Director Chase Joynt and co-writer Morgan M Page discuss Framing Agnes, a documentary that interrogates how we interpret transgender history.
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In 2020, I was introduced to Chase Joynt’s work with No Ordinary Man, a documentary about transgender jazz musician Billy Tipton, which Joynt co-directed with Aisling Chin-Yee. The film wasn’t just a retelling of history, but a reclaiming of it, questioning the very methods by which we tell historical stories. Faced with the challenge of creating the first moving image depiction of Billy Tipton, Joynt and Chin-Yee chose not to form one interpretation of what he was like. Instead, the film includes auditions with a host of transmasculine actors who perform scenes as Tipton, imagining a multitude of versions of Tipton. Even more importantly, this approach connects trans history to the present day, illuminating how these actors, and other trans people, relate to the legacy of someone like Tipton. We featured the film in our 2021 ebook, Subjective realities: The art of creative nonfiction film.
Suffice to say, I was excited to watch Framing Agnes at Sundance this year, Chase Joynt’s latest project which also uses actors to reenact and interrogate snippets of trans history. It didn’t disappoint. Framing Agnes very much feels like a sibling to No Ordinary Man. Based on a short film of the same name, which Joynt co-directed with Kirsten Schilt (who is still involved with the feature as a researcher), Framing Agnes, which is co-written by Joynt and Morgan M Page) uncovers the case files of six trans people from the 1950s. These were patients of Dr. Harold Garfinkel and Dr. Robert Stoller at UCLA, who studied transgender people, some of whom were seeking surgery.
There’s an infamous account of one of these patients, Agnes, who lied to doctors that she was born intersex in order to gain access to gender confirmation surgery. Agnes is an elusive figure, so Joynt and Schilt went searching through Garfinkel’s archives to learn more about her. What they found, to their surprise, was a rusted-shut filing cabinet with transcripts from Garfinkel’s conversations with five other trans people — conversations that had previously been lost to history.
In Framing Agnes, the UCLA transcripts are acted out by six trans actors, except the transcripts are reworked so that, instead of these conversations taking place in a doctor’s office, they are staged as a TV talk show, with Joynt playing the host. It’s a clever framing device that highlights how trans people have, historically, been put on display as objects of fascination, by doctors and the public alike. Trans people have also always had to perform as if to an audience, even if they’re just talking to a single authority figure, because in order to get what they want (medical treatment, a peaceful life), they’ve had to package their lives in a palatable way. It’s no accident that the film begins with footage of Christine Jorgensen — who became famous in 1952 for having medically transitioned, which was almost unprecedented at the time — arriving back to the US in quite a performative fashion.
Cut together with the footage, Joynt includes trans historian Jules Gill-Peterson speaking amusedly about how Jorgensen greeted press on her arrival. Jorgensen pretended to be taken aback by their presence when, clearly, she was dressed and made up impeccably for her moment in front of the cameras. As one of the first trans people thrust into the public eye, Jorgensen’s story shows that there’s a long history of trans people having to be architects of their own image in ways that aren’t often addressed by historical accounts.
The six actors at the centre of Framing Agnes are apt avatars for the people they play, not just because they share biographical details with their corresponding characters. They’re also celebrities, in some way or another, and on various levels, so they can talk about and embody the experience of being a hyper-visible trans person who is expected to constantly explain their existence to a cis audience. Angelica Ross, who plays a Black trans woman in the transcripts called Georgia, is known for her work on Pose, and she co-starred in Her Story with Jen Richards, who plays the charismatic Barbara. Zackary Drucker, the eponymous Agnes, is an actress and producer who worked on Transparent and has directed films of her own. Silas Howard, playing working class trans man Denny, is a prolific TV director. Max Wolf Valerio, who plays writer Henry, wrote the landmark memoir The Testosterone Files. And Stephen Ira, the son of Hollywood legends Annette Benning and Warren Beatty, has variously written and blogged about his transition for years; he was the perfect fit to play Jimmy, a trans teenager, as Ira also transitioned very young.
