A queer man and his two childhood best friends reunite for a weekend camping trip on Catalina Island.

With CATALINA we welcome back director Tyler Rabinowitz, who blessed us SEE YOU SOON in 2020, a film that caught our hearts and reached our Top 10 in 2020. CATALINA embarks on a journey through the fuzzy and intimate boundary between gay and straight male friends in today’s day and age. This dynamic has not been depicted with depth or nuance in the way every other imaginable pairing has. On display in this story is a special friendship between Gus (Sam Digiovanni) and Will (Ronald Peet) that falls in the grey area between platonic and romantic – it is more soft, more tactile than we are used to seeing between two male friends. As this dynamic becomes more visible and commonplace in the modern world, queer people know how sacred, how rare these relationships have been historically.

We spoke with Tyler and writer Sam DiGiovanni who gave us a larger insight on the heartfelt film.

Can you tell me a little bit about ‘Catalina’, how did this film come about?

I’d love for Sam DiGiovanni, our lead actor/screenwriter, to take this question. He originally came up with the idea for this film. He spent quite a while developing the script – it’s deeply personal for him. I became involved because he reached out to me with a cold email. We didn’t know each other at the time, but he shared his script and this gorgeous pitch deck, and I immediately knew I wanted to do whatever I could to bring this story to life. Sammy’s answer below:

“This story was inspired by summer trips my friends and I would take out to Catalina Island as kids. I remember them now as some of the more formative experiences of my childhood.

The inspiration for Gus and Will, specifically, came from the fuzzy, intimate and sometimes tension-filled friendships I had with my straight, male friends on those trips to Catalina Island and throughout my life. While so many queer films speak to the experience of unrequited love, and being closeted, I’d never seen a film that depicted the intricacies of a friendship between a gay man and a straight man, without the outcome being that the gay one was hopelessly in love or that the straight one was secretly gay. When Tyler and I began collaborating on this project, we connected on our shared experiences with this dynamic. And many people, gay or straight, who have seen this film have come to us with their own stories about the very same thing, which has been a point of pride for our team.

I’ve joked before that, if you’re a male-identifying person, you have probably struggled with male intimacy in one way or another. Not necessarily sexual intimacy but platonic, emotional, or physical intimacy, too. And so with CATALINA, I not only wanted to explore the friendship dynamic between a gay man and a straight man but also what happens when friends decide to push through those boundaries and explore beyond the traditional boundaries of “friendship.”

We have very few words to describe the relationships that exist on the spectrum between platonic and romantic. Though there are plenty of relationships in our lives that live somewhere in between. But it is the tension that we create when we try to force them into one category or the other that inspired me to write Gus and Will. There is such a deep, fraternal love there. But in the more fraught moments in our lives — when we watch our friends grow and change, when we realize that we’re not where we want to be — those moments can cause us to lean on each other in unexpected ways.”

How did you find your cast for ‘Catalina’?

Sammy wrote the script with the intention of portraying the lead role of Gus, so that was always the plan.

I brought on casting director Freya Krasnow, who I’ve worked with before on my short film SEE YOU SOON. She was nominated for an Artios Award for her work on that film, which starred James Cusati-Moyer and Johnny Beauchamp. Freya also cast two other queer-themed short films that I was a producer on: LAVENDER (Sundance 2019, acquired by Searchlight Pictures) and THE MESS HE MADE (SXSW 2017).

As always, working with Freya was a dream. Her process is so intentional and collaborative and the right actors always end up on set. We cast Ronald Peet as Will, Ben Holtzmuller as Brian, and Emily Wilson in a featured role as Sophie.

I was already a huge fan of Ronald, who was extraordinary in his leading role in DADDY by Jeremy O. Harris, opposite Alan Cumming. I’ve known Emily forever – I was actually her RA at NYU’s Summer High School Program years ago. It’s been a joy for me to see her soar by way of her acclaimed one-woman show FIXED (a favorite at the 2022 Fringe), and I just feel so lucky that she joined us here. As for Ben, we received an incredible self-tape from him. It was clear to me that he knew exactly who Brian was, and this proved true on set. He actually has a bunch of improvised moments that made it into the final cut.

