Luchina Fisher’s “Mama Gloria” brings a hopeful outlook to the young trans community

This is a time when we all need a Mama Gloria in our lives. Gloria Allen, also known as “Mama Gloria”, is a 70-something transgender woman who’s paved and is paving the way for the younger trans generation. Her story links to a history that has been forgotten, connecting to the trans community that was out and proud in the 1940s and 1950s on Chicago’s South Side. Gloria’s story was brought to the attention of journalist and filmmaker Luchina Fisher through an article shared by a friend about a charm school that Gloria had started in the Center on Halsted in Chicago. Luchina was struck by Gloria and her story by learning that she had a mother and grandmother who supported her transition, which preceded Stonewall. The fact that Luchina has a daughter who identifies herself as transgender made Gloria’s story resonate on an even deeper level.

I was honored to speak with Luchina during the Chicago International Film Festival about her directorial debut centering on the story of Gloria Allen, the impact Gloria is making for the younger trans community, and how her journey demonstrates the importance of being seen and heard onscreen. Gloria’s story is timely in light of this year, which had the highest reported number of trans people being murdered. 2020 has been a dark year. Gloria’s story brings a little light into this darkness, and we’re grateful that through watching “Mama Gloria,” we can be in the presence of her light. I leave you with Gloria’s words, “I’m a good person. I am a trans person. And I have a beautiful spirit.”

Visit the film’s site to keep up to date about upcoming screenings and releases.

Luchina Fisher

REBECCA MARTIN: What brought you to this project?

LUCHINA FISHER: It started with my dear friend E. Patrick Johnson, who is the Dean of the School of Communications at Northwestern. He has a film that is out right now called “Making Sweet Tea” about Black gay men in the south. Patrick reached out to me with this very interesting text that said, “I’ve found your next project.” I was intrigued immediately. And then he sent me a Chicago Tribune story about Gloria and her charm school. I was like, ‘oh my gosh, this is incredible.’ What particularly struck me was that she had the support from her mother and grandmother, knowing that she grew up in the ’40s and the ’50s, and she transitioned before Stonewall. I thought that was amazing. 

It was especially striking for me because I am the mother of a daughter who identifies as transgender. My daughter Gia was fifteen at the time, and she and I were on our way to Chicago because Gia is a Champion. She is the member of The GenderCool Project, which is Chicago-based. It’s a non-profit storytelling campaign that talks about who transgender people are, not what they are. It is a fabulous organization, and we were one of the first families to be a part of it. That was our big trip to Chicago for Coming Out Day. It was two years ago around this time and we headed there to have Gia speak. She spoke at three companies, Citibank, Conagra, and All State along with other Champions to tell their stories. 

I got word to Gloria that I would be in Chicago that weekend, and asked if it was possible to try and meet her. As it turned out, we were going to visit the Center on Halsted, and Gloria’s residence is literally on the same block in the senior building, the Town Hall apartments. It was totally serendipity that our universes aligned. I believe that it was just meant to be. We had an instant connection. After that initial meeting, I felt like Gloria was going to be in our life. I think she felt the same way. She has so many kids that she’s adopted. I count myself among them, although she sometimes calls me her lovely younger sister. [laughs]

A month later I was back filming in Chicago, and Gloria just opened her life up to me. Because of her openness, I feel the film feels so honest and real. She didn’t hold anything back.

Gloria Allen “Mama Gloria”

MARTIN: The history you piece together around Mama Gloria’s story is fascinating to me, with the Drag Balls, and the trans community in the ‘40s and ‘50s. That part of history, or at least Chicago history, I’ve never seen before, or even knew it existed. How was it digging deep like that?

FISHER: I knew that Gloria had lived this particular history, and I knew that she was probably the best person to tell her history. We see that she is an amazing storyteller. I really wanted to put her front and center, and almost make it feel like we, the viewers, the audience, were in her charm school. Because that is how she related often to her kids by sharing her life and her stories. And she listened to them as well.