These actors aren’t just skilled performers; they’re also valued by the film as engaging thinkers. Each actor appears in the film in a variety of different contexts. In character, they perform in the talk show segments, as well as in B-roll footage of their character going about their daily life, whether that’s working at a salon, doing laundry, or going to church. They’re also interviewed in two different settings: a casual conversation with Joynt in the dressing room before going on set, in which the actors are in partial hair, makeup, and costume; and a more formal interview filmed at another time, set against a backdrop that’s relevant to their character. In these interviews, the actors share how they’re attempting to get inside the heads of their characters, and provide their own insight into the historical significance of these people.
While Framing Agnes seems to be the story of the six historical trans people in the UCLA transcripts, in the feature, Jules Gill-Peterson — who was not in the short — slowly comes into focus as the feature film’s protagonist. When she first appears, it’s as the kind of talking head expert that is so common in documentaries. I assumed that she would be one of many historians interviewed in the film. But Gill-Peterson is the lone expert interviewee in Framing Agnes, and her presence is so much more meaningful than your standard talking head. Not only does she provide historical information, she also shares her personal, emotional response to the research, as a trans person who is invested in trans history. Her interview was conducted after Joynt and Page had screened sections of the rest of the film for her, so when she speaks, she is dissecting the film that we’re watching along with us, grappling with the trickier implications of the stories we’re being told.
Gill-Peterson also occupies an interesting space as a kind of modern-day counterpoint to Harold Garfinkel. In the ‘50s, he was a white, cisgender man studying trans people. Now, Gill-Peterson is a trans woman of colour studying the same group of trans people, only with the benefit (if you can call it a benefit) of historical hindsight. As a trans woman, she’s a much more apt candidate to dissect the lives of Agnes, Barbara, Georgia, Denny, Henry, and Jimmy. But she also worries out loud about how she’s still projecting what she wants to see onto them. Those six characters only exist as transcripts, and in those transcripts, they’re only offering up what they want the doctors to know. It’s so easy to impose your own perspective onto their stories, which is something that Gill-Peterson, and the film as a whole, is constantly grappling with.
Framing Agnes is not just a film about these six individuals, because Joynt, Page, and their collaborators know that they can’t tell their full stories accurately. Joynt is careful to own his own authorship within the film itself, by casting himself in the role of the interrogator, and showing himself (and Page) on screen asking questions in interview settings. In the reverse shot of Joynt talking to Gill-Peterson, the lens of the camera that is filming Gill-Peterson intrudes into his frame, as a visual reminder that there is someone behind that camera. History is always being told from a particular, non-objective perspective, especially when it’s the history of marginalised people. Framing Agnes, with its largely trans crew, attempts to rectify that, while always reminding the audience that the film’s version is not definitive.
Framing Agnes doesn’t attempt to send you away with a full understanding of who Agnes, Barbara, Georgia, Denny, Henry, and Jimmy were. The film instead helps you to understand how to think about history writ large, and trans history in particular. What questions should we ask of historical documents? Where do the power dynamics lie in retellings of history? What does it mean when history, as it’s been told so far, contains conspicuous gaps pertaining to the lives of marginalised people? How do we read those gaps?
So many films about history elide these questions in favour of telling a streamlined story about the past. Joynt and Page upend this by tackling the messiness of history head on. They involve a multiplicity of voices in Framing Agnes, in order to explore history from many different angles. The facts matter, of course, but the facts that we have access to never tell the whole story, and often, what is missing from history is missing for a reason. Reading between the lines of history, Framing Agnes urges us to accept this uncertainty, and recognise that it’s also the only way to understand the histories of people who have rarely gotten to tell their own stories.
In this interview, I spoke with Chase Joynt and Morgan M Page about piecing together Framing Agnes, the importance of collaboration, and their shared approach to exploring trans history.
Seventh Row (7R): How did your collaboration on Framing Agnes begin?
Chase Joynt: I’ve been a long time Morgan M Page fan, and so Framing Agnes was an excellent excuse to start collaborating in a more explicit manner. It’s opened up a variety of new projects and inspirations for us since, but our writing really started in 2018 or ‘19. We started shooting the feature in 2019 and didn’t finish it until the middle of the pandemic.
