While 2020 hasn’t been good for anyone, it would seem that Lankans have a slight leg up in the matter with quite a few things to be proud of. Just a few weeks ago, the film adaptation of Sri Lankan-Canadian author Shyam Selvadurai’s bestseller Funny Boy by the same name was released on Netflix, and it has since been submitted for Academy Award nominations under the Best Feature Film category.
One submission alone is enough a reason to be proud of. However, Lankans can lay claim to yet another submission. Los Angeles-based Sri Lankan-American actor and independent filmmaker Gehan Cooray recently announced that his new romantic comedy, The Billionaire, has been officially submitted to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences as well as to the Hollywood Foreign Press Association, after becoming eligible for both Oscar and Golden Globe Award nominations.
Cooray’s film was awarded the Best Comedy Feature Award at the Burbank International Film Festival (BIFF) and was also selected as a finalist for the Best Feature Film overall at the festival. The film was directed by Michael Philip, although Cooray held final creative control as the Executive Producer and also wrote the screenplay based on George Bernard Shaw’s play, The Millionairess.
Speaking to Cooray about his film and how the submission for the Oscars came to be, he shared that Patricia Danaher, a member of the Hollywood Foreign Press Association who happens to be a juror for the Golden Globes, reached out to him while he was quarantining in Sri Lanka for a brief interview with him about The Billionaire for the Golden Globes website, which will be available sometime early January.
Danaher, who is from Ireland, had greatly enjoyed his adaptation of the Irish Bernard Shaw’s play. “I never expected one of the jurors to reach out,” said Cooray, adding that it was the greatest honour.
Cooray was recently notified that this will be going live under “Best Picture” in the Academy Screening Room, the members-only site where Oscar voters stream films submitted for nominations. He shared that whether or not he gets a nomination really isn’t much of a concern to him; he is happy that in being allowed the opportunity to stream it as such, he can ensure that people will get to see it.
Doing things a little differently, where one would assume a film to premier before it is submitted for awards, Cooray’s film is yet to have its theatrical release, scheduled for 12 February 2021 at the Laemmle Theatre in Los Angeles (LA), once cinema halls in LA open up once again.
Cooray shared that he is most proud of the fact that he was able to make the film and submit it as Gehan Cooray, as an individual, and when it appears for the Academy’s voters, it will say it is the production courtesy of a Sri Lankan creator.
About ‘The Billionaire’
The Billionaire was shot on location in Ontario, Canada and the cast includes seven-time Emmy Award-winning actress Heather Tom from The Bold and the Beautiful and The Young and the Restless); Jordan Belfi from hit TV series Entourage; Davi Santos, known for his work in the Power Rangers TV franchise; and Randy Wayne from The Dukes of Hazzard and numerous Hallmark channel films.
Cooray shared that while it may have won Best Comedy Feature at BIFF, it is a conversational dry comedy rather than a slapstick one and that he chose to adapt Bernard Shaw’s play in a most particular way, representing the story of a same-sex marriage with a focus on asexual persons who are underrepresented in the media, never in the nuanced way that opposite sex marriages are portrayed.
He said he was talking to his godmother recently, telling her that the film is “same-sex without the sex part”. He grew up Catholic, where they have learned about chaste marriages where it is all about the companionship and there is no sexual intercourse; Cooray said that as he was adapting the play The Millionairess from the 1930s with its very sexual characters, he opted to personalise it, portraying the romance of men, and as he himself identifies as asexual, the romance of men who are romantically in love without the need to have sex. He said his friends would often say to him that in his relationships “never escalate into sex”.
The Billionaire, much like a Disney romance, is about the connection. It was about the art of conversation – the willingness to spend time talking to one another at length and in exploring a relationship entirely reliant on dialogue. Cooray was also able to incorporate the importance and impact of words and how language can truly unite or even divide people.
He referred to how in the original Bernard Shaw novel, the billionaire is a sexual character whose pride stems from wealth and status, but here, his character is proud of his purity and chastity; where in the original the character looks down on others due to their elevated status of wealth, here he looks down on others as he believes himself to be this angelic being.
Cooray furthered that the Golden Globes juror who reached out to him shared that his adaptation of the character was petty and b*tchy to the point of great entertainment and it brought out the fact that while you can have everything in life, you can still be completely empty.
For Lankan audiences
We spoke to Cooray about the rather niche appeal of the film and he too agreed with us that it may not have a mass appeal; however, what he wishes for his film is to be the 21st Century equivalent of classic Hollywood films that he grew up watching, like My Fair Lady, All About Eve, and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, and while he did not have anywhere near the budget required for something exactly like that, he said the target audience is anyone anywhere around the world who loves the classics.
For people who love literature, who love to read Jane Austen novels, it is a throwback to a different era; he said that even in Sri Lanka, there are so many who love literature and drama, especially those who grew up reading these classic novels.
According to Cooray, you do not need to be a part of the LGBTIQ community to enjoy the film; referring to the film’s tagline “money, morals, and marriage”. He said the audience would be someone who is open to exploring money and morals in a more fundamental way than how it is often done in comedies, usually in a more frivolous, lighthearted way. It is by no means dark dramatic, but rather close to a satirical look at certain issues in order to provoke the audience to think.
Netflix is not an option
Cooray has been in discussions with Ceylon Theatres, who are interested in distributing his film in Colombo, and he may choose to do that as he wishes to share his work with the Colombo audience.
He has been adamant in not having it streamed on Netflix prior to a theatrical release, stating that he is old-fashioned that way. He did the post production at Warner Brothers, and it deserves to be seen on the big screen.
“While I was studying at USC (University of Southern California), I took as many film classes as possible, and in one of my very first intros to cinema classes, we were told that movies were meant to be seen in cinemas,” he said. This has stuck with him, and once it has had its theatrical run, then by all means he is happy to stream it.
Before anything, he wants to have a theatrical release and he wants at least for people from both LA and Colombo to be able to see it first; Colombo being his hometown where he grew up, he wants his people to be able to see it on the big screen.
About Gehan Cooray
Born and raised in Colombo, Sri Lanka, Cooray completed his education at St. Joseph’s College before moving to America to attend USC where he studied drama and psychology.
As early as age three, Cooray was interested in drama and cinema, with some of his favourite movies being My Fair Lady, The Sound of Music, and Mary Poppins; while in school, he took part in the Shakespeare Drama Competition where in 2005, he was a part of the winning production.
Cooray’s interest in theatre and drama has never been limited to just acting, as his interest in music got him into opera. He made his Carnegie Hall debut in 2019 with a solo concert in New York, with the Chef de Cabinet to the United Nations Secretary General looking on as Chief Guest.
He shared that maybe because he lives in LA, it was natural to gravitate towards cinema, sharing with us that he sees cinema to be a place which encompasses all forms of art, where he can practise all of his interests at once, an example of which is seen in The Billionaire where he made his character an operatic singer in a moment of art imitating life.
Cooray spoke briefly about his foray into filmmaking, recounting an incident which he would almost call destiny; in 2014, when he had gone back to LA after his annual visit to Sri Lanka, he had run into Jon Favreau who saw him wearing his USC sweatshirt and wanted to know if he was a filmmaker. At the time, he was only an actor and had done a few operatic productions in Sri Lanka and his full-length feature film came to be sometime after that encounter.
An American citizen at present, Cooray said that he will always love Sri Lanka and wishes to share his work with his motherland, and in the future, he wishes to create a space in Hollywood for Lanka and Lankan representation.