We rarely see a soft bond between male friends in film, was this a pillar for your film?

Yes. Bringing Sammy back in here! We’ll answer this together:

With CATALINA, we wanted to illustrate the modern, complex relationship between gay and straight male friends. This dynamic that has not been depicted with depth or nuance in the way every other imaginable pairing has. Our goal was to tell a story about the sort of friendship that falls in the gray area between platonic and romantic – a friendship that is more soft, more tactile than we are used to seeing between two male friends. Every choice that was made in front of the camera, behind it, and in the edit bay, was in the service of this idea. As this dynamic becomes more visible and commonplace in the modern world, it is rich territory to be explored in all of its beauty and complication.

What was the most challenging scene for you to film?

The most physically challenging part of the whole film was getting those paddle boarding shots. I’ve been making shorts for nearly a decade, and these were the most difficult shots I’ve ever directed. Our 1st AD, Owen Lazur, coordinated everything from a kayak. We were only filming waist deep in the ocean, cheating our framing to make it feel much deeper on-screen. However, while our camera team could still be firmly planted with their feet on the seafloor, the rocks beneath us were more slippery than a Slip ‘N Slide. And while the waves weren’t big, they were deceptively vicious. It was pure chaos in the moment, but in hindsight I think we were able to reframe and romanticize it. This production was sentimental for many of us, because we knew this would be our last short film before moving on to feature films and TV. This paddle boarding debacle was one of the last moments where we’d be truly roughing it as scrappy indie filmmakers making a short. We knew that in the moment. It felt like facing a Final Boss. The boss was Catalina Island.

Emotionally, the most challenging was the final scene. It required Sammy to go to an intense headspace. His character thinks he may have jeopardized one of his best friendships. It also required Ronald’s character to express that everything was okay, in a way that was somehow both understated and powerful. That hug at the end means the world. The challenge really existed in the lead-up to filming – I knew that the payoff in this scene could make or break the whole film, and I was terrified of messing it up. But once we started rolling, it felt like magic. Every take felt right. That rarely happens, if ever. I think the reason it happened in this case is because the moment between these characters rang so profoundly and objectively true to each of us as queer people who have all experienced some version of this dynamic. All we had to do was let the truth speak.

Has this film taught you anything about filmmaking?

CATALINA was a true test of tenacity. The first time I looked at the script through the lens of practically making it felt like looking at a map of the 38.5 mile Trans-Catalina Trail and wondering how the hell I was actually going to hike it.

From a producing standpoint, we had to overcome countless hurdles to bring CATALINA to life. To begin with, our setting was not only Catalina Island, but also the most remote part of it possible. I realized that the only way we could make this work was to rent a family-sized private campsite on the beach – something that could feel like an escape from society on camera, while off camera we’d still be in close enough proximity to a general store, first aid, the ferry dock, and restrooms. Miraculously, on our first location scout, I stumbled upon this lovely campsite called Bahia Azul, located on the Two Harbors side of the island. It checked all the boxes, and so suddenly the dream of actually making this movie became very real. We ferried to the island on a lovely August morning, and Bahia Azul became our home for the next four days. We both camped and filmed there. Initially our biggest logistical obstacle, our location became our greatest asset. Sure, camping while filming meant that every night our craft services table was visited by a family of hungry foxes, but when filming, we had essentially complete control of our environment. In a way, it felt like shooting on a lot. Still, while there was something idyllic about living and working in this sun-drenched paradise, our obstacles continued to snowball. We had to figure out how to film boat-to-boat on a virtually nonexistent, short film budget. Our crew had to lug their equipment up and over coastal cliffs to and from set. The days were exhausting, but the nights were spent bonding with the cast and crew over s’mores, good conversation, and the most delicious (vegan) lasagna I’ve ever had in my life that Sam’s mom made for us.