7R: Okay. So that’s a long time.
Morgan M Page: Chase and I have kind of been around each other in community for the better part of ten years, but never had a chance to work together until this film came up. We’ve always sort of been a mutual appreciation society. We both really like each other’s work, so it was a delight when Chase asked me to collaborate on Framing Agnes. And now we’re constantly in conversation with other projects we have going on. We have a book coming out later this year.
7R: Tell me about the book!
Morgan M Page: So we have a tiny little book coming out in the Queer Film Classics series on the film Boys Don’t Cry (1999).
Chase Joynt: So we get to say that we wrote the book on Boys Don’t Cry.
Morgan M Page: It’s endlessly amusing to me that that is what we can say now. The book itself is, in a weird way, like an extended joke between the two of us. But also, it’s an important film, and we take it very seriously in the book. We look at the history of the production, which is a lot more complicated than people know. We do a close reading of the film and offer a new reading of it.
Our new reading is the idea that this is not a movie about transness, but rather, Brandon [Teena, the protagonist of Boys Don’t Cry] is our Alice in wonderland: a perfectly ordinary person put into exceptional circumstances, who allows us to see those circumstances with fresh eyes. Those circumstances are essentially white masculinity and violence. And then, we take a look at the history of transmasculine representations since the film came out in 1999, culminating in the Netflix documentary Disclosure (2020).
Chase Joynt: I love that summary, and the only thing that I’ll add is it was so important for us, as trans people, to be writing about trans content. We are invested in thinking in complex and irresolvable ways about trans cultural production and trans cultural producers.
This is relevant to our work in Framing Agnes, as well: so often, we get into these reductive conversations about good versus bad representations, politics, people, etc. We’re just entirely uninterested in that binary. Together, we’re trying to think through this and that at the same time, rather than this versus that.
7R: It does really sound like the book is in conversation with Framing Agnes, which is about media representation, in a way, as well.
Since Framing Agnes has been in various stages of production for years now, how has the vision for what the film would be changed over all those years?
Chase Joynt: The movement from the short to the feature is very significant. It changed dramatically, in part because the landscape of trans cultural production has also transformed so swiftly.
When we shot the short in 2017, we shot it with very little money, and many favours and credit cards and gifts from friends. But it was a time where investing in personal narratives still had a kind of sociopolitical traction that was interesting and valuable. If you track back to that project, you can see that we do a lot more work to juxtapose the life details [of the characters from the ‘50s] with the [biographical] disclosures from our actors and our talent.
When we arrived at the feature in 2019, nobody wanted to talk about their own lives anymore. Everyone was tired and exhausted by the kind of life narrative production that was required of media subjects at that time. In the feature, we turn collectively toward a different set of questions, reckoning with institutional power, and thinking about the medical and media industrial complex.
We thought about what else is possible when using the same source data, which I think is already baked into what happens to Agnes, right? We watch people use her case for various disciplinary agendas.
In Framing Agnes, similarly, we’re coming to those transcripts and, at one time, we were thinking toward the personal, and now, we’re imagining a different political orientation around the same data.
Morgan M Page: I feel like the feature thinks a lot more critically about the idea of trans narratives themselves. A big part of that was the really wonderful presence of historian Jules Gill-Peterson, who kind of anchors our film, not only with historical context, but by really pulling apart why we collectively, as audiences, or as people who are interested in these kinds of stories, are interested in the parts that we find interesting.
[For example] there is a character in our film [Georgia played by Angelica Ross] who is a Black trans woman. There are a certain set of assumptions that people bring to historicising Black trans women, and Jules really takes us all to task for it in a way that’s incredibly productive and totally unexpected, I think.
7R: In a lot of documentaries, you talk to experts. In Framing Agnes, you are, in a sense, talking to an expert with Jules. But she’s the only expert talking head in the film, and the conversations with her are just as much about her emotional, personal response to the research as it is about the research itself. Why was she so important to the film?
