In this episode of our FREE THE WORK podcast miniseries, "The Future, Through Our Eyes," watch as our FTW Community Lead, Chloe Coover, speaks with filmmaker, artist, and director of Adam, Rhys Ernst. Listen as the dive into trans representation in history, side hustles, and paying your dues.
You can watch our close-captioned video below or listen to this episode through Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher, and Soundcloud. Keep scrolling for the full transcript!
Rhys Ernst is a filmmaker and artist. He was a Producer and Director on Amazon’s Transparent and created the title sequence for the series. He was nominated for a 2015 Emmy Award for directing and producing the webseries This Is Me. In 2016 he teamed up with Focus Features to create the online series, We’ve Been Around. Ernst has shown work at the Whitney Biennial, the Sundance Film Festival, Oberhausen, the Ann Arbor Film Festival, The Walker and The Hammer Museums; he has won two Special Recognition GLAAD Awards as well as awards at Outfest, Chicago International Film Festival, the L.A. and the Seattle Transgender Film Festivals. He has been awarded fellowships from the Princess Grace Foundation, Point Foundation, Film Independent’s Project Involve, Sundance FilmTwo, and the Universal Director’s Initiative. He was awarded the 2015 Point Foundation Horizon Award and the ACLU Liberty Award for his work on transgender representation in the media. He received a BA from Hampshire College and an MFA from CalArts. His debut feature film, Adam, premiered at the Sundance 2019 Film Festival, won awards at Outfest, Oslo Fusion, and the Mezipatra Film Festival, and is nominated for a 2020 GLAAD award. He lives in Los Angeles.
Chloe is FREE THE WORK's Community Lead. She's an artist, quadruple Leo (Sun, Moon, Rising + Mercury), ANTM scholar, meme enthusiast, and is proud to be a woman of trans experience.
Chloe Coover: Hi, I'm Chloe Coover, Free the Work's community lead, and today, I'm joined by Rhys Ernst, a filmmaker and artist. So, great to see you, first of all.
Rhys Ernst: Hello, yeah, good to be here, nice to see you too, Chloe.
CC: Yeah. So Rhys served as producer and director on Amazon's Transparent and created the title sequence for the series. He's the creator of the web series This Is Me and We've Been Around, and his feature debut Adam premiered at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival and is nominated for a 2020 GLAAD Award. So, congrats. That's amazing.
RE: Thank you.
CC: So to get started, the last time we saw each other in person was at a friends birthday party, and this is very significant to me in my mind, 'cause it was one of the first times before everything really shut down that I was openly acknowledging that something was coming with someone. So we were talking about grocery stockpiling right beforehand.
RE: Yeah, yeah, that's right. It's really funny that you mention that. Yeah, it's like, that was one of the last events I went to, was this birthday party that we were both at in LA, and yeah, I had had this weird premonition about pandemic, a little bit earlier than the news was hitting, and me and my friend Amy were like, "I think this is gonna be a big deal. "Let's go to the grocery store," and she was like, "Yeah, let's do it." We did this kind of prepper grocery shop, like giant cart, and everybody was looking at us like we were crazy. And I actually posted about it on my Instagram, 'cause I was sort of like, "You know what, I could be totally wrong, "but maybe I'll just try to break the seal "for other people and make it more okay to react "to this potential pandemic that might be happening. It's weird, 'cause I'm not normally nervous about stuff like this, but I had a weird feeling about it.
RE: And then you were like, "Should I go glory shopping?" I was like, "Yeah, I think you should."
CC: Well, that's the thing, 'cause there was obviously a little bit of a domino effect with people, because like, I started to see certain things, and then, you were definitely on the early side of that kind of like, "Let's go to the grocery store "and actually gather supplies" kind of move.
RE: Yeah, I don't know why I had this feeling about it. I'm not like, a psychic person or anything. I just had a weird feeling about this one. I was just like, "You know, this is gonna be a thing." I just thought that early.
CC: No, totally.
RE: So anyway, that was really one of my good calls I've made in my life, I guess, one of a couple.
CC: You have a few, yeah.
RE: Yeah, there's been a couple, and here we are. I still have some of that prepped food because I didn't have to actually, you know.
CC: I know, so I did the same thing right afterwards, inspired by you, and I still have all of it. It's just like, tucked away in one of my closets in my apartment, and I'm just like, well.
RE: Yeah, the bag of rice, just in case.
CC: Well, so, I ran out of pasta sauce, and I broke that out. I was like, "No, I know I have one."
RE: I've dug into it a couple times. And now it kinda goes with my earthquake kit or whatever too.
