When I meet Chance Calloway at Urban Skillet for our lunch, he greets me with a line I’ve heard all too often, ‘my life is like a sitcom.’ It’s the one time all day he’ll use a cliche, and I immediately forgive him the refrain because Calloway uses it by way of telling me that a dog sitting job he’s doing today surprised him with ten extra dogs to manage.
Calloway is thoughtful about not just his work but also how he presents himself. He prefers to avoid being a multi-hyphenated every man who can wear a half dozen hats-Director, Producer, Writer- instead he has one simple goal: to tell stories and to tell them however and wherever they’re best suited. Calloway is patient and solid on his personal statement: Calloway is a ‘storyteller.’
I reviewed his novella, Lost, last week, and the following Friday had the pleasure to sit down for lunch with him to talk more broadly on his work in film, his personal history, and message. To say someone is easy to laughter and smiles is also a cliche, but like the prior cliche with Calloway it’s wonderfully true. It may not have always been that way by the story he’s told me, but sitting down with him for an hour to break bread felt less like going up out of central Los Angeles, and more like coming down to Earth:
OI: You sent me an episode of Pretty Dudes when I asked if there was anything I could familiarize myself with before this interview, so why the one you chose?
C: That’s the latest one. It shows more of an evolution of the writing and where we’re going with the show which I think was a good spot. We have more of an interesting slant of how we’re telling the stories now in the upcoming season. We did that short and were solicited for an upcoming film festival so we put that together last minute and shot it in one weekend.
OI: It’s a really cool series and shows such a versatility of style that shifts in service to what the story mandates.
C: I think that’s the freedom of having a digital series and also just being an independent creator is: know what the rules are and why they exist and when you decide to break them, you’re breaking them for a specific reason. I think I have the freedom to tell the story kind of however we want so long as I understand why we’re making the choices that we’re making.
OI: The opening credits felt like nodding at classic 70s sitcom openings, music and all.
C: Yes, the opening is intentionally throwback.
OI: It also felt like Bravo Double Delta (first off, highly relatable) is a play on classic dude sitcom humor?
C: I have the benefit being a guy who has been surrounded by nothing but straight guys, I’ve always been able to watch the way people live their normal lives with an outsider’s angle. Like, ‘wow, do you guys not hear yourselves right now?’ It’s hilarious to me. I just try to really bring that to Pretty Dudes, because I have these gay characters with a lot of straight friends, and the absurdity is usually in the reality. And these were the kinds of conversations that when I was in the military for 4 years, I lived in Alaska for 3 ½ years, I was just surrounded by straight people living their straight lives sounding hilarious doing it.
OI: You mentioned the military-
C: One of the many lives I’ve lived. Oh my goodness.
OI: Tell me about it, clearly your history is a part of who you are not just a series of things that happened you’ve left behind.
C: Yes, if it was a chapter in my story then every chapter afterwards connects back to the ones that precede them. I went into the military when I was early 20s, or 19, and I was in the Air Force for 4 years. It was during Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, so it was a very tense time because I actually went in when I was still in the closet and was convinced that I was straight and just had these ‘weird feelings.’
Then I ended up coming out while I was in the military and it was an open secret. That was very difficult to deal with and navigate. It got worse when I fell in love with a guy that was not only also in the military, but he was also in my squadron, and then he was also having his own sexuality issues, so it was a unique experience.
OI: Do you think coming out in such an intense environment as the military gives you alacrity with how you approach characters in your filmmaking?
C: It’s one of those things that I don’t think I’ve unpacked it all the way yet. I’ve only started unpacking that recently, because for a while that whole period of my life hurt so much that i just buried it.
Then I find that there are certain characters in season 1 are Air Force members, and one of those characters is the most like me of all the characters in the show. It took me a while to realize that. I think we were in the middle of filming and someone asked me who the inspiration was for the character of Eagle, and I realized Eagle was me. All of a sudden I knew that I just transposed myself into the show’s previous character.
OI: Was that a way of archiving that time in your life through your art?
C: Yes, absolutely. At the time I couldn’t talk about it. Most of my friends in the military I think still don’t understand how much pain I was in at the time. My friends who weren’t in the military don’t understand the kind of pressure that can be on you in those kinds of environments. You’re dealing with a heightened sense of responsibility and schedule, and the core of who you are is not the core you thought you had so everything is shifting inside of you but everything outside is so rigid and regulated and finite.
OI: I get an overwhelming sense of peace in Pretty Dudes that contrasts to the turbulence you’re describing from that period. I think that’s something a lot of people don’t have the grace to do: to peacefully expect that level of engagement.
