By Tim Stack
February 13, 2019 at 04:41 PM EST
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The Broken Hearts Club

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Love, friendship, and heartbreak are universal, no matter a person’s sexuality. Greg Berlanti’s The Broken Hearts Club: A Romantic Comedy told the story of six gay best friends — Dennis (Timothy Olyphant), Cole (Dean Cain), Benji (Zach Braff), Patrick (Ben Weber), Taylor (Billy Porter), and Howie (Matt McGrath) — navigating the Los Angeles dating scene. “I had always loved the movie Diner,” says Berlanti (Love, Simon), who wrote and directed Club and is now one of Hollywood’s top producer-directors. “I felt like at the time there was no gay Diner. There was no movie that kind of captured the spirit of young gay friendships as I knew them at that particular moment in the late ’90s in West Hollywood.” Club grossed only about $1.7 million domestically after its release in October 2000, but has become a beloved cult classic. EW talked to Berlanti and many Club members about going to “gay school,” embracing puka shell necklaces, and the film’s important legacy.

Building the Team

GREG BERLANTI (WRITER-DIRECTOR): In between the first and second year of Dawson’s Creek, a producer named Mickey Liddell had gotten Screen Gems to take a look at [my script]. He said, “Look. I’ll make it, but I want you to direct it.” I sorta thought, “Oh gosh, I’ve never directed a movie before, but he has such faith in me.” The two people who helped [with] the script are Julie Plec [The Originals] and Ryan Murphy [American Horror Story]. In terms of the financing, it was really two people who secured it at the time: John Mahoney [the Frasier star, who died in 2018, played the friend groups’ boss and mentor, Jack] and Tim Olyphant.

DEAN CAIN (COLE): I had to fight with my agents. I had tremendous pushback. It was like, “Dean, I know you love this, but I don’t think it’s a good idea for you to play a gay character at this point in time.” I was very clear. I read a beautiful, hysterical, witty, touching, romantic, fantastic movie, and I wanted to be a part of it.

BERLANTI: One of our other producers, Joseph Middleton, was our casting director on it and also a producer on it. He helped build the cast that we did. We had no money when we were even going to cast it. He was casting at the time Bring It On, so I would follow him and borrow the rooms they were using. I got to hear so many Bring It On auditions because I would always go in after and borrow the casting room for like 15-20 minutes.

ZACH BRAFF (BENJI) : [Greg and I] went to Northwestern together, but we didn’t know each other really at the time. I remember at my audition we talked about Northwestern. I think we had the same acting teacher. My audition just went really, really well. I remember thinking, “Oh my God. I think I have a shot at this.” So Greg Berlanti really gave me my very first big break. I did other parts in things, but in terms of having a juicy role, he really gave me my first big part.

MATT MCGRATH (HOWIE): I met with Greg and he pretty much gave it to me right away. It was just kismet, I guess. It was really cool because Greg wanted me to get to know his friends and everybody and the world that we were going to be living in. I got to meet 10 or 15 guys that he kind of wrote the movie about, this pack that he traveled with. They’re all fascinating and lived to go on to do great things.

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The Prep

BRAFF: Some of us were gay and some weren’t. When we were in rehearsals, Greg said, “I want you to act like gay men would act. We kiss each other goodbye. I want you guys to just start adopting more of the traits of this community.” I remember I was getting a ride home from Ben, and I remember thinking, “Are we supposed to kiss when I get out of the car? I don’t want to disappoint Greg, but we’re both straight.” I remember he pulled over in front of the place I was staying, and we sat there awkwardly, like, small-talking.

CAIN: We were free to ask and discuss anything in our “gay school.” [Berlanti wanted the actors to bond and encouraged them to go out to West Hollywood gay bars as a group.] I had one of the first questions: “Okay, why am I insulted when he calls me ‘bottom boy?’” The place went manic. It was such a perfect Cole question to ask.

