‘You Can’t Stay Here’ Director Todd Verow and Star Guillermo Diaz On Their New Cruising Thriller

You Can't Stay Here

Todd Verow has been making transgressive queer cinema since 1990, with films such as Frisk and This Side Of Heaven. Now, he’s tackling the world of cruising in his latest feature You Can’t Stay Here, starring Guillermo Diaz. This DIY psychological thriller is unapologetically queer, weird, and incredibly necessary.

Read the synopsis below:

Inspired by real events in 1990s New York City, You Can’t Stay Here follows aspiring art photographer Rick (Guillermo Díaz, Scandal) as he spends his days and nights cruising in Central Park. After he witnesses the murder of a gay man, he’s drawn into a dangerous and sexy game of cat and mouse with the magnetic killer that leads him to question his own sanity.

Dread Central spoke with Verow and Diaz about filming in actual cruising spots, murderous poppers, and the power of queer cinema.

Dread Central: Todd, I want to start with you. You have been making queer genre-adjacent movies, DIY punk stuff for a long time. And so why this story?

Todd Verow: I’ve always been fascinated by cruising. During the pandemic, I heard that The Ramble was really busy again because it had not been that busy for a while. People were on their apps, and they were cruising that way. So I went there and I checked it out and I saw a lot of people there cruising, wearing masks and everything. So I thought that was really fascinating. It was really interesting because I think we need to have a physical connection with other people. So that got me thinking about cruising. I wanted to make a movie about it, and Guillermo contacted me and said he wanted to do something. I was like, “Yes, I’m a big fan of yours, so let’s do a movie about cruising.” And he was into it. So that’s how it all came about.

DC: Wait, that’s incredible. So, Guillermo, you contacted Todd about a movie. I wondered how you got involved in this project. So it sounds like you’ve been involved since the beginning.

Guillermo Diaz: Yeah, I was at a time when I wanted to do something different. I was working on something that was sort of Hollywood-y and creatively, I felt like I wasn’t really challenged. I had followed Todd on Instagram, and I remembered seeing a post from him and I was like, “Oh my God, I love his work, I want to work with him. I’m just going to message him.”

So I messaged him on Instagram and told him I loved his work and would love to work with him. I’m a huge horror-thriller fan, so I was like, “I would love to do something in that genre.” That’s when we met up and Todd had this idea about this movie, about cruising. So we melded those two together and then here we are.

DC: So the film is set almost entirely during the day. Is there any reason why you picked daytime? I’ve seen people saying, well, wouldn’t it be at night when you’re doing a lot of cruising? It’s a funny question, but I was just curious.

TV: Well, there were a couple of different reasons. I think to me, what’s fascinating about The Ramble is it feels so otherworldly, and I wanted to capture that otherworldliness. So we shot most of this around magic hour. I wanted it to feel like not quite daytime, not quite nighttime, sort of this sort of ethereal space. Also, he’s taking pictures, so he couldn’t really take pictures at night because it would be too dark.

GD: But also if you go to The Ramble, sometimes it’s crazy busy during the day. Broad daylight, suns out, a million people in the park, and in those areas, there’s a lot of action going on. It doesn’t matter if it’s dark, if the sun’s out sometimes it’s busy all the time.

DC: Did you film in The Ramble itself?

TV: Oh yeah. 

DC: How was that experience? 

TV: It was pretty amazing. The great thing is I was able to go there when I was working on the script and talk to people and hear their stories and incorporate a lot of that into the script, and also sort of get to know the whole area and different people that go there. So I was able to prepare a lot and storyboard and practice my camera moves and everything there. So I mean, that was great.

But then I was a little worried when we were filming like, “Oh, are the other people cruising there going to be freaked out that we’re filming there?” But they were all really into it and excited, and they were like, “Hey, you’re back. You’re filming some more.” They all wanted to hear about the movie, and some of them were extras in You Can’t Stay Here. So it was a really amazing experience.

DC: I love the queer community so much. 

GD: It was such a lovely, such a pleasant, enjoyable experience. I would think that some people think it’s a lot of shadiness or whatever, some negative sort of energy there. But like Todd said, everybody was super friendly and open and inviting.

DC: That’s amazing. Todd, a lot of your films are about queer people being complicated, which is something that should not be unusual, but unfortunately in a lot of cinema with queer people in it, it is rare. Why is that so important to you to keep showing queer characters like this in your filmmaking?

