'Boy Meets Girl' director Eric Schaeffer talks to Paris Lees
Writer, director, and all-round talented film fella Eric Schaeffer is used to starring in his own movies, but for his latest project, Boy Meets Girl, he’s putting a transgender woman, and transgender politics, centre stage. I enjoyed having an honest and in depth conversation with the man behind one of the most sensitive and authentic films I’ve seen on trans issues. Not to mention that much older but equally tricky issue of falling in love…Why did you want to make a film with a trans character in the lead role?
All my other movies are about the same thing at its core, and that’s finding love. How we love, how we find love and how we are accepted unconditionally for who we are. Regardless of the constraints society puts on us, the box society wants us to live in. I’m a straight, cisgender [not transgender] man, but my interests emotionally, sexually and in every way don’t necessarily fit into the construct of ‘straight cisgender man’. For this movie I wanted to take myself out of it as an actor to offer the audience a new window into my work, because I’ve always starred in my films before. So this movie is about that, it’s about wanting to love and be loved, for who you are. Period. And not have to worry about how society views that, or judges us for it. I thought to make a story about a transgender girl from the South in America – in the popular imagination, the South is a bigoted place – it’s not completely, but there’s still challenges I think with acceptance of racial acceptance and LGBTQ equality, that’s now part of America in Northern cities. So I wanted to set this story in the American South featuring this transgender girl, where most people, truly or wrongly, would be like, ‘Wow, that must be a tough life for her’. I thought it would be a good way to access this theme of wanting to be loved unconditionally for who we are. So I thought it would be an obvious way for – not for the LGBTQ community, because they already get it – but maybe for the less educated straight community and maybe even the educated straight community, just as a plot, that they’d be able to imagine. That’s why the movie feels like a bit of a fable.
How realistic is it that a family in a small-town in Kentucky would have raised a trans kid in her preferred gender?
In my research I was amazed and delighted to find that the trans women I interviewed that were from small towns in the South, most of them told me that they never got bullied, they never got beaten up, and their families were very supportive. So I was really surprised, because I’d gone in there asking ‘Did you get beat up?’ and they were like, ‘Not really!’ so then I was like, ‘What about your families?’ And they were ‘Great!’
Well there you go. I should have been raised in a small-town in the Deep South. Who knew?
It was one of those things where truth is stranger than fiction. People might not believe it, but that’s the feedback I got. And Michelle too, that’s one of the things she loved about the role because she’s portraying a character much like she and many of her trans friends are, that shows that she has a life that’s filled with the challenges of anybody, and filled with the love that we receive too. So that was one thing that was authentic to my research. Now I will say this, as sad as it is for me, it’s a reality of how our society views beauty… I did talk to a lot of trans women that were very beautiful. I don’t know if that makes a difference, because this character is very beautiful.
Absolutely it does. People who ‘look good’ tend to get treated better. It’s shitty but true. Did you have an inspiration for Ricky’s character?
No, not any specific person. I mean I date cisgender women and I date transgender women, so I know some transgender women because I’ve dated some transgender women before, and I have some trans guy friends, so I know trans people, but there was no one specifically who was the inspiration for that character.
Do you think the industry is doing enough to encourage acting talent from the transgender community?
I had to work really hard to find Michelle, like spend days Google researching. And I had to get very creative because there aren’t very many trans actresses and actors that you can find through traditional routes, you know, calling casting directors and agents. That’s a function obviously of there not being many trans roles to be cast. And a function of – and this gets really heavy, and this is the next frontier, which I have thought of exploring – but trans actors playing cisgender roles.
Well when you think about it, say, why doesn’t a white person play a role that’s meant to be a black person? So I’m not talking about ‘blackface’ here, I mean why doesn’t Sean Penn play Martin Luther King? Because that would take you out of the story. Because Martin Luther King was an African American man and Sean Penn is a Caucasian man. So my point is, whatever actor is playing a part has to embody that part enough so that it doesn’t take us out of the story. Hopefully we get to a point in our society where we don’t care necessarily if we were to know a transgender person wasn’t a cisgender person.
So if we just got to the point where it just didn’t matter? Like how you see black people playing police officers or whatnot and no one even thinks about it because no one cares anymore?
