When director Lisa Donato came on board to helm “Gossamer Folds,” casting a trans actor to play the lead was imperative. “It was non-negotiable,” she says of her directorial debut.
Even more important was getting the framing and lighting right, and for that, Donato recruited her frequent collaborator and trans cinematographer Ava Benjamin Shorr to make the right choices when it came to “accurately depicting a trans person.”
“Gossamer Folds,” now screening at Outfest LA’s film festival, tells the story of a friendship between Gossamer, played by “Transparent’s” Alexandra Grey, and a young white boy named Tate (Jackson Robert Scott). But Tate’s transphobic father learns about Alexandra and forbids him from talking to his new friend. However, Tate defies his father’s orders to form a powerful friendship.
Yeardley Smith who voices Lisa Simpson on “The Simpsons” served as a producer said, “In our film, Gossamer is determined to live her truth no matter what her family or the world thinks of her. And in rejecting his father’s knee-jerk disgust of people who are different than he is, Tate makes a critical decision to forge his own path and become friends with Gossamer.”
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Donato and Shorr spoke with Variety about the importance of casting and framing the film authentically, and together they break down one of their favorite scenes.
Can you walk us through your casting process and the importance of authenticity, especially when telling a story like this? Why was it important to find a trans actor for this story?
Lisa Donato: I would never consider directing a trans movie and not directing a trans character. That’s non-negotiable. Our production company Paperclip, LTD was on board with that from the beginning and our casting director, Russell Boast, was incredible.
We cast Tate and Gossamer first. We put out a casting call and received a bunch of self-tapes from Black trans actresses, and we watched them all. Alexandra Grey nailed it. I cried during her tape. It’s so rare to evoke that kind of emotion. She was perfect for the role.
Gossamer resonated with her. She grew up in Chicago. Her parents didn’t accept her and she dreamed of leaving and starting over in LA. So, it resonated with her.
What discussions did you have about framing Gossamer and Tate, and what input did Ava have with regards to being a trans cinematographer?
Donato: Establishing their chemistry was fun. We were shooting outside New Orleans and on off-days, we had Jackson and Alexandra spend time together. They’d go and be tourists around the city and have dinners, really building on their friendship outside of the movie. They truly fell in love. In between shots, Jackson would go up to Alexander and hold hands.
Ava Benjamin Shorr: I’m really sensitive to the way trans people are photographed and perceived in film. I’ve worked with Alexandra before, and I wanted to be conscious of everything right down to the story level.
Lisa and I talked about how we wanted to frame Alexandra and we wanted that to look as good as possible. My own identity was the background for the initial discussions.
I had paid attention to the way women were shot. If you’re a cis white male, there are certain subconscious societal and cultural values that are imparted on you. I notice male directors of photography would sexualize women in certain ways. And male directors do it too. They’re subconsciously choosing things that are maybe not directly tied to the emotional beats of the story. There are ways in how you frame a character. You can choose to include more cleavage or less cleavage. There are lensing and lighting choices that you can make.
In old issues of American Cinematographer, they talk about how you can use hard-edged lighting to impart virility on a male face. There are subtle choices you can make to accurately depict a trans person.
There’s a moment when Tate has a dream about Gossamer and it’s almost fantasy-like when she’s rolling in wearing a wedding dress with lighting bugs. It’s one of the most beautiful scenes of the movie, can you break down the process of filming it?
Donato: That was one of the last scenes to shoot, and it was pouring rain. One of our grips had built this dolly system to execute the shot. We were losing time with Jackson because of limited shooting hours.
It was almost Christmas Eve so we couldn’t have a pickup day and have everyone leave. We had to be done within the hour. But that was the most complicated scene to pull off.
Shorr: Lisa and I have collaborated before and what’s great about working with directors multiple times is you get to build a language. We had storyboarded the scene so all the decisions were made ahead of time. But as we shot, we started scrapping those storyboards and went for a looser approach.
We did a lot of testing with that dress because we wanted it to be illuminated. We worked with string lights and experimented on those, trying to find ones that didn’t flicker in slow motion. We wanted to integrate the lights into the dress, but because of time, we couldn’t do that, so we added them in post.
We had to add tricks in the sequence to achieve what we wanted. With the firefly, when he holds it up to his face, we had an LED light in his hand and threaded it into his shirt, so when he holds it up to Alexandra, it’s looking like it illuminates his face.