I thought it’s so important for people to know Gloria’s story. I was just thinking about my daughter being one of the most important audiences. I wanted Gia to know that there were people before her who identified as trans or queer or unusual, and were open about it, and lived openly. I wanted her to know that history. 

When I lived in Chicago I don’t think I knew about the balls, because the ball scene had kind of gone away by the 80s. These balls are what you may think of as the same scene that Pose shows, the New York scene that grew out of Harlem, or from the 1990 film “Paris is Burning”. But Chicago was doing things well before. 

MARTIN: I had no idea.

FISHER: Chicago has a long history of these clubs on the South Side where there were female impersonators. That’s how they identified themselves then. A number of them probably were trans or would have identified that way if given the chance. And some do tell their stories later. You can find those stories in the archives in the Chicago libraries.

Gay Disc Jockey Eddie Phlique with two female impersonators during a Drag Ball in 1940 (OutHistory)

When I started digging about the balls in Chicago, I was just like, ‘I need to find this information and I need to find these images.’ There’s this one website online called OutHistory. The site has really sought out to preserve some of this history in the US from Black LGBTQ communities in particular. They did have a section on Bronzeville, so I knew there were images. I just didn’t know how to find them. 

So I was digging and digging, tracking people who had posted in this OutHistory site. Ultimately I struck gold. I forget what led me to the Chicago Public Library, but it’s the location on the South Side, the Woodson library. I struck gold when I visited The Vivian Harsh collection at the Woodson library.

I just happened to get the right researcher on the phone, and they said, “we do have something like what you’re looking for here. And it’s not listed under LGBTQ, and not listed under trans.” They said, “I think it’s listed under “Finnie’s Ball”, which dates back to the ‘30s.”

They had images that were taken by a photographer who worked for the Chicago Defender, Tony Rhoden. When I got into that library, opened these folders and started looking through these photos, I was just ready to scream. It was like finding treasure. It was so exciting to see, just in black and white, and in sepia. They were beautiful images of people in their wonderful ball gowns, posing, smiling, and being very proud. There was just this sense of being out and open which is amazing because we often think of that period being a closeted time. 

And the fact that the Black press were covering those balls is amazing, and were covering those clubs, and those night club fares. Petite Swanson recorded a song about all of this. And I wanted that song. I want people to hear those folks, to see them, and see that they existed. That is part of my daughter’s history, part of the South Side history, part of the Black trans and the LGBTQ community history, and it’s part of American history. I just felt that was very important to be able to show it so people can believe it. Because if you see it, you can believe it. I was so grateful that was preserved.

MARTIN: How special for Mama Gloria to see those pictures, and to have her history represented.

FISHER: It was so special. When she looked at the photos, she was like “everyone was so beautiful.” It was especially special for her to see pictures of her mother. She had not seen those outtakes of her mother posing for Jet when she did her centerfold picture in 1958. She was just blown away by that. Her mother was just gorgeous. Gloria said that she was the “Black Marilyn Monroe”, and she really was, just gorgeous. 

You could see that maybe in another time Gloria’s mother could have had a dancing and an acting career. She did classes with the Katherine Dunham dance company and another company on the South Side of Chicago. Her mother was also in beauty pageants, and I looked through archives, something like “Miss Black America”. I found some images of her pageant in Philadelphia. All of those things Gloria treasured, and she was so grateful.

Gloria Allen at About Face Theater

MARTIN: We touched a little on this in the beginning, but I’d like to talk more about the impact that Mama Gloria has on the younger trans community.

FISHER: Like you said earlier, Mama Gloria has this grandmotherly presence. Young people just take to her. They just do. That was apparent to me from the moment I met her and when she sat down and talked to our young people with the GenderCool project. It’s that way every time she enters the room with young folks, and it’s so beautiful. I think that’s what we need, we need that kind of cross-generation conversation. And that’s certainly what I hope will continue to take place with the film. 

For young people who are just now starting to discover her story as we launch the film, the response on social media has been incredible. A lot of it is driven by young folks who are like, ‘wow, thank you Mama Gloria’. Some of them are trying to push for her to get a cameo on Pose

MARTIN: That would be amazing!

