In 1995, just a year after United States Armed Forces instituted the “Don’t ask, don’t tell” policy on service by gays and lesbians in the military, a play opened in London that focused on the story of two U.S. Navy fighter pilots who fall in love.
“Burning Blue” is a story based on the military experiences of writer D.M.W. Greer, and the play won two Olivier Awards – the London equivalent of Broadway’s Tony Awards – before being staged around the world.
The actor who played two of the female roles on the heralded Theatre Royal Haymarket stage was Helene Kvale, now an assistant professor-in-residence for performance in the Department of Dramatic Arts in the School of Fine Arts.
Kvale and Greer subsequently established a long professional friendship over the years, and in 2008 when Greer regained the film rights to “Burning Blue” he asked Kvale – who by then also was a writer and director – to work with him on the screenplay he had written.
Their collaboration as co-writers has resulted in the film version of “Burning Blue,” which will be screened as part of the annual Connecticut LGBT Film Festival on Wednesday, June 4, at the CineStudio at Trinity College in Harford at 7:30 p.m. It will open nationwide on June 6 at select theaters through Lionsgate Films, including in New York City at AMC Cinemas on 42nd Street.
The film tells the story of four elite pilots whose friendship is tested following two fatal accidents aboard their aircraft carrier. The direction of the NCIS investigation into the accident radically changes after a sailor reports seeing two of the pilots in a gay club.
“The original play was told in flashback. What we did with the screenplay was tell it chronologically to develop suspense and dramatic tension,” Kvale says. “What fuels the screen play is this witch-hunt set off after the two deaths happen on the aircraft carrier and the NCIS is brought in. Instead of focusing on the culture of overdrinking and institutional cover-ups, the NCIS chooses to focus on the reported sighting of our two characters, Dan and Matt, in a gay night club.”
A graduate of the London School of Economics and trained at The Drama Studio and National Theatre Studio in London, Kvale has been at UConn since 2003 teaching acting classes, advising students, and directing productions at the Connecticut Repertory Theatre, in New York City, and for Bated Breath Theatre Co., where she was founding artistic director.
Her work in England as an actor on stage includes National Theatre Company productions of Shakespeare’s “Richard III” and “King Lear,” and she also appeared in television dramas such as “Solider Soldier, “London Bridge,” “The Bill,” “Prime Suspect,” and “Lovejoy,” among others. Her film work includes “Tomorrow La Scala!,” “Talk,” and “5:45.”
Kvale says her experience as an actor, writer, and director provides the kind of perspective Greer sought to sharpen the screenplay for “Burning Blue” and set it on a path to be filmed. The play included more detail of the men’s relationships with their wives, whereas the film centers more on the psychological relationship between the two men and their squadron of four pilots. The two main characters, Dan and Will, are third-generation Navy officers, and their fathers have a larger presence in the film than in the play.
“Having been a director meant that I wasn’t frightened of bold choices to make the story work,” she says. “Having been involved in the play, I understood not only the roles of the women, but also the men. It’s a very universal story of love and loyalty, duty and sacrifice, and about having the courage to tell the truth in the face of enormous institutional and personal cover-ups.”
The backstory of how long it took to take “Burning Blue” from the stage to the screen, including the two writers’ work in developing the screenplay, is among the many lessons Kvale brings to the classroom.
“What we teach our students are a lot of professional skills – how to be an artist – and encourage them how to value their art and how to persevere, regardless of disappointment or rejection,” she says. “I think it’s an inspiring story, the fact they can see a faculty member and mentor struggling to create work and still believing in the project. As actors training, it’s often easy to feel like you are a puppet and you have no control. One of the things we encourage our students to do is make their own work and be enterprising, and to use the foundation of what they’ve learnt at the University as a springboard for new projects.”
Kvale has received several grants and awards to assist in the development of her work, including Fine Arts Dean grants, UConn’s Human Rights Initiative, Greater Hartford Arts Council, and the City of Hartford Arts and Heritage grants.
“Burning Blue” is being distributed by Lionsgate, a major entertainment company and film distributor that is marketing the film in theaters and on demand. The films it has promoted include Golden Globe and Academy Award-winners such as “The Hurt Locker,” “Precious,” “Monster’s Ball,” “Crash,” and “Juno.”