CC: Right. Well, living in SoCal is like, you're kind of just at the mercy of whatever nature throws at us, so.
RE: Yeah, we had an earthquake too.
CC: There's always gonna be at least one thing. I know, did you feel it?
RE: I did. I woke up and was like, "Earthquake!" It really woke me up. But it wasn't big. I didn't have to get up. I just sort of sat up and then went back to sleep.
CC: I know I woke up too, but it also just was like, one of those things where I was like, "Why am I awake?" And then a couple hours later when I looked at the news, I was like, "Oh, that's why I woke up, okay."
RE: Oh, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah. Just what we need, another calamity on top of everything that's happening.
CC: Exactly. But so, yeah, on that note, I was wondering what the last couple of months have held for you sort of on a personal note, on a professional note. What's been going on in your life under "quar" conditions?
RE: Yeah, well, boy, it's been such a rollercoaster, such a ride. Lots of different phases. I think the beginning, you know, I think I had a certain sense of maybe what this year might look like, and of course, that all went out the window and changed. I actually had a bunch of pitches scheduled for what ended up being the first week of quarantine that all got canceled, and then rescheduled in weird ways, like in a much more protracted, elongated way. But yeah, everything slowed down, you know, and if I thought maybe there was a possibility of going to production this summer, obviously that didn't happen. But it's moved me more into more of a writing and development place, which is probably true for a lot of people in film, which actually, I've been kind of enjoying. I didn't come up as a writer, and I didn't even feel, yeah, I didn't even feel like a writer for a long time. I would work with co-writers often, and sometimes write my own stuff, but I didn't feel as confident in that area as much as I did in directing and other kind of hats. And so, it's been more in the last couple years I've kinda come into writing more, but then during pandemic, I've been really sort of sitting with that kind of routine and development and kind of longer-game projects. So, it's been interesting. It's been a good time to reflect, and for me, the last, I don't know, six or so years have been really busy work-wise and kind of gone from one thing to another, like, and sometimes overlaps projects. So it's been nice to kinda slow down and take stock and think about what do I want in terms of what's next and what's the future of my career gonna look like. So it's been a good kind of reflective slow down, writing/development period for me, but also weird. I mean, we're all on the same rollercoaster of some weeks are insane and scary. You know, I was doing a lot of protesting. The quarantine's had a lot of different phases for me.
RE: Continues to change, week by week.
CC: Definitely. I feel like sometimes, I have weeks where I'm just like, "Oh, I could do this forever. "This works for me." And then other times I'm like, you know, just kind of losing my mind, slowly but surely.
RE: You know, I feel the same. Probably many people, I'm sure, say they don't wanna go back to the old way exactly, and there's certain things I miss, of course, like, before we started recording, you were talking about what's the club song you wanna hear when you go back? When this is over, we're gonna like, go dancing. I miss that stuff. But you know, I don't know. There's also a lot of aspects about the "old way" that just weren't working for me personally, even. I went to some events right before pandemic that were so overcrowded and weird, and it just felt like the world was sort of spinning too fast in an unsustainable way, I don't know. This needed to happen in some cosmic way, I guess, even though this has also been really difficult and terrible in a lot of ways. But I don't know, I'm trusting the kind of long-term meaning of it as it's evolving and looking forward to the bigger, deeper, cathartic changes that we need to see socially and in terms of cultural inequities and all those kinds of things of course, but like, even just in the rhythms of how do we live, and capitalism has been big. Like, how do I feel about capitalism has been a big thing on my mind during this too.
CC: Totally. I mean, and one thing we're being shown is just on some level, that if the systems that are in place are called upon to flex in one way or another, most of them that we have currently are fairly unable to do so. So one thing that I think has been sort of growing in universal consciousness is the fact that like, "Hey, maybe all these systems that we set up "don't actually do their jobs as well as they should," because they don't accommodate people's lives when massive changes like a pandemic occur.
RE: Yeah, totally, yeah, 100%. I mean, I'm sort of like, I don't wanna sound like too much of an LA whoo-whoo person.
CC: Go for it, please.
RE: I mean, looking at astrology in this era and how, I don't know, things have to break down to be rebuilt. That's just an adage that works regardless if you're whoo-whoo or not.
RE: And we are in that. There's so much about our society that hasn't been working for so long, just on every level. So, I don't know, I'm optimistic and excited about what the change will be like. But we're in the middle of the rough, crazy, burn-down part, obviously.
RE: Weird and hard.