Morgan M Page: Before Chase speaks, I’ll just add one fun fact, which is that Jules’s presence in the film is, weirdly, a gift of the pandemic. She was not originally in the film. It’s something that came about later, because our production was halted, which gave us time to rethink the shape of the film. Interestingly, she’s become the spine of the film in a lot of ways.
Chase Joynt: And isn’t that such a nod to documentary, that you have to find your story while making your story?
One of the things that I love so much about Jules is the extent to which she can be both professionally and personally invested. Just as every other subject in our film is doubled in contexts, so is Jules. We made strategic choices to frame her as an expert in the beginning, so that you imagine she’s coming into the film for a particular reason, and then we collapse that boundary and engage her as a participant, just as we’re engaging others. I’m using the word participant rather than subject strategically here.
[Partway into the film] we arrive with Jules at UCLA, where we understand the stakes and consequences and choices that she’s navigating in relation to the story. My hope is that you recognise those changes through watching the film.
7R: When you were first encountering and parsing through the transcripts, what were your first impressions? What surprised you or challenged your expectations?
Chase Joynt: When Kristen [Schilt] and I first encountered the case files, quite literally in a rusty filing cabinet, we were overjoyed. We leapt to our feet, and then I was immediately filled with dread, because it felt like a breach of privacy, even while recognising that that privacy had been breached decades prior. It felt like an extraordinary responsibility. It took a long time to figure out what, if anything, to do from that place.
I have to be honest, the most interesting way to manage that stress was to share and to think out loud and to collaborate with trusted friends and interlocutors and creatives. To think, what’s possible when we’re imagining this together? It felt like too much for one or two people to contend with.
Morgan M Page: I came to these stories later than Chase did, but at every point, they were surprising to me, which is really weird, because I’m a trans historian. All my work deals with trans history; I’m very used to this. But when the character [of Jimmy] played by Steven Ira came up… this character is a trans teenager who showed up to the UCLA gender clinic with a supportive mother. That was really mind-blowing to me, to think that, in 1958, there’s some fourteen-year-old running around with a supportive mother. It really blew me away.
Each time we encountered one of these characters, as we were working on Framing Agnes, I felt really surprised. Not just by the details, but by their candour and self awareness. Often, in trans history, we’re given this idea from clinicians, like Harold Garfinkel or other academics, that trans people are basically without agency. We’re sort of hapless victims who run around and have no self awareness about the stakes of the institutions we’re dealing with. We have no awareness of our place in the world.
What you see when you encounter these characters [in Framing Agnes] are people who not only fully understand the stakes of their situation, but are actively deciding how best to navigate institutions, including medical institutions, but also the police, workplaces, things like this, in order to get the things that they need to create a life.
It’s really powerful, because we don’t get much access to people’s interior thoughts from trans history. We have the broad details. These transcripts are one of the very few times, especially from that time period, where we get a look at someone’s interior landscape. We also get to watch them, in real time, navigate an institution that has the power to give them what they want, but is very invested in keeping those things from them.
7R: I wanted to ask about the Jimmy character, played by Stephen Ira. Jimmy is a trans teenager who came to UCLA with a supportive mother. He is introduced to the film kind of late on, much later than the five other characters. What went into that structural decision?
Chase Joynt: There’s a couple different reasons for that. We’re working with data that we found in the archive, and therefore, we have access to more information from some of the characters than others. So actually, on the page, we know less about Jimmy. But also, to Morgan’s point, Jimmy sits a little bit outside the logic of some of the other conversations. He is so surprising. It’s really exciting to surprise the audience. We’ve spent our time with these people, and then we say, wait, but there’s more! And of course, what I love about that is there’s more than Jimmy, as well, right? It’s a nod to the fact that our engagement is only ever partial.
It is a really extraordinary gift that Stephen so willingly walks toward a conversation about his own life, and that he has contemporary experiences with UCLA, talking to doctors who are a part of the same lineage and mode of thinking that we’re engaging through Garfinkel and Stoller. The fact that Stephen is someone who transitioned in the era of the internet, and who understands that packaged version of a trans self, felt like a really exciting way out of the film [by introducing him late on], as opposed to the potential ways into the film.