FISHER: Now there are these beautiful and amazing “out” actors and young folks. But she’s the one that really paved the way for them. Ultimately her message to them is that you can grow old too. To feel that you have a future. 

Too often right now, Black trans women especially are aware of how they are under attack and how likely they are to be discriminated against. They have higher suicide rates. They have higher homicide rates. This year particularly we have surpassed the worst year for homicides. The Human Rights campaign started keeping track of transgender killings, and it’s already been the deadliest year. There is this belief within the Black transgender community, especially Black Trans women, that they will not live past 40. And it’s terrifying how this belief is so strong. It’s a shadow hanging over our community. Even my daughter is aware of it. And that troubles me. 

So I really wanted Gloria to speak to that generation, and say that you can have a long and meaningful life. It does start with support, honestly. Support is crucial. If anything, I hope the parents and other family members will see how important it is to support our trans family members. That support starts at home. Because that’s the support I believe carried Gloria through her life. It’s what she is giving to her “chosen” children. Some of them are not getting that from home. Support is very important. And it’s not just that you have a long life, but you deserve to have a long life, you deserve to be here. As Gloria said, “I’m a good person. I am a trans person. And I have a beautiful spirit.” I feel that is the ultimate message that she leaves with the audience to remember.

Gloria Allen with friends in Town Hall Apartments, “Mama Gloria”

MARTIN: Looking at the organizations that have supported the film, it’s impressive! Can you talk about groups that have stood behind this film?

FISHER: Absolutely.  A film does not get made by one person. It’s such a team endeavor. And I’m very grateful. Originally I wanted to start out very small, very intimate. I thought it was just going to be a short. But as Stephen [Stephen J. Lewis, Director of Photography] and I were filming it, it became apparent that the story was so huge. Stephen kept saying to me, “I don’t know how you’re going to cut this film down.”

One of the first things I did was put together a little sizzle reel and I sent it to Yvonne Welbon, who is one of the producers. She made this film called “Living With Pride: Ruth Ellis @100”, about a Black lesbian she interviewed in her late nineties. Yvonne also took this very long historical approach to telling Ruth Ellis’ life. So I knew she would get Gloria, and she did. She has this organization called Sisters in Cinema, which is Chicago-based. Yvonne told me, “We’re about to do an inaugural documentary fellowship, and I’d like to have you apply for that.” I was delighted to be chosen as a documentary fellow.

Luchina Fisher and Gloria Allen “Mama Gloria”

MARTIN: That’s amazing.

FISHER: That was really the first support. It was so important. Always outside of the industry, you have to find those ways to get people within the industry into what you’re doing. She got me that attention. She also got me my editor, Caroline Berler, who directed and edited the film, “Dykes, Camera, Action!” (2018). Caroline was looking for a film to edit to get to that next level. She also got Gloria. She saw her in the same light that she saw her own Grandmother. So she came aboard.

From there getting into the Athena Film Festival, Works in Progress Program, was probably when things started to really take off. Early on I did have some interest from a major studio. They ultimately passed and I was like, ‘Oh my God, what do I do? How do I re-work the film?’

But sometimes you just need to sit and let things simmer. And that was hard for me. I’ve done television documentaries, and those projects get done in three months. I’m used to doing things on a deadline. And sometimes in independent film you just have to give it time to work its way out. So getting into Athena in March was when things really started to snowball. I pitched the film as part of the works in progress program to a room of potential funders and people within the industry. Black Public Media happened to be there. I had already been in touch with them. But now we were meeting in person, just before everything shut down.

It was perfect timing, and they were like, “I really want to encourage you to apply for some funding.” And they gave me the first major support. And that gave us the permission to say, “now we can finish this film. We know what to do.”

Around the time I was editing the film came the reckoning with the protests and outcry around George Floyd. People were reaching out from the industry and offering to help. One of those people is Isidore Bethel, who is an experienced editor. He offered to take a look at the cut and really gave us some feedback. That was so helpful and again got us to that next level. Suddenly all of the pieces came into place.