CC: Scary weird. It's so interesting, because your answer just then was such a microcosm of so many of the different directions of questions I wanna ask you. It touched on basically everything I wanted to go over, which is, to start with, I really was so curious when you said, "Oh, I don't really conceptualize myself "as a writer, or I didn't early on." And so I was really curious about the way your pathway into the roles that you occupy now in terms of film production, because I just, on a personal level, was introduced to your work as a visual artist in the Whitney Biennial. So, that was my first introduction to you as a creator at all, and then it's interesting to sort of track over the course of these conversations how everyone really found their way into film, because most people that are part of our extended community, it seems, don't come from it in exactly the same ways as most cis, straight, et cetera, people.
RE: Right, right, totally. No, I think that's a cool question. It's interesting, 'cause when I was a younger filmmaker, I always wanted to talk to directors, because I wanted to be like, "How did you get to where you are? "How do you do this?" And everybody's story was so different. And this is me talking to older, cis, probably straight directors too, which, that's a whole other tangent, which I might circle back to. But in terms of my path, I had sort of a probably pretty unconventional one in many respects. But I dropped out of high school when I was 14 and got my GED, and basically, I was an out queer young teenager in North Carolina, at a time when that was really unusual, and I think me being queer, and I was trans, but didn't have the words yet, was a large part of why I dropped out. But also, I was sort of, I don't know, I was very creative, and I was very frustrated in the high school environment where I was growing up also. But anyway, I had lots of different interests. I did visual art. I played a lot of music. I played in lots of bands. I actually thought I was gonna go into music primarily. I played, I started to study jazz after playing lots of punk and indie rock bands and stuff like that, and always painted and drew, from a little kid. My mom's an artist.
CC: Oh, gotcha.
RE: And you know, I got more into photography as a teenager. Basically I was doing all this eclectic art making practice, and going to marches in Washington and doing queer youth activism and stuff. So very eclectic, but I didn't really know how to connect all these things. I ended up going to college at Hampshire College, which is probably the only place that would have taken me without having a college degree. It's kind of like a non-traditional, small liberal arts college in Massachusetts. And there, I took a video class and was like, "Oh my God, "this is how I can bring all these strands together." So my early work, I made this film called The Drive North when I was like 19 at Hampshire College, like, back in 2003, dating myself, which I did the animation for and I scored and I played myself and wrote and kinda did everything, and it was all on Super 8 with slide photography projected off the wall, very mixed media, but it was telling a story, and that was sort of the moment when things started to synthesize for me. I also, I mean, maybe I'm kind of also non-traditional in some ways because I studied film both in undergraduate and graduate school, and not everybody who's trans has access to that, too. So I think that that's a bit, I mean, my path has been non-traditional both ways, or in multiple ways, I guess. So I've always wanted to maintain a connection to my mixed media, more eclectic art making background, but as I grew into my filmmaking in a more mature way, I wanted to really understand narrative construction and working with actors. So basically, I did a follow-up film in my undergraduate thesis. I tried to work with actors. I tried to scale up, and I realized, this is a common problem or challenge that people from a non-traditional, maybe experimental background come into, is maybe they've made experimental films and this and that, and then they wanna do a more traditional narrative, work with actors, tell a story, and they hit a wall. I mean, I'm not saying this is true for everybody, but I've seen this is a common challenge. People think it's gonna be easier than it is, and then they're like, "Oh, shit, there's this whole other thing "that I don't totally grasp yet." And so, I think that's part of what pushed me to go back to grad school to really focus on those aspects that I didn't have access to in undergrad. And in between when I finished college and went to grad school, I moved to New York at a college and worked on sets a lot. A lot of PAing, literally. Actually, I was like a video utility for MTV making the video for Beyonce's "Check On It" video, like stuff like that.
CC: Oh my God.
RE: In New York in the mid-2000s. I was like, an associate producer on this show from Logo called Coming Out Stories where I'd find people that wanted to come out on TV, for God knows what reason.
RE: Stuff like that. But then I ended up getting a job at MTV as a producer/editor. I'm really going back to the archives.
CC: No, I love it. This is great. This is exactly what I was hoping for.
