Sun. May 31st, 2020

Interview with T Cooper director of trans bodybuilders doc ‘Man Made’

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Man Made takes us into the heart of transgender male (FTM) culture, revealing unexpected truths about gender, masculinity, humanity and love. Four trans men take a variety of life paths toward stepping on stage at Trans FitCon, the only all-transgender bodybuilding competition in the world (held in Atlanta, GA). Man Made is a character-driven, intimate, and riveting verité-style competition film, but also a unique social justice narrative. It speaks to the ways in which we all choose to define and reshape ourselves, both figuratively and literally.

As a trans man and best-selling author, journalist, television-writer, and activist, T Cooper has been telling stories in both the mainstream and indie realms for more than 20 years. Now, in the feature-length documentary Man Made, he is taking an in-depth, authentic dive into the female-to-male (FTM) transgender experience via a new (actual) lens.

I spoke with him recently about what a film about trans bodybuilders says about our traditional perception of masculinity, on Atlanta being a the gay beacon of the south and why a trans director needed to make this movie.

Man Made will play Outfest LA Saturday, July 21st and Sunday, July 22nd.

First let me say this is an extraordinary film.  


AW: It explores a convergence of sports and the LGBTQ community that I had not seen before.  One of cis society’s most unfortunate obsessions with the trans community is the concept of ‘passing’ and treating trans people’s journeys as trivially as a before/after makeover show.  Your film fantastically addresses societal ideas of masculinity by turning the tables on the most traditional expression of it. 

On that, what drew you to this specifically to this topic as a film and as your first film?

Mason, one of the featured bodybuilders in T Cooper’s ‘Man Made’

TC: So glad that you responded to the ways in which this film approaches and (hopefully quietly) subverts masculinity. I’ve always been fascinated by bodybuilding as a culture–for similar reasons you mention. The performance of hyper-masculinity on the one hand (attainment of the “ideal” male physique), and supposed hyper-femininity on the other (stilettos, pancake makeup, boob-jobs in be-jeweled bikinis, etc). And yet, these super-masculine guys are preening around and attending to every little detail of their appearance–and often in rouged, glittery, almost g-string “mankinis” to boot. And we know what happens physically to any body when more muscles are packed on (as in competition)–it tends to read as more “masculine,” regardless of the gender of the bodybuilder; and yet women are condemned and even ridiculed for being “too masculine” on stage. So it’s just that interplay where multi-faceted performances of gender are constantly running beneath the overall, dominant narrative of competition.

Not to get too theoretical. Because, I mean, what speaks to me loudest, at base, is that for a guy like (subject) Mason, this is simply a sport that helps him feel better mentally, plus makes him feel good in his body–and literally is keeping him alive and able to be the amazing husband, friend, son-in-law, brother and man that he is in the world.

For me bodybuilding is a perfect metaphor for what we all do as humans (and of course as trans people too). We change, we evolve. We build the bodies and lives we want. And it’s our unalienable right to build our bodies and lives however we choose. I’m not personally a bodybuilder, but I can certainly relate to making all sorts of life decisions that help me have the body and life I want. To me, these guys, no matter what their internal or external identities, are a reflection of all human life, which constantly changes and adapts.

And as far as how that impulse then became a film? Well, when I heard about Trans FitCon, my first instinct as a writer was to pitch a story to a couple of publications, and cover the competition that way. But as soon as I started meeting some of these guys and learning their stories, and where they came from, where they are now, and where they were going, it just became immediately clear to me that I needed to make a film about a group of them, with the competition as a backdrop and framework. A couple editors had been interested, but it was soon clear that a two-dimensional story on paper with a few cool-looking photographs just wasn’t going to cut it. So it was at that point my on-the-job training started in earnest, and I threw a camera on my shoulder and started following these guys around as much as humanly possible. I think with all good stories, the subjects and subject-matter dictate the form/medium, so I just listened to that and figured out the rest.

As is often with documentaries, the subject can be so hyper-targeted that it doesn’t grab a larger audience. Who would you say this film is for? Who needs to see it the most?