We’ve also had support from Women Make Movies as a fiscal sponsor from the beginning. They’ve also given great feedback on the film. It’s really just been a wonderful process. We’re still getting some support coming on board.

What’s wonderful about Black Public Media is that it has enabled the film to make its broadcast debut on PBS next year.

“Mama Gloria”

MARTIN: Congratulations!

FISHER: Thank you, yeah for me that was a goal. I really wanted the film to be available to the trans community. I knew that for a lot of folks, streaming could be expensive, and out of reach. Public television is accessible to everyone. I really want this film to be seen, first and foremost. 

MARTIN: Anything else?

FISHER: One more thing I wanted to add. I’m pushing for our original song, “Presence of a Legend,” sung by Shea Diamond, to be considered for the Oscars. Shea wrote the song with Justin Tranter.

Isabel Sandoval beautifully elevates the marginalized in “Lingua Franca”

Isabel Sandoval

“Every image or sound is a vessel for emotion: rapture, despair, sensuousness, fury, a combination of these. That makes cinema a kind of legerdemain: the art of sculpting such seemingly artificial elements to create a singular, genuine emotional experience.”

–excerpt from Isabel Sandoval’s director’s statement

Isabel Sandoval is not just about making great films, she is about making meaningful films that express her vision and point of view. Through her personal approach to filmmaking, you feel more connected to her and the world she is in. I love her fresh take on the city of New York, and how she elevates the marginalized through her third feature, “Lingua Franca”. The film is so much more than the premise, but the premise is a strong foundation to her film.

“Lingua Franca” is about a trans female immigrant, Olivia (Isabel Sandoval), working as a caretaker for an older woman with dementia, named Olga, with the goal of getting a green card and becoming a citizen. While working for Olga, she starts a relationship with Olga’s grandson, Alex (Eamon Farren), who does not know she’s trans.

We sadly lost Lynn Cohen, who plays Olga, earlier this year. Lynn does an amazing job in one of her final roles. She was very passionate about playing Olga, and you can listen to her passionate words on the film’s IG page about this film.

Beyond being an amazing filmmaker and actor, Isabel Sandoval is a great writer. Cinema Femme is not only about sharing stories of womxn in film, we also share advice from one filmmaker to another. Isabel’s piece in Filmmaker magazine is very powerful (here are links to Part One and Part Two of the article).

“Lingua Franca” is now streaming on Netflix. This film is a must-watch, especially during these times. Thank you Isabel for your poignant work that’s full of beauty.

REBECCA MARTIN: What brought you to this project?

ISABEL SANDOVAL: A French filmmaker once said that directors make the same film over and over again over the course of their careers. We keep revisiting the same themes, issues and conflicts. For me, my go-to theme that I always become drawn to are women who are either marginalized or dis-empowered, who are forced to make intensely personal or private decisions in fraught socio-political settings. That’s what happened in my second feature, “Apparition”, which is about Roman Catholic men living in a monastery in the woods who find themselves under siege on the eve of the declaration of martial law in the Philippines in 1971. 

When I started writing “Lingua Franca,” I was transitioning. I was undergoing my gender transition. And halfway through my writing, that was when Trump actually got elected. I was plunged into a despair and hopelessness. It was a dark time, and I think that was an emotional state that I wanted to capture and instill in those two things, my transition and Trump’s election. Both shaped the premise of “Lingua Franca”.  It’s about this undocumented trans woman who is trying to pursue a path to citizenship, and in the process becomes emotionally involved with a man who doesn’t know that she’s transgender. 

MARTIN: I love how you use New York as the backdrop of the film as you explore the fear of being an immigrant during the times of Trump’s immigration ban. Could you go into your thoughts of using New York as the world of your film, and exploring what it felt like to be an immigrant in a city that was built by immigrants?

