Though feature films often dominate the conversation at the Sundance Film Festival, the smart filmgoer pays just as close attention to the shorts, many of which are turned into features after attracting attention on the festival circuit. Director Rhys Ernst’s short film The Thing was one of the most exciting shorts I saw at the festival this past weekend. Afterwards, I spoke with Ernst about how the film came to be, a pivotal road trip he took, and his thoughts on trans representation in cinema.
Describe what your short is about?
The Thing is about a couple –a woman and a transgendered man– who are traveling on a road trip with their cat towards a mysterious roadside attraction called “The Thing.” The closer and closer they’re getting toward their destination the further and further they’re getting from each other.
Where did the idea for the short come from?
Since I’m trans I certainly had a stake in putting that character out there. Obviously there’s a lack of trans men characters in film, but I didn’t want to make an identity film, I wanted to have the issue folded into a much larger narrative so it could appeal to all different kinds of audience members. I have gone on a lot of calamitous road trips and when I moved to LA from New York I brought my cat with me in the car.
Isn’t that sort of dangerous for a cat to travel that way?
The cat was okay. He was a little freaked out, but he was okay. My friend and I would sneak him into hotel rooms. It was so comic and strange it was one kernel for the film. The rest of it’s not particularly autobiographical – though I did grow up going on lots of road trips with my family. It’s so American – these tourist roadside attraction places. They’re these nice emblems of something that’s totally mysterious.
What was remarkable I thought was that to an experienced eye, you might recognize the trans character as such, but there are definitely people in the audience who won’t, and there’s an impactful moment because just seeing the moment where the character wraps his chest, and it creates a tension in the film, but you don’t say what the tension is.
The couple never talks about what’s really going on, what’s the problem. Is “the Thing” what they’re not saying to each other? It kind of overlaps in a lot of ways.
Did you have concepts in your head about what “The Thing” was?
In terms of working with the actors we’d talk about what it was in really specific ways that kind of related to things in their lives that they could attach to – especially when they were walking in at that last moment. It’s a canvas though, you can throw any meaning for the characters that you want to. Especially Zoe, who’s really focused on the destination. I just like anticipation, and not even knowing what you’re anticipating. In one kind of metaphor was that it was kind of a secular pilgrimage.
How did you get the film made?
I started writing a long time ago, but I sort of struggled with the script for some reason, and then I ended up bringing a co-writer on. We had a lot of fun and ended up working together. I looked for a trans actor first and did an international casting call. I did it mostly through LGBT channels via social networking and trans blogs. There’s a major underground FTM life on line, and if you gain their trust they’re excited about being represented. I got lots of applicants. I also went to San Francisco and New York and made appointments with people, and found the guy who’s in the film – Hilt Trollsplinter. He’d never acted before. He was a San Francisco guy, living off the grid. He was super intense and had a lot of charisma and emotional range. Ruthie Doyle the girl that I cast, was a friend from New York. I looked into traditional casting sites and I got such an onslaught of people it was overwhelming. Most of the women hadn’t read the casting call and were just responding to everything. It felt like a nightmare having to respond to all those people and explain the story. I thought of my friend Ruthie when I was writing the lines, and then I only did a casting session with her and it worked out. I did a Kickstarter and pulled in a lot of money from that, and just kind of assembled my team. It happened pretty quickly. We shot on Super 16 in mostly Palmdale. It was kind of a long shoot actually.
Do you feel like making work about trans themes is your responsibility?
I feel like it’s becoming more and more that way. Not that I necessarily want it to be my main thing. Somebody asked me if I feel pigeonholed doing that work, and it is a kind of double edged sword because I don’t want to be pigeonholed, and I want to be able to do television and work in more of a mainstream capacity, so I don’t know. I am afraid of being pigeonholed as a trans director.
But on the other hand there ain’t a whole lot, and you could be a big fish in a small pond. We’re kind of at the forefront of that – where it could be like you’re the go to person for that, and you’re the master of that.
That would be amazing. I do feel like we’re on the cusp of this big wave of something out there.
New queer cinema part two!
Yeah. I’d like to be a part of that.
I do feel like I get when people said to me in college that it was limiting to only be writing about gay things, but it’s like just because I’m writing about it now, doesn’t mean that’s what I’m going to be writing about in a year. It’s all part of a process of growth as an artist.
Yeah what I’m doing feels exactly like the right thing for me to be doing it. Not a lot of people are doing it, and maybe it’s like not going to catch on right away or maybe it never will but it just feels like we have a little bit of a responsibility to do it.
