Writer-director Eric Schaeffer explains why he wanted to make a movie featuring a transgender actress | VIDEO
(Editor's note: SDGLN is featuring Q&A interviews with leading filmmakers from around the world who are participating in FilmOut San Diego's 16th annual LGBT Film Festival, running May 30 to June 1 at the historic North Park Theatre. Follow SDGLN for all the news about one of the top LGBT film festivals in the U.S.)
SAN DIEGO, California – “Boy Meets Girl” is an original and unique story that blurs all gender and sexual orientation lines. The movie opens FilmOut San Diego’s 16th annual LGBT Film Festival on Friday, May 30.
Michelle Hendley makes her film debut, playing Ricky, a 20-year-old transgender woman from a conservative town in Kentucky who yearns to become a fashion designer in New York. Michael Welch (Mike Newton role in “The Twilight Saga” film series) portrays Ricky’s lifelong friend, Robby. Alexandra Turshen and Michael Galante are cast as Francesca and David, a debutante and her Marine fiancé who enter their lives.
Writer-director Eric Schaeffer (“If Lucy Fell,” “Fall” and “Mind The Gap”) speaks with SDGLN about his new film.
Q: Your movie has the plum spot as the Opening Night movie at the 16th annual FilmOut San Diego LGBT Film Festival? Will you and other cast members be attending? Has “Boy Meets Girl” opened any other festival?
Eric: Yes, I could not be more excited, grateful and honored! My mother grew up in La Jolla, California and I have relatives in San Diego, so it’s very special to me to be screening with you, especially as opening night film.
I wouldn’t miss it! One of my producers and co-producers are coming along with four of the leads and co-leads in the film.
This is the first festival BMG is opening!
Q: Why did you choose to write, produce and direct a love story involving a transgender heroine? Did you wade into a pool of trouble, being a straight filmmaker tackling such a sensitive topic that often is not handled well in movies?
Eric: Like all of my films, I like stories that unite us, regardless of our race, gender, sexual orientation, age, nationality, spiritual beliefs and anything else that the ego can use to create the illusion of separation. I truly believe if we are to survive, we must become closer, not more fractured.
I felt this story, involving a transgender woman, told in the way I told it, hopefully makes all people identify more with the similarities of her challenges, hopes, feelings, life victories and struggles, than the differences. Based on the storyline, going in, people might not expect to identify but when they realize it indeed is the truth after watching the film, hopefully it may allow them the deeper experience of openness in the future with less judgment of both themselves and the people around them.
The true meaning of labels such of “straight,” “gay,” and “queer” are part of what I explore in the film. Personally I would not be considered “straight” by the vast majority, a majority who, if they admit to themselves or others their inner fantasy life, desires and actual practices would probably not be considered “straight” either. My work is opening that conversation and hopefully widening the borders of those definitions. Self-hatred, shame and lack of self-acceptance is at the core of our world’s cancer and hate, as it fuels hatred of others by those who misguidedly can’t stand the truth about themselves. We have to reverse that.
So no, as with all of my work, being a human being, having experience with humanity, I am as uniquely qualified to tell stories about the human condition as anyone regardless of who I sleep with, what God I do or do not believe in, and what sex I am. The outer shell of experiential existence, gender, sexual orientation, class, these things are cosmetic. The feelings we share are the same and therefore whether I feel hurt because someone doesn’t like me because I’m white or fat or old or stupid or not funny or queer is the same hurt someone else feels because someone doesn’t like them because they are black or gay or too thin or too smart. You can’t compare pain. Pain is pain. It tastes the same everywhere to everyone. And so to does love. I have felt profound pain and I have felt vast love, so I can write about both with immense experience regardless of the outer shell of the characters in my stories. Obviously there are nuances of experience that are not universally the same but I submit they are not as different and abundant as people like to believe.
Q: How refreshing that you cast a transgender actress to play a transgender woman! Is it true that you found Michelle Hendley via Skype? Why was she perfect for the role of Ricky?
Eric: It was very important to me to cast a transgender actress to play Ricky, a transgender character. I wanted less acting and more real life experience brought to the film and obviously a transgender actress could achieve that. I also wanted to help audiences feel more integrated with the story and less distracted by the actor or actress playing the part. I felt that was most achievable by casting a transgender actress. I also wanted to make sure every moment of this story rang true and was never false. Doing a lot of research in the transgender community taught me a tremendous amount and taught me there are many differing viewpoints within that community about certain issues. Having a transgender actress paly the part made me feel confident that while the story could not reflect every transgender woman’s experience, at least I would not be making up an experience from my imagination that was not vetted by a transgender woman so I could make sure it was at least germane and authentic to her experience and therefore valid.
Having few choices of transgender actresses in the usual casting avenues, I had to get creative in finding a transgender actress to play Ricky, so I investigated on the Internet and YouTube and that’s where I found Michelle, who had a YouTube channel. While she was not an “actress” at the time I saw her videos, I could tell that with hard work she could become one if she was interested and willing to work with me. She was, and she did! She is fantastic in every way.
She naturally had the personality that embodied Ricky, that I could see from her videos: Strength, intelligence, kindness, humor, edginess, sexiness, honesty and emotional depth. So it was just a matter of teaching her the logistics of film acting, which she worked very hard at and conquered quickly.