RE: 'Cause I was literally like, I was the person who had made a film in undergraduate that had done well. So this film The Drive North that I made played at a lot of film festivals and it won some awards, my first film as a very young filmmaker. Then I graduated and was like, "Oh, now what? "Now I'm on my path," but that didn't happen. I didn't have a script in my back pocket so I didn't really know what was next, and I kinda landed in New York without a plan, which, I think this is a common thing that people go through coming from undergrad, perhaps. And so anyway, it was sort of a harsh wake-up call, that Hollywood wasn't waiting for me with open arms or whatever just 'cause I had had a short film that had done well at festivals. So I decided to learn kind of on-set industry stuff, like all those hats. I didn't really know what a c-stand was when I came out of my undergrad experimental film program. So I really wanted to learn that side of things. I did sound mixing a little bit on documentaries. I tried lots of different hats, like a little bit in camera departments, although that wasn't really my forte, stuff like that, and really tried to learn, and I also like, I knew I wanted to be a director, so I felt like I should learn all the facets of the on-set stuff so I understood it from the top-down, like how to work with crews and what everybody does. So yeah, I got this job. I'm a good editor, and I got a job, like crazy sizzle real hot-mixy stuff, and I got a job at MTV doing that kind of stuff, and was like, "Oh, this is a comfortable place," but then I realized if I didn't do something drastic, that would be it; that was the plateau I had hit. I really wanted to go back to filmmaking and my roots and directing, and I felt like I needed, for me, I felt like I needed grad school to focus on that, and that's what brought me to California, 'cause I applied to, I got into CalArts and decided to go there for filmmaking, and kinda started out more experimental mixed media, and then crossed over more into like, more formal directing, working with actors, narrative construction, and writing.
CC: Yeah, well, it's interesting that you were mentioning that you enjoyed editing, because the idea of collage and mixed media, it's so interesting that it's like, oh, yeah, you're cutting things and pasting them together, and then there's an element of that that is what editing is too. It's like the basis of that, but taken into the form that it is now. So that's really interesting, that those skillsets are kind of intertwined.
RE: Yeah, no, I love that you picked up on that, and I feel the same. I feel like there's almost a part of my creative practice that is editing and collage and mixed media, and it's not the mode I'm always working in, but it's something I love. You brought up the Transparent title sequence, which is like, that's a funny sort of extension of those roots for me and that mixed media way of working and working with small format film. On the title sequence, which is probably jumping topics a little bit.
CC: No, but I was gonna talk about that too, so perfect.
RE: I mean, it's relevant to my early filmmaking I think in a lot of ways, because, you know. The backstory of that is that Joey Soloway asked me basically do I wanna take a crack at the title sequence in the first season of Transparent, which was so amazing, for somebody to basically be like, "Give it a shot!" Normally, these go to these big, weird Post House-y places that do them, and it's really this dudebro world of like, it's all this crazy After Effects weird layering, you know what I mean, that style of those title sequences, which I'm kind of like, "Eh, it's fine, it's cool, I guess." But anyway, I just appreciated that they were like, willing to take this outside approach to it, and the first title sequence was, you know, Joey and Faith, they like, I think they asked some of their friends and family for some archival thing, like literally old home tapes, and then Zackary Drucker, who was working the show, sourced a couple of things, found a clip or two also. So it was a little bit more of a group effort in the first iteration, although I kind of put it all together, and that sort of then set the precedent of how this was gonna work going forward, and then every season I updated and changed it to reflect the themes of each season, and to a close watch, yeah, to a close watcher, a tuned-in viewer will see that it kinda tells a different story over the five well, four seasons. There's five including the finale. But I'd shoot some things originally on Super 8s or VHS. I would take out these weird little cameras from rental houses. So some of it's staged archival footage, and then some of it, I'd work with an archival company. They would source real stuff from Weimar Berlin, you know what I mean, some kind of women's march in the 70s or something like that, and then I would kind of braid it together more. But yeah, like a more experimental mixed media kinda way. So to me, they're little 45-second little art films that I really enjoyed making. It was really fun, actually.
CC: Yeah, I mean, I just rewatched before this interview all of them sort of sequentially, and it's so fascinating to take them out of context and just watch them, also as someone who's watched the show, 'cause I remember what the themes of each season progressively changed to be. And so, it's cool to watch specific pieces of footage kind of carry through, and then it's kind of like, within the context of this particular season's grouping of footage, this one piece starts to mean something a little bit different. I think it's a really, and then certain parts of it I was aware were original footage, because I was like, "Oh, that's one of the actors who's in the season." So there was that kind of mixture between history and invented history, and I think that there's something very essentially trans and queer about that too, because it's sort of like, we get to have a relationship with history that does rearrange things and does reclaim things and bring things from the past back to the current moment. It sort of is a way in which queer and trans people have agency over their existence in the historical flow.
RE: I love that. No, that's really great. Really, that resonates with me a lot. Yeah, I mean, I think you're right. There is something about re-contextualizing. I mean, say if I were to go into my old photos from growing up or something and took one thing and then took it out of context and it has a new meaning, it's kind of what you're saying.