C: I have two different views on that: my idea with everything I create is to create something I wish I had seen growing up. So, of course there’s a little bit of that wish fulfillment, that I want that reality for people, where it’s okay to be yourself. As much as I say that’s wish fulfillment, the second part of that is I have really accepting friends, and I was the least accepting of my sexuality.
When I finally came out, so many of my friends from high school were just like, ‘look whenever you were ready we would have been there for you. We’re glad that you’re okay with who you are now, but we were hoping we could have been there for you when it happened.’ I just really felt kind of silly that I held onto that for so long. Outside of my family, all of my friends were very supportive. I had missed out on so much.
I grew up in a small town in Georgia, and the thought that I could’ve been in this small town in Georgia, as this poor black kid, who was also gay and have all these friends who love me and accept me, like what? That was ahead of the time! I missed out on a great opportunity, because I was so wrapped up in who I thought I was, what I thought was right and wrong. So when I write the show, I also want to show that it is possible. Some of the criticisms I get about the show are people say that it’s too intersectional, that no group of friends are really like this, and I’m like: ‘this was my group of friends from high school! This is real!
OI: That’s a compliment disguised as criticism in my opinion: ‘too intersectional,’
C: Yeah, it’s ridiculous, and I would say that the older we get the more your circle expands with people you haven’t interacted with before in life. It wasn’t until I moved to LA that my first friend came out as transgender, and I was like, ‘this is cool, I haven’t had a friend who’s gone through this and we can learn from each other and support each other.’ That just comes with age, because I think in five or ten years there’s going to be something else that I’m introduced to for the first time. I think the example has been set by how my friends treated me, and now I know how to be there for my friends when they have something they want to reveal, a truth about themselves.
OI: There’s a sense of there being a character that we all create as a community as well as the character we create within ourselves. Example from the show: you’re never just dating an individual, you’re dating their friends too in a way, and they’re defined by that. We’ve all had that experience dating someone and being thrown off by who they call friends-
C: Yeah, you say ‘these are your ride or dies?’ These? Yeah, that can be good or bad sometimes. I really like being able to explore that with that show in particular. These are a crazy group of characters, but it’s still that idea that they’re connected to each other and no matter how different they are they connect to each other, they care about each other, they love each other. I’m trying to inspire more empathy with the work that I create.
OI: Digging into your other work, tell me about Shenanigans first. It sounds like the base of the recipe- New Year’s Eve party, friends confronting friends- is some Can’t Hardly Wait.
C: Yes! It’s still in pre-production, I’ve pitched it to a couple different companies and we’ll see what becomes of that. Several drafts have already been finished, and it’s about a group of friends- which is my favorite topic- at the party of the year. It came from a true place of there was one year in July that I found out I had made out with this really hot YouTube celebrity the previous New Year’s, and I’m the only person that didn’t remember it.
I just felt like, ‘how is this piece of my life gone?” I ended up thinking about all the fun stuff that happens at parties, one night adventures: you and your friends driving around the city, that kind of thing. I thought it would be an interesting thing to dig into. I originally envisioned it as a miniseries where you’d follow one person through the party every night, then turned it into a feature after several reads and work at perfecting it. I love this idea that as you’re going into a new year there are the typical ways you’re supposed to look at what the next year could bring, but I took the angle of the disappointment of ‘man, another year and I still haven’t done x, y, or z,’ ranging from the dramatic to the comedic. I just really want to tell some stories that I haven’t been able to tell with my other stuff. It’s a lot more mature humor than I typically do, but I also think the genre is more mature than what I typically do.
OI: Tell me about Shitty Day then?
C: Shitty Day was the first project I did here in LA. I was part of an artist’s collective started by Dante Basco and AJ Rafael. Our first Christmas together they put everybody in these groups and told us: ‘hey, make a project.’ The group I was with, a bunch of us were singers, so we said let’s do a music video. That was with Teesa who’s in this band called KOLAJ, Olivia Thai who was on American Idol, Jessica Louis Garcia and this amazing producer named Jeff Liu who’s not a singer at all. We wrote a song, we recorded a song, and then we shot a music video. It’s about those days when everything is going terrible and in the music video the plot is throwing a big ice cream party to feel better about things which is funny because I don’t like ice cream. I don’t like half the stuff that I had to eat in that music video, and I directed it.
OI: Not a sweet tooth man?