7R: I wanted to ask about how the collaboration between the two of you worked. Morgan, I think there’s always a little bit of a confusion about what exactly the role of a writer on a documentary is. And of course, that changes a lot depending on what the project is.
Morgan M Page: This is the first documentary I’ve ever written, and it is kind of a confusing thing to think about, writing a documentary. But I think Chase and I, right from the jump, were very invested in dreaming together about what [Framing Agnes] could be. Our first in-person meeting to try to work on it happened here in London, I think during BFI Flare. We came up with a completely different film at the time, and ended up having to shelve those ideas over time.
Working on Framing Agnes, we have come back to the page again and again to look at things from another side, turning them upside down, to see where we can fit them all together. We’re constantly excited to talk to each other about some weird random idea we’ve had, or a new way of looking at something, or a new way that two pieces of story could fit together when they previously didn’t. Especially this fall and winter, working on the edit, it was like… tear it all apart and put it all back together again.
Chase Joynt: It’s all about a willingness to continually revise and to continually show up to the consequences of your choices. What does it mean to start changing the words that we’re using? Some of the precarious politics of trying to think across history is that, to be in the 1950s, and to be performing a kind of talk-show straight-white-man affect, is to invite a kind of transphobia into our film. It is to invite a bristling from an audience who we want to keep close. It’s anxiety-producing as a creator and as an actor, as the person who’s literally vocalising those things. There were so many times where we’d be texting or emailing or Zooming, and we would be thinking, how close can we get to that line while remaining true to our politics?
Morgan M Page: That kind of collaboration comes from the fact that we have a very deep trust and appreciation for each other, as artists and as thinkers on trans history. It’s not always been the case with some collaborations I’ve had in my life.
Chase and I knew each other’s work for, like, ten years before we ever collaborated. We can kind of predict where the other one is going to go or what they’ll be interested in with a particular piece.
I always know that Chase wants to mess with the frame of what we’re looking at. The genre of what we’re doing has to be pushed or twisted or altered in some way to get us out of it. And similarly, I’m sure there are things Chase has picked up on, that I am always gonna head towards. Because we have such an appreciation of what each other brings to the table, it never became a combative collaboration.
7R: I really love that you’re both coming at film from a historian’s perspective and using documentary to interrogate history. You both also work in other disciplines, as well. What do you think makes film, and particularly documentary, such a good way to explore a history like this?
Chase Joynt: One of the ways that I’ll answer that question is to expand your use of the word ‘documentary’ to think about recording technologies more broadly. Not only are we trying to unpack the logic and power of documentary form, but we’re also trying to think about recording technologies as portals to intimacies, alienations.
I, as a maker, am relying on your familiarity with various mediums. What does it mean to encounter the intimacy of a domestic Super 8 camera, and to see a kind of mode of address with our subjects that feels informal, casual, depressurised? What does it mean to escalate that into the alienating talk show studio camera in a very formal, unmoving shot-reverse shot style? How do we unsettle those terms in various ways throughout the film? For me, that’s where the slipperiness of genre, and the ways in which people talk about our work as hybrid, or as a kind of trans in between, becomes really valuable.
Morgan M Page: A lot of people assume that history is dry and boring, but actually it’s incredibly generative and scandalous and interesting. One of the things Framing Agnes does is not just present you with a bunch of facts from the past, but it presents you with a really engaging and, at times, bizarre way of interacting with people from history. We’re not really a talking head documentary. Every time you think that we’re ending up there, we break out of that frame into another way of looking at things.
7R: The use of reenactments is a great way of showing how recounting history is also just people acting out their ideas of history. And you have such a great group of six actors that you’re working with.
Chase Joynt: We’re so grateful to have the cast that we have. One of the things that is enduringly dynamic about their participation is, of course, the connections between their lived experiences and the traces of the lives that we find on screen through the case files. Those conversations started early, when Kristen and I first found the cases, recognised resonances and familiarities, and thought, oh my goodness, this feels very similar to… We have friends who would really resonate with the experiences of… etc.