SANDOVAL: I am very cognizant of the fact that there have been a lot of films set in New York, and they have a particular gaze of New York. You see that with the Safdie Brothers movies, Spike Lee movies , even in Lena Dunham’s series “Girls”. It was important to me to distinguish myself as a filmmaker, and as a voice, one who was Filipina, trans and an immigrant, and impose my singular aesthetic and perspective that feels different than those of other New York movies that have been made before. 

Olivia (Isabel Sandoval) and Olga (Lynn Cohen)

I felt like Brighton Beach in particular is a defiantly and even stubbornly immigrant neighborhood. It’s a very Russian Jewish neighborhood. In a way, it feels like a self-contained world. It has its own character, personality, and it’s extremely remote. I live in Crown Heights, which is still in Brooklyn, but it’s 30 minutes north of Brighton Beach. Whenever I go to Brighton Beach, I feel that I’m whisked off into a totally different planet or country. I just wanted to show a hidden or secret New York that we don’t see a lot of in cinema.

Aside from Olivia and Alex, the other important relationship in the film is between Olivia and Olga, in that they are mirror characters. These are two immigrant women who migrated to the US at different points in their lives, and are experiencing their own kinds of displacement. With Olivia, that displacement is political, geographical and it’s more obvious because she is an immigrant without papers. In Olga’s case, the displacement is more psychological, because she is dealing with dementia. Her sense of self and memory is slowly slipping away from her. I wanted to establish their relationship early in the film with that scene in the kitchen.

Alex (Eamon Farren) and Olivia (Isabel Sandoval )

MARTIN: I love the exploration of sexual awakening in the film, the way you film the intimate scenes. What were you trying to represent or bring to the gaze through those scenes?

SANDOVAL: To be honest, those were the first scenes that I wrote, and then I built the story of the film around them. It’s because those images represent a kind of gaze in an intimate scene that I’d never seen before in American cinema. You rarely see the female gaze when it comes to desire, in sexuality, and much less in the trans female gaze. As a filmmaker, I’d like to think I’m pioneering in a way that I’m a trans filmmaker who’s actually making a film about trans protagonists. I want to include that kind of scene. In the first scene, it’s more of a fantasy sequence. It’s a trans woman who is the agent, the active agent of desire, and not just its object. She’s actually comfortable and celebrating her sexuality in that scene.

In the actual love scene, I wanted to do away with the predictable approach, which is to string together a bunch of images of naked bodies gyrating against each other. There is quite an obsession and fixation over trans bodies in particular, but I just wanted to have the camera hover over her face and take in Olivia’s expression. She’s enjoying herself sexually, but she’s also starting to realize that she’s becoming sexually intimate with a man is not aware that she’s trans. You can see the sense of hesitation and worry about her face. I shoot it in a way that can make it feel so raw and gritty in order to achieve that type of realism. I think you see these conflicted emotions in Olivia’s face, and it ultimately helped to flesh her out as a character, and give her depth and complexity. It’s like a decoy in that I set up what on the surface feels like a sex scene, but it’s also a pivotal character moment for Olivia.

Olivia (Isabel Sandoval) and Alex (Eamon Farren)

MARTIN: Eamon is very impressive in this role. I first saw him in Twin Peaks: The Return, and he’s such a versatile actor.

SANDOVAL: I’m also a big fan of Eamon’s work in Twin Peaks: The Return. I thought he had a very interesting face as well. He has an interesting character face. I thought he could really add an aura, an erotic danger, but also humanity to someone like Alex.

MARTIN: The film is so sensory, and what I mean by that is that you can feel it. The way the music is present, but quiet, yet part of a scene. And the sounds of the train, the wind, and the snow. Can you talk to me about the use of sound in the film and the feeling you were trying to convey through the sound and ambient noise?

SANDOVAL: I think part of my approach is that I really like mining the tension from the dissonance between the placid and serene surface image and the tensions rolling underneath. In the opening and closing montage, for instance, you see images of Brighton Beach, but it’s juxtaposed with the voice-over of my character, speaking my native tongue, Cebuano. You also hear the sound bites of Trump talking about targeting immigrants as well as news reports of immigrant children being snatched away from their parents. I kept them to a sound bite because I feel sound really does do a lot of heavy lifting, in terms of influencing the mood and atmosphere of a film. So that is what I wanted to do in a film like “Lingua Franca.” As she is trying to live her life in the spaces that she feels safest, the world outside still threatens to intrude and invade the cocoon she set for herself.