TV: Well, I mean, I think queer people aren’t just their queerness. There’s a lot more to them than that. And I think I’m interested in characters that are complicated and contradictory, and they don’t really understand their motivations. Those are the characters that I’m drawn to, whether they’re queer or straight or whatever they are. So to me, that’s not really something I consciously think about. That’s just the characters that I’m drawn to.

DC: Guillermo, what was that like for you to basically become Rick?

GD: It wasn’t that difficult. I felt super comfortable doing it. I grew up in the ’90s, I was in my twenties in New York City. I’ve experienced cruising in New York. So it was quite easy to slip into this character’s skin. There’s a real sort of rawness and a realness to Todd’s work and his characters. So that was really nice to play with that and be in that world, you know what I mean? It felt very raw and very real. So that was super exciting.

Todd works very quickly, so that was really nice. We didn’t have a lot of time to do a bunch of takes and take too much time to think about stuff. Coming from Hollywood and doing some stuff where they do 42 takes of one scene, it was quite refreshing to jump into this project and go with the flow and move through it very quickly, but efficiently and in a beautiful way.

DC: As you said, a lot of your previous work has been more Hollywood, so it’s got to be freeing to be in a film like You Can’t Stay Here.

GD: Absolutely. It feels rebellious working with Todd, and I think I’m a rebel at heart, so it is really exciting. It feels like I’m doing something naughty, making a film with him, which really excites me.

DC: You mentioned the authenticity of this film. It’s not like a documentary, but the handheld camera moments were really fascinating. I wanted to know more from you, Todd, about your ethos behind this kind of filmmaking, and if there was a particular vibe you were going for in this film versus what you’ve made in the past.

TV: With this, I really wanted to get in the mindset of cruising, which is you go to someplace like The Ramble, and it’s not so much about going there to have sex. It’s about going there to be in a sexual environment and the possibility of something happening. You could be there for hours at a time. It doesn’t mean anything. And something might happen, something might not happen, or you might get beaten up or you might have sex, or the cops might arrest you, there’s all these possibilities.

But at the same time, you’re sort of there and just wandering around. So we filmed a lot of me just following Guillermo to the different places. I wanted to get into that rhythm of a routine and wanting to be in a sexy environment. So it’s a bit different than my other work in that I wanted it to be kind of feel like a documentary and also feel like the camera is almost a voyeur observing him in all these different situations.

DC: Cool. And I just have to say, I am obsessed with the use of poppers as a murder weapon. Absolutely incredible. I just wanted to hear more about the thought process behind that element.

TV: Well, I mean, I was thinking a lot about the idea that this character is a nurse, so we would have access to stuff that would knock somebody out, and he’d just come up with this idea of putting it in a poppers bottle. And that’s how he gets. Instead of putting a roofie in a drink, he offers someone poppers. They’re expecting a sexual experience and then they just pass out and who knows what happens to them. So I just thought it would be a really scary, interesting idea.

DC: It’s genius, though. Like you said, it’s like roofie-ng a drink. It’s terrifying.

TV: Also when someone offers you poppers, you always have to at least pretend to take a hit of them.

DC: You don’t want to be rude

TV: You don’t want to be rude!

GD: The lesson here is to bring your own poppers.

TV: Exactly.

DC: BYOP. Guillermo, was there a certain moment or scene in You Can’t Stay Here that you were particularly proud of as an actor?

GD: Oh man, so many. I got to work with so many great actors in the film. The woman who plays my mother, Marlene Forte, is a great friend. When I started acting, I joined a theater company called what’s now Labyrinth Theater Company, and she was part of that from the beginning. I think we started in 1993 or something like that, working together. And I’ve always admired her work. So I loved playing, doing all those scenes with her.

And of course Vanessa Aspillaga, who I’ve also known forever, who plays Ren, my boss, the photographer. She’s so oddly and beautifully unique in this movie and just brings something that you reading it. I didn’t expect this character to be played this way, but she just brought such a uniqueness to it. That was such a thrill to work with her. So I think one of the most exciting parts was just working with all these different actors that I loved and admired, and I was so happy that Todd put them in the movie and we were able to play together.

DC: Is the Raccoon Man something you wrote or is he a real man?

