Character driven road movie, eh? I always thought of it as quest movie. People always say road movie. Road movies have become a genre of their own in the last 40-50 years. But road movies are quests: The Road to Morocco. Finding Nemo. The Lord of the Rings. These have characters that go on quests. I would argue that The Odyssey is a fairy tale form of the hero going on a quest—having a task to perform or a journey to complete. When I was a kid my favorite book was The Lord of the Rings. I probably read it five times before I was sixteen. I was thinking years ago, ‘How can I make [a movie adapted from] Lord of the Rings on a budget. It was the first film I wanted to make. The essence of the characters who has to leave their safe home and journey across dangerous lands to get rid of a treasure [a ring, Tucker further clarifies, as if anyone reading this is TOTALLY CLUELESS] they don’t want. They meet friends and enemies. They come home changed.
Your characters are so nicely written, and you have a flair for comic dialogue. How did the story develop? What came first, the egg or the chicken? Was it a character movie first that became a road movie? Or did the quest appear, and its peculiar travelers arrive later? ^ There’s so much that happens in this magically, organic process. I guess I was dealing in my own life with themes about what the movie is all about. Which is not transsexuality, but about transformation, about growing up. We transform ourselves every day of our lives. Our task here is to learn to love ourselves. It’s really hard sometimes with the walls of defense we erect around our hearts. I’m going to jump around, but Bree [Felicity Huffman] thinks at the beginning [of the film] that she needs to just change her anatomy to match her gender, to be happy. But what she really has to do is not to become female, but to become a woman. In fact when she breaks down and cries with her therapist, Margaret [Elizabeth Peña], in the hospital, that is the culmination of her journey. It’s where those walls that have been guarding her heart and keeping her safe come cracking open. She now feels all the pain of life and all the joy of life. Margaret knows it’s a victory for Bree to be able to feel this again. [When writing the film,] I was thinking of surviving and learning to love life and love yourself. Of all that pain and joy intended upon the journey of growing up. I was also thinking about Jean Renoir movies. He’s my favorite filmmaker of all time. There’s a great humanity in his movies, a deep sense of humanness, the way he loves every single character. I love Preston Sturges, too.
Yes, I can see his comic touch in the movie. The film’s opening, with Huffman’s yearning to be woman character Bree (nee Stanley) being asked by her therapist what he/she thinks of his penis. “I don’t like it.” The doctor continues, inquiring what his/her friends think of the dastardly appendage. “They don’t like it either,” is the emphatic response. That’s the comic sense of the off-beat, screwball manner in which parts of the film are written. ^ Yes. The willingness to fall on your face or take a risk or go for it.…
What about the Fionnula Flanagan [Elizabeth, Bree’s mother] over-the-top character? ^ Of all the characters in the film, the only one who is somewhat of a portrait of a real person is Elizabeth. She’s my mother. And I know that character is real. The family’s not my family, but the mother’s my mother. The families I’ve known can be over the top and crazy and push each other’s buttons. Mothers know how to push buttons because they installed them. At film festivals, people have told me that the mother character is just like my mother, or my Aunt Matilda. Other people think her character is over-the-top. So you must be from a family where mom would say “Sis, just pass Junior the green beans.”
Maybe over-the-top is the right adjective. Flamboyant? Colorful? ^ She’s a bird of paradise, isn’t she? She’s a Phoenix resort culture bird of paradise. Her husband [Murray, played by Burt Young] just wants his peace and quiet. Another reason why I know Fionnula’s character is true, is that she is wearing many of my mom’s clothes. This is a low budget movie. I took my costume designer into my mom’s closet and we picked from there. For locations I used houses of friends of mine. The blue truck is my brother’s truck. The Phoenix house is my mom’s house. The horses are my friend Ben’s horses. The car Bree and Toby are driving was rented, because we had to have two that matched for camera reasons. Elizabeth’s dog Lucky is my dog, Zero T. Poodle. The “T.” stands for “The.” He abuses himself on camera. It’s amazing what you can get “actors” to do with a little peanut butter and honey.
Of course now we’re so dependant on [good] reviews and word of mouth. The exit polls have been stupendous. The film is reaching different kinds of people: older, heterosexual couples as well as younger, teen-bopper girls, and gay people. I’ve had middle-aged couples come up to me and thank me for making the funniest movie they’ve seen in a long time.
Based on Bree’s reborn Christian character, do you expect it to reach out to that audience? ^ Well, it’s a deeply spiritual movie. It was nominated for three Independent Spirit Awards. It’s interesting that some of the smaller, downtown, “hip” papers are the ones that are less kind to the film. They couldn’t forgive it being a dark, angst-ridden movie. In fact the very audience that I was worried about—the more mainstream critics like the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal—have embraced it. I couldn’t have paid my father to right a better review than Joe Morgenstern did in the Journal. I really admire his reviews.
I do admit it is the best thing that has come out of the Weinstein Company. ^ [laughing, because it’s only the second feature, after Derailed, released by the newly formed entity]. Well thanks very much.
