The award-winning documentary Real Boy, directed by Shaleece Haas is our SQIFF Closer on the 2nd October. It is a touching portrait of trans musician Bennett and his search for family while he becomes a man. One of the film’s stars Joe Stevens will be joining us for a Q&A after the film.
Real Boy is a very intimate portrait of family life. How did you gain such trust and access?
I spent a lot of time with Bennett, Joe, Suzy (Bennett’s mum), and Dylan (Bennett’s best friend) over the four years it took to make Real Boy and much of that time was spent with the cameras off. We all became very close through the making of the film and I think the intimacy you see on screen is a reflection of the close relationships we have with one another. It wasn’t always easy. And we all made concessions. Ultimately, it was important to me that no one in the film was demonized or made out to be a villain. Relationships are complicated enough as it is and I wanted to delve deeply into the messy complexity of family relationships without “choosing sides”.
How long did it take to make and how did you raise the funds for it?
Real Boy took four years to make. For the first two years, it was just me and my camera on a shoestring budget. After more than a year of grant writing and with the help of a talented editor who collaborated with me on a fundraising trailer, we raised enough money to start post-production. Ultimately, our funding came from a combination of film grants, a crowdfunding campaign, and a co-production with the Independent Television Service (ITVS).
How did you find Joe Stevens and Ben?
I was a fan of Joe Stevens and his band Coyote Grace. I had been introduced to him through a friend and later attended a house concert where he was playing in Sacramento. Bennett and Joe had just met at a conference for sober youth and Bennett was there opening the show. It was Ben’s first public performance after coming out as trans and he was visibly nervous, but also incredibly charming. I was moved by his songwriting and by the deep connection that was already so apparent between him and Joe. I introduced myself as a filmmaker (and fan) and asked them both that night if they’d be open to being part of a film project of some kind, though I wasn’t entirely sure what it would look like. Gratefully, they said yes, and we spent the next four years together.
Any top tips for burgeoning documentary filmmakers?
For me, collaboration and community with other filmmakers is essential to making movies. Throughout the process of making Real Boy, colleagues shared insightful feedback on cuts of the film, recommended crew members, loaned me equipment, and offered comfort when the process got especially difficult. I simply could not have finished this film without their support. I encourage all filmmakers, regardless of experience, to surround themselves with peers and mentors and to support their fellow filmmakers whenever possible.
What was the high point for you? And the low point?
There have been countless high points and low points in this process.
One of the most notable high points of the process was sharing the completed film with all the people involved. It meant so much to hear from them that the story felt honest and true to their experiences, even if it was uncomfortable at times to watch themselves on screen.
One of the most challenging moments was when I knew I had to shift the film’s focus because what I’d been doing wasn’t working, but I didn’t know what the new direction would be. I had initially thought Real Boy would be a “buddy movie” of sorts, with Bennett and Joe’s stories interwoven throughout the film. But so much of Joe’s process was interior, and though I was finding it difficult to convey that interior journey on screen, I knew Joe’s story was essential. And I hadn’t yet filmed enough with Bennett’s mom, Suzy, to know that she’d become such a big part of the film. I know that revising is part of the filmmaking process and most films go through some sort of storytelling course correction, but it was difficult to realize that my initial vision wasn’t working out, but I didn’t have a clear sense of what to do next.
What has been the audience reaction to the film?
I have been deeply moved by reactions to the film thus far and to see that Real Boy is resonating with people both within and outside trans and queer communities. It has been a pleasure to attend screenings and listen to audiences laugh and cry during the screening and then to talk with them about the ways the film connected to their own experiences.
Reality TV vs Talent Shows?
Talent shows, especially the cooking competition shows like Top Chef and The Great British Bake-Off.
What are you working on at the moment?
This year is mostly about bringing Real Boy to the widest possible audience. Our team is planning a big community screening series for the first part of next year and we’re preparing to bring the film to digital and television audiences in 2017. I am also in the earliest stages of pre-production on a short doc and considering my first foray into fiction filmmaking.