It kind of sucks that wider, mainstream audiences aren’t generally drawn to documentaries as much as feature films and other scripted narratives. I think that’s changing somewhat, due in large part to the fact that nonfiction projects (and those who fund, represent, and make them), are tending to take on more and more subjects that have other recognizable, almost baked-in ways of connecting with audiences, such as a celebrity-connection that almost works as a Trojan-horse, like, “Oh, you think you’ll care about this thing because you know this person it’s about or who executive produced it, but wait, this film is actually about nothing less than all of humanity through the lens of this one small life or experience.” But all good documentary films are like that to some degree, and I hope that MAN MADE is no exception.

It’s hard to say who should see this film, who it’s “for” so to speak, because I made this film with the hope that it would be accessible to anybody, and thus want everybody to see it. I have already witnessed a good number of people who see the film and say that it has changed them in some way–from cis/het people to LGBTQ people to trans men who have shared with me that they have never seen themselves on screen before, have never felt “seen” by a film or television show–but they did in MAN MADE. I tried to make the most honest, authentic, sensitive, funny, entertaining and ultimately moving film I possibly could, and I think that those elements are evident in the spirit of the storytelling and the love that went into every image in every scene—all of which makes it a compelling story regardless of what population it’s about. And everybody appreciates a good, human story, so that’s where I get off saying I want as many folks to see it as possible, because I think it is capable of touching everybody in some way.

The lives you see unfurling before you on the way to the bodybuilding competition, to me, are quite universal to the human experience, regardless of their myriad identities (the trans identity just one among many). Discovering where you came from; figuring out whether you can stay with a partner after going through a change (of any kind) together; seeking acceptance from parents; caring for a child; choosing partners; balancing ambition and family; keeping a roof over your head—all universal stuff that my goal was to portray almost as though through a kaleidoscope of identity. And I hope that MAN MADE demonstrates to trans and cis people alike that there are infinite versions of masculinities out there. And all sorts of femininities, for that matter.

What was the timeline from pre-production to finished product?

About three years. [Plus 15 years off my life.]

There has been a strong push recently for women, POC and the LGBTQ community being able to tell their own stories in media and entertainment. Do you think that a cis director could have made this film?

I think that a cis director could’ve made a film about this subject matter, but it would not have ended up anything like MAN MADE. There are a lot of intimate moments in the film where another director might not have intrinsically understood in every cell of his or her body what a subject was experiencing, and thus there are these organic moments of overlap when, say, Mason and I are the only trans guys in a room full of gigantic naked cis guys with their dicks hanging out while getting tanned; or when Dom asks me to help him pull down his sweaty chest binder; or when D.J. needs help loading Kennie’s shot for the first time. The way that a trans male director is going to let those scenes unfurl is necessarily different from how a cis director would; it’s the difference between storytelling from the inside looking out as opposed to from the outside looking in, (the former being the kind of lens that I believe is evident throughout MAN MADE). I think that a cis lens can’t help but be flavored by the subtle “othering” that often goes on when little-understood minority populations are portrayed—and that’s certainly not to say that a cis director couldn’t approach this or other trans subjects with enormous compassion and sensitivity and tell amazing stories, but there is a tendency in trans storytelling (made by cis people) to focus on tragedy (murdered, raped, generally troubled trans people), perhaps in attempt to get audiences to care more about the population? I don’t know; it’s hard to describe how important is it to let us have access to tell our stories alongside cis people telling our stories–without just pointing to projects that are trans-made. Unfortunately there aren’t a ton of them, but hopefully there will be more, as festivals and networks and distributors begin to see and appreciate the beauty of putting the means to storytelling in our hands. Audiences can care about trans lives even if there is no “tragedy” to act as a magnifying glass on the so-called “issue.” There are certainly some tears in MAN MADE–but there is far more laughter, joy, and triumph.

How did Téa Leoni get involved in this film as a producer?

