-listing. "He was shooting 'Daredevil' at the time, so he had a shaved head and tattoos all over, chain smoking and drinking beer at 11 in the morning. I saw him in 'Tigerland,' which was amazing, but I said: 'That's not Bobby!' And this creature in front of me certainly isn't Bobby."
Word was going around that if Farrell didn't need to read for Steven Spielberg, he certainly didn't have to read for a theater director making his feature film debut with a mere $6-million budget. "I said, 'Look, I think he's terrific, but he really, really needs to read for me,' " says Mayer. "The role seems to go against everything that he is." Farrell immediately agreed, and after a couple of hours in the lobby of West Hollywood's Chateau Marmont, Mayer finally made his peace with Farrell. "There's a lot of things about him that the public doesn't know and hasn't seen yet," says Mayer. "There's a gentle, beautifully poetic spirit in him." There's something else about Farrell that a small percentage of the public has seen, in an early cut of the movie, in which Farrell has a full-frontal scene that generated a lot of buzz.
"That topic is so boring," Mayer says. "Let's put it this way: No scene was taken out. We used a different take."
Mayer prefers taking the subway to 42nd Street, where he's working on Arthur Miller's "After the Fall." "We just had our first preview last night, which was harrowing," Mayer says. "But Arthur was very happy, and that's all that matters to me."
Once at the theater, where everyone is expecting him, he apologizes for being late, and the first order of business is to place last night's big "swoosh" sound; Mayer says the effect has to be moved to a better moment in the play. As the production crew listens to his notes, against the backdrop of the stage, Mayer's theater life looks intricately creative, large, constantly imminent and under control. This is his home at the center of the world.
Though Mayer says Cunningham is planning to write an original screenplay for him, filmmaking remains largely outside of Mayer's front door. He says that he knew enough about film to surround himself with an unjaded filmmaking crew who inspired him each moment of the 34-day shoot and to film certain scenes in one take to prevent censoring edits. (That's the only reason, he says, an intimate bedroom scene between Jonathan and Bobby as teenagers made the final cut. He also fought to put back a Farrell-Roberts kissing scene.)
Beyond that, "I didn't know what I was doing on the movie, and that's the truth," Mayer says. "I winged it.... I don't think I could make this movie again, and that makes me happy and sad. The miracle of this movie was I didn't know that I couldn't do it, so I just did it."
But by directing Cunningham's celebrated story for neighborhood multiplexes, Mayer sees himself contributing to the rebellion that still lives for him, if not for the queer-eyed programs of network television. He often thinks fondly on his first film experience, though it's hard to tell if he's thinking about what he directed or what he lived.
"It was very moving for me working on the set," Mayer says, "to reinvent that moment in our time when a mom could take a hit off a joint with her son and her son's friend, and then the three of them can dance together listening to Laura Nyro. That doesn't seem like the world we're living in now, and that makes me sad."
It didn't rain the next day, and so the parade worked its way down to Christopher Street. Nobody was dancing to Laura Nyro; Beyonce ruled the day. But a Roberta Flack record was heard from someone's fire-escape party, and some would argue that's a good start.