A month ago, Manhattan writer/director Brandon Kelley’s powerful 35mm short The Real Thing was an obscure little film that hadn’t been seen outside the festival circuit. But then Kelley and company introduced the film to the rest of the world by way of a Huffington Post article on November 12th in a release coinciding with Trans Awareness Week. The film quickly became a viral sensation, and its views on Vimeo soared to more than 200,000.
The Real Thing effectively promotes trans acceptance and demonstrates that a parent’s love can and should be unwavering, even in the face of unexpected changes. “Parental love is unconditional,” Kelley says. “It transcends a person’s memory of their child. The Real Thing is an infinitely stronger bond.”
The superbly-crafted seven-minute-and-seventeen-second short stars (transgender actress) Sophie Giannamore as Allie, a young trans girl, and Michael Torpey as her father, a soldier returning home from Afghanistan to meet his child for the first time since her transformation. The performances are top notch, and the film excels in every way imaginable. It’s more than just an important message, it’s also a gem of a film.
Kelley raised more than $10,000 to shoot the film via crowdfunding on Kickstarter. IFP was also a fiscal sponsor, and a Kodak grant provided $2,000 worth of film stock for Kelley to shoot with. Kelley says he called in a lot of favors in order to assemble his dream crew, who were paid, housed, and fed for the duration of the three-day shoot. Interestingly, they ended up losing the Cooke Anamorphic lenses they were renting so they could be used on a big-budget Marvel movie.
Kelley recently sat down with Diabolique to discuss his film, the success it’s found on the Internet, and the importance of trans acceptance.
Diabolique: What made you tackle the subject matter of transgender acceptance?
BK: This is a very personal issue to me. A lot of my friends are trans and I have a personal connection with the community. I wrote a feature version of a similar story years ago, and wanted to make a short proof of concept. When I tried to adapt that original story, it just didn’t work out, so I changed it and decided to add in a few elements that would be important to me, such as having the father be military.
Diabolique: I was going to ask if there was a purpose for the father being a soldier, given that the military tends to be hyper-conservative, and also because the people who are the most transphobic tend to be big supporters of the military?
BK: There was a reason, yeah. To me, it was important that stereotypes such as the closed-minded military people be broken. A lot of my friends that are in the military are very progressive. And I wanted a strong, military father to be just as loving as I thought the father should be. So the military father is both for those in the military to show that stereotypes aren’t always true, and also to put a character in there who automatically, based on the uniform they wear, gains respect from the people for whose minds we hope to change.
Diabolique: I love that you cast Sophie Giannamore, who is actually trans, in the lead. How important was that for you?
BK: From the beginning, from the inception, I knew I was going to cast a young trans actress. The problem was I had no idea how to go about that. The first thing I did was call Sarah McBride, who is the National Press Secretary for the Human Rights Campaign. There was supposed to be many calls, but the very first conversation we had ended with her saying, “By the way, you should check out this young actress who was in this last season of Transparent.” When I watched the episode, I knew that Sophie was perfect for the role. But having been on Transparent, I didn’t know if she’d be interested in a small, short film.
So I had my casting director reach out and, unfortunately, Sophie didn’t have an agent or manager or anything. So we actually had to reach out to Transparent’s producers. They were, thankfully, very protective. We sent them all of our script and storyboard materials, as well as bios on everyone involved, as kind of a pitch packet to get their approval to be in contact with Sophie. Once they liked it, they gave us their blessing and put us in contact with her and her parents.
There was one communication that almost turned really bad, where they misinterpreted an interview I wanted to do. I wanted the interview with Sophie to talk about how important it was to cast a trans actress in a trans role, and what the role meant to her. But they were under the impression somehow that I wanted to tell her life story. So that was a miscommunication that, thankfully, we were able to clear up. After that, I flew out to Indiana for a weekend and spent time with Sophie and her family. I wanted to make them more comfortable, and see if she was interested in the project. Go over the script together.
This is funny because we hadn’t had anybody else reach out, but that weekend we had five people ask for auditions for the role. But at the end of the weekend, Sophie said yes, so we cast her immediately.
Diabolique: I think the casting of a trans person for this role was extremely important. What do you see as being the significance of this type of casting?
BK: I’m not a big Hollywood director, but I have three schools of thought on this that I hear most often. One is that you should always cast an authentic actor. The second is you should always cast an authentic actor if they’re able to pull off the role or the performance. And the third is the one that is, unfortunately, most talked about: you should cast the actor that gives you the biggest name.
Basically, my school of thought is that when possible, always go for the authentic actor who can deliver the best performance.
Diabolique: I understand that the film has been entered in more than forty film festivals. Is that right?
BK: It’s screened in more than forty. We were only entered in twenty-something.
