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Interview: Duncan Tucker

From East to West, from father to mother, from man to woman, from prostitute to porn star – these are just some of the many transformations that take place in Transamerica. This road movie peers into the life a transsexual woman in the final stages of her change into a full bodied woman. Right before she gets her final surgery, she finds out she fathered a child some years back and now she must make amends with her past before she can complete her transformation.

Bree is a hard worker who has been saving for a surgical operation that will give her the body of a woman. After years of taking hormones, this final operation will complete her. Right before her psychologist gives her legal consent, Bree finds out that she fathered a young boy, Toby, about to be released from jail, and Bree’s doctor holds the consent until Bree has met her son. Forced to go on this journey, she hides her real identity and pretends to be a Christian worker that saves troubled children. Toby has a past his wishes to forget too. Little-by-little they discover something new about themselves and each other. When the whole truth comes out, neither can judge the choices they have made.

Felicity Huffman plays the part of a frustrated transsexual woman trying to feel comfortable as woman. Kevin Zeger’s plays troubled Toby who feels like he has nothing to offer anyone but physical affection. Bree’s masculinity is shown in her lack of nurturing towards Toby. It is hard to look at Bree as anything but a mother to Toby but only because she looks like a woman not because she acts like one. Bree is concerned with looking like a woman, not feeling like one.

Duncan Tucker who makes his directorial debut with this film shines with his ability to turn borderline campy characters into real life humans. The story has characters and situations that could easily be turned into comical satire but Duncan succeeds in portraying them as they are – human beings with problems like everyone else. This film parallels, in many ways to another recently released film in Loggerheads.. Duncan Tucker’s Transamerica is funnier and moves at a quicker pace.

I sat down with Duncan Tucker at a roundtable interview.

Duncan Tucker

Question: What intrigued you about this particular idea as your first feature?

Duncan Tucker: People say this is a road movie, but a road movie is an older form. The Odyssey is a road movie. The Lord of the Rings is a road movie. Journey is a metaphor for internal journey too. I used to read all those fantasy books with the dragons and wizards on the cover when I was teenage geek – and I said ok, how can I make a quest adventure movie on a budget. While I was thinking along those terms, a woman I knew in L.A. told me what was under her skirt wasn’t what I thought was under her skirt. Her story made me laugh and cry and I said this is amazing personal journey and I did my research and the story grew.

Q: Why have a woman play Bree and not a man?

DT: It’s interesting, before I had done my research, meeting transwomen, that might have been my thought exactly. That’s how we’ve seen transwomen commonly portrayed. And the fact is, when a transperson has taken hormones therapy for a few years, not to mention facial reconstruction surgery, they don’t look like a guy in a dress. It would have been a dishonest choice; in fact I really wanted to honor where this character was going and not keep her anchored in what she left behind a few years before.

Q: Was it hard to find an actress that wouldn’t be offended with the appearance of the role, looking like a guy in drag?

DT: I lucked out with Felicity. I was prepared for Bree to be even more feminine than Felicity played her. She actually played her with her walk, her talk and her character with extra feminity. Felicity has no vanity, she is only interested in pursuing the truth of the story and hopefully have a good time doing it.

Q: Could you talk about the character of Bree’s mother, Elizabeth?

DT: I love Elizabeth. She is really unedited. Her emotions rule her. She is trying her best to save her family, her child. She says things that, as far as she considers, are the most loving, motherly things possible to say, but they often, as in all families, can be heard by the children as horribly insulting. I will say only one character in the movie is actually somewhat of a portrait of a real person and that is Elizabeth. Some people may think that family is over the top, but I don’t know, that is my experience of what families are like.

Q: So is Elizabeth based on your own mother?

DT: Yes, she is based on my own mother and I told her that when she saw the rough cut. I said, “Don’t be upset, she just trying to be the best mother she can be,” and she said, “ Alright, I’ll watch it.” And she loved it. Now she tells all her friends to come watch the movie, that there is this character based on her. I will also say it is a portrait of my mother at a certain time in her life. She has mellowed with age.

Q: Did you do a lot of location scouting for this film?

DT: Yes, we did a lot of location scouting. We only had eight weeks. Right after we hired Felicity she has the Desperate Housewives pilot to shoot in eight weeks and we had to start preproduction that very day. I had to immediately call in favors and use places that I knew – my mother’s house, the place where the kids go swimming was lake across from the college I went to, my brother’s car, and my friend’s horses.

Q: What has been your reaction to the audience’s response, especially in the mid-West?

DT: Within the past six-seven weeks, I have been on tour with Transamerica, a different city every day in “Middle America.” I did have some trepidation how it would play, but in Denver, for example, there was a lady in her sixties, who raised her hand, for the Q&A and said her husband and herself almost didn’t come because of the subject matter and they thought maybe that it wasn’t their cup of tea, but they were so glad they came and they thought it was funny, lovely, and sweet. Then she asked how I was going to get people like her husband and her to see the film and I told her to go and tell her friends. This is the type of movie that will rely on word of mouth.

Q: Do you think the Weinsteins are willing to do what it takes to get the movie out there to audiences?

DT: We think so, I think they are really behind us.

Q: You have made an interesting transformation yourself, from painting to film, where does this leave your painting career?

DT: I have dabbled in a lot of stuff over the course of the years. I love pictures, I love music, and I love stories. I didn’t know how to make my mind up, but when I thought about it, it was a no-brainer. I moved out to L.A. to meet movie people, read books and learn how to write a screenplay. You know I don’t know a damn thing about making movies which is probably my strong suit as a director. Hopefully, I have my own idea how to tell stories, how to tell it from the heart and keep people entertained. Nobody walked out a movie saying I wish that was longer. I know what I like and I thought I’d go with my gut and my heart.

Q: What are you doing next?

DT: I have agents now and I’m reading a lot scripts, when I have time I have something I’d like to write. Hopefully I’ll be shooting a film by next year. I’m eager to get back to work.

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Justin Ambrosino received his MFA from the American Film Institute where he was awarded the prestigious Patricia Hitchcock O'Connell Scholarship. His short, ‘The 8th Samurai', a re-imagining of the making of Akira Kurosawa's Seven Samurai, won more than 20 jury awards worldwide and qualified for the Academy Awards Short Film category in 2010. Ambrosino began as an assistant on major feature films including 'The Departed', 'Lord of War' and 'The Producers'. He also staged a series of one-act plays throughout New York. He has been a Sapporo Artist-in-Residence, a Kyoto Filmmaker Lab Fellow as well as a shadow director on 'Law & Order: SVU'. Ambrosino is working on his feature film debut "Hungry for Love". Top Films From Contemporary Film Auteurs: Bong-Joon Ho (Memories of Murder), Lina Wertmuller (All Screwed Up), Ryan Coggler (Black Panther), Yoji Yamada (Kabei) and Antonio Capuano (Pianese Nunzio...)

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