RE: It's like, not revisionist history, but you know what I mean. It's this recontextualizing, reclaiming. And I don't think that was even an intentional idea, but it's one of those things that through kind of intuition, we ended up at, kind of by accident. Yeah, and there's a lot of personal stories about the clips in every season. I mean, I could tell a story about most of those clips, I mean, even if they were archival, but the circuitous route from which we found it. One sort of funny aside about making the title sequence is it was really difficult with dealing with Amazon legal in terms of clearance, and this is not just because of Amazon being particularly tough or something, but I think there was a legal precedent in Mad Men with their title sequence. Remember the title sequence with the ads like that?
RE: One of those images apparently was of someone who didn't sign clearance. It was like, an ad from the 60s that was used, and the woman was still alive and then sued for them not getting clearance. So that set this really high bar of clearance, you know what I mean?
CC: Yeah, totally.
RE: Which is a weird consideration when you're making something like this. And it was actually very interesting, because when we were trying to find clips of trans people from history, say from a drag ball, or you know what I'm saying, some kind of archival footage of some trans person or a drag performer or something, it was very, very, very hard to track them down via a legal name to prove if they were alive of not, because, as you well know, a lot of people like that might be living more on the margins.
RE: They may be operating under a different name. All these kinds of things that are specific to the trans community then became real hurdles in terms of clearing that. Just very weird, very specific weird challenge.
CC: Totally. I can imagine that being a very difficult part of the process, but also a sort of fascinating one in terms of like, excavating the ways in which trans people do sort of fall through the cracks of a lot of the ways that we have to organize information about people, et cetera.
RE: Totally. I mean, I want some trans archivist to write a paper about this or something, not about the title, but just about this idea.
RE: And then there was amazing clips that we found and couldn't use because we couldn't track down who the person was, and so we had to say goodbye to some beautiful. Like, literally, there's alternate versions that have such amazing little gems in them that we just couldn't use, and it's really sad.
CC: Aww. It's such a shame to think about.
RE: Yeah, I know, it was tough at times, but yeah.
CC: But I think that it's interesting to track the thread that runs through these title sequences and also runs through a lot of other work that I was watching of yours. In terms of historical reevaluation, sort of going back to that same thought, it seems like something that I can identify in even Adam, which was your feature film, was like, sort of excavating a particular period of time within trans and queer identity existence, which was, I would assume, based on aspects of your own lived experience in New York City, in the timeframe that that film takes place.
RE: Right. Yeah, that's exactly right. Yeah, that's exactly right. Yeah, I mean, I am interested in trans history. I think that for me, it's like, I think it comes from two main reasons, I guess, and one is that I think that I would be curious to talk to an anthropologist or something about if there's a word for the kind of loneliness of not knowing, not being able to connect to one's cultural history. You know what I mean? I'm sure that there's an anthropological word for this.
RE: For people who have experienced genocide or something like that, there's gotta be some term for this, and I don't wanna make comparisons between the trans experience and other cultural experiences, but trans history's been so systematically erased and eradicated. There's a reason why people don't know about trans history. It's not a coincidence. It's been just, yeah, just totally shut out of the cultural sort of awareness. And I think, so for me, I've been interested always to find out about this for my own sense of self and sense of connection to a history. When I was sort of in my first years of transitioning and had just moved to LA, I was really lucky to be around, to benefit from relationships from transfeminine elders. I was lucky enough to know Flawless Sabrina and Holly Woodlawn, people like that, and people who would talk about what it was like being arrested for crossdressing and stuff like that, people who were really connected to the trans history that I had only maybe hear snippets of. But I also didn't really know people on the transmasculine spectrum that I would classify as elders. They're hard to find for whatever reason, or maybe for a combination of reasons. But I think that that was, wanting to know about transmasculine history, and also, what does it look like to age as a transmasculine person? What does the future look like, or who's come up before me, blah, blah, blah? So that kind of led me down a rabbit hole of wanting to know about people like Lou Sullivan, you know what I mean, and trying to discover transmasculine history, but also just like, all of it, what we might now call non-binary trans history, or just gender variance throughout history is really interesting to me, and that's sort of how I ended up making We've Been Around, the trans history series. I worked with Susan Stryker on that, who's a well-known professor and writer about trans history, academic. Monica Roberts, who does TransGriot, that blog, who's also a trans historian. So, that became an area of interest, and I mean, I don't know, yeah. So Adam is a funny one, because it's like, would we call it trans history? Maybe now we would.
CC: Who knows?
RE: I think we would. No, I think we would.
CC: A period, it's definitely of a time and a place. So, that's history.