Diabolique: What kind of reactions did you receive at those festivals, and what were those experiences like?
BK: I’ve made quite a few that are kind of niche films, so I’ve tried to find festivals that fit those niches. Every film, it doesn’t matter what, has a niche you can find to fit it; a built-in audience that is already interested in what you have to say. So for our film, the trans community and the LGBT community was already there for us. When we got into Outfest, we literally applied in the waning hours of the submission process. My first AC on the film said, “Oh, have you heard about this festival?” and I hadn’t even heard of it at that point. When he told me about it, I applied with less than two hours to go for the submission period. Thankfully we were accepted, and I knew that was exactly where I wanted to premiere.
So at our first screening, I was a little nervous. I had never been able to attend the screening of any of the films I had made. I was never able to go. So at this first screening, I was nervous, but the woman in front of me, in the first few seconds of the film, when the teacher says Allie’s dead name, she clapped her hands and said “No!” at the screen. And I was like, “Oh, we’re good. [Laughs.] This gonna be good.”
That first experience was really what flowed on and on throughout all of them, whether it be LGBT festivals or one of the non-niche festivals. I would say the best reaction we had was probably at that first Outfest, just because it was such a tailored audience. Everyone there was interested in the subject matter and supportive of the message. It was really a great audience to premiere with, giving us full confidence moving forward that we had something the community would rally behind.
Every festival we attended, whether I was able to be there in person or not, we had phenomenal reactions. And at the non-LGBT festivals, we actually had some of the best moments where people would kind of open themselves up and ask questions such as… We had one woman at a festival ask, or imply, that she thought Allie was too young of a character to be transitioning. And then when I was able to tell her, well, in fact, Sophie, the young actress in this, transitioned years before this, and she is herself transgender, she was amazed. So that’s another time where having an authentic actor really is great for being able to communicate the message for those who don’t initially understand it.
Diabolique: I attended the Gilbert Baker LGBT film festival last year where an old man at the Q&A for But I’m a Cheerleader asked if there was some sort of medication gay people could take to become “normal.” Then his wife suggested maybe the protagonist just hadn’t met the right guy yet.
BK: Those types of questions are wild. When we get stuff like that, you have to remember that for all the LGBT festivals we go to, there’s going to be those audience members that ask the questions. You can’t believe those questions, but the people asking them are the most important people to gently bring into the message of the film. A lot of times with hate and ignorance specifically comes naivety.
In the very beginning, this was a film I wanted to make because it was a story I wanted to tell. But the message itself is two-fold. On one side, it’s for trans kids and their parents to know that their love is real, or unconditional, as it should be. And the other side, like I said, where I brought in the military aspect and the father-daughter relationship is to show anyone else out there who might be ignorant or naive that this is normal, that this is how it should be. A lot of people don’t know at first that Sophie is trans. So they see the film and they don’t realize that. So culturally, it’s some small revelation to them when they do understand that they related with this father-daughter relationship before they knew she was trans, and then they either have to reconcile in their head that she is trans, or that’s going to cause some sort of confusion.
The film was mostly made for the people who might be questioning their own beliefs, or mostly, might not have ever met someone who is transgender. That’s really the segment of the population we were hoping would see this film.
Diabolique: One of the things that is most impressive about The Real Thing is that you see movies sometimes, especially shorts and independent films, that have a great message, but they’re not particularly well done. But this film is exceptional. Not only does your film have a great message, but it was really well-crafted.
BK: I can’t thank you enough for saying that. That’s something we put a lot of effort into, and the crew was built from people who knew what they were doing. I basically called in all the favors from five years of working on sets. All of our key people had worlds of experience. Even the PAs had a lot of experience. This was my dream team.
Diabolique: You wrote on your Kickstarter page that you initially wanted to make the film with as much of an LGBT crew as possible. Were you able to achieve that?
BK: We had quite a few LGBT members. Specifically, we had three trans members and a genderqueer member of the crew. And of course, Sophie herself is trans. But without naming anyone, we had three trans crew members and one genderqueer.
Diabolique: You released the film online during Trans Awareness Week, which I think is fantastic. What considerations went into that?
BK: To be honest, we were originally going to release it earlier. We had planned our festival run to end around April. So we were going to do the release around May. There were a couple of complications that had us push back to July during Pride Week. But when we went to do it in Pride Week, Sophie herself was unavailable. Sophie has a huge social media following, and we really wanted that to help us promote the film. That’s really why we didn’t release during Pride Week.
I knew Trans Awareness Week was later in the fall, and I looked it up and found it. I reached out to Sarah again, and said that we were probably going to release during Trans Awareness Week and would she be willing to have HRC share the film. She said, “Why don’t we do an event around it?” So it was her idea to do the actual event. And then since Veterans Day just happened to fall during Trans Awareness Week, we combined the two and made an event centered around LGBT veterans. We had three separate veterans’ organizations that co-hosted our release event with the Human Rights Campaign.
