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Her Survivor’s Instinct: Paul Frankl on Roxanne

(Screenshot from Roxanne, courtesy of Paul Frankl)
Roxanne and Lily negotiate breakfast. (Still from Roxanne, courtesy of Paul Frankl)

Roxanne, a short film about a trans sex worker who reluctantly takes in an abandoned child, was recently selected as a Vimeo Staff Pick and has been accepted at 14 international film festivals, including two Oscar qualifying fests.  It will soon be made into a feature film. The following interview was conducted by Sarah and Caty with director Paul Frankl over e-mail. 

Roxanne is played by a genderfluid drag queen performer, Miss Cairo. That adds an interesting layer to her portrayal of Roxanne, because a lot of trans workers exist in gender variant spaces. Sarah noted that Roxanne is a character she could actually imagine working alongside her in a trans parlor, and she’s never seen that done on film before. Can you tell us more about this casting choice?

Casting someone of fluid gender was not something I initially set out to do. I auditioned eight trans and genderfluid women (because I knew I wanted someone from the trans community, as an ethical choice), and of them, Cairo was the one I wanted for the role. We then had many discussions around gender (her own and Roxanne’s) and it was her who brought the genderqueer aspect, which I wanted to embrace and thought made a great extra dynamic to the film. Exploring someone as genderfluid is something that’s rarely seen in the media (even less than representations of trans people given the rise in awareness over the last couple of years), and something I think is definitely worth exploring more in film.

Another thing we loved about the short was the way you holistically represented all the aspects of Roxanne’s life—her morning run was given just as much if not more film time as her nightly sex work.  In your Hunger TV interview, you stated that, “by pushing the fact that she is a trans sex worker to the background, I hoped to humanise her and make her a character that everyone can relate to.” Why do you think it’s so hard for mainstream audiences to see beyond the label of “trans sex worker” and understand trans workers as whole persons beyond their jobs and gender identities?

I think films can allow people to connect with others on an emotional level, in a way they can’t through many other mediums. This is why it’s a great way to help change attitudes towards trans people and sex workers, because the audience can see their hopes, fears, and daily life—things that we all have—and relate to them. Too often, trans sex workers (and sex workers in general) are presented as victims, crazy, or drug addicts. I wanted to show a trans sex worker who was in control of her life—with her own issues, but ones that don’t revolve around her gender or career. In this way I hoped to be able to change some attitudes towards sex workers of those watching. Hopefully, this can be done more (to a wider audience) with the feature.

We were surprised by Roxanne’s agreement with Lily’s statement that she puts on her makeup to be someone else, rather than telling Lily that the makeup is just part of being the woman she is. In the Hunger TV interview, you also said that “[p]art of the key to the film was differentiating between the light and dark aspects to Roxanne’s life. We wanted to visually separate the day from the night scenes, and show the duality of her life—her real self vs. her masked self…” What is Roxanne’s “masked self”? A common stereotype about trans women holds that they are pretenders to womanhood. How is Roxanne not being her real self when she puts on makeup and displays her femininity?

Her ‘mask’ relates to the glamorous role she feels she has to play on the scene. The line about her “being someone else” when she puts on all the makeup, refers to her playing this glamorous person that doesn’t connect to her daily self—the one you see in the day time, who has interests outside the clubbing scene. It can be lonely to present a beautiful and glamorous person all the time. This is her mask—it has nothing to do with her womanhood or transness. But I think in general, makeup does disguise who you are somewhat—it physically changes the way you look. She feels she has to portray this person in order to get clients, rather than presenting herself as the sensitive, (hurt) person she really is.

Emotional Truth: Cheyenne Picardo, Director of Remedy

Cheyenne Picardo, director of the independent film Remedy.
Cheyenne Picardo, director of the independent film Remedy. (photo by Rose Callahan)

Cheyenne Picardo wrote and directed Remedy, a film based on her experiences as a professional switch that is currently making the rounds at film festivals internationally. Her movie is an unflinching look at what it’s like to work in a Manhattan ‘house dungeon,’ in which dommes, subs, and switches work shifts for the owner, who in turn provides clients, space, and equipment. I worked as a pro-switch in a Manhattan house myself and spoke with Picardo via email about Remedy and her experiences in the sex industry.

You’re open about the fact that Remedy is based on your time working in a house. As someone who did the same job, I have to say I was blown away by just how true-to-life the movie was. In telling this story, was realism a major concern for you?

It was paramount. When I first started working on the script, back in 2007, I was preoccupied with recreating, with absolute accuracy, every detail of sessions that had happened a good three years before. Because I was producing my own film as part of my MFA thesis, I never saw the need to format the screenplay in the traditional way, so it read like a long journal entry with dialogue.

