Through their work, Anthony Caronna discovered themself. "I moved to New York City when I was 17," says the filmmaker. "I didn't know a single person here, and I wasn't out. Looking back, so much of my work was coming to terms with who I was, the stories I connected to and trying to just understand relationships. My work is still very much that."
Caronna began writing and directing experimental live theater, downtown productions that they say "10 people saw," before transitioning into music videos and fashion films. "My desire to direct doc really came out of my obsession with character," Caronna says. One such character is New York nightlife icon Susanne Bartsch, who became the focus of Caronna's feature directorial debut, Susanne Bartsch: On Top.
"My entire life, I've always been drawn to strong characters and complicated relationships. Those are the things that I hunt for when it comes to storytelling," the director says. "I want to follow good stories in whatever form they take and figure out new ways of visually telling them. Give me a complicated character and an explosive relationship, and I'm obsessed."
Caronna's latest is Last Call: When a Serial Killer Stalked Queer New York, HBO's four-part docuseries about the gay men who were targeted by the "Last Call Killer" in the early 1990s. When Caronna was first approached about the project by two-time Oscar-nominated producer Howard Gertler (How to Survive a Plague and All the Beauty and the Bloodshed), they initially said no.
"I actually passed on this project the first time it came to me, because I wasn't really into the idea of true crime and I was more so afraid of re-victimizing the queer community," explains Caronna. Eventually, they saw an opportunity to use the true crime genre as a trojan horse, "to talk about the anti-queer violence movement and the violence queer people have to face all the time and actually have it get into homes across the world because of the popularity of the genre... Through that lens we allowed the queer community, victims, friends and family, and activists like Matt Foreman and Bea Hanson of the Anti-Violence Project to drive the entire story."
As a filmmaker, Caronna's growing body of work has largely focused on making sure that queer history is preserved in ways that feel fresh and vital to today's audience. And while that has been by design, they have no intentions of being constrained to one medium, to one form, to one subject.
"I, of course, LOVE telling queer narratives because I connect with them personally and there are so many that desperately need to be told. But I'm a storyteller. I want to tell all the stories," they says. "All the compelling, messy, intriguing, exciting, gut-wrenching, infuriating stories out there... I'm excited to continue finding and telling stories that need to be told and that people around the world see themselves in."
Below, Caronna shares with A.frame five films that had the biggest impact on their own filmmaking and made them realize that "everything is about character and relationship."
Directed by: Mark Rydell | Written by: Bill Kerby and Bo Goldman
When I was little, my mother would play one film on repeat: The Rose. She'd have that movie on constantly. I remember her watching Bette perform "When a Man Loves a Woman" over and over and over again. When I left home at 17, I bought a copy of the vinyl, which I still listen to at least once a week. At a young age, before knowing Bette was a huge queer icon or even having the word 'queer' to describe myself, I was in love with her. When we know, we know. Rose is such a complicated person and her relationships throughout the movie, especially with Frederic Forrest, are deeply flawed but so passionate. The acting, the visuals, the writing — this film just hits every single note for me.
Directed by: Bennett Miller
The Cruise made me want to make docs. Period. It's one of the most brilliant character studies of all time, and the way it's shot just takes my breath away. Speed Levitch is absolutely captivating. I find him painfully relatable and empathetic. It's also a conversation about the relationship we have with ourselves and with the world around us. When he's standing on that rooftop talking about his relationship to New York City, I always tear up. I've seen this film two thousand times, and every time, I find something new that I love.
Directed by: Mike Nichols | Written by: Ernest Lehman
I mean, how do we talk about character and relationship and not talk about this film? It was this or A Woman Under the Influence. Queer icon Elizabeth Taylor, battling Richard Burton, with so much complication and passion between them. It's melodrama, it's camp. It's stunning. I love this film in a way that's hard to describe. Another female powerhouse performance which in many ways is also a cornerstone in so many of my favorite films. Every time I watch Who's Afraid, it renews my love of storytelling. I've always said I want to make the queer counterpart of this film. That's what I want to direct. If you can make that happen for me, please give me a call.
Directed by: Mike Nichols | Written by: Nora Ephron
I'm purposefully putting Heartburn after Who's Afraid. I think you all can see what I'm doing here. Relationships are so hard, and love is so hard, and being an adult while trying to juggle both of those things is SO HARD. This film encapsulates all of that. It's also just queer. You can feel it. There's some movies you just know are queer without them necessarily being part of the queer canon, and this is one of them.
The acting in this film from Meryl Streep and Jack Nicholson is amazing, but the supporting cast are beyond incredible: Stockard Channing, Jeff Daniels, Catherine O'Hara, Miloš Forman, all of them. As a teen, I rewound and watched the scene where Meryl Streep busts out of the bathroom nine months pregnant and confronts Jack Nicholson about his cheating so many times that I burnt out the tape. I think about that scene no less than three times a week. It shows the pain and beauty of love in a way that I really connect with. Also, another Mike Nichols… it doesn't get any better than Mike Nichols.
Written and Directed by: John Waters
ANYTHING JOHN. Everything John. I remember renting Steve Yeager's documentary Divine Trash as a kid, watching it in my room, and my mother walking in and being beyond horrified. From that point on, I was obsessed with all of John's work. Nobody does character work like John does, and Female Trouble, for me, is the perfect example of that. Big honorable mention to Polyester — I actually have a tattoo on my foot that says Fishpaw.
All of the characters Divine has played are burned into my brain, as I know they are for so many queer people. Beyond John's huge characters, there is so much relationship work happening in every one of his films. I mean, has there ever been a more fraught mother and daughter relationship on-screen than the one between Dawn and Taffy?! This movie taught me that my work could be dirty, explicit, and ruffle all the feathers, while also being beautiful and a celebration of sex and queerness.