All to say, CATALINA taught me that making a film is a lot like hiking. If you want to do it, you really just have to take that first step and trust that you have what it takes to navigate anything that comes your way: a fork in the road, a boulder, a cliff, it doesn’t matter. Just look where you’re going, remember to breathe, stay hydrated, and remember that each step you take is taking you closer to the end.

What did you want to establish differently from ‘See You Soon’ in this film?

I approached CATALINA as a spiritual sequel to SEE YOU SOON. Rather than establishing something different, I wanted to expand upon what we did. The messages I continue to receive about SEE YOU SOON from people all over the world have really moved me, and I can objectively say we struck a chord with many who have come across it. With this one, I wanted to strike another chord – one that, when paired with SEE YOU SOON, could create a harmony. Both shorts were shot by my dear friend Oren Soffer and produced by Rubbertape – and from the start this idea of expansion was a part of our conversations. The parallels to SEE YOU SOON informed everything from our gear to our shot list, as we sought to bring a similarly tender tone and lyrical naturalism to CATALINA.

Oren Soffer has built a burgeoning career as a cinematographer as well as an impressive social media following thanks to his breathtakingly cinematic visual language. He recently wrapped production on Gareth Edwards’s next feature, TRUE LOVE, which he co-DP’d with Academy Award winning cinematographer Greig Fraser (DUNE). One might presume that Oren achieves what he does by using every bell and whistle possible. Admittedly, even I am surprised by how modest our footprint was when crafting the images of CATALINA – which still evokes a sense of gravitas, despite being made on an exponentially smaller scale, compared to something like a big budget studio film for the director of ROGUE ONE.

For CATALINA, Oren and I took a hyper-minimalistic approach for both holistic and logistical purposes of shooting on a remote beach on the island. We went in with a very small crew and for 95% of the film, we relied entirely on available natural light. We used a bounce board and negative fill for daylight scenes, and at night we leaned on practicals like the campfire, only accenting it with a couple of LED tubes when absolutely needed. We always shot either with a tripod or handheld – we didn’t bring a dolly or crane with us or anything like that. We also shot nearly the entire film on a single 35mm lens, other than the wide of the trio walking toward camera at the 2 minute mark, which purposely mirrors the shot of our couple walking toward camera at the 2 minute mark in SEE YOU SOON. While our approach saved our producers a lot of stress and money, these were first and foremost creative choices. We wanted the production process and the film to be devoid of any artifice. You can forego the massive haul of fancy gear without cutting corners on the craft. There are other ways to do it – and with a little out of the box thinking and planning, you can make it happen. With just our camera and a kind gentleman who volunteered to drive us on his boat, we were able to get that majestic establishing shot around 1 min. 40 secs. of our main characters on their fishing boat, small in the frame, passing the JURASSIC PARK-like topography of Catalina Island en route to their campsite on Two Harbors. We didn’t need any other gear. Sure, it wasn’t a sweeping drone shot, but we told our story and evoked our desired tone. And we lucked out with a fleet of jet skis that passed by in the background, perfectly timed as if we cued them, which made that shot look like it cost tens of thousands of dollars. That was purely indie film serendipity.

When designing our coverage, we juxtaposed locked off, painterly frames with frenetic, dreamy handheld shots, immersing us in the emotions of our characters’ weekend together. For instance, for the paddle boarding scene, we placed the camera in the water, protected by a splash bag, with the azure blue waves of the Pacific lapping against the lens as our characters swim freely and reconnect. From scene to scene, we also used a simple color scheme through which we could tell our story. Warmer, saturated tones represented the feeling of paradise, and were used to tell the story of the three friends’ magical weekend getaway and the more figurative paradise of quality time with your best friends. Cooler tones represented everything lying beneath the surface of their vacation – in particular Gus and Will’s bewildering yet beautiful feelings surrounding a bond that exists in the space between platonic and romantic. When Gus and Will experience that tense moment in the tent near the end of the film, they’re bathed in blue light, motivated by the moon, but also falling into the symbolic color story we laid out for the film. While Oren and I’s previous collaboration on SEE YOU SOON utilized more artificial light, we continued to tell a similar color story here using almost entirely available natural light.