You mentioned that both Sturges and Renoir influenced you greatly. Were those directors you worshipped while attending New York University? ^ I didn’t go to film school or anything like that. [While N.Y.U. has a fine film school,] I attended Grinnell College, Evergreen, Prescott, Sarah Lawrence, and finally, N.Y.U., just to get a general liberal arts degree from its University Without Walls program. I know nothing about filmmaking, which is probably my strongest suit as a filmmaker.
So where did you learn? ^ I learned by doing. I made the short film The Mountain King on home mini-dv with a crew of four people. I just wanted to make sure I could direct actors. That was what was important to me. I watched tons of movies and I tried to figure out, ok, what are they doing? Where is the camera? How are they editing this scene? I just thought about it a lot. Sure, I would set up the blocking with the actors and talk to the DP [Director of Photography, on Transamerica, it was Stephen Kazmierski]. I had ideas about how I wanted to shoot the film. If anyone else had ideas I always wanted to hear them. I want to dance with the material. You’ve got to let it live. I don’t believe in forcing it into a preconceived idea of what it’s supposed to be. You have to breathe on it and let it happen. My DP would say “Let’s look at these four different lenses.” I couldn’t tell you the names of them, but I could look through the viewfinder and say “That’s the one.” And no one came out of the movie saying “I wish that was longer.”
Many directors have a problem pacing their film to a rightful end. ^ I tried not to waste a moment. I didn’t have too long of a rough cut, but I was ruthless. You have to sacrifice whatever you need to get it right.
How long was the shoot? ^ Six weeks. Minus travel and vacation days.
And how long editing? ^ With my sole editor [Pam Wise] and I in the room—barely managing not to kill each other—although she is brilliant. Two and a half months.
That’s short. So you this storyboarded out, I assume? ^ I didn’t. I had it in my head. My DP and I talked about a shooting plan, which was great. We became very familiar with each other and the material. This being a low budget indie, we had surprises every day. We threw the shooting plan out and started fresh. I got better and better at saying at the beginning of each day, “This is how we are going to shoot it.” I would talk with Felicity and Kevin [Zegers, who plays Stanley/Bree’s son], especially in more complicated scenes about blocking. Your actors have to feel comfortable with your blocking or the scene is not going to work. I always wanted to hear everybody’s ideas. I get to be captain of the ship and choose which idea we’re going to go with, but I want to hear their input. Somebody might have a better idea than me.
Did you have any rehearsal time? ^ One week with Kevin and Felicity. Which was great because we really had to explore that relationship. They’re very different kinds of actors. Kevin’s an instinctive Hollywood actor. Felicity has all this theater training in craft and technique. Yet, you don’t see it. That’s what makes her an artist to me.
And, of course, you were under a certain amount of pressure because you knew she had this tv pilot coming up [for Desperate Housewives], which, strangely, also had a character named Bree [played by Marcia Cross]. ^ Yeah. Who knew? I just thought that stupid tv pilot’s getting in my way. We shot Felicity out on July 3rd. She started shooting the pilot on July 5th.
Is there anything you regretted not getting into the film? ^ I could have used a few extra weeks just to have the luxury. Sometimes we just had a master shot, and didn’t have the time to get the coverage to make a scene a little more rich and textured. The scene in Dallas [centering about a transgender support group], I really wanted there be just one moment in the movie with a transsexual presence to put Bree in context. I think it’s really interesting that all those trans-actresses, some of whom are not all that experienced, but who look a lot more dainty and feminine than Felicity does. I only had one afternoon with eight actors, so all I could get was a few takes on each of them. They were so beautiful, so magical, that I wanted to let the camera just run on them, to let them start playing and talking. In that lovely movie Central Station [1998, by Walter Salles], they have those real people who want to write letters. They’re just looking at the camera and telling their letters. I wanted to do something like that, but…no time, no time.
I know it’s weird, but when the film opens and you focus on Bree’s long pink fingernails I flashed an image of Martin Short in drag. ^ [stifling a chuckle] Oh, poor Bree. Everybody sees Bree as so awkward or funny looking. I love her. I think she’s so lovely. She has such dignity. Such determination.
I notice you like causes. [Handing over copies of two letters Tucker wrote to the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times in August 1991, in which he browbeats a prudish CBS for removing “several examples of the Pee-wee Herman video oeuvre from public dissemination because of unproven—not to mention fatuous—charges against Pee-wee’s creator, the actor Paul Reubens.”] ^ Oh my God, how did you find that! Yeah! Those were letters I wrote to the editors of those papers. I wrote first to the New York Times, which didn’t tell me they were going to publish it. So I said, “Screw this.” I faxed the same letter to the Los Angeles Times, and it came out in both papers within days of each other. It was so fucking moralistic prudish.
