IRIS PRIZE – THERE YOU ARE
Lisa Donato is a writer, director and producer based in Los Angeles. Her short film The News Today was shortlisted for the Iris Prize in 2017, and with Fawzia Mirza she co-wrote the feature film Signature Move, which also screened at that year’s festival. We spoke to Lisa about her latest short film, There You Are, and some of the issues it explores.
IRIS BLOGGER: You’ve written all of the short films you’ve directed to date, but There You Are was written by its star, Jen Richards. What was it like directing someone else’s work?
LISA DONATO: I really enjoyed directing someone else’s words. I wasn’t attached to preconceived ideas or a vision that comes with writing a script. It freed me up to find the subtextual moments between the lines and we built imagery that supported these moments.
For example, there was a line in the script: Betty has passed. There are so many ways to shoot the moment of death in a film. For me, this moment felt slow and frozen yet time kept moving forward.
Ava Benjamin Shorr, the DP, and I co-created a shot where we aimed the camera into a ceiling skylight, the heavens, and slowly dollied back until we revealed each family member, one by one, frozen in their grief. It’s my greatest moment as a director to date because I was able to convey the opposing energies of moving time and loss.
IB: How did the film begin life? Did Jen come to you with the idea, or did you approach her?
LD: Jen and I were jurors for the All Genders, Lifestyles, & Identities Film Festival in Austin in 2017. She asked me to direct one of her projects and pitched me three ideas. I was immediately drawn to the story about her grandmother. I cried when she told me the story. Four months later we had a full cast, a very generous private donor, and we shot the film in Austin.
IB: Is it important for trans artists to tell their stories first-hand? Is there still a gulf of empathy and understanding that cisgender writers might struggle to cross?
LD: I think all writers struggle to authentically tell stories about situations and/or emotions that they’ve never experienced. That’s why it’s critical for writers to do their homework before tackling a foreign subject. This involves researching literature, asking questions, interviewing people who align with their main protagonists and even main antagonists, etc. It’s important for everyone to tell their stories first-hand. A mentor told me once that writers’ tears are a readers’ tears and a filmmakers’ tears are audience members’ tears. Creating from the source of the wound or light is irreplaceable.
IB: There You Are explores some facets of trans identity that we don’t often see on screen, and which are rarely mentioned in the media coverage surrounding trans issues. Can films like this help build bridges, and maybe change people’s minds?
LD: Yes! There You Are is very special because it depicts a trans woman in an interracial lesbian, femme/femme relationship with an ultimately accepting family from Middle-America. It’s a film that defies the stereotypes we often see in media and entertainment, and offers a tear-jerking, happy ending that sometimes the world can’t.
IB: This is your second time on the Iris Prize shortlist, after The News Today in 2017. One of the stars of The News Today, Nick Neon, is also in this year’s competition with his film Zero One. Can we expect a little friendly rivalry between the two of you, or will you be battling it out like Alexis and Dominique in ‘Dynasty’?
LD: Ha! If I could lasso the moon for Nick Neon, I would. He’s an extremely talented filmmaker who has a unique voice and vision. I would be absolutely thrilled if he won the Iris Prize. Also, I’m an executive producer on Zero One, so let’s be real, it’s still a win for me!
There You Are is featured in Shorts Programme 2 – Gender & Family.