Olivia (Isabel Sandoval)

MARTIN: Any advice for emerging female and non-binary filmmakers?

SANDOVAL: My advice would be take as much creative risk as you can, especially as you are making your first work, because you still have the freedom to do so. At the end of the day, with all of the festivals, and the industry, they are not necessarily looking for the most technically polished work, or the one with the highest production value, but they are all looking for talent. They are looking for a unique, distinctive, and singular voice. You should just go for it. 

Filmmaker Anna Kerrigan takes us on the heartfelt journey of a father and his trans son in “Cowboys”

I like that idea that when you’re in nature you can be your true self, and not influenced by the constructs of your society. It’s a really interesting way to re-appropriate nature, sort of nodding to a genre which is so heteronormative and so male as some sort of backdrop. I have to admit I was not consciously thinking about all of that when I put the film together. The movie came to me very organically. 

Anna Kerrigan

Growing up in the Chicago suburbs, my mother would always talk about this place called Montana. The way she would talk about it made it seem like a piece of heaven, or what heaven might look like if I believed in such a place. When I was 15, I went to Montana with my family, and then I got it. Glacier National Park, specifically, is so beautiful that it almost hurts. The streams, waterfalls, the mountains, the trees, the air, the wildlife, it truly is heavenly.

Anna Kerrigan

When I spoke with Anna Kerrigan about her film “Cowboys”, she agreed with me. Growing up she would travel to Montana with her best friend’s family. To Anna, Montana was another home. As an adult, a liberal creative, with many LGBTQ friends, it was difficult for her to reconcile her love for a place and people who were so against the LGBTQ community. That conflict sparked her film “Cowboys”. The film is about a trans boy, named Joe, played by trans actor, Sasha Knight, and father, Troy [Steve Zahn], who suffers from mental illness. Both father and son leave the judgemental constructs of their society on an adventure into the wilds of Montana heading towards Canada. Also starring in the film is Jillian Bell as Sally, Joe’s mother, and Ann Dowd as Faith, the police chief looking for Joe.

Anna and I discuss the road to making “Cowboys”, her casting choices, and the process of casting a trans actor in the role of a trans kid. “Cowboys” is currently on the festival circuit, and was supposed to premiere at Tribeca last month. The film is now seeking distribution.

REBECCA MARTIN: What brought you to this project?

ANNA KERRIGAN: Growing up, I had spent my summers in Montana with my best friend’s family. I just fell in love with it. I grew up in LA, and I was pretty much a city girl. Montana, to me, was kind of like this American fantasy. It was so beautiful. I thought the people were so nice, and the towns were so quaint. It satisfied this itch that I didn’t even know I had when I was younger.

MARTIN: I can relate. I grew up in the Chicago suburbs, but we would go to Montana every couple years. It’s really a different world.

“Cowboys” DP John Wakayama Carey

KERRIGAN: Even going back and making this movie, it feels like the edge of the world. I know that it’s a state, but sometimes it feels more like a territory. It’s just it’s own thing.

As I started to get older, I was a creative, very liberal kid, and I always had a different group of friends. And I realized the people I befriended in Montana were really religious and would make super-homophobic comments. It was confusing to me because I knew I loved the people there, yet I’m a super liberal person who has a lot of LGBTQ friends. How do I reconcile those things? I think that conflict was the seed for this movie, although I would say it was subconscious when I first started writing.

I lived in New York for a long time, where I started out as a playwright. When I moved back to LA, it was a period of transition, and I was in kind of a dark place. I knew I wanted to set something in this part of Montana where I would visit, because I found it was comforting. Even though I was home, I always homesick for Montana. When I first started writing, all I really knew was that it was a father/son movie, and as it started to develop, it became clear that the son would be trans.