So that was phenomenal. It was perfect. As far as our film PR strategy goes, it was good for us because people beyond the LGBT community would be talking about the trans community, so it seemed like the right time for us to reach out to the press as well.
Diabolique: The film has become a viral sensation. All of sudden it was everywhere. What was that like to suddenly see your film all over the place and so heavily talked about?
BK: It’s been an unbelievable experience. I’m still personally working a lot to spread it and get it out there, but it’s been amazing. In the first four days, all of the shares and views we had were just really friends and family that had sent it to their friends and family, and so on, and it was an incredible response. A lot of people were commenting earnest, very personal messages. And Sarah put me in touch with a former writer for Huffington Post, who put me in touch with the current writer. And he sent us three questions, which I tried to elaborate on and respond to. From there, he wrote the article, which overnight brought us from 4,500 views to about 80,000. That Huffington Post article really sent the most traffic our way, and it’s also great because as far as online sharing goes, it’s much easier to get people to watch a film that’s in an article headline in a reputable news article than it is to just watch a video.
After Huffington Post, PinkNews and a few others picked it up, and somehow it got to Mark Ruffalo, who then tweeted it out. That was another huge boost for us. This is the first experience I’ve had like this, so I’m not going to cry. And I’ve spent time on Twitter and Instagram, trying to find people—strangers, people I didn’t know in any way, but they themselves connected to the film and the message. I often times will find something that is such a personal comment; their own stories. And I’ll reach out to them and thank them and try to find out more. Even when we first started and were doing the Kickstarter… anybody who donated, I always asked why they donated money and how they found the film. And so many people on the Kickstarter were members of the LGBT community or allies. I like to carry that forward, that personal touch. Even now, I try to find people who had that personal connection with the film. Even if I don’t know them, I try to reach out.
Diabolique: Have you received many negative or transphobic comments about the film online?
BK: It’s funny you mention that. The fourth most views of the film have come from a website called Popular Military, which is a military website. Their article isn’t as hateful as you might imagine, just very ignorant. I wrote them personally to tell them that I used one of my close friends, who is an army medic, as a consultant, and we worked very hard, between myself, the art team, and the costume team to be as purely authentic as possible. Not only in the costumes and the props, but also in the features and the demeanor of Michael Torpey, who played the father. Michael did his own research, as well. I put him in touch with our consultant. Unfortunately, the Army wouldn’t let our consultant be named, but it was a very close friend. We worked very hard. So that’s how the message started for that website.
After that, I made a few clarifying points and just listed some things they got wrong. Basically, they used a few terms that were a little more ignorant. Instead of saying “transgender people” they’d just say “transgenders.” The typical stuff. Unfortunately, their article never changed and my comment got deleted. It’s not unexpected.
But I haven’t received anything personal that was ignorant, but a few people who shared the film have. Jazz Jennings, who’s a famous trans advocate, she and her mom both posted the film. They’re basically at a celebrity status, so there were some people who would post very ignorant articles or comments on that. But to be honest, that’s been the minority of our responses.
Diabolique: There are a lot of things about this film to be proud of. Is there any one particular aspect you would say you’re most proud of?
BK: Honestly, the book ending with the lines. With her dead name and her real name. I think that articulates what I’m most proud of. It really responds from a need that was lacking in the film. Because originally the film was written with no dialogue whatsoever. This was a film where, in all the research I had done, articles I had read about screenwriting, a lot of people talked about breaking rules. I had given myself rules that I used to stick with, and on this film, I allowed myself to break them. It really allowed me to change creatively and be more flexible.
Someone else, I can’t remember who, used the phrase “happy mistakes.” I wouldn’t say we were making mistakes, per se, but the breaking of the rules allowed me to find moments like using the name in the bookend of the film that otherwise wouldn’t have been in there. And honestly, it would’ve hurt the film in the end. I would say the bookending, and the minimal use of those lines to tell the story are what I’m the most proud of. Because really, if you just tell somebody those two parts, where the teacher says her dead name and then her father comes home and says her real name, that tells the story. The rest of the story is told through beautiful imagery by DP Greta Zozula.
Diabolique: Do you see yourself as an activist, and do you see yourself making any more projects down the road that might address other social issues?
BK: Absolutely. I would say I’m an advocate. I’ve always been a quiet one-on-one advocate. This is my first foray in the public forum. I’m really hoping that not only will it introduce me to more people who are interested in what I have to say and what my film has to say, but to the message itself. I’m aiming to do more things that address social issues, but I don’t see myself as the type of filmmaker who is only making social issues films. I just hope that the films, whatever they are, find the right audience the way The Real Thing has.