In a storm on California’s lost coast, Theo rescues shivering Connor, forging an unexpected bond as they share their past wounds.

“He Won’t Belong,” a short film helmed by director Dominic Mercurio, ventures into the heart of queer experience against the backdrop of California’s desolate lost coast. In this atmospheric drama, Theo encounters Connor, a shivering stranger, amid a raging storm. As the tempest rages outside, the two men find refuge within Theo’s home, embarking on a journey of mutual discovery and vulnerability.

Dominic Mercurio’s directorial vision extends beyond the traditional coming-out narrative, delving into the nuanced struggles and triumphs of LGBTQ+ individuals. “He Won’t Belong” offers a poignant exploration of anxiety, loneliness, and the search for intimacy, resonating with audiences regardless of sexual orientation. Through its authentic portrayal of identity and belonging, the film serves as a universal reflection on the human condition, inviting viewers to contemplate the profound longing to find one’s place in the world.

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“He Won’t Belong” delves into themes of anxiety, loneliness, and intimacy through a queer lens. What inspired you to explore these specific themes, and how do they resonate with your own experiences or observations within the LGBTQ+ community?

As with anything I write, I start by pulling quite directly from my own experiences and expand outward from there to create characters and situations that form a more cohesive and interesting narrative than the truth actually provides. The film’s concept started forming after a couple of very different kinds of relationships I had with other gay men: one being a romantic relationship that often felt like equal parts pleasure and pain, and the second was a beautiful friendship that drifted apart. In the friendship, I wanted him to find happiness in the very apparent depression he was in, without realizing that I too was not properly dealing with my quiet internal depression from the fallout of my past romantic relationship. I think we both had a lot to learn from each other in how wildly different we were dealing with our pain. I worked through a lot of that in writing this film.

As far as the anxiety, panic attacks, and nightmares that we see Connor have, that is very much something I’ve dealt with my entire life. It was deeply important to me to bring an accurate representation of what that feels like into this story and have the audience feel what Connor is feeling.

Lastly, as far as the queer element to the film, I was really driven by the idea of having two gay men at the center of a story where romance was not at all a factor between them, but instead a connection where both have a lot to learn from each other in order to heal and move forward. As a gay man, I also think there’s a particular guard that is let down when you know you’re in the company of your fellow queers. I wanted to weave that particular social dance that queer people have to perform in so many situations into the film. It felt exciting to me to find the ways these two decide (or are forced) to share more about themselves and let their guards down.

Can you discuss the significance of using the storm as a backdrop and how it contributes to the emotional atmosphere and character dynamics in the film?

In a similar way to wanting to play around with expectations of what you might assume would happen in a drama involving two gay men, I also wanted to play with the expectations of even what genre the film might be heading towards in an effort to keep the audience on edge. The set up of a stormy night where a man walks alone on the side of the road and is offered a place to stay at a stranger’s house is classic horror/thriller type stuff. It’s not entirely off-base to call the film horror-adjacent at times. However, the source of the dark energy in the film is not external, but internal for both of them. Also, more practically, the storm gives a good reason why Connor would hop in Theo’s car and why Theo would pick up a stranger. Hopefully, though, you understand those somewhat reckless decisions more deeply as the film goes on.

How does the film approach the internal struggles of ‘coming out’, and what nuances or layers of these experiences do Theo and Connor’s characters bring to the narrative?

I think there can be this idea that, as society becomes more accepting towards gay people, ‘coming out’ is the end of internal torment for a gay person. But speaking for myself, there were a whole slew of issues to work through after coming out that came from ignoring such a large part of myself for so long. As this all concerns the film, Theo and Connor are both openly gay and years past that ‘coming out’ stage. They both are comfortable with their sexuality, but working through deeply troubling issues in their lives concerning their partners. By having the characters in this stage of their lives, it allowed me to explore those issues I’ve felt personally and seen other queer people go through. And of course, these aren’t things that are exclusive to queer people, but I definitely was basing their struggles on my own and other queer people in my life.

The exploration of intimacy seems to be a core element of the film. How did you approach portraying emotional intimacy between the characters, and what significance does this emotional connection hold in the context of their individual struggles?

To have true intimacy, you have to be able to express your emotions with one another. Men, in particular, often don’t understand how to properly do that. And I’m including myself here as well. Growing up in America, we’re told from countless sources that crying or being vulnerable should be embarrassing and are signs of weakness. For both Connor and Theo, we see the effects this is having on them. They both feel a need to sort their struggles out on their own. For Connor, he’s going to extreme measures to physically leave the entire situation on this self-imposed quest to figure it all out. For Theo, he’s not going anywhere and that’s part of the problem.

Often what pulls you out from spiraling internally is gaining some perspective – perspective I think they both are providing each other through the course of the film.

The setting of a desolate strip on California’s lost coast provides a unique backdrop for the story. How did the location influence the storytelling and contribute to the film’s atmosphere?

We shot the film in Sea Ranch, CA, which is a small coastal community a couple hours north of where I live in San Francisco. The film was written with not only Sea Ranch in mind, but this exact house. My bandmate’s family owns the home and so I have been up there quite a bit for band retreats and weekend getaways. The house always called to me as a setting that I really needed to find the right story for. So from the ground up, this story’s tone was deliberately created from reflecting on what kind of atmosphere and emotions the house gave me. Who might live here and why? How would they spend their days? How would someone from the city react to this place?

Can you discuss the importance of showcasing different facets of LGBTQ+ experiences in media and the impact you hope this film will have in broader discussions?

Media representation is SO important. I mean, just think: when you were a kid, how did you learn about other communities that weren’t your own? Of course, there are other huge factors, like school and parental guidance, but we are all little consumers of media from very young ages. It shapes us, more than we probably want to admit. And I can tell you from personal experience that I didn’t see myself in the gay characters I saw in media when I was a kid, to the point that I didn’t understand where I fit in at all. I want to provide the characters I wish I saw when I was younger in my films.

Ultimately, what do you hope audiences take away from “He Won’t Belong,” particularly in terms of understanding the complexities of LGBTQ+ experiences and the universal themes of belonging and personal struggles?

I’ve delved pretty deeply into the queer element of the film in the previous answers, but at the end of the day, I wanted to tell a compelling story with intriguing characters. I hope that by having that be the goal, you create something that will resonate with others as authentic and true regardless of who they are. I always try to leave the intentions of my work a bit hazy as to allow the audience to fill in their own answers that feel like the truth to them based on their own life experiences. But if the film makes you consider the themes it’s presenting in any small or large way, then it’s done its job.

Can you tell us what are your favorite short films?

Honestly, I don’t watch a ton of shorts so I don’t feel like I have a definite list of all time favorites that I’d wanna share but I would like to give a huge shoutout to the previous short that our lead Cole Doman starred in called “Starfuckers”. It just got a digital release and I thought that one was truly excellent and a work that really demands your attention from frame one.