BEN WEBER (PATRICK): We went to Rage — is that still there? [Note: Yes, it is.] And then we went to some bar that’s across the street from there, and we tried to hit on people and get hit on and sort of experience what that was like in 2000. It was just so immediate. In my experiences with women, there’s subtleties you need to read into, and in the gay world it was so open-and-shut. It was amazing to experience that. Greg was my wingman, and it was amazing. I almost enjoyed that part as much as the film.

The Shoot

BILLY PORTER (TAYLOR): It was pretty much a guerrilla shoot. We were driving ourselves. We were all in the trenches together. And I think that bonds people, because we knew we were doing something special. It wasn’t about money — it was history.

BRAFF: On a low-budget movie when you all like each other, you kind of all hang out, you’re not racing back to your trailers to just be alone. So I think we all hung out and had a lot of laughter. Billy Porter is just hilarious, I remember he was sort of the class clown. I remember really… Again, it was my first movie lead, so I couldn’t believe I was there. I was so excited to just be there, and let alone have a challenging part.

BERLANTI: Every day someone would get to the set with a new necklace or bracelet to wear. I was like, “Guys, this can’t be the movie about necklaces. Can we lose some of the necklaces?” There were half the number of puka shells that would be in that movie if those actors had their way.

CAIN: I will raise my hand and say, “Guilty party here.”

WEBER: I lived with Greg when we were shooting in L.A., and I got to experience my first earthquake. I’m trying to act like this earthquake is no big deal, but I come running out into Greg’s arms, and I’m like, “Please tell me this is going to stop.”

CAIN: I remember Billy Porter’s very worst, most stressful day was the day we did the softball scenes.

PORTER: [Laughs] Well, it worked so well because my character couldn’t really play. So there was no real acting going on there! They could all play softball and I was having like high school, elementary school memories of being picked last. I was the funny one, so it actually worked! It really worked because it was everything I was supposed to be. So I used it! [Laughs]

BERLANTI: I would ask [John Mahoney] about Steppenwolf Theatre. He was such a gentleman, and you could tell such a kind soul and warmhearted. Everybody in the movie really played the role they were supposed to play on screen, and it was similar to the dynamic kind of behind the scenes. By my brief experience in movies, that tends to be when people are connecting to their characters in that way.

WEBER: [Mahoney was] just the best. While you’re waiting for lights, there’s nobody you’d rather sit around. And literally we were at his knee while he was telling the stories and talking about the Chicago days and all of his work with Jon Hughes.

BERLANTI: I came back to run Dawson’s Creek in the second season, and so we moved the edit bays for the movie into the edit bays at Creek. So I was running the show for the first time and editing the movie. Someone said we could get it into Sundance, but you have to show them at least 60 minutes of the film. I edited like 60 minutes of it by November, and it got into Sundance. [Club was shot in October 1999.] So I had November to just finish editing and posting the whole movie so that it could be at Sundance. It was kind of a whole wild ride up until that moment.

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The Legacy

MCGRATH: So many people still watch it and say, “That movie saved my life.” That just brings me to tears. When a young person says that to me, it will stop me in my tracks. I am so proud of the movie because of the people that it’s touched.

BRAFF: I get a lot of stuff that makes you want to hold your heart. The men who were young at the time will say, “You have no idea how important that movie was to me, and how it made me feel normalized. It was so like me and my friend group.” I’m glad I’m doing this because I feel like it’s fallen into the background. When I do run into gay men that haven’t seen it I’m like, “What? You gotta see this movie. It’s so good.” I’m still doing PR for it. I’m so happy because I do feel like when Greg’s movie Love, Simon came out and there was such a wonderful response to it, all I could think about was I wanted everyone in the community to see his first movie because they would love it.

BERLANTI: I hope that it celebrates the families we make that’s not your blood family, as LGBTQ people. The highs and lows of that first family and those connections we form at that times of our lives — it does really capture what it felt like to be part of that group and be around gay men at that moment and that particular group of friends.

For more Untold Stories from your favorite rom-coms, pick up the new double issue of Entertainment Weekly on stands now, or buy it here. Don’t forget to subscribe to EW for more exclusive interviews and photos — and follow #LoveEWstyle on Twitter and Instagram.

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The Broken Hearts Club

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