TV: Well, I was working on the script and Guillermo went to The Ramble with me a few times and we met the raccoon man. That’s an instance where it would’ve been great to film that at night because at night there are like 50 raccoons around him. But I tried to film him at night, and the raccoons did not like the lights.

He was a real character, and so I wrote him into the script and we were saying, “Who can we get to play the Raccoon Man?” Because he’s such a unique character. But then we, both Guillermo and I, were both like, “Oh, we should just get him to do it because the raccoons know him and we wrote it based on him.” So it took some convincing to get him to agree to do it, but I’m so glad. He did so great.

DC: This is such a New York movie, and I love that. You can just feel the location. It’s not even just the location, but the people you captured, you really made them part of it. And it feels so distinctly New York at that time.

GD: I think pretty much everyone’s a New Yorker that’s in the movie, or they’ve been there for a long time. It’s such a New York film. I love that so much.

DC: So Todd, how big of a crew did you have? Is it just you with the camera? It feels so intimate, so I’m curious about who is actually behind the camera.

TV: I’m the DP and camera operator and director. James Kleinman was my assistant director and assistant everything. Then we had a sound person, and then we had a Covid compliance officer, and that was it. The crew was four people. Yeah.

DC: Did you rely a lot on natural light when you were filming out?

TV: Yeah, absolutely. I had a few battery-powered lights that I used, but for the most part, everything was natural light except the interior scenes.

DC: I love that.

TV: Well, especially filming in Central Park, because we were such a small crew, people didn’t take any mind. If we had been a bigger crew, I think it would’ve been a little more difficult. New Yorkers don’t really like people filming stuff.

DC: But it wasn’t a huge production, so it didn’t seem as intimidating.

GD: Yeah, it felt like a bunch of friends just filming something for ourselves. It didn’t feel like we were making a movie.

TV: And especially for You Can’t Stay Here, it’s like I was saying that the camera is another character, so it was kind of like I was playing another character, sort of following them around and filming them. So I like that intimacy and being able to interact with the actors.

DC: Todd, why are you excited to put out a movie like this now in 2024? And why do you think more people need to seek out films like this?

TV: Well, I think it’s important to make movies about our lives, and not just about the good things, but about the complicated things and the bad things, and sex especially. We don’t really talk about sex as much as we should. I think it’s important because cruising is something that doesn’t really get talked about at all. It’s kind of a little secret that we have, but I think it’s important to talk about it and show it and explore it

DC: We really only have one movie about cruising. It feels great now to have a more updated, more queer-focused vision. We don’t need to be scared of it, everybody

GD: And told by a queer filmmaker.

DC: Exactly. With queer people in it and telling that story, which is so important. Before we wrap up though, I would love to hear about each of you the first horror movie you ever saw.

GD: Yeah. I remember my parents used to take us to the movie theater when we were super young and they took us to see The Exorcist in the theater. And I was a kid. I was a freaking kid, and my parents were like, we’re going to go see this movie. But this was in the ’70s. If a parent walked into a movie theater playing The Exorcist now with a kid, I’m sure somebody would be like, “What are you doing?”

I’m sure there were other TV movies that I saw first, but The Exorcist is the first one that sticks out as the film that I saw when I was the youngest. I remember seeing another movie called Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark. And it’s so good with these little monsters, which Guillermo del Toro remade. It’s good, but it’s not the original. Those two are probably the ones that stick out for me as the first introduction to horror.

DC: Todd, what about you?

TV: Well, I grew up in Bangor, Maine, so I’m a big fan of Stephen King. My dad knew him. I’ve been to his house and everything, so I’ve read all his books.

GD: You went to school with King’s kids, right?

TV: Yeah, I went to school with his kids and stuff, at the high school that Carrie is based on.

DC: Whoa weird! That’s so cool!

TV: But anyway, when the movie The Shining was coming out, I remember the TV ads were amazing. It was just Danny running through the maze. I thought, “Oh my God, this is amazing. I need to see this.” But I was underage, so I had to go to the movie theater, get a ticket for something else, and sneak in.

I loved it. I just stayed in the theater and watched it again because I loved it so much. So yeah, that was really my first real horror movie that really affected me. It was so strange and so different, and the music and the atmosphere and everything were just so great. I just loved it.



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