A lot of that is captured in real time [and edited into the film]. The prep work was about building a foundation of trust and willingness to walk toward the encounter without predetermined conclusions. Some of the machinations on stage are really us trying to figure out what we’re doing together.
The actors knew that they were coming in to perform on the talk show from transcripts, and that [on top of that] there were two different interview setup styles. Contextual interviews [in which the actors talk through their acting process with Joynt] happen seated in that dressing room [area], and then there are character-based interviews, which are those direct-to-the-camera [conversations in which the actor shares overall thoughts on the character they are playing]. All of those spaces are hybrid transitional spaces.
If we are talking about a character in contemporary contexts, [those segments are] actually [shot in] the environment that the B-roll reenactments [are shot in]. If we’re in that contextual [interview scenario in the dressing room], our actors are partially made up, eventually to walk on to the talk show stage. Our hope is that you’re always aware of the fact that we’re doing more than one thing at a time. We’re always in more than one place. We’re always thinking across these lines.
Morgan M Page: As trans people, we are very used to narrativising our lives for healthcare professionals or for various authorities that we need to get some kind of recognition out of. As a result, we come with a lot of baggage around that and a lot of barriers and defences.
In our casting, a lot of the people that we chose have very purposely crafted particular narratives in public. [For example] Max Wolf Valerio published The Testosterone Files and was in a load of trans documentaries in the ’90s. Or you have people like Stephen Ira, who has been writing and blogging about his life in a very particular way for over a decade.
Our actors were really generous with us, [as they were] willing to let us feel up to the edges of those narratives that they have crafted to get what they need in their lives. At times, they show us the person behind those, in certain very powerful moments in the film, which I don’t think would happen if you had an all-cis crew. It’s also a factor that we are friends with most of these people. Stephen and I have been quite good friends for many years.
But even then, there are things that the actors were not willing to talk about and shut us down when we were asking them. We had long conversations about whether or not to include that in the film and what it would give us.
7R: Chase, you’re in the film, playing this man in a position of power. But you’re also a trans man playing a cis man who was in the position of judging this group of trans people. Can you talk about the decision to be in the film?
Chase Joynt: At a foundational level, [Framing Agnes] is a reckoning with authorship and authority. I don’t know how it would be possible to make the film without implicating myself as the person who is making these choices and who is the literal reverse shot that is facilitating these disclosures.
If we want to think about how to tether this question to Morgan’s beautiful answer, about what is at the edge of that frame: I am actually part of the edge of that frame. We also bake [Morgan asking questions to the interview subjects] into the scenes, too, because we are together making choices to ask questions that produce certain kinds of responses. We want to take responsibility for those choices.
There’s lots of ways in which the process doc gets taken up in mainstream culture and gets flattened as a kind of ‘behind the scenes’. What we’re arguing is strongly against that logic. It’s a mistake to say that our film is about a behind-the-scenes look, because there is no behind the scenes in the film. It is strategically all available. For me, there was no way to pull off this film without being who I am, for better and for worse.
Morgan M Page: Throughout the film, Chase and I appear [in the film] to implicate [ourselves] in the making of a narrative. The interview format could be said to be a violent form, especially for how trans people experience it, where we are constantly pressured by people to give an account of ourselves. And we were very much doing that to our actors in real time.
It’s important that the film moves the frame backwards so that you can see that that’s happening, because so often, it’s invisible. It is the assumption that it is not only okay, but rightful, for people to be able to ask incredibly invasive questions of trans people. People don’t think about what that means, to have to constantly give an account of yourself.
In our film, we are trying to make it very clear how implicated we are in exactly the same process. We are Garfinkel, in a way. And we are Mike Wallace. But we’re also a little different. We’re coming at it from a slightly different space, and with a self awareness about what we’re doing that Mike Wallace wouldn’t have had, or Garfinkel definitely wouldn’t have had.