RE: I think so, and it was an important moment of development of trans ideas in culture. And yeah, like you said, that was part of my lived experience, although I didn't write the book that it was based on, of course. But I did live in Bushwick in boon between 2004 and 2008, which is basically exactly the time and place that that book and the film takes place in. So, and I was primarily, well, I was kind of in a mixed queer world, but definitely like, lesbian-adjacent world as well with my friends. I kinda came up through that world, spent time in that diaspora. So when transmasculine people were kinda starting to become more of a phenomenon in that world, there were a lot of interesting conversations and some problematic ones, and that was just part of the growing pains of that moment. So I felt like what I saw in that script when I first read it felt very accurate to that milieu and that moment and the way people stumbled.
RE: I thought that was so interesting. I've said sometimes when I talk about Adam that queer years are like dog years, and so much happens.
CC: Oh, my gosh.
RE: 2006 feels like the 1980s or something like that when you look at how people deal with queer issues, or trans issues in particular, I mean, maybe queer has kind of stabilized more to some extent, but who knows.
CC: It's still definitely a big shift. I mean, it's fascinating, because yeah, I definitely try to think about, within my own lifetime, the degree to which the conversations have evolved, and it's extremely wild to know that that's the case, and especially because of the fact that, as the title of your web series, we've been here. We're here.
RE: I was gonna say this before too. That's the other reason I think I'm interested in trans history, is A, for trans people like myself to be able to see and connect with it and feel a part of a lineage or whatever, a connection to the past, but B, for non-trans people to also see that and also recognize and reckon with the fact that transness is not a youth phenomenon. It's not new.
RE: It's been around throughout every culture throughout history. That's documented. It's like, you just have to go and look for it, or hopefully, work like We've Been Around and other work that other people do will illuminate that for people too.
CC: Yeah, yeah. So my interest in wanting to start this podcast in particular was out of a feeling that so much of what I was seeing from focuses on trans creators, and sort of trans visibility, et cetera, felt very historical, to be honest. A lot felt like I was looking back, and a lot felt like it was sort of seeing the world through that lens, in a way, and making changes to historical record to better reflect the current moment, which I think is important, but also, I'm very future-focused, and I think that like, I worry sometimes that an inordinate focus on just the past will distract us from planning for the inevitable future that we're going to be a part of and the ways in which we can build on what we've done. But at the same time too, I'm also so fascinated about having this conversation, because this is the first one of this series where we've really talked in-depth about history in the past, in any kind of way.
RE: Yeah, no, totally. I mean, I guess I feel like, you know, it's hard to have one without the other.
RE: Or that's my perspective at least. But, you know, a lot of the current, for example, I don't know, queer/trans sort of infighting online, there's a big umbrella of a lot of things that fall under that, but I would say to some degree, some of that has to do with people not necessarily being familiar with even recent history, you know what I mean? A lot of these arguments have come up already. You know what I mean?
CC: They're circular, yeah.
RE: Yes, yes. So I think that we could all kinda benefit from studying like, our queer past a little bit more often.
RE: And again, there's limited access to that for a reason, although it's changing. I love that Instagram account, @lgbt_history, just stuff like that, because a lot of younger queers, well, queers of all ages, I think are not as familiar with that stuff, you know? Cis queers aren't familiar necessarily. I mean, actually, that's been an interesting thing, is like, ask a cis queer how much they know about trans history. Hmm.
CC: Gonna be a new podcast series.
RE: Yes! Usually it's very limited, and you're like, "Oh, this explains some of your worldview, "or maybe why there's not been some advancements," you know what I mean?
RE: There's a lack of, you know, and that's, like I said, it's not just on individuals' actions. It's also access.
RE: It's like the whole climate is arranged in one direction, to not look at that.
CC: No, totally, it's very true. And I think that also, I mean, a part of what was fueling my thought in particular was the fact that there's so much that's in the archive that's obviously painful, and it's kind of like, I don't love centering pain in the trans experience or the queer experience, the gender-variant experience. It frustrates me, because I think it encourages people who are not part of that world to associate us with pain, which we're not about, I don't think.
CC: Like, that's not all of us.
RE: Well, I've been really conscientious, I have a similar feeling about that too, and I've been really conscientious in my storytelling to not center pain. You know, and it's a delicate balance, to acknowledge, acknowledge pain or the potential for pain while still not censoring it, and how each project deals with that is different, I think. But yeah, I think I try to sort of possibility model. Trans people are some of the funniest, most interesting, coolest people I've ever met, you know what I mean, so why not show that? Not to minimize the real struggles.
CC: Totally. RE: Because those are totally a thing too, and that's like I said about the balance, finding that. For me, it's important to think of not just one work that I or someone else might make, but looking at multiple works and seeing how a narrative is created over multiple works too.