Q: Did Michael Welch have any qualms playing a straight guy from rural America who is best friends with a transgender girl? Did you tightly control his performance or allow him great leeway in creating the role of Robby?
Eric: Michael had no qualms at all. He was completely into the story and character from the first audition. Michael is the hardest working, most generous, thoughtful, compliant actor I’ve ever worked with. He was inspiring to me and his characterization of Robby was nearly perfect from his own imagining. I had very very few notes for him so all I had to do was point the camera at him, yell “action,” and enjoy his excellent performance.
Q: There is a terrific scene in the movie when Robby and Ricky get angry with each other, and Robby says some very hurtful things to Ricky concerning her sexual identify. The raw emotions of that scene are incredibly powerful and moving. Can you share more about how that scene came about?
Eric: Thank you for the compliment. I hope a feature of my work (this movie exemplifying it in many ways) is sort of unconsciously tricking audiences into having more identification with the stories I tell then they ever would think they could have if told going in what the story was about, how the characters would behave and what they would say. The way I do that is by being faithful to a very conventional story structure and with humor. They are lulled into a sense of security both by laughing, which is always an indication of identification, and by a method of a story unfolding which is familiar to them. And once I have them, then I can take them anywhere, much further without them feeling they are straying as far from the norm as they might were the filmmaking more experimental in its technique. Suddenly they realize things about themselves they might never have be open to had they been wary of the circumstances before they entered the story or pulled out of the story by the filmmaking pointing at itself in an “artsy” or unconventional way.
Q: At one point, Ricky is called a “tranny” by David, who is upset his girlfriend Francesca has befriended her. What has been the reaction from the transgender community to the movie? Have you been caught up in the “political correctness” debate, a la RuPaul?
Eric: So far the transgender people who have seen the film have loved it. It’s important that people see the film before they form an opinion as summaries, tag lines, even more in-depth interviews like this one are devoid of context to a lesser or greater degree. (It seems like an obvious thing to say, but sadly, in our culture, it’s not.) Once one were to see the film, the context of the scene you mention and the reason for David saying what he says will be clear. At that point an intelligent conversation can take place with all the facts known. Unfortunately salacious writers are rewarded for making noise without facts informing their viewpoints. They do an immense disservice to all when they write with such carelessness, especially the groups they often claim to be advocating for.
My show “Starved,” for instance, was boycotted by a major eating disorder advocacy group and they had never seen the show. And already “writers,” only armed with the summery for “Boy Meets Girl,” have made incorrect assumptions about which characters terms like “sexual orientation” apply to, and gotten upset without seeing the film to find out if they even had reason to, which they would not have as it turned out had they seen the film.
Q: You play a small part, as a police officer, in this movie. Are you following in the footsteps of Alfred Hitchcock, putting yourself in your own movies?
Eric: Come on Ken, SPOILER ALERT! I’m kidding. Usually I star in my films and TV shows. A small cameo was actually a unique thing that I thought would be fun in rare instance of not playing the lead. The only two options were a heroic cop or a disgusting flasher … for once I didn’t lead with the chin and chose the heroic cop. Ha!
Q: What is the buzz about the movie on the gay film festival circuit?
Eric: So far so good it seems. We are in a bunch of LGBTQ festivals this spring and summer, nearly all we have shown the film to have programmed it and the only screening to date was in Boston and it was fantastic. The buzz seems to be what I hoped it would be: This is a film unlike many before it and a film that should be seen by everyone.
Q: Where did you shoot the movie, and why did you choose this location?
Eric: Though the film takes place in a small town in Kentucky in the story, for budgetary reasons I shot it in Vermont, where I have a house and many ties to the community, and which, from the people from the South who have seen the film, approximates Kentucky very believably!
Q: What do you want audiences to remember about the film after they leave the theater?
Eric: Excellent question. The exact same thing I want them to remember about any of my films when they leave the theater: That was a film that reminded me how lucky I am to be living such a graced life in this magnificent world and how much I am grateful for and love everyone and everything in it and that I must work harder to remember that more of the time and help create that feeling in everyone I come I contact with more of the time.
Q: Do you consider this an LGBT film or a mainstream movie, and why?
Eric: It absolutely is a mainstream movie in that its emotional themes are universal regardless of sexual orientation, age, gender, race, class, etc.
Q: What’s next for you?
Eric: I will spend the next year doing everything I can to get “Boy Meets Girl” out into the world. I’ll also write my next film and raise money to shoot it. I have a few ideas floating around in my head for what that will be.
Q: What is something your fans don’t know about you?
Eric: Wow! That’s a hard one. SO much of my personal feelings are known through my work and through my interviews and press. I really feel my fans are kindred spirits and as such know me on a cellular level. I really can’t think of anything they don’t know about me, I think that’s why they appreciate my work. My voice is their voice too.
Q: If you were granted three wishes, what would you do with them?
Eric: The first would be an infinite amount of wishes so the list of what I would do with those obviously would be too lengthy to write here. But the second would be looking like I did when I was 40 but continuing to grow old for as long as I wanted to. The third would be having the power to exact that ability to my family, friends and everyone in the world.
Upon rereading the above answer it seems easier to just say, with all three wishes I’d wish to become Devine. What better way to spend eternity, having the power to help everyone in all ways?
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Ken Williams is Editor in Chief of SDGLN. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, @KenSanDiego on Twitter, or by calling toll-free to 888-442-9639, ext. 713.