When you read about the historical Agnes, you never see the psychologists talk about their own role in the situation. It’s all about her. It’s all about [how] she lied to [them]. But you never step back to think, well, there’s this whole panel of cis people determining whether or not she can get the things that she needs to live. What does that mean? Our film is taking that step back, not only in terms of how we are describing these characters, but even in the form of the film, in the way that we frame a shot, in the way that Chase appears as a central figure within the film, and the way that I also appear in the film. Even Kristen Schilt appears in the film briefly. We are moving the frame, essentially.
Chase Joynt: This inspires me to share a small anecdote: late in post-production, one of our producers was trying to get permission to use the Katie Couric footage of Laverne Cox. We got a text that said, “Hey, this is Katie, you want to hop on a call?” And so we hopped on a call with Katie Couric and talked at length about our film and about what she calls ‘television journalism’, which I recognise as a reframe of ‘talk show’.
We had a really incredible dialogue about the scene in the film. She was able to tell us some of the backstory, which is that the network gave her the opportunity to pull it so that she didn’t have to be visually reprimanded. And she said, “Absolutely not. If I can’t be the person who can show up to being told that what I did was a kind of violence and a kind of ignorance, then how are we going to model, for anyone else, the way forward?” I thought it was a really striking disclosure. At the end of the conversation, she was like, “Well, I hope that your use of me in this doesn’t make me look dumb.” And I [told her that the] only thing we show [of Couric is] her reverse shot. The whole thing is about the brilliance of what Laverne offers, and then you watch Katie listening. I hope that that’s part of the reason why Morgan and I appear, is to be a reverse shot, to actually show you what’s happening.
7R: Speaking of the importance of owning your authorship, I’m reminded of when I spoke to you, Chase, about No Ordinary Man, and you discussed the challenge of creating the first moving image depiction of Billy Tipton. That challenge is kind of amplified in Framing Agnes, because at least you had sound of Billy Tipton, and you had all these photos. With these interviews, you just had the transcripts with which to depict these real people. How did you deal with that challenge in this new context?
Chase Joynt: I don’t feel particularly daunted by our choices, because I’m not imagining that we’re telling the truth of anyone’s experience. I strongly believe that we are doing something else. We are trying to think beyond the frame of reenactment. We are thinking about embodiment and inhabitation and haunting and resonance. Just as we’re on stage with Georgia, we are always on stage with Angelica Ross, right? Those are never separate entities. I think that that line, that friction, that layering, is such a dynamic space. It relieves us of some of the pressure of historical accuracy, or the problems of representation, which I think are so common in contemporary dialogue.
7R: I wanted to ask about the hair, makeup, and costuming in the film, which is all fantastic.
Chase Joynt: We benefited from the extraordinary production design and costume design of Becca Blackwood, who’s a Montreal-based artist. I love that the Sundance programmers include the phrase “impeccably vintage” in their synopsis of our film, because I think it’s such a compliment to her work and the team of majority trans and non-binary assistant costume designers and production designers that were on our project. Becca pushed for just that: an impeccably vintage aesthetic.
In the film, there are a number of different objects that appear in multiple spaces. For example, the phone that Jen Richards picks up as Barbara in the [B-roll footage of her in a] salon [also] sits on a side table in the interview setup. I want you, if you’re paying attention, to notice some of these pivot points between times and between spaces. In order for that to work, those objects need to matter, and they need to resonate in multiple spaces. I really, really credit our production design team for doing that.
There’s something really interesting about making visible the performance of beauty and celebrity. It’s a part of our broader argument in the film. But it’s also, speaking of intertextual geekiness, a nod to the various ways in which transness has been performed and presented on screen more broadly.
To return to Morgan’s and my work on Boys Don’t Cry, there’s a moment where we cut to Jules in the rearview mirror, which is a total grab from Brandon Teena and the representation of Boys Don’t Cry. Or we start with Agnes looking into a compact, which is a nod to the innumerable mirror scenes in trans representational history. But it’s being done on our terms and with a kind of wink and a nod to the ways in which we’ve been represented elsewhere.