Is there something you hope people will take away from ‘Catalina’?

I’m answering this one with Sammy again!

A central theme we aim to explore with CATALINA is physical touch, keying in on the desires we communicate (consciously or subconsciously) through a hug, or an arm around a shoulder. And more, we look at how physically communicating our desires can create room for misinterpretation. Throughout the film, Will (Ronald Peet) surprises Gus (Sam DiGiovanni) with the ways he gives affection. As Will attempts to communicate his desire to stay close to Gus, Gus misreads how Will interacts with him as something romantic or sexual. Without a roadmap to define this dynamic of straight-gay male friendship, these characters are left to their own devices. And while the desire for platonic intimacy is universal, the social mores we all grew up under are strict and unforgiving. This creates the tension and anxiety that pushes Gus to define what is happening between them as something either completely platonic or romantic. When in reality, many relationships fall somewhere in between.

CATALINA is also a portrait of identity. As our protagonist, Gus has found a more-or-less successful life as a queer person. We gather that he’s moved to New York, developed a strong sense of self, and cultivated a close group of friends who validate him as he is. Many queer narratives place the queer person as the one who primarily struggles to find their place. With this film, we set out to portray a queer character who has ultimately found his place. When he returns home, he is met with a dynamic that puts his straight male friend as the one who is floundering in his identity and purpose, and in need of support. Gus becomes a buoy for Will to hold onto – emotionally, and, as seen in the final image of the film, also physically.

Inspired by our shared personal experiences, CATALINA dives beneath the surface of labels and rigid definitions of sexuality and gender, and dares to depict the deep desire we all have to be intimate and to be understood, especially by those closest to us. The experience we’re illustrating here is specific, but largely universal. We hope people feel seen by this story.

What are your favorite short films?

There are too many to list! Okay, how about this? When someone tells me they’re interested in making short films, but haven’t made one before, I point them to these:

WARSHA by Dania Bdeir
FAUVE by Jeremy Comte (Best Short of 2019 on FS)
-SHIP: A VISUAL POEM by Terrance Daye
HER FRIEND ADAM by Ben Petrie and Grace Glowicki
CAROLINE by Celine Held and Logan George
STARFUCKERS by Antonio Marziale

Which films you can say directly inspired this film?

Our inspirations included Gus Van Sant’s MY OWN PRIVATE IDAHO, Eliza Hittman’s BEACH RATS, and Kelly Reichardt’s OLD JOY. To be honest, though, I often find my inspiration in music. I’ll hear a song and I’ll aspire to make a film that feels how the music sounds.

A huge inspiration for me was Leland, a Golden Globe nominated songwriter and true visionary who has written so many of the songs that make up the soundtrack to queer people’s lives today. His credits include pop hits like “What I Want” by MUNA, “Bloom” by Troye Sivan, and “UK Hun?” from RuPaul’s Drag Race UK (he’s the de facto in-house songwriter for the franchise). Many of our Spotify Wrappeds basically read like a “Written by Leland” playlist. For me personally, his songs are tied to some of my fondest memories shared with friends. They’re playing on the radio while roadtripping to Palm Springs, booming through a Bluetooth speaker someone brought to a beach day at Ginger Rogers, woven into the DJ’s set at Otter Pop. When directing CATALINA, my main goal was to make this camping trip feel like one of those fond memories – a core memory, even. I wanted my audience to feel as though they were right there on the camping trip. We had only 15 minutes to achieve this, and a key reason why we succeeded is that Leland graciously boarded the project as an executive producer while also composing the score and writing / performing an original song for the film “Love is In the Mind.” He made the film feel like his music sounds. I’m forever grateful. One of the greatest joys of growing into myself as a filmmaker is that my inspirations are becoming peers, collaborators, and friends. I can’t wait for whatever it is that we make next.