It's all in the family for Tucker
"Transamerica" director opens Out On Film
Editor's Note: "Transamerica" was the opening night
film at this year's very successful Out On Film Festival, which
ran from November 11-17 at Landmark Midtown Art Cinema. The line up showcased
more than 50 films and drew record numbers. Steve Warren had a chance
to sit down with director Duncan Tucker for an interview...
Talk about walking the walk! You'd expect Duncan Tucker to try
to draw crossover business to his first feature, Transamerica by calling
it "an old-fashioned movie about family." After all, there's
a rather limited niche audience for movies about transsexuals and hustlers,
even if they adhere to the road movie formula.
But talk to Tucker privately and you find he's serious about getting
his own family going. "Over 30" and "basically single,"
he's awaiting the birth of his first child—due next May—through
a surrogate. The co-father will come later: "I don't intend
to be single forever," he says.
|Duncan Tucker discusses his film during Out On Film. (photo: Eric Bomba-Ire)|
Transamerica had a much longer gestation, Tucker says. He was
researching the script by talking to transsexuals and street hustlers
when it occurred to him he should find out if he could make a movie. So
in 2000 he shot The Mountain King, a short that was well received
on the festival circuit.
One of the two characters in The Mountain King, a hustler who
meets a supposedly straight man on a beach, was inspired by someone Tucker
met in his research. He describes him as "Toby (Kevin Zegers' character
in Transamerica) maybe ten years down the line, if he hasn't
Arrested, strip-searched and frightened by a scary cellmate (all in scenes
that were later cut to streamline the film and get it on the road faster),
Toby reaches out to the natural father he's never met. What he doesn't
know is that Stanley has become Bree (Felicity Huffman) and is days away
from gender reassignment surgery.
Bree bails Toby out without telling him who she is and they become a
family while driving across the country.
When Tucker conceived the film he didn't know who the central characters
would be. "I was thinking about family," he says, "my
own process of growing up, feeling different and learning to accept myself."
Around that time, he says, "a woman I knew told me what was under
her skirt. She was a stealth transsexual living as a woman and I'd
never suspected. That's when a light bulb went off."
Years later the script was done, he had made a successful short and Tucker
began the difficult process of raising money to shoot his feature. There
was a period, he says, when it was relatively easy to secure financing
for independent films. But that time had passed. "Nobody wanted
to finance this film. Nobody believed in it, with that subject matter.
They thought it was uncastable...
"Financiers, after you send them a script, will take a couple of
months to get back to you; and here we are waiting. Two years can pass
quickly that way."
Eventually Transamerica was made in the time-honored independent way.
Tucker maxed out his credit cards, his mother mortgaged her Phoenix home
(which was used as the set for Bree's family's home), his
brother kicked in, and "everybody worked for peanuts."
When he was casting, Tucker says, "the producers told me, ‘Anybody
you've ever heard of, anybody anyone has ever heard of, you can't
Wrong! They underestimated the power of a good script. This one reached
Felicity Huffman when she was in pre-production for the pilot of Desperate
Housewives, the show that would earn her long-overdue public recognition
and a Best Actress Emmy.
|Duncan Tucker chats with fans at Out On Film.
(photo: Eric Bomba-Ire)
"I had seen her 12-13 years ago in a play," Tucker says,
"and she captured my attention. She had the kind of intelligence
and compassion an actress needed to play Bree."
Not wanting to trust her instincts in such a sensitive area she knew
little about, Huffman did her own intense research to learn how a man
becoming a woman behaves. After speaking and moving like a woman all her
life she had to learn to do it as if it was all new to her.
Tucker's research changed his way of looking at things. "I
know it's politically incorrect," he offers, "but I
learned how fluid our definitions are: gay-straight, male-female, red
state-blue state—we force this duality on everything."
After getting to know a number of transsexuals, Tucker says, "I felt
it was important to have transpresence in the movie." He wrote in a scene
where Bree and Toby drop in on a transsexual support group in Dallas.
The group isn't real and neither is Dallas—it was filmed at the
New Jersey home of an NYU friend of Tucker's—but the transsexuals
are real. They include Calpurnia Adams ("She's the one who plays the fiddle"),
whose story was dramatized in the Showtime movie A Soldier's Girl,
and others who had acted as consultants to the filmmaker and his star.
Tucker wishes he could have done more with the scene—"We
only had one afternoon and there are so many characters"—but
he's pleased with what he got. He has special praise for Bianca
Leigh, who plays Mary Ellen, the hostess, and says Huffman was so impressed
with her she's introducing her to people in the industry to help
her get an acting career going.
The woman who triggered Tucker's interest in transsexuals is, he
reveals, "happily married and living a stealth life in the Deep
South." But the news isn't all good. "One of the women
I interviewed in my research committed suicide."
Not unexpectedly Tucker found working with Huffman a delight. "She
went beyond my wildest imagination," he says. "I want to work
with people who love their work, who are professional." When she
disagreed with the filmmaker she told him so, but even when she didn't
like his idea she'd say, "Let's try it!"
Tucker had a similar, but much briefer working relationship with one
of his favorites, Dolly Parton. It was decided to commission a new song
to play behind the end credits, rounding out a soundtrack that includes
David Mansfield's original score and recordings of bluegrass, Native
American and Latin songs. Tucker was pleasantly surprised when his first
choice agreed to write and record a song.
The first song Parton submitted didn't fit the mood they were going
for but the second, "Travelin' Thru," was perfect—well,
with a little tweaking by Tucker, who suggested changes and was met with
"Let's try it!" He was thrilled to sit in on the recording
session in Nashville and reports that his idol lived up to his expectations.
|Felicity Huffman sits down with Graham Greene in Transamerica. (photo: The Weinstein Company)
Working with Huffman proved to have a fringe benefit when her husband,
actor William H. Macy, saw the completed film and asked if there was anything
he could do to help. "The producers immediately told me, ‘Make
him executive producer,'" Tucker says.
Macy's name was useful in marketing and in getting Transamerica
shown in festivals, including Tribeca, where it generated every independent
filmmaker's dream: a bidding war.
It was won by what would come to be known as The Weinstein Company, run
by Harvey and Bob Weinstein, the brothers formerly known as Miramax. Because
of the demand Tucker was able to hold out for a contract that guaranteed
the film wouldn't be tampered with. He says the man known in the
industry as "Harvey Scissorhands" for his habit of recutting
films he picks up for distribution "is The New Harvey and The New
Harvey has been really great."
Touring to promote Transamerica hasn't given Tucker time to
write "the script I want to write" for his next project. He's also considering
directing other people's scripts and says he receives a half-dozen a week.
What he wants to do, he adds, is another small, character-driven story—no
larger than American Beauty. He cites Jean Renoir as his favorite
filmmaker, "because of the humanity in his films."
The father-to-be expresses concern about child abuse in its many forms.
Transamerica's Toby was sexually abused by his stepfather and, says
Tucker, "like many abused kids he confuses sex with love.
"But Bree was abused too because she wasn't allowed to be
herself. Any child who realizes around the age of four that they're
different from other kids but isn't allowed to be who he is, who
she is—with joy—is an abused child."
A final, frivolous question. If Tucker could get any star he chose on
the casting couch, who would he pick? "The entire cast of Lord of
the Rings," he replies; "including the Elven women."
Steve Warren is a local actor and film reviewer. His reviews can also be seen weekly in the Sunday Paper.