7R: Talking to you both, but also watching the film, it’s so clear just how much of a collaborative process Framing Agnes was. It’s not about filtering ideas through one director’s vision, but about bringing together so many different people to create one film. Looking through your work, Chase, I see that you co-direct a lot. Even in this film, where you’re credited as the sole director, you’re still collaborating so closely with Morgan and many other people, including the actors.
Morgan M Page: One of Chase’s greatest strengths is his friendship bracelet approach to life, where every single thing that he does is in some way collaborative. It always engages not only multiple creators, but also multiple viewpoints, into the finished piece. There’s never just one way of looking at something or one vision with Chase. There’s always many.
Now, that can run us into some trouble. (Chase and Morgan laugh) Sometimes, you look at things too many different ways, and you lose the plot a little bit. But that’s part of why having collaborators is so important, because someone like me, who’s very ‘one vision’, will start to pull those strands back together.
Even the edit on the film was collaborative. Jules was involved in the edit process; our producers were involved. There’s a close circle of people who all got sent links, like, “Provide me feedback ASAP!” And that feedback actually mattered, which, again, you don’t see from a lot of directors. At the beginning of this, I kept referring to it as “your film” to Chase, and he kept being like, “No, it’s our film.”
Chase Joynt: Before we shot with Jules, in LA, we had a team meeting in my AirBnB, where I screened all the in-progress film in chunks: here’s what we’re thinking about jobs, here’s what we’re thinking about relationships, here’s our focus on Georgia, here’s how we’re building the connection to the talk show, etc. In real time, we processed the problems of those choices, the consequences of those choices, the things that weren’t working for Jules, the things that made the group feel taken aback. And those real time reactions are actually what inform some of the ways our conversation unfolds the next day in that studio [interviewing Jules]. It’s a real time process of feedback that’s continually attempting to revise and enhance and elevate the story.
7R: Ah, so you were interviewing Jules while you were also screening parts of the film to her!
Chase Joynt: Correct. So when she’s like, “I have a hard time with Georgia,” she’s responding to, twelve hours ago, having seen [footage of the parts of the film that concern Georgia], and is trying to think out loud about it.
To Morgan’s point, down with the solo author! I think it’s so boring and uninteresting, and it’s so white, and it’s so masculine, and it’s so antithetical to the kind of world that I want to build and live in. I hope that the film can be smarter than its people. It has to produce something else. Actually, it can reflect the brilliance and vulnerability and talent of those within it. You’ve got to try and get out of the way of that. That’s the work. You’ve got to figure out how to continue opening up those portals, to let all of that live, and to not close down those possibilities.
Morgan M Page: One of the things that’s so exciting about that is that trans people are, 99% of the time, framed as islands. We are thought of as being very lonely, and we are isolated when we interact with authorities, whether those be medical, police, or otherwise. But what we actually know about our community, about the communities that Chase and I create and live in and have inhabited for many years, is that we’re never without each other. We are always with each other. That’s been one of the real strengths of our process on this film, to rely on creating community the way we know that we do create community in life, as a counterpoint to how we are continually represented in every form of media in academia and everywhere you go.
7R: Before I let you both go, I wanted to ask what you’re working on next, aside from your book.
Morgan M Page: I have a couple of film projects in development at the moment, and Chase and I are in constant conversation about what our next collaboration is going to be. We don’t want the ride to end.
7R: (Jokingly) A remake of Boys Don’t Cry.
Morgan M Page: (Laughs) I don’t know about that! Although I bet I will get a text from Chase three days from now, at two in the morning, with a lightning bolt idea about how we could completely reframe a remake of Boys Don’t Cry. (Chase laughs) And I will emoji react to it and then not continue down that lane.
Chase Joynt: I have a bunch of new projects in development, and I have a full draft of a book that I’m revising. But to be totally honest, I feel like I’m still 100% in Agnes. But it’s exciting, as Morgan said, to build out and go into development! It’s exciting to be able to try things on and take them off for a period of time before you start making choices that cost money.
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