Then, a year after writing Remedy, I began to shoot the film, and the limitations of the script started to become obvious. Clients were rewritten according to the best actors I could find. Some of my dialogue was scrapped entirely because it was so laced with narcotic haze—I wrote the first draft while bedridden with a spiral fracture. Some scenes were rewritten the night before shooting, often with my assistant director Melissa Roth or the actors who would be playing the parts. For other scenes, like ones involving heavy bondage or corporal, my only direction was to hit a few dialogue points and dramatic beats but otherwise talk normally, and I shaped the acting and language as we shot. I think these methods enhanced the realism tremendously in the final product.

Whatever changes I made to “my story” were OK—as long as I retained emotional truth, and as long as what I depicted was either something I had experienced firsthand or something that a friend in the industry had told me over takeout while we sat the overnight shifts watching gonzo porn or Charlie Rose.

Ultimately—and I’m very free with this—the biggest “lies” in the film are these: I did have a dungeon boyfriend, but we didn’t actually lip-lock; the manager is not based on any single person; and the co-workers are meant to represent certain types of women who work in dungeons, not caricature the actual people I worked with.

Afternoon Delight (2013)

(poster via axxomovies.org)
(poster via axxomovies.org)

There’s a scene in which under-the-weather-feeling, anti-heroine protagonist Rachel (Kathryn Hahn) describes the way she feels as “shit city.” Afternoon Delight, directed by Jill Soloway, is shit city. This film screamed “rescue project” from the very start. Rachel is a bored, restless, wealthy, vaguely hipster stay-at-home mom living with her husband and young son in the Silver Lake neighborhood of Los Angeles. Her contemporaries are mostly other jobless, Jewish, “hip” housewives who spend their time doing volunteer work, if only to thoroughly document it on social media; organizing play dates amongst their elementary school-aged children, and running something called “Craftacular.” Thing is, Rachel doesn’t like this life and she doesn’t like these women. She wanted to be a war journalist. In a scene near the end she wails, “I was so bored I could have died!!!!” One of this film’s only saving graces is the fact that her therapist is Jane Lynch, whose character is truly the only “delight” Afternoon Delight has to offer.

A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Bathroom Attendant: A Highly Subjective Review of From the Head [2012]

There is a peculiar claustrophobic glory to working in a strip club. The walls hug. The beat of the music holds you in its grasp that is by turns steely and auto-tuned, fuzzy with distortion, jangly with teenage optimism, and tired with oversaturation. The air breathes recycled. The lights flash with epileptic precision. The girls rotate on stage, so many painted ponies. The voice of the DJ booms intermittent like a hawking God, reminding you to tip your bartenders and waitresses. It’s a closed loop, and yet the strip club’s very Möbius nature gives the whole experience a kind of comfort. It may be claustrophobic, but it may also be the only kind of closeness some strip club denizens get.

There are many things about a strip club that George Griffith’s film From the Head portrays accurately, but perhaps the most compelling is the claustrophobia. And yet, one person’s claustrophobia is another’s intimacy, and everything about this film treads the metonymic line between the two states. As the film’s punning title suggests, Griffith set his film in a bathroom. Griffith, who wrote, directed and starred in the film, plays Shoes, a bathroom attendant in an unnamed strip club. He stands sentinel at the washbasin, part conman, part sage, part poet and part priest, and listens as the strip club’s patrons spew their innards, drop their fierce deuces and generally share their secrets. And it’s also one of the few evocations of strip clubs that centers not on the women dancing but on the men watching (Susannah Breslin’s blog of letters from men who go to strip clubs is the other). 

“Can you dig that?” Also Known As: A Willie Dynamite Review

Willie Dynamite is the story of a pimp, for the most part. But! Because I could care fucking less about how hard it is to be a pimp, or how difficult it must be to keep your women together, or whether he decides to get out of the game in the end, I will be focusing very little energy on him. Anyway, his clothes make it difficult to take him seriously. I mean, he starts the film off wearing what could loosely be described as a hot pink matador-esque suit with puffed sleeves. Yes, puffed sleeves.

I’m pretty much only interested in the women.

The film starts off with them strutting about, dressed in what I can only describe as my dream wardrobe if I lived in the 70’s (and now, I won’t lie. Knife pleats and capes are timeless). The hair is large, the lips are red, and it’s all to show that they are classy ladies or so we’re told. These are women who were on the street but were….upgraded, according to the film. It brought to mind something I heard many times last year at the Desiree Alliance Conference, presentation is everything. From your photos, to the text in your ads, clients decide whether you are “worth” your rate by how you look. Like Willie says, “We’re selling an idea.”