I don’t think of this film as a western. I’m much more interested in performance-driven films through the characters. I think that comes from my playwriting background. But I like to say there is a western shell on the movie with illusions to “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid”. I will always love “The Last Picture Show,” which similarly is a good character portrait.

MARTIN: Yes, I love that film. 

Sasha Knight and Steve Zahn in “Cowboys” DP John Wakayama Carey

KERRIGAN: But in terms of who are the new outlaws, who are the people being persecuted in these type of places–of course, in these environments it’s the transgender son and a mentally ill father. And they feel like they have to get away.

MARTIN: I love that you captured that. How did you go about the casting process?

KERRIGAN: First we started with the adults, and Troy first. Steve [Zahn] was on our list, and the more that we thought about it, we realized that he is really perfect for this role. We haven’t really seen him in a leading man role. He’s a fantastic actor. I also thought it was important to the movie that you had the feeling that this guy was an underdog. And I do believe that actors come with their own baggage. If you put Matthew McConaughey in a role like that, you’re never really going to see him that way.

MARTIN: I see that.

KERRIGAN: He has that sort of larger than life energy to him. I wanted him to be someone who could fall into the deeply flawed, but super-fun Dad. I mean there is a child-like quality to him, like a playfulness. I remember seeing Steve in Wim Wenders’ movie “Rescue Dawn”, and you can see that he can go there, he can go to dark places, and he just hasn’t been given the opportunity. I was really excited about him. He really responded to the script, and afterward, when I spoke to him on the phone about it, he was like, “I’m so sorry if it’s loud”. I told him I didn’t know what he was talking about. He said, “I’m just feeding the animals.” I find out he lives on this farm in Kentucky. 

MARTIN: Really? That’s interesting. 

KERRIGAN: Yeah, he’s been out there for awhile. He understands the conflict of being a liberal guy living in a red state. He’s raised his kids in this small town, and he is the minority with his liberal beliefs. But he also can connect with people who do not share his political views.

Steve Zahn and Jillian Bell in “Cowboys” DP John Wakayama Carey

MARTIN: What about Jillian Bell? How did you go about choosing her for this role as Sally? I’ve never seen her in this kind of role before. She usually is the comic relief in films, and seeing her in a more dynamic, serious role really showed her range as an actor.

KERRIGAN: It’s funny, I had a meeting with Jillian and she really responded to the role. I was suddenly meeting her and talking with her, and seeing how much depth she has as a human being. And I saw that she was really interesting as this character. That being said, Sally is nothing like Jillian. Jillian is the kindest person who is full of heart, and I know it was hard for her at times. I think this happens to a lot of actors. If you’re going there emotionally, it can be really taxing to put yourself in this position of being a fairly toxic person in this moment of crisis. Jillian is incredibly smart and has great instincts. She really understood the role. It was important to me and it was important to Jillian as well to not see Sally as the villain. 

MARTIN: Definitely not, she represents a lot of people. 

KERRIGAN: The character Sally feels that she doing the right thing based on the limited tools that she has. And for her, her daughter coming out as a boy is shattering her self-conception as a mother to a little girl. She literally just can’t comprehend it. In some ways, I find that Sally’s character finds herself in the prism of her own gender. She tries to perform this ultra feminized idea of being a woman who’s a mother, who’s a wife, and it feels like a personal failure to her. She feels like a failure because it’s not working in the way she imagined. 

Ann Dowd in “Cowboys” DP John Wakayama Carey

MARTIN: I was very impressed with Ann Dowd as Faith. She is great in “The Handmaid’s Tale” and I think it’s great that you brought her in for a different kind of role. It seemed perfect for her character. 

KERRIGAN: She is such an incredible actor, and is so thoughtful. Ann is so intuitive and picks up on everything. I loved working with her because she challenges me in the most generous way an actor can. She was always working towards the good of the project, and always asked really brilliant questions. Ann is the most emotionally supportive, amazing person. I always tell her that she is my queen. She brought so much depth to the character, as she has done in all of the roles I’ve seen her in.

