“A Lasting First Impression” is a new short film written by Kayla Romanowski and directed by Christopher Gaunt. The film stars RuPaul’s Drag Race’s Kelly Mantle as Charleigh, a cabaret performer who has been disowned by her family for being a drag queen. After Charleigh’s brother is killed, she meets his wife who is unaware that her deceased husband had a sibling. The two women are forced to confront pent-up emotions from a traumatic past.
Christopher Gaunt and writer Kayla Romanowski recently discussed this film and more via an exclusive interview.
Meagan Meehan (MM): How did you discover your talent for filmmaking?
Chris: I have LOVED film for as long as I can remember. For me, it was an obsession in the best way…a true passion for the art of film and filmmaking. In addition to loving sports as a kid I loved to act and my family was constantly talking about the films we had all seen. All these years later we do the same thing…talk about the films we love! So, it was a natural fit for me to devote my life to filmmaking once I had the opportunity to fully commit. I started as an actor then branched into producing, directing and screenwriting. I’ll never stop because I love it all!
MM: How did you break into the industry?
Chris: I broke into the industry as an actor later in life. I acted in as many productions as possible. They were primarily acting opportunities in short films and feature films. For many years my wife and I (and our two dogs) crisscrossed the US every single week so that I could act in productions where I had been cast. I had worked for many years in the business world, got married, and together with my partner/wife raised two wonderful children. I proactively departed the business world in order to act, produce, direct and write full-time. It has been non-stop since making that decision.
Kayla: I have always been passionate about screenwriting. I took a creative writing class in college and my professor Ryan Gangemi inspired me to put my writing out there in the world. I entered them into competitions and film festivals, ones that accepted unproduced screenplays. The goal was to have other filmmakers or producers become interested in my writing. However, it’s a very hard industry to break into as a screenwriter. Most big production companies won’t even look at your script without an agent. Everyone has to start somewhere though. My screenplays have won numerous awards from domestic and international competitions. I’m proud of my accomplishments. Through the power of social media, I became friends with some local filmmakers and they took interest in some of the projects and from there I was able to bring a few of my screenplays to life on screen (two shorts, one feature).
MM: Kayla, how did you come up with the concept for “A Lasting First Impression”?
Kayla: I’ve always been drawn to character driven dramas and plots that aren’t right on the nose. The original concept for this film was about a wife who discovers her husband has been cheating on her but doesn’t get the chance to confront the mistress until after her husband dies. This was too obvious, so I played around with ideas on how to spice it up. I’ve always had a love for the art of Drag and thought it would be interesting to somehow incorporate this into the plot. But how? I knew in writing this that I needed to do this in a way that showcased our LGBTQ+ characters as three dimensional, not just side characters with no depth. Which is something that you often see in television or film still. I pulled inspiration from people I grew up with. In particular, there was a friend of my mom and grandma who was married and had a beautiful daughter, but eventually he came out to his wife as gay. I played around with that idea about how a wife would react to her husband’s “mistress” actually being a gay guy. Again, this has been done before. I went back to the drawing board and eventually came to the idea of having Charleigh be transgendered and David being Charleigh’s brother. As I got deeper into the writing process the story just unraveled one twist after the next.
MM: Chris, how did Kayla come to present the script to you?
Chris: I have known Kayla for many years. I love her writing. We had always discussed working on a film project together based on one of her screenplays. When Kayla sent me the script for “A Lasting First Impression” I was involved in four film projects. I read the screenplay and told Kayla that I loved the work and wanted to bring it to life on film. She was patient with me as I worked through the other film projects. Once those projects were completed, I immediately got in touch with Kayla so that we could get cracking on “A Lasting First Impression.”
MM: Chris, as a cisgender white man, were there concerns on how you might tackle the sensitive topics explored in this short film?