RE: So some things I've made, like there's some We've Been Around episodes that make me cry every time without fail, or there's one This Is Me, you know what I mean? There's a couple of these ones that are really sad or really serious, and then there's other works I've made that are really edgy, funny, totally different tone and celebratory, trans joy or something, and I also don't try to make things just affirmational for affirmational sake either, and that's just my personal. I think there's different schools of thought about that.
CC: True, true.
RE: True. But yeah, I don't know, I try to kind of complicate, mix in complexity, and not just make things just joyful for the joyful sake. Again, it's a big balancing act.
RE: And that's humanity.
CC: That's humanity, I mean, very much so. I think that honestly, I do wanna see more stories that are just sort of like, capable of encompassing all the different sides of trans humanity, like you were saying, I completely agree with you. I think trans people, in my knowledge, in my personal experience, are some of the funniest people I've ever met. And part of it comes from, it's just like that experience of living life as a trans person. There's ways in which you are asked to make yourself make sense to others that are funny. There's comedy inherent in a lot of aspects of things that survival requires us to do.
RE: No, and it is historically connected to survival.
RE: And that's, again, going back to that kind of balance. It's an interesting balance, thinking about comedy as a sort of survival strategy, which is accurate to a lot of trans experiences. And that's so rich and interesting and complicated and real. In a way, this conversation just makes me excited to see more things from more people.
CC: Same. But that's actually honestly something that a lot of the people that I've talked with have articulated, is that they're like, "Well, yeah, I gonna keep doing what I do, "and all these other people that I know "are gonna continue doing what they do, "and ideally, that's going to create a larger body of work "that can be considered under the trans lens," so that people can see the wealth of what is contained within trans experience, and that it's not a monolith, you know?
RE: Yeah, completely, and right now, or maybe moreso the last, I don't even know if maybe we're still in this, I can't tell exactly, but that idea of the monolith, of the sort of burden of representation. Okay, here's the thing. How many feature films can you think of directed by trans directors?
CC: Very few.
RE: Very few. So therefore, if one gets made, there's a lot of pressure on one individual work to represent so many different types of people and to please so many different types of people, and there's so much personal frustration from trans people of all different types who have not been fairly or accurately depicted or spoken to or reflected, whatever. So, that's really tough. I think that's a weird challenge for trans filmmakers who are already up against so much, you know what I mean.
RE: I mean, I could go on. But it's not a super easy thing to be a trans filmmaker, trying to convince financers to put money into their projects or to convince people to hire them, whatever that is, whatever they're doing. Hollywood's a business. It's kind of conservative. It's risk-averse. All these things are true and difficult about it, and then the trans audience is, it's a thing, because like I said, people are frustrated, because of the really whack history, you know?
RE: So there's a tension between those things, you know what I mean, that is gonna be difficult for individual filmmakers to satisfy totally for everyone at this moment.
CC: Yeah, I mean, that's definitely something that also has come up in other of the conversations. There's this pressure. The stakes feel exceptionally high, because as a trans person oneself, there's pressure that you're even putting on internally that maybe other people aren't even putting on you, because you just know the weight that comes with the power to have a platform and to tell your story.
RE: Yeah, that's right. And just good ol' fashioned imposter syndrome and all these kinds of things.
CC: Love imposter syndrome.
RE: Yeah. So I've started doing more mentoring to younger trans filmmakers and also, I'm involved, there's are a 50/50 by 2020, transmasculine kind of cohorts, trying to think of other things. I've started being involved with a diverse directors group at the DFA, stuff like that. I mean, it's been a project of mine for many years to try to do some kinda advocacy, level of advocacy and activism for other trans filmmakers, within independent filmmaking, Hollywood, whatever the kind of bubble that is, and to try to get people in, you know what I mean, and just try to make it easier for other folks who are coming up now. And so that's one strategy towards this issue of this tension of the burden of representation, is again, just like, more, more, more.
CC: More, yeah.
RE: Yeah. And I've benefited from having mentors. I think they're all pretty much cis, but you know, cis queer filmmaking mentors who've helped me along the way and helped me become a better filmmaker and given me guidance, and as much as I can at this point, I'm trying to give that back and pay that forward to other filmmakers too. So that's exciting.
RE: Particularly those individual relationships are really rewarding and really nice. So, so much has changed over the past, I mean, Transparent came out in 2014. That was the so-called "trans tipping point year."
CC: The tipping point, yeah.
RE: You really have to say the "so-called trans tipping point."
CC: Right, I love putting it in quotes.
