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 ìGirl Talkî a feature documentary about three abused runaway teenage girls. Subsequently, she produced the critically acclaimed ìTransgender Revolutionî a documentary on the gender communityís fight for civil rights. This began her voyage into Southern Comfort.
TARA VENERUSO: How did Robert Eads decide to allow you to film such a personal part of his life?
KATE DAVIS: Robert decided he could turn his tragedy and death into something positive and help open other peopleís minds up. Robert wanted to teach people about not fitting in due to gender prejudice. I donít think it was at all for egotistical reasons. I think the other people in the film followed and took Robertís lead. They were doing it to help him get his story out so he wouldnít be one more badly treated transsexual whose life had been fucked up.
TV: Did you do a lot of research before going out and shooting with the Sony VX1000 MiniDV camera?
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, ìAm I crazy to be doing this Ö 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?î I thought his story was important and I was so passionate about Robertís struggle.
TV: What led you to shoot digitally?
KD: I was trained using 16mm film. I love film but I didnít even consider using film for two main reasons. The first was the expense and I didnít 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 didnít 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?
KD: Digital 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 documentary?
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 ìTrue Spiritî. Thatís 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 ë70ís 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 wasnít like going through long pages of transcript to find the few good lines ñ it was the opposite. I had to leave most of them on the cutting room floorÖit was really hard. I wanted to keep Robertís majestic eloquent statements to a minimum because I didnít 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 friendís 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 weíd 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?
KD: Follow 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 donít think that you can make films just because you own a camera. On the other hand, if thereís 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 filmmakerís footage first. That can zap your energy. On that note Iíd say go ahead and take the risk and just do it.
Next Wave Films is a company of The Independent Film Channel, a network of Rainbow Media Holdings, Inc. © 2000 Next Wave Films