That’s America. Of course, all the Pee-wee shows are now readily available on DVD. … Looking at the press notes for your film it says you’ve been a photographer, a painter, and a writer. ^ And a few more. Those are just my interesting jobs. I’ve also had a lot of boring jobs. I was a cabin boy on a cruise ship.
Any of the characters from the cruise ship in your movie? ^ No. That could be another movie.
But not another Cabin Boy [the barely funny 1994 “comedy” with Chris Elliott]! ^ That’s an amazing world, those cruise ships. They’re registered out of Panama, so they don’t have to have codes for worker protection. So they work the hell out of them. Like 80-hour weeks and no days off. Horrible living conditions. Most of the people that work on them are from Central America and the [Caribbean] Islands. They’re just thrilled to have a job that actually pays decently, compared to what they can get back home. These people are totally exploited. Below deck it’s like this bizarre soap opera. Who’s sleeping with whom. Who’s currying favors where. Who’s hustling. Hustlers and prostitutes—the pretty boys and girls—sleep with the passengers for money.
What else? ^ I’ve traveled around the world so many times doing odd jobs. Teaching English. I was hitchhiking in cruise ships in the South Pacific. I was working with my family in business for a while. My dad and my brother, anyway. I was finding cool, old houses that had interesting bones, but needed help. I envisioned knocking out this or that wall, opening this window, changing that bathroom. So while my dad and brother were doing their real estate thing, I wanted to do the scouting. I asked them to back me, to help me. They said, “no, no, no.” Until I found a couple of real good deals and they gave me a finder’s fee. I was successful at it.
Was this out in the Phoenix area? ^ No, I was living out of the trunk of my car. I did Seattle, Aspen, Sun Valley, San Francisco, Los Angeles. For several years I was living out of the trunk of a little red Pontiac Firebird. Staying at cheap motels with 25¢ vibrating finger beds. Looking for real estate deals and trying to make some money so I didn’t have to work for the man anymore.
Big family? Small family? ^ Two brothers. Not a whole big extended family. My brothers and I are really close. I love them. They live out west, in Santa Fe. My mom’s in Arizona. My dad’s dead.
Did they take you to the movies? ^ They’re not really movie people. My brother Robby is sort of a movie person, but we have very different tastes. He’s more into John Waters.
So what’s he doing out west? He should be in Baltimore! ^ Ya think! He’s like John Waters’ biggest heterosexual fan. My other brother, John, hardly ever goes to the movies. He’s always riding horses and climbing mountains.
Several years ago I interviewed Bill Condon, then pushing Gods and Monsters, and I warned him to expect some award consideration at year’s end. I have the same gut feeling about Felicity Huffman’s performance here. ^ I love Felicity’s work so much. I feel this is an iconic performance, not quite like anything we’ve ever seen before. Its texture. Its completeness, mixing humor and sadness and irony and the moment-to-moment determination and desperation.
How did Felicity’s husband [actor William H. Macy] come aboard as the film’s executive producer? ^ After the movie was shot I showed them the rough cut. When I was in L.A., on video. Bill really liked the movie, and asked “Is there anything I can do to help? I love this movie.” I responded [sounding as if he was apparently flummoxed into a stupor] “I don’t know.” I mentioned the conversation to my two producers [Linda Moran and Rene Bastian], who [anxiously] suggested “See if he’ll be executive producer and help us get a sales agent. And get into festivals. And get distributors come to see it.” And he did. It’s been great.
So you shot the film on digital? ^ Super 16, blown up to 35mm. I really like the look of Super 16. It’s slightly more textured and doesn’t have that super-pretty, calendar-art, Steven Spielberg thing. It just seems more real to me.
I got the feeling that the cast had a good time making this film. The characters do work well with each other, of understanding one another. ^ I really got along great with all of them. I love them. Graham Greene was on set for only three days, but also Felicity, Kevin, Fionnula, and Elizabeth. I talk to them.
Does that mean a sequel? ^ My favorite question at film festivals—and I have gotten it gratifyingly frequently—has been: what happens to Bree and Toby? Or Calvin [Graham Greene’s character] and Bree? It means that the characters lived for them. I have idea for another film, as soon as I have time. I’m reading a lot of scripts meanwhile. When the brouhaha for Transamerica dies down…
It’s not going to die down. ^ Well, sometime next year. I am supposed to have a kid, arriving, knock on wood, on the ground, in late May or early June. I definitely will need to take some months off as a single dad. Someone’s career who I really admire is Alexander Payne.
Yes, what’s not to admire. My favorite of his films is Election. I love his sense of comic darkness. ^ Absolutely. It’s dark and funny and true. Anyway, I might just disappear for a year and write another movie.
Posted on December 20, 2005 in Interviews by Elias Savada
If you liked this article then you may also like the following Film Threat articles:
- DUNCAN TUCKER’S TRANSAMERICA
- CLOSER TO DEATH
- QUEEN B: INSIDE THE DARKLY GLAMOROUS WORLD OF LILITH STABS
- ENEMIES OF LAUGHTER
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