A disappointing reality of our modern society is that levels of acceptance towards individuals who skew away from the accepted ‘norm’ can at times crawl along at a painfully ponderous pace – a conservatism that is all too regrettably reflected throughout the media we consume. Fortunately for us all there are filmmakers like Director Paul Frankl who not only know their business with regards to storytelling, but weld that skill for the greater good. So is the case in Frankl’s new short Roxanne, which sees an isolated transgender sex worker reconnect with her emotional core when she takes in an abandoned young girl. We talk to Frankl about making non-exploitative cinema and championing the stories that we all need to see more of.
Aside from a handful of notable exceptions, transgender characters rarely feature in films, how did you come to the story of Roxanne?
From a young age I’ve always felt personally constrained by gender norms, as a kid who liked to wear dresses, play with dolls and do other things that were (and are) associated with being ‘girly’, I was aware of the cultural ideas of gender conformity from a very young age. I’ve done drag, I have drag queen and transgender friends, including a particular trans sex worker I was friendly with when I was 18 or so. She inspired me to write the story. So often in film trans sex workers are depicted as drug addicts, crazy or camp comedy acts. I wanted to make a film that humanised trans sex workers, and that didn’t define the lead character by either her gender or career.
You first completed the script 4 years ago, what shifts did the story take in those intervening years?
The essence of the story is the same, but originally the script packed even more into it than the short I ended up making. I think the film was always really a feature film idea crammed into a short. In the intervening years I really just focused on streamlining the story, and honing my tone/voice in how I wanted to tell it.
Roxanne has a fierce strength of character, coupled with the compassion she feels for Lily. Was that take an intentional move to distance her from the transexual as ‘victim’ or ‘confused’ tropes perpetuated in the media?
Completely. Before making the film I worked for a bit with a theatre show called The Sex Workers’ Opera, a kind of community musical, written and performed by sex workers. It was such an incredible experience to be around all these sex workers, hearing their stories and mostly just seeing how amazing and strong they are. All you hear in the media about sex workers is the victim narrative, and while of course trafficking is horrific and should be stopped – it’s not the only story. There are also many sex workers who choose to do what they do, who aren’t drug addicts, who are completely in control of their lives, and who are tired of not having a voice in the public eye.
There are also many sex workers who choose to do what they do, who aren’t drug addicts, who are completely in control of their lives.
You stepped outside of the traditional casting calls to find your fantastic lead Miss Cairo. How difficult was the search, and what was it about Miss Cairo that let you know you’d found Roxanne?
I created a flier which I posted on various UK trans/drag Facebook groups, events and venues. I also spoke to the Terrence Higgins Trust who work with trans sex workers, and in the end auditioned 8 people on the trans spectrum who had some acting experience. Cairo was clearly a standout from the start – she brought a raw intensity and passion to her performance which I knew I could work with, and had to have!
The non-traditional approaches to Roxanne’s production extended to the film’s financing too, coming from Kickstarter and Absolute vodka. How did you manage to get such a major brand onboard to finance the film? Did their money come with any oversight or caveats?
In 2012 I won Bombay Sapphire’s Imagination Series competition, and I knew that Absolut had a long history of supporting/targeting LGBT audiences. When I thought the time had come to try and make Roxanne, I reached out to their head of marketing (over twitter) and asked if I could pitch him an idea. I mentioned the Bombay Sapphire competition, and how I thought the film could fit with their brand, and they said yes! They didn’t ask for any greenlight power, in fact were incredibly supportive all the way through. They didn’t get involved in the creative aspects at all, and supplied us with a PR team who organised the launch event, and publicity. I couldn’t have asked for a better experience.
In contrast to the day, Roxanne’s night time persona welds her beauty as power and armour. Where did you pull from to develop her contrasting looks? How much did Miss Cairo’s existing image influence the final character style?
There’s a definite difference between Cairo’s personal style and Roxanne’s, but we did use a couple of Cairo’s own outfits where we could! The wigs and make up however were quite different from Cairo’s own usual styling. Roxanne isn’t someone who performs on stage, and there are subtle differences between Roxanne’s gender identity and Cairo’s, which impacts on their respective looks. While Cairo is gender fluid and spends much time on the club scene performing as a burlesque dancer, Roxanne lives every day as a woman, and her colder, harsher personality needed to be reflected in the way she dressed and did her makeup, too.
You’ve name checked some of my favourite films such as Morvern Callar, In the Mood for Love and Fish Tank as visual references for Roxanne. How did you and Cinematographer Rina Yang put those inspirations into practice on set?
Rina and I have been working together for years, so she knows my style and references inside out, and brought a lot of her own too. We made a ‘mood trailer’ from other films when looking for financing to show funders what the film would look like – including footage from the films above, and others. I knew that I wanted to have a marked difference between the day and night scenes, and that I love to use colour in film, so together we planned to create a more neon/high contrast look at night, and a washed out/’white’ daytime look with lighting, different film stocks, as well as production design.
All my favourite films have been shot on 35mm, I think it just adds such a beautiful quality and atmosphere to any film.
All my favourite films have been shot on 35mm, I think it just adds such a beautiful quality and atmosphere to any film. Rina is also a massive lover of shooting on film, and whenever we can – we will do together! As to framing – that was mostly Rina. We had a shotlist planned before hand, but of course that largely goes out of the window in the crazy rush of being on set and never having enough time (it also didn’t help we lost our main location two days before the shoot so had to completely reshotlist as well as find a new location in one day!).
For me, one of the film’s greatest strengths is that we discover Roxanne at a point where she’s already firmly herself. With the feature you’re currently developing, how are you planning to expand upon her world?
The feature revolves much more around Roxanne’s world, her past, what made her who she is, and her personal development. Lily acts as a catalyst for her to make changes in her life. At the start of the film, Roxanne is cold, isolated and pushes people around her away, because of events that happened in her past. Through taking Lily in, Roxanne is forced to address her issues, as well as physically go on a journey to find Lily a new home. It also looks at her relationships to other trans sex workers she knows, and her engagement with her own community.
What will we see from you next?
Well, fingers crossed the feature film! I have a great producer on board, and am currently working on my second draft. We’re shortly going to start fundraising, so fingers crossed it’ll happen in the not too distant future.