MARTIN: In your director’s statement, I read that “I Am Jazz” was an influence on your choice of bringing on a trans actor for the character Joe.

KERRIGAN: I only brought the show up in the Director’s statement because when I was setting out on making a portrait on this part of the world, what I found interesting was the people that I have met in rural Montana and in red states, and their reaction to the series. I found that programming like “I Am Jazz” introduces people to transgender kids, and does change their mind, and their conceptions. It plays on the idea of the power of media and compelling characters.

There’s a woman who I met in Montana who I’ve been friends with since I was twelve years old, who voted for Trump, and has some conservative leaning views. When I told her that I was making a movie about this trans kid in Montana, she was super-excited. She was like, “Oh, I love ‘I Am Jazz,’ that kid is so cute.” She was using the correct gender pronouns, and I thought that was really interesting.

MARTIN: I loved the construction of the film, with the two story lines weaving together, the past and the present. Can you discuss your process of intertwining these storylines?

KERRIGAN: The script was such a mess because I didn’t really outline. I knew a couple of the pivotal moments, but this is an instance where I really just went for it. I probably wrote 300 pages at some point, and basically printed it out scene by scene so I could figure out how to structure this story, going back and forth from the present to the flashbacks. I hate to call them flashbacks because it’s such a meaty part of the film. The story I was telling is non-consecutive.

It was too confusing. So we found a way to make it work where you are basically following two storylines, with the past and the present in the first two thirds of the film, and then it clicks in to where it all gels together. 

MARTIN: I really appreciate how more is revealed that way, when the past connects to the present. I was sucked into both storylines. When we start to see Troy and Joe unravel, we have a better understanding of why it’s happening, based on the vulnerabilities and struggles that were introduced to us from their past.

KERRIGAN: When we looked for locations, I tried to find places that progressively became more and more terrifying. By the time they [Troy and Joe] get to the dead forest, they are exposed. It’s no longer lush and beautiful. There’s no longer that potential that you feel when they are looking out over the vista in the beginning.

MARTIN: Let’s loop back, can you please share how it went in casting a trans kid?

Sasha Knight

KERRIGAN: I started talking with Nick Adams, who is a transgender media relations person at GLAAD. He was helpful in terms of various script notes and what not. I also worked with casting director Eyde Belasco who cast “Transparent” along with a million other projects. I worked with Eyde before and thought she’d be perfect for casting the film. It was really important for us to cast a non-binary and trans kid, which is inherently tricky because it’s hard enough to find a kid and even harder when you are narrowing the scope. We looked at kids who had never acted before, but of course, unlike a cisgender child, their sense of personal connection to the character far outweighs their experience as an actor. Eyde went through the normal channels of various breakdown services, and also did outreach through transgender support groups, summer camps, and connecting to parents of transgender kids.

From there, I would talk to a handful of kids and worked with most of them remotely because a lot of them weren’t in LA. It was an amazing experience and was really encouraging to me as a cisgender woman seeing transgender kids read my script with their parents. They were relating to the script, and finding it resonant. The parents were finding parallels to their lives, very unhappy parallels. Unfortunately there were a number of kids that I spoke to who had a difficult relationship with their parents or were estranged from them. Eventually we found Sasha [Knight], and it was pretty clear immediately that Sasha was great for the part.

MARTIN: Yeah, he’s great.

KERRIGAN: Yeah, he’s awesome. I just felt like he understood the character. He’s smart, and honestly a very adorable child. I just thought that his intelligence and introspection was far beyond his years.

MARTIN: Based on your experience as a filmmaker, do you have any advice for emerging female filmmakers?

KERRIGAN: Even as women are directing more, there is still a pigeonholing going on. Like women being put up to directing teen girl’s stories. There’s nothing wrong with that, I did a teen girl short that I love. But even being chosen to direct female centric stories is a form of pigeonholing. I would just say as women you see more of the world. You have a unique perspective. I would just tell women not to hold back when telling stories, and not just about women, although I do think women’s stories are incredibly important. I think our observations about men are just as important.