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Tuesday, April 14, 2015

An Interview with Sharon Shattuck

Sharon Shattuck
By Joshua Handler

Sharon Shattuck's deeply moving From This Day Forward premiered last week at the Full Frame Film Festival to a sold out crowd. From This Day Forward tells the story of Shattuck's father, Trisha, her journey as a transgender woman, and her marriage with her wife, Marcia (Trisha and Marcia stayed together throughout Trisha's transition and are still married). The below is an email interview between Shattuck and me.

What has the response from the trans community been (if you've screened it to anyone outside of the Full Frame audience yet)?

We haven’t yet screened the film for a transgender-specific audience, but I have screened it privately for my friend Denise Brogan-Kator, a badass laywer for the Family Equality Council who is also a trans-woman and parent. She was wonderfully supportive and had some kind things to say about the project, so much so that she’s going to sit on the film’s panel at Good Pitch Chicago, a fundraising event where social issue films can raise funds for our outreach campaigns. There were some trans people at the Full Frame screening, and they came up to me after the screening to say that they were moved by the story.
How involved was Trisha in the shaping of the film during pre-production, production, and post?

Trisha was not involved, except as a subject, in the making of the film, but she did have a little camera that she talked to as though it were me—it was a stand-in for me when I was out of town. She talked to the camera for about a year, and told it some very deep, personal stuff, such as feeling conflicted about speaking in a falsely higher voice (“does this feel…real?”), as well as wonderfully funny moments, like when she confessed to planting trees in our neighbor’s yards, sometimes asking them for permission and sometimes not. When I first watched this footage, Trisha’s candor and personality came through in such a startling, fresh way that it blew me away. This is the truest record of who Trisha is and what she thinks and feels, even more true than the footage I shot, because it’s just her, on her own, being herself. I’m so deeply grateful that she shared that part of herself with me.

Once filming was done, or once we decided it had to be done for my sanity, I took Trisha’s camera footage and gave it, along with the footage I shot, to our editor Freddy Shanahan (who has worked on some stellar projects, including The Search for General Tso and the Emmy-nominated The City Dark). Freddy knew that I wanted to weave Trisha’s POV camera and her paintings into the story, and I believe that he found the most elegant, touching way to do that. Post-production was a collaborative effort between Freddy, myself, and my co-producer Martha Shane (who directed the magnificent After Tiller). We watched all the rough cuts together, and recorded the voiceover as a series of unscripted interviews between Martha and me, to make sure that it sounded as natural and unstaged as possible.

Has your hometown's attitude changed towards the LGBT community with Trisha being full time now?

Things have really changed in my hometown since I was a kid. Trisha began coming out when we first moved from Chicago to Northern Michigan, in 1990. She was around 35, I think, and I was about to start fifth grade. Back then, I believe that no one in our town had even heard the word “transgender” in their life. It was really difficult for my sister, Laura, and me to negotiate a new school while having a dad that stuck out like a sore thumb. On top of being transgender and clearly transitioning, Trisha was just as loud, bubbly and effusive as she is now. I remember lots of cringe-worthy moments in supermarkets and at school dances where Trisha would be singing loudly and drawing attention to herself, while Laura and I sank deeper and deeper into a puddle of embarrassment. I think that back then, the community was completely befuddled—a neighbor in my film says “disgusted”—that Trisha was so out, dressing in women’s clothing, doing something that was so taboo.

Nowadays, our town is divided into two camps, about 50:50: those that love Trisha and my family, and those that will have nothing to do with us. There are plenty of people in my hometown who won’t speak to Trisha and who cross the street to avoid even making eye contact with her. I think the thing that’s changed now is that Trisha and Marcia are just at peace with it, and if those other people don’t want to talk to my family, then my family doesn’t want to talk to them.

What was your goal when beginning the film and did it change as you went along?

This is a story that I’ve wanted to tell since I first started working in documentary film, but it took a long time for all the pieces to fall into place for this story to be told. I was very hesitant with putting my very private, sensitive family on film, because I didn’t want to compromise my relationship with them. So when I first conceived of this project, I thought that I would tell the story of ALL lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer families, “rainbow families,” rather than focus on my own family. I started doing interviews around the country, and met some extraordinary people—a transgender pilot who hides her true identity from her colleagues during the work week, a lesbian couple and their happy kids in Seattle. As I was bringing these interviews back to New York to log and process them, a collaborator of mine said, “these are great, but I’m most fascinated by your dad, that’s who I really want to watch.” Having such a wide scope was diluting the narrative, and once I realized that my dad, Trisha, would be okay with me filming her, that’s when I began to see what the film could really be.

The project changed into a small, personal story that shows people what it’s like to grow up in a family that’s a little bit different but still glued together with love. Through this little story, I hope to ask communities across the nation for compassion, acceptance and understanding for all rainbow families.

What was most rewarding for you as a filmmaker making this film?

Making this film has truly changed the way my family communicates. It’s been wonderful to talk about the things that I have kept quiet for so long, and I think it’s been very healing.

The mostly positive reception of my family by the local community has also been unexpected. Though there are still plenty of people who disapprove of what Trisha is doing, the words of support from my friends and former schoolmates have really galvanized us and strengthened those relationships. I think that for the community, hearing about what exactly Trisha has been going through and dealing with has been enlightening, and the prevalence of transgender people in the media nowadays has only helped to bring the community around.

But the most rewarding aspect, for me, has been on my own marriage, and how I view my relationship with my husband. I try to channel my mom’s strength and acceptance, and my dad’s quirky love of comedy and the unexpected, in my interactions with Jon. Being married is a lot of work! And I’m just getting started, but I hope to refer to their example throughout my life with my new husband.

Has this film changed your relationship in any way with your family?

Making this film has been intense and amazing—intensely amazing. Having my camera allowed me to ask questions about points in our family history that weren’t easy to discuss, but everyone treated me with respect and answered every question I asked—I still can’t believe it. I think the experience of making the film allowed my family and I to grow even closer. 

What do they think of the film?

They told me that the first time they watched it (which was on a tiny iPhone screen, by the way—wince), there were a lot of tears. But at the premiere, Trisha was laughing right along with the rest of the audience, and afterwards she told me that this film is my art, it’s the truest form of my expression, and that both she and my mom are deeply proud of me for making it. I think they’re still kind of reluctant film stars in that they never asked me to make a film about them, and only agreed because it was so important to me, but once they saw that sold out crowd at Full Frame, with a standing ovation for Trisha, they really warmed up to the idea of traveling with the film, and doing joint interviews and Q&As with me! I’m a lucky daughter to have such awesome parents.

From This Day Forward will next be screened at the Hot Docs International Documentary Festival on April 27.

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