Chris: Oh yes! In fact, when I was casting the film, I made it known that I was a cisgender male. I also made it known that I was a strong ally to the LGBTQ+ community and that I was eager to learn everything possible in order to make an authentic drama that represented the community in an accurate way. I went as far as telling the cast and crew they all had my “permission” to scream BS if anything in the screenplay did not feel real or authentic. The Drag Queen community was amazing to work with and, they really helped throughout the shooting process…especially our two Drag Queen stars Kelly Mantle and Qya Cristal. They both provided excellent feedback on the overall screenplay as well as their specific scenes.
MM: How did you go about securing your cast and locations?
Chris: We secured the Drag Queen cast of Kelly Mantle and Qya Cristal by reaching out to their manager Diana Coney. Diana was amazing to work with and gave me great ideas on who to cast for the two Drag Queen roles. Once I had the opportunity to speak with Kelly and Qya I knew they both were the perfect choices to play CHARLEIGH and NAOMI. For the role of JESS we put out a casting call on actor portals. Jennifer Lefsyk was cast as JESS and, Jennifer had worked with Kayla on a feature film project. Jennifer was the perfect actor to play JESS. For the locations, I reached out to places that I thought would be ideal based on our film’s shot list. All the locations we used were incredibly helpful and gracious. We needed a Drag Queen Club, a bar, Drag Queen dressing room and an alleyway. The good news with this film was the limited number of locations we needed in order to bring the film to life.
Kayla: In writing this, I had envisioned Jess always being played by Jennifer Lefsyk. I worked with her on a feature film that I wrote and co-directed and fell in love with her acting. She’s an incredible actor and I recommended her to Chris when we were doing auditions. She proved that she was the right fit for the role during her auditions.
MM: Both, what’s your favorite part of “A Lasting First Impression” and why?
Chris: My favorite part is that it is a terrific drama full of interesting twists and turns that has a very diverse cast with a strong message of inclusion. I like doing films that I haven’t seen ” a hundred times before”. This film is not “on-the-nose”! It has so many surprises!
Kayla: My favorite part(s) of this film is how we see Jess as the character that feels like a “fish out of the water” as she is being accepted into the LGBTQ+ community. It’s usually the opposite in most films or television shows. It shows how strong, loving, and fully realized the community is which is such an important message to get across especially right now. Also, the fact we were able to work with and collaborate with the LGBTQ+ community to make sure this film feels authentic and portrays the right message is so important. This film would not be possible without all their support and feedback along the way.
MM: What kind of feedback have you gotten about this short as it makes its way around the festival circuit?
Chris: The film is doing SO well in the film festival circuit (domestic and international film festivals). People are saying “we need more films like this…films that celebrate diversity, films that celebrate inclusion, films that celebrate acceptance!”
MM: Kayla, might you write more films in the future and, if so, what themes might you focus on?
Kayla: First, I’d love to turn “A Lasting First Impression” into a feature film! There’s so much more to this story that I think we could really dive deeper into. And just like Chris, I always have a million ideas floating around in my head at once. I have other scripts I am currently working on including a horror feature about a 5 year old girls imaginary friend that wreaks havoc on her family during a family vacation, a coming of age, sci-fi, drama taking place during the apocalypse, and another drama that deals with an elderly woman suffering from amnesia that wakes up one morning abandoned at a hotel and how she seeks help from the hotel staff to try to figure out how and why she is there. I’d love to do more films that deal with the themes of diversity, inclusion, self-love and acceptance too. I love to challenge myself as a writer and I am very open to all sorts of themes and concepts.
MM: What are your goals from here?
Chris: I’m one of those film creators that never stops! I’m always working on a number of film projects at any given time. I’m working really hard at becoming a stronger actor in each film production. I want that to be a never-ending process. My objective is to get just a bit better with every performance. I’m also focusing more on feature length films as well as episodics as it relates to my personal film projects. I plan on acting, directing, writing and producing for as long as I’m able…ideally, into my 90’s! Go! Go! Go!
Kayla: I am going to keep on writing screenplays and hopefully continue to make more films with local filmmakers including Chris. I’d love to turn screenwriting into a full-time gig someday. I’ve always been one to dream big and I am making those dreams come true one screenplay at a time!
For more information, visit alastingfirstimpressionmovie.com