C: I like specific things. Like chocolate, or certain types of pies, but I don’t like ice cream. Teesa shoved a Twinkie in my mouth, I hate Twinkies.
OI: I don’t blame you.
C: I felt sick for days after that shoot, but that was my first directing gig. That just happened because we wanted to do this project and we didn’t have a director, so I did it. Now look at me.
OI: I want to double back on the language you used there: you said ‘us singers?’
C: I did, yeah. Yeah I used to sing all the time. Originally, that’s what I wanted to do. I auditioned for American Idol a couple times, got good reviews, obviously never made it anywhere important. When I was in the military they had this wonderful thing called Tops in Blue, which is like a touring USO show, but you have to audition to get on it and I was one of the forty people selected so in 2009 I got to tour the world singing and dancing. When I got out of the military I was in a boy band for a little while- those recordings have hopefully been destroyed. No one will ever hear them. That used to be my driving passion, was singing. I still think it’s my gift, but I don’t think it’s my career.
OI: You toured the world as a USO singer? That’s Bob Hope status.
C: Yeah it was one of the coolest things that I got to do. That was also the peak of all the coming out drama so it’s very much mixed in with a lot of my anxiety issues and depression. But I still look back at it with joy. I have very few friends from that time, just because of all the drama that happens when you put forty people on tour around the world. The friends I do have from that time are like my ride or dies, for sure.
OI: That is how it tends to shakes out I notice.
C: It was such a unique experience we all knew we could be bonded for life, but they are who they always were so some of those friendships just sizzled. Some of those people were never my friends, it’s just really weird to be in that mental space of ‘Oh my God I’m really gay!’ and tonight I’m dancing in London, and tomorrow I’ll be in Japan. It’s so surreal.
OI: I imagine that accelerates the emotional processing because of that physical and mental stress of touring.
C: Yeah, we were our own everything. We drove the buses, we put up the sets, tore down the sets, we sang and we danced with the band. We did not have a lot of rest time. Everything was heightened, so all arguments were the biggest arguments ever, although afterwards there was the most joyous laughter ever. It was all these extremes of emotion, for twelve months.
OI: Here you are after all that turbulence sitting across from a guy who tells you that in your work he senses peace.
C: I think it’s something I’m still aspiring to, that I’m really hoping I can achieve. I want my characters to be happy. I want them to have peace.
OI: They’re not without struggles, but there’s never a sense of anyone being a dick for the sake of being a dick.
C: Oh yeah.
OI: Your characters have very clear motivations, like when they’re grilling their friend’s new date.
C: I really have the benefit of it being a series with a continual narrative so even if you check in on one episode you might see something stand out, but I guarantee I’m going to revisit that. There’s definitely intention with how I build these characters and the way they interact. I’ll bring things up to the actors that they don’t even notice.
In our first season, they’re all terrible to each others’ girlfriends and boyfriends, and it’s because I’m trying to show that they’re so protective of each other that they never think that the people that their friends dating are ever good enough for them. In second season I’m going to go into why.
I have those friends that every time they date someone it’s like ‘oh I love this person, I didn’t think you’d be able to replace the last person but this person’s wonderful!’ And then I have other friends who every time they bring someone new over you’re just like ‘okay, I’ll put up with this as long as it lasts.
OI: We all have that friend you brace yourself for until that day you’re surprised they actually meet a good one.
C: You really hope that day comes before the wedding day. I’ve had friends who were like, ‘yo, I’m getting married!’ I’m like, ‘Are we talking about the last person I saw you with? That’s the one we’re talking about? All right, okay.’
Looking forward to more Pretty Dudes, it was nominated for a film festival?
C: Yes, the 7th Annual LGBTQ Shorts Film Festival, starting on June 11.
OI: And more Pretty Dudes will be coming soon?
C: We do these standalone shorts like the one I sent you when we have stories that don’t fit in anything else. I had originally written Bravo Double Delta to be the cold open of an episode, and that episode ended being filled with so much more important stuff that we decided, okay we can’t use this. So we sat on it until we had somewhere to put it. The seasons have very purposeful narratives. We’re kicking off the second season later on this summer, and the entire thing’s already written. We’re filming now.
OI: Last thing: what’s the first question I should ask my next interviewee?
C: If they could boil the essence of what they’re trying to put out into the universe into one word, what would that word be?
You can follow Chance on Twitter, @ChanceCalloway, Instagram @ChanceSCalloway, and for updates on his series, Pretty Dudes, you can find them on Youtube, as well as on Instagram and Twitter @PrettyDudesWeb