RE: Yeah, air quotes. And you know, God, the year before that was very different, and the years after have been very different. And it's kind of incredible how much has happened in such a short period of time, yet how much it is only just the tip of the iceberg.
CC: Just the tip, totally. Honestly, yeah, one of my questions was going to be about the amount of change that you've seen in the time period since trap was first airing, first began, I guess to be in production even. I would love to know, I guess basically whatever you think is of these topics is the most interesting.
CC: What was some of the biggest or most surprising changes you've seen in that timeframe, what some advice you would give for younger emerging talent who's interested in next steps, 'cause you were talking earlier about the ways that you moved from different phases of your career. That would be I think cool to end on too. Or, we could just talk about what's next for you.
RE: Yeah, well, I'd love to say just in terms of what kind of advice I'd give, because you know, coming up as a filmmaker is really, really difficult, I would say. I mean, it's also different in the middle, and probably at the end too. It's difficult all the way through.
CC: The whole way, yeah.
RE: Yeah, pretty much the whole time. Like, you know, I think I was always trying to find guidance from people and learn and find some hot tips and tricks or something. I don't know if there is. There's no like, life hack for it really, but get a paperclip, and then get some glue.
CC: Okay, got it.
CC: I have these things in my house!
RE: Yeah, a little Dixie cup. Put it to your ear. No, so then, okay, back to where I was. I lost my train of thought.
CC: Oh, sorry.
RE: But you know, okay, so tips for younger filmmakers. I mean, I think you just have to keep on making stuff, like, relentlessly. So I went to grad school, which I was fortunate. I mean, I took out a massive amount of student loans. It wasn't like, free for me. It was very expensive, and I have this world of student loan debt behind me, which is awful, which, that's whole other topic. But my thesis film from grad school played at Sundance, and I thought, "Oh my God, everything's gonna change. "This is it." That's not what happened. I mean, eventually, something came out of that, but it took two years from when I went to that festival until then the fruits of that kind of ended up growing, and I ended up coming back from that and just making more stuff. I made three other, four other short films in the next two years. I figured out how to have a low overhead, which is hard. I figured out my side hustle, which for me was freelance editing. Everybody has to have a side hustle, you know, unless you don't need one, because you have whatever means, but that was never my experience, you know? So you have to figure out a way to not work full, full time, I think, and that means being creative with your money, your income, your freelancing or side hustle thing, and your rent, whatever combination of that is, and then like, I don't know, I believe in learning the ropes. I think you gotta work and find, and I really learned a lot from working with different hats on and being on sets and learning, spending time with producers and talking to them, you know what I mean, and just absorbing it all. And you know, there's always this kind of idea about paying your dues in Hollywood, and to what extent, you know, there's arguments that that's definitely over-emphasized and kind of an old guard thing that keeps people out, which I would kind of agree with, but at the same time, there is some relevance to it. You have to learn the craft and the world too. And so, it's kind of a long game. I always tell people, long game, long game. Just think about your five-year plan, you know? Not your, "Where am I gonna be in sixth months? "I deserve this and this and this." This takes a lot of time, I would say, and you have to kind of be tenacious. So yeah, that's my advice.
CC: Yeah, I mean, it's great, 'cause I like that it ends with "make a five-year plan," 'cause that's the future, through our eyes.
RE: I'd say too, seek out mentorship.
RE: I've gotten people who have cold-emailed me that I didn't know and asked for me to engage with them, and I don't think I've ever cold-emailed people for mentorship, but I've met them through places, either socially or done fellowships, diversity fellowships. Those things I always recommend, trans, whatever, any kind of person who's underrepresented in the industry, look at the talent fellowships, 'cause they are there for you, you know? This is the best time. This is probably the best time in history to be a trans person and be considered for these things, because previously, people would be like, "What?" Not even understand what that is even in previous years. So get in there.
CC: This is our moment.
RE: Yeah, exactly.
CC: Well, thank you so, so, so, so, so much for chatting with me. This was amazing.
RE: Sure, yeah!
CC: Yeah, I hope we get to talk more, catch up more soon.
RE: Me too. Well, don't be a stranger.
CC: I'll try not to.
RE: Thanks for doing what you're doing.
CC: Oh, yeah, I mean, it's my pleasure, truly. This has been the best thing to happen to me during quarantine by far.
RE: Aw, that's cool. That's cool. Start a podcast and get to talk to people under the framework that you create. That's a great idea, actually.
CC: Literally, yeah. I mean, I recommend it to everyone.
RE: That's great! Maybe I'll think about that, hmm. But I love to see it, so thanks for doing it.
CC: Yeah, no, thank you!