‘Open’: An Exploration into Trans Identity
Our NewFest 2010 behind-the-scenes, meet-the-filmmaker series continues with Jake Yuzna, director of Open... interweaving love stories featuring real individuals using modern medicine to explore new frontiers of love, sex and the human form. Yuzna will be on hand to answer questions from the audience when the film makes its NewFest debut Sunday afternoon at 5:30pm.
The 28-year-old Minneapolis native spoke to us from Brooklyn, where he currently makes his home.
Many people already feel like they know you through the work of your uncle, (well-known and respected horror film director) Brian Yuzna. I suppose he was a strong influence on your work.
It’s a situation where I grew up being around film all of the time. I never lived in the same city as Brian, but he was very close with my grandmother and would always send these clippings and articles back home to her, along with stories about who he met, what or where he was shooting. He was living and working all over the world, and the stuff he was doing was this kind of gory, horror stuff… perfect for me; I grew up being kind of a morbid kid, hearing these scary stories from him. So I don’t really know if it’s the exposure, or if it was in the blood, and that I’m just the next generation in the family to get the gene to be obsessed with films.
A lot of my influence as a filmmaker came more from the movies I saw growing up, not just from Brian. But wherever I go, someone will recognize my last name and ask if I’m related. About six months ago I was at Metropolitan Bar in Brooklyn and the person who was taking IDs was like, ‘Hey, are you related to Brian?!’ ‘Yes, I am… I haven’t heard that one in a while.’ (Laughs)
Horror fans are totally passionate about film. They have this encyclopedic knowledge about the business; it’s amazing. It’s almost like a religion.
It’s great that there are so many people who are ferociously, passionately into that kind of filmmaking. I’m the same way. I grew up reading Fangoria and other magazines like that, and was totally ecstatic when the Sci Fi channel first started up. It wasn’t until I got older that I realized how, well, scrappy, too, were the people making these movies. They would make one film, and then use the money they made from that to support the other, they were that dedicated. It’s a little bit different now, because there’s this huge audience for independent filmmaking, an even bigger diehard audience that supports it and allows it to exist.
Open was influenced largely by the story of Genesis Breyer P-Orridge. Those of us who were into the industrial music scene years ago know Genesis’ work with Throbbing Gristle, Psychic TV, and Chris + Cosey. Bring me up to speed on Genesis’ body modification experiments since then that have served as a launching point for your film.
I’m always having to explain her. A lot of people know Genesis, and she’s getting even more recognition now, because her body of work (so to speak) has covered so many decades. She’s really broken a lot of ground. She’s kind of like Velvet Underground – not many people bought their records, but everyone who did wanted to start a band, you know what I mean?
Okay. In the late 80s or early 90s, Genesis P-Orridge met Lady Jaye Breyer and they became a couple, and they fell in love. Genesis had done a couple of projects about body modification, but together, they developed this venture called Pandrogyny. (In it, each underwent surgery designed to create two versions of the same pandrogenous being, called ‘Genesis Breyer P-Orridge.-Eds) They used that to express what they saw as the next step in human evolution, taking it into our own hands. Cracking the DNA, plastic surgery – all that science is allowing us to become a new kind of human, and we should embrace that. But they actually did it. They were saying that, looking at each other as male or female, or as you and me, or being a member of this or that religion, whatever, causes a lot of the strife and hatred… and that we need to start looking at our species as a whole.
So it was a literal way of saying we’re all the same, let’s rise above these petty societal differences.
Yes. What they realized is they were so in love that they no longer saw each other as Genesis and Lady Jaye, but as two parts of one entity. They felt that the next step was to actually have their bodies reflect their identity. They were really influenced by Thoreau’s cut up technique for writing – and they liked the idea of ‘cutting up’ their identities to make a third complete, distinct identity. Unfortunately, Lady Jaye passed away a year or so ago, so Genesis has been devastated, dealing with the aftermath.
Not to give away too much of your film, but your story begins when one member of a similar couple is forced to deal with the separation from a partner for the first time.
Actually, we had shot the film already when that happened; similarities to the script are just a coincidence. Originally, the idea was to have a biological character of their born gender, someone transitioning from M to F, one from F to M, and an intersex person in the same story. As I was exploring all of this, I began thinking about Genesis’ project, which I was familiar with, and I thought it might be more interesting to have that represented as one of these characters.
It may seem extreme or strange that these characters undergo plastic surgery to look like one another, but when you think about it, the idea behind it isn’t. We’re all looking for a reflection of ourselves in our partners.
There were concerns about this when I was making it, and even from the actors. There are so few honest representations of trans people; we’re reflecting the communities we’ve been a part of here, and we want to make sure they’re not sensationalized.
That implies that you encouraged your performers to bring their own ideas into the filmmaking process.
It’s a dialogue. Yes, some of the folks you’ll see in the movie worked with me to develop the script together. Morty Diamond was great, because he was able to look at the script and say, “You know, this doesn’t make sense because of all the trans men I know do this or that, and that’s how a relationship works. Neither person is weirded out by the mechanics of the situation – it’s just kind of like a ‘thing.’” So yeah, there were instances in making the film where we tweaked the script, but on the other hand, there were just as many situations where I took a stand and said, ‘No, let’s keep this or that, because it works really well.’
The character of Cynthia, played by Gaea Gaddy, for instance, was originally conceived to be a trans woman’s role. But once we started shooting and I spent more time with her, she told me, ‘No, I’m not a trans woman, I’m a hermaphrodite’ – which opens a whole other bag of stuff. So I was like, sure, let’s talk about this. We shifted the character to reflect her story more.
Is there anything in particular you want audiences to think about when they sit down and watch your movie?
What I would say is to be open to new possibilities. The characters and story are not the average everyday thing you experience, the kind of thing that’s usually represented in films. Just go in with an open mind. It’s a little different, but hopefully a good experience. It’s kind of like the first time somebody kisses you and uses tongue. It’s a little weird, but it’s very enjoyable all at the same time (laughs)
From our film guide: Jake Yuzna’s Open, the only American film to ever receive the Teddy Jury Prize, is a mesmerizing love story that pushes the boundaries of gender, identity, and human connections. Gen and Jay are a happy couple living in Minneapolis with a sweet, albeit peculiar mission: through gender-reassignment therapy for Gen (Jay is a biological woman, but Gen was born a man) and intense plastic surgery, the lovers will look identical to each other and form a single pandrogynous being. Things get complicated when Jay leaves town and Gen befriends Cynthia, an intersexed vagabond. When Cynthia expresses her feelings for Gen, the strength of Gen’s relationship is tested. Meanwhile, gay college student Nick has a one-night stand with transman Syd that goes awry and puts Nick in a situation he never thought he’d have to face. Features an original soundtrack by electroclash band ADULT. Sunday, June 6, 5:30pm.