Since winning the
Sundance 2001 Grand Jury Prize for Feature Documentary, Southern Comfort
has continued to win awards at festivals across the country and around
the world. Director Kate Davis gave us a behind the scenes look at shooting
her transgender love story. The documentary is about the life of Robert
Eads, a 52-year-old female-to-male transsexual. For more than a decade,
filmmaker Kate Davis has been making films about members of marginalized
societies, beginning with "Girl Talk" a feature documentary about three
abused runaway teenage girls. Subsequently, she produced the critically
acclaimed "Transgender Revolution" a documentary on the gender community's
fight for civil rights. This began her voyage into Southern Comfort.
How did Robert Eads decide to allow you to film such a personal part of
Robert decided he could turn his tragedy and death into something positive
and help open other people's minds up. Robert wanted to teach people about
not fitting in due to gender prejudice. I don't think it was at all for
egotistical reasons. I think the other people in the film followed and
took Robert's lead. They were doing it to help him get his story out so
he wouldn't be one more badly treated transsexual whose life had been
TV: Did you
do a lot of research before going out and shooting with the Sony VX1000
KD: I knew
these cameras were out and people were using them. I had hired someone
to shoot a few scenes using this camera for television shows so I had
seen its quality. The whole thing was done on blind faith. Occasionally
I thought, "Am I crazy to be doing this ä to leave my family and go down
with no money or funding or support and film a dying transsexual in a
trailer home. Who would do that?" I thought his story was important and
I was so passionate about Robert's struggle.
TV: What led
you to shoot digitally?
KD: I was trained
using 16mm film. I love film but I didn't even consider using film for
two main reasons. The first was the expense and I didn't have funding.
I just jumped in and did it. The second reason was that I thought it would
be a very intimate situation and I wanted to be as unobtrusive as possible.
I had a small camera, the Sony VX1000. The third benefit was the hour
tapes so we didn't have to constantly stop and reload. I was able to cover
scenes more thoroughly.
TV: Did you
have to learn a lot of technical information before shooting?
cameras are pretty amazing. A lot of the things are automatic (maybe too
many for my taste) but I could really jump in and just do it. I also had
shot a lot of film before making Southern Comfort, which helped.
TV: How did
you meet Robert initially and how did that progress into shooting the
KD: On a practical
level I met Robert because my husband had an idea to do a documentary
on transgender people for A&E Television. They hired me to devote an hour
to the political movement. I was directing that in Maryland at a female-to-male
convention called "True Spirit". That's when I met Robert and all kinds
of other guys. They were all so great. When I met Robert he just blew
me away. I thought he was a very unusual character who was so charming
and charismatic and was suffering from this terrible tragedy because of
prejudice. He breaks the stereotype of transgender people and that is
what led me to the film. When I think back to why I felt so strongly about
these issues and wanting to humanize the plight of transgender people
it probably goes back to my youth when I was a bit political in high school.
I would argue with people about gender-based oppression. I was doing that
in the å70's before it was a popular topic. I even took my girlfriend
to the prom and I was wearing drag. It definitely was part of my psyche
expressed 20 years later.
TV: What were
the toughest choices you had to make in the editing room?
KD: I think
not being able to fit in so many of Roberts statements that were so wise,
heartfelt, and philosophical. I mean he really had so many gems. He is
one of these people who is so difficult to cut because he is so strong.
It wasn't like going through long pages of transcript to find the few
good lines ‚ it was the opposite. I had to leave most of them on the cutting
room flooräit was really hard. I wanted to keep Robert's majestic eloquent
statements to a minimum because I didn't want him to overtake the film
and seem bigger than life or too wise. I wanted to keep him at a human
level, which was a little bit of a challenge.
TV: What did
you edit on?
KD: I cut
on an Avid and used a DV deck. I never transferred to Beta SP. Basically,
I shot all of the footage on MiniDV and we were able to put that footage
directly into the Avid from a DV deck. We did not have to transfer our
original footage to Beta SP tapes which are traditionally used on the
Avid. We were able to save a lot of money because of the ability to go
directly into the Avid from our MiniDv tapes.
TV: What format
did you initially make the master on?
KD: I made
a master tape output to Digibeta. I was lucky that we had a very high-end
Avid. It was called a serial digital input (SDI) which is hard to find
but I was able to use my friend's state of the art facility. Serial Digital
Input basically allows for zero compression when you are digitizing so
it is as close to the original footage as we could possibly get.
TV: How did
you record the sound on location and then mix it in post-production?
KD: We used
wireless mics 60% of the time. We had a radio mic on Robert and then we
used some boom mic as well. I was surprisingly pleased with the quality
of production audio. Sometimes we'd have real trouble with the radio mic
picking up interference, but the boom was more reliable. We did a lot
of filtering with the sound mixer in New York during post-production.
TV: You made
a 35mm film print from your Digibeta master. What was that process for
you and are you satisfied with the results?
KD: I was quite
satisfied with the print. I took a risk going with a company that had
not done a lot of features before called Heavylight. They really put their
heart into this and they loved the film. They fussed over different shots
and corrected for motion that came out jerky. Sometimes that happens when
you transfer from 30 frames per second NTSC DV to down to 24fps of film.
I was really pleased with the outcome.
TV: What advice
could you give to up-and-coming filmmakers who are shooting digitally?
your heart. I think you do have to concern yourself with technical issues
because it can't really be sloppy. It is great that there is easy access
of equipment and portability of everything but the downside is that people
think they can just go make a film since it is that easy, but it is not.
I would say study films and don't think that you can make films just because
you own a camera. On the other hand, if there's a story that you are just
completely compelled to make I would rush out and do that rather than
waiting around for the funding. Stopping to raise money can be really
debilitating and it is getting harder because financiers now want to see
a filmmaker's footage first. That can zap your energy. On that note I'd
say go ahead and take the risk and just do it.