Téa and I have been friends for more than a dozen years, and she has always been extremely supportive of my work (both written and television/film-based)–as I am of hers! She is an ardent supporter trans rights, in addition to myriad social justice issues. She puts her money where her mouth is, meaning, she doesn’t just give lip service to so-called “issues,” but is willing to get her hands dirty and speak up and do what she can, where she can, to help bring awareness to and combat injustice of all sorts.

The Trans FitCon competition is Atlanta-based. The new Queer Eye reboot is also Atlanta-based. Is the south fighting its way out of being perceived as just rednecks and into a more progressive future?

Atlanta Trans FitCon competitors Sebastian, Preston and Rufio

Atlanta is the legit jewel of the south; it’s Y’allywood! There is a ton of creative energy down here, so much film and television being made here, and certainly a lot of folks in those industries increasingly being woven into the city and culture. But beyond that, if you’re a progressive, or LGBTQ person and you want to live in the south, this is already the place where you can be yourself, whatever that self may be. We filmed with a couple subjects here, as well as the two FitCons, and as of a few years ago, I have been living here most of the time with my wife and our family (in addition to NYC). We also chose to post the project here (at the very supportive and proudly local Moonshine Post Production). The issues you reference about the South, of which there are many, are varied and complex and deeply layered, and certainly not going to be untangled simply by emerging as the 3rd largest entertainment city. That said, at least ITP (inside the perimeter), I believe Atlanta has already shed any “redneck” reputation and is already in the process of writing its progressive future–which is why it’s able to be an attractive entertainment-production hub in the first place. It’s just dope here, and anybody who visits soon finds that out.

A follow-up: Queer Eye featured their first trans ‘makeover’ this season, Skylar. Am I right in that I saw Skylar in the Atlanta Trans March with Dominic in your film?

YES! That is in fact Skylar from Queer Eye, who was actually a volunteer at the first three Trans FitCons in Atlanta, and who was also extremely helpful to me in tangible ways as we were filming the competition. He’s a sweet, inspiring guy all around, and that one moment toward the end of MAN MADE where he’s standing right in front of those hateful counter-protesters at the Atlanta Trans March is always so moving when I see it. No matter how many times I’ve watched it, probably 1000 times with edit, I always tear up (I’m kind of tearing up right now), when he screams into the bull-horn, “You’re beautiful. Your lives matter!” over and over in the face of so much vitriol and rage from the asshole protesters. It’s so raw and just a lovely piece of punctuation in the story of the film, and I’m so happy we were able not only to capture that scene but also include it–it’s almost sub-head for the entire MAN MADE project: We are beautiful, and even though the world is telling us a lot these days otherwise, our lives do matter.

What’s the most common misconception about trans people you hope this film can dispel?

I’m not sure what the most common misconception is, perhaps that we are trying to “fool” people when we transition, which is such a ridiculous prospect that questions our basic right of self-determination, and makes it all about others when it’s really about our selves. So I think a lot of trans representation in the media is still focused on how our transitions (usually adversely) affect the people in our lives around us, how hard our transitions are on everybody else (in addition to how hard transitioning is on us), and thus a lot of storytelling seems to get stuck on the transition itself. Which if you think about it, is just one period of many other periods we go through in life. It would be like making the sum total of someone’s life be the few years of puberty, or that summer spent abroad, or that year someone was homeless, or engaged to be married, or in high school, or any of the many seasons of our lives.

There is just so much more to trans lives than our transitions, so I hope that in MAN MADE, audiences will see not only a wide variety of trans lives, but also variety and depth within each of those individual lives. I am so many things in addition to being trans; I’m a father, husband, son, brother, novelist, TV writer, filmmaker, professor, pit bull-rescuer, motorcycle rider, hip-hop as well as 40s music-lover, a decent dancer, and also not too shabby at NY Times Crosswords—among so many more things. I live a 360-degree life, and so do all the guys in the film. Sure, aspects of transition play into that, because the guys in the film are at all different seasons of their transitions, so to speak, but these are beautiful, full lives, that honestly I wish I could’ve gone even deeper into (docu-series!?), but that’s what I hope will speak the loudest—the universal humanity, set against the backdrop of this seemingly rarified world of trans male bodybuilding.

Thank you!

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