Do you have filmmakers who are your influences?
Before I came to filmmaking I had a pretty mixed media background for a long time. I grew up watching a lot of classic films, nineties new queer cinema stuff, classic independent films. I wasn’t really a true film buff. I was a serious musician and painter and photographer. In college, I was trying to find ways to combine those things, which is how I wound up making films, but they were originally mixed media and experimental narratives. But the go-to things I say are Todd Haynes and Almodovar and the kind of – filmmakers that work with queer themes but that are in much larger worlds than those issues. Daniel Clowes was also a big influence on The Thing. It’s not located just in filmmaking. I’m kind of trying to become more of a film buff now.
Note: Major spoilers below on Pedro Almodovar’s new film The Skin I Live In
Did you like the new Almodovar? I thought it was really transphobic.
That’s funny, you’re the first person I’ve heard say that. And I was really feeling when I watched it like that might be part of the conversation, but every trans person I know loves it.
I just thought from a purely Vito Russo perspective, that the message of the movie was that it was saying that the worst horror you can inflict on someone is to be made into a trans person, or the opposite gender. I understand that it’s this deranged person out for revenge, but that was my take on it. I felt like it left a rotten taste in my mouth. Almost as if he kidnapped a straight guy and made him get fucked by guys – the worst thing you could do to someone is to have gay sex.
I totally see what you’re saying but I felt like it was more complicated, it wasn’t a necessarily ill fate for the character, she had some kind of deeper thing going on, doing all that yoga, and getting in touch with her body.
But then for me if she embraced her new body, and embraced this new person, and liked it –which is the narrative that got Almodovar in trouble when he did Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! and he had the woman fall in love with her kidnapper– if she loved her new body in this one, why does she still get violent revenge on him at the end? She doesn’t emerge wonderfully happy in her new body.
Right but with her new body she was still kidnapped the entire time. I don’t know. I liked it. It was a complicated portrait that was hard to put your finger on it. I felt terrified of it in a lot of ways, and actually I feel like I like it the more and more distance about it.
Do you have a favorite film about trans characters?
Oh, Wild Side by Sebastien Lifshitz. I don’t want to criticize the film but it is a very typical narrative of a trans person coming home and reckoning with the boy that she once was and it’s very much about that. And that’s sort of what I want to get outside of in my own work, and make those people larger and more whole characters than just their gender. But that’s just a really beautiful movie. I can’t really think of much with trans men.
When did you transition?
About four years ago.
Can you tell me about the process?
It actually had a lot to do with going back to grad school. I was in New York, and it was something that I had struggled with for a long time, it wasn’t like it just occurred to me. I already kind of was living as a guy in a lot of ways, but the thing that pushed me over the edge to make me start taking hormones was moving to California to go to Cal Arts, and I just couldn’t imagine starting over and not being male. It seemed ludicrous. So I timed it out for the first shot, to time with the first day of school. So in a way the road trip I took cross-country, which was the one I took my cat on, it was a little kernel for this film – my transition started around then. It was a more precious issue. My friend who came with me on the trip was also trans and we kind of struggled with men’s rooms and that sort of thing, and being insecure about it. As soon as I got to California, the light switch had been flicked and that was it. There was minor evolution in my physical changes at that point, but that was it. Starting my life over to focus on film.
Was your family okay with things?
Yeah my parents were really great. They had some concerns, and I think that transgender issues are really new for most families – even super liberal families. I came out as gay or queer when I was thirteen and they were more concerned for what my life would be like, and had some reservations. But I took the lead and said this is what I’m going to do, I’ll talk to you guys as much as you need. I’ll hold your hand, and we had lots and lots of conversations about it. They’re now super out to their friends about it.
There is a moment in The Thing where you expect violence because of the history of trans people in cinema, but you move past it.
That’s the thing. I’ve been really privileged. Violence hasn’t been part of my experience, but I know it’s been part of a lot of people’s experience. But that’s the thing I wanted to move things away from that kind of narrative and make it sort of feel like being trans wasn’t just gloomy. The next thing I’m doing is Zachary Drucker and I are collaborating on an experimental narrative starring Vaginal Davis, Flawless Sabrina, and Holly Woodlawn. We’ve been shooting it sporadically whenever we feel like it. It’s been really fun. I’ve also been starting to work on a feature that’s sort of a trans guy buddy movie. Kind of in the style of Do The Right Thing and Dazed and Confused – a one day narrative. I don’t think there’s enough examples of funny, cool, weird, quirky trans people. That’s not what the dialogue is about, so I’d like to do that.