Well you see the same thing with interracial and gay people in the media. Thirty years ago, if you had two characters who were gay – let’s say in Harry Met Sally – if Tom Hanks had introduced Meg Ryan to his brother at dinner, and his brother brought a man with him and they were boyfriends, the characters would probably have to mention it. They’d have to say ‘Oh your brother’s gay’ or ‘Oh he has a boyfriend’. Whereas now no one would have to talk about it. The same thing with interracial. Forty years ago, if you had a movie and there was a black person and a white person in a relationship, the characters would have to discuss it somehow. But now if Halle Berry shows up on the arm of Ewan McGregor on a date, the characters don’t have to discuss, ‘Oh wow you’re dating a black woman, have you ever dated a black woman before?’ It’s a non-issue because our culture is so used to it now. And it’s the same for trans. It’ll take a while but then hopefully that’ll become a non-issue too.
Do you think that exploring ‘alternative’ sexuality is something that American cinema ever does well?
I think European and UK films are much more relaxed about sexuality, way less uptight. Even though people can say that the UK is different than say Sweden and Germany, in their openness about sexuality. Still, I think that America is seriously puritanical. I’ve learned that from the time I made the film Never Again with Jeffrey Tambor and Jill Clayburgh which was a sex-themed romantic comedy about two people in their late 50s/early 60s, and, while audiences embraced it and loved it because it was people in their middle age being sexual, there were a lot of people who freaked out. They didn’t want to know about it, they didn’t want to see it, they didn’t want to hear about it. So it was like they didn’t want to know about their parents of their grandparents having a sexual life, and a romantic life. So I think that American film has a hard time doing ‘alternative’ sexuality well – because that is alternative sexuality in America. People over 50 having sex is alternative sexuality.
[Warning: This question, and answer, contains spoilers.] Why was it important for you to have a full frontal nude scene?
That was important to me because I felt like in this movie, this trans woman happens to be drop dead gorgeous. And in the movie her straight cisgender buddy, who till that point has only dated cisgender girls, starts to discover he has feelings for a trans woman. And I wanted it to be crystal clear to him and to all the audience members who were identifying with him to go, ‘Wait, could I fall in love with a transgender woman? I’d never thought of that before, and why couldn’t I?’ Because you’re forgetting throughout this movie that she’s trans, because it’s not really an issue, she’s just this great character and who has this great relationship. So because her face is so beautiful, if we’d just seen her from the face up, to see the body of a pre op transgender woman, that’s a different kind of body from a cisgender woman.
So for this straight cisgender guy who’d only ever slept with cisgender women, I thought it was really important for him and the audience members through his eyes. It’s a unique experience for a cisgender man who has only ever slept with cisgender women for many years of his life, to suddenly think about being open to having sex with a pre op transgender female. It’s not something that most cisgender men who are straight have any experience with. So there needed to be thoughtfulness about that, and it needed to be treated with respect, and that’s why I thought it was important. And Michelle the actress agreed. The way we shot it was very beautiful, very respectful, it’s in no way salacious, it’s in no way exhibitionist. And we’ve had an overwhelmingly positive response and people realize that is was necessary.
How important was it for you to communicate these complex ideas about sexuality in a language that your average viewer would understand?
Well that’s why the film is sort of set up sort of like a fable. It starts with the title, Boy Meets Girl. It’s the most cliché, Pollyanna, familiar definition of a love story, it’s just so generic, right? So I wanted to create a world that viewers could be invited to from the beginning that was comfortable to them. We’re just going to see a boy-meets-girl romantic comedy. So then they can relax and go with the flow of the story. And even the characters, they border on being slightly cartoonish. Well maybe that word’s too much, but I keep them on the edge of being real. So you have the sinister stepmother, you have the loving father, you have the angry Marine. So I did that so that people could feel that they were in a familiar landscape. Any by doing that I could then take them to unfamiliar places.
What’s the overall message you’d like people to take from this film?
The message I’d like people to take from this film is the only real message that we all really need to start getting behind, because the radical judgments in our culture is destroying us, so what I’m interested in is unifying hearts and souls and minds. I would hope that the movie allows people to think about and challenge people to live lives from their innermost desires, regardless of the attitudes of fearful people out in the world. By doing that and embracing whoever we are and whoever we want to love and how we want to live our lives, if we can do that authentically and only stay true to care and consideration for others.
So: be yourself, love more, hate less?
There you go!
Boy Meets Girl is available from BoyMeetsGirlMovie.com and now on Netflix. This interview first appeared in the iPad version of Attitude. If you want to read more of Paris Lees' in-depth iPad exclusive interviews, download the digital version of Attitude at Pocketmags.com/Attitude.