“When people have asked, is it a comedy or a drama, I go, ‘Yes!’,” writer-director Duncan Tucker said of his movie, “Transamerica,” in which Felicity Huffman plays a male transsexual named Stanley, passing as a woman called Bree, who’s in the last stages of preparation for a sex-change operation when she learns that she may have fathered a son years before. The plot is essentially a road movie in which she and teen son Toby (Kevin Zegers) bond while driving across country from New York City, where he’d been arrested as a street hustler, and California, though she doesn’t reveal her real identity–or her sexual status–to him. “It’s like life, isn’t it? The other side of tragedy is comedy, and te other side of comedy is tragedy.”
Tucker, who was in Dallas for an early screening of the film, talked about the genesis of his script: “I wish I could say there was one ‘Eureka!’ moment, but there wasn’t. I wanted to write an independent film I could direct. And I first thing I had to think about were things that were important to me, things that I was going through in my life. This movie’s not about transsexuality. If people look at this, and they think it’s a movie about transsexuality, they’re going to stay away from the theatres, because they think it’s some sort of niche, weird, dark movie, and that’s not what it is. This movie’s about family, and about growing up and about beginning to love yourself.
“I had a hard time in high school. I always felt like a misfit, like I was the weird guy out. And I bet pretty much everybody in the universe feels that way. And my heart’s always gone out with great compassion to people who feel different. So Bree’s desires as a human being are just the same as all of us–she’s just maybe had a longer road to travel, and the stakes are higher for her. I was thinking about these themes, and I was thinking about the kinds of stories I like to hear, which are stories that you might tell a kid, and the kid would be on the edge of his seat, going, ‘Whoa, what happens next?’ or the kinds of stories I read as a kid, like ‘Lord of the Rings,’ which is a great, epic adventure story. And I really think of ‘Transamerica’ as a great epic adventure, the ‘Lord of the Rings’ of transsexual movies!
“Bree has a quest she has to go on. She’s dictated a quest”–her counselor won’t sign off on the operation unless she comes to terms with her presumed son. “She has a task to perform. And she has to leave her safe home to go on a journey across unknown lands, to get rid of a treasure she doesn’t want–think of Frodo! She has to get rid of a son she doesn’t want. She meets friends and enemies–there’s a handsome prince, there’s an evil queen. She’s in disguise. All these kinds of classic tropes of this kind of storytelling that would make me as a kid go ‘Wow!’ So that’s where it started.
“But then a woman that I knew in L.A., just as an acquaintance, told me one night that what was under her skirt wasn’t what I thought was under her skirt. And you could have knocked me over with a wet noodle, because she totally passed. And I, like about everybody else, thought that transsexual women looked like football players in a dress. But those are just the transsexual women that we recognize on the street. It was my first indication that there are a lot of trans people out there that we don’t know about. I ended up going out and researching with a lot of trans women. And I met a gorgeous woman who was going to Beverly Hills Country Club three times a week to lie in her bikini by the pool, shopping for a rich husband–frosted blonde hair, very cool, a very sophisticated, beautiful, svelte woman. She transed early. I wanted to write a character of somebody who was going down the road toward what she believed she could triumph at.”
The result, Tucker said, was an upbeat script, not a dark one: “I think of Bree and Toby as winners. They’re in trouble, they’ve had hard lives, but they are survivors, and they are determined. Toby wants to be saved–he hasn’t given up. And Bree has incredible dignity and incredible determination. I don’t think of this as an issue movie. It’s first and foremost a movie about a human being and a journey. And I hope you laugh and you cry, but laugh more than you cry. But if people learn a little bit–if it blows a few minds–all to the better. I hope that great stories always teach us a little bit. The problem is when great stories are written or shot in order to teach, they start becoming like a pill that you’re swallowing. I believe that great literature can be a page-turner, and I believe that fine films can keep you on the edge of your seat. I’m old-fashioned that way. Hollywood movies know how to entertain and tell muscular stories. And independent movies traditionally get into character and go into the difficult places of the human heart. My whole sensibility is to shmush them together.”
But after writing his script, Tucker found getting it made was another matter entirely. “The door was shut in my face over and over again for three years,” he said. “Nobody believed in the movie, nobody thought it was castable, nobody thought it would have an audience. It was too risky. So my mom mortgaged her home, my brother mortgaged his house, I spent every penny I had, I borrowed money from my friend Saul, I went into credit card debt and I got two dollars and fifty cents together to make the movie, and my producer said we could make it at this budget.”
Tucker then turned to finding out whether the movie was as uncastable as people had claimed. “I went to Felicity Huffman, and she really liked the script. And we talked and we agreed to work together. And she said, ‘The only thing is, I have this TV pilot to shoot in fourteen weeks.’ I called my producers and said, ‘Can we do that?’ And they said, “If we go into pre-production today.’ And I said, do it! And I didn’t sleep for the next fourteen weeks, basically. The whole time I was thinking about that damned TV pilot, which probably wouldn’t get picked up–who the hell cares? We finished shooting Felicity the day before she started shooting the ‘Desperate Housewives’ pilot.” He called her “an actress of incredible reservoirs of craft and technique, but the reason I think she’s a great actress is once she acts, those reservoirs disappear. She does her homework, and you don’t see an actor making decisions or an actor trying to mimic what you see in human beings.”
That made the choice of a young actor for Toby especially pressing. “Kevin walked into the room for me to meet him,” Tucker recalled. “I was supposed to meet him first, without just a cold audition, because he had a reputation because he was in ‘Air Bud.’ And he took one step into the room, and I looked at this kid, who’d put on tattered jeans and a tattered T-shirt–what he thought a hustler would look like–and I thought, ‘No way in hell!’ Because he was one of the most ridiculously, absurdly pretty people I’d ever seen. I hated him on sight–the dimples, the perfect skin, the big blue eyes and the chiseled features. And he turned out to be really sensitive and smart. And then he sent us an audition tape, and it was great. I still was waiting for a kid who I thought would look less gorgeous, but I finally forgive him for his perfection–though I kind of hate him because he can act, too!”
And so after a week’s rehearsal, filming started at locations in New York, New Jersey and northern Arizona. “We got to shoot about 85% in sequence,” Tucker said, “which was a real luxury, because as the shoot went on, [Felicity and Kevin] became more comfortable with each other, and I think it showed in their performances. They were more at ease; by the time they were driving across the plains of Texas–which was really northern Arizona–they’re really comfortable with one another, and I think that sense of play comes out.”
Looking back at making “Transamerica,” Tucker said, “It’s like the stars were in alignment for us. All those years of heartbreak and doors slammed, I got the money together and hired Felicity on the eve of ‘Desperate Housewives.’ We opened the movie just after she won the Emmy. We premiere it just after Harvey Weinstein forms a new company and is looking for acquisitions. We decide to let out a soundtrack just when I called Dolly Parton and she has a week off to write a song [for the end credits]. It’s like everything has just been in alignment, in a weird way.”
Postscript: on January 31, 2006, when Academy Award nominations were announced, “Transamerica” picked up two–one for Huffman as best actress, and one for Parton’s song. The alignment continues.