By Tom Reardon
This week, Los Angeles-based photographer and filmmaker Braden Summers released Elevate, in honor of International Day of Transgender Visibility.
The film is part of what Summers hopes will be a series entitled, Frame of Mind, and is a wonderful first edition. Clocking in at just over three and a half minutes long, the film chronicles an elevator ride taken by a trans woman (portrayed beautifully by Aus Wang) in a New York City apartment building and the various people she faces.
For Summers, who gained has gained critical acclaim for much of his work including his “All Love is Equal” series of photographs from 2013, the process of creating the film was a great experience.
We caught up with him by phone last week to talk about Elevate. Here’s what he had to say:
Echo: Why Frame of Mind: Elevate now?
Summers: Trans rights have really seen a tipping point in the last five years. I shot the series, All Love is Equal in 2013 and I saw this insurgence of LGBT romance featured in mainstream campaigns in the last four or five years. It really felt like I had a hand in this pushing that tipping point, however small it might be. It was incredibly rewarding to feel like I was part of that transition having seen that project go viral and being hired by lots of large corporations to continue to create that type of work with brands in mind. Having the series behind me, I thought, “What else could I do to further social agendas that I am partial to and believe in?” I have trans friends, so I came up with this concept.
The larger story is that originally I proposed an idea of creating ten short films that interesting socio-political ideas that I believe in. When it came down to working with a producer to figure out how much this would, it was clear that my budget would only allow me to do one.
What were some of the other topics?
Immigration. Environmental, related to climate change. I was trying to imagine the movies that would play out in real-time, these vignettes where none of them would have any edits and shown in one single take and see how that would affect the viewer to see things playing out in real-time. In using my sense of fashion and beauty to tell stories that are difficult to tell. If you’re not directly affected by these stories, you might not take the time to think much about them or be a part of them. I think my experience with All Love is Equal is really infusing beauty in a topic that is difficult to discuss. Seeing the impact of that made me want to create more work in that vein.
It feels good to do work that makes you feel good.
Yes. I got tired of waiting to be hired for that type of work all the time. I thought that if my personal work heavily influenced by these types of messages then hopefully I will be hired to create this type of work more often and with brands that have the budget to get these types of messages out to a larger amount of people.
Did you always have the elevator setting in mind for Elevate?
For sure. Because it was a one-take film, I was imagining a scenario in which one person could interact with a large swath of people where it feels pretty normal and you could encounter that many different types of people in one elevator ride. I couldn’t think of a better scenario where you are forced to engage or interact in these subtle ways, or not so subtle ways, and feel the tension. I think a lot of people can relate to being in an enclosed elevator at some point in their lives and feeling, “Ah, do I talk to this person? Do I not?” There can be some tension in that space and when you compound it with a New York City apartment building where there is a lot of diversity and you’re bound to run into people from all walks of life. The viewer can see in real-time what that experience might feel like for a trans woman.
I loved the expression on the elevator operator’s face during much of the film. Was that something you had in mind or did the actor bring it to the role?
It’s funny that you bring him up. In my mind, he was the only one who was going to have a character arc. All of the other characters have their experience, or a non-experience, with the trans woman whether it is a positive experience or a negative one, or not really an experience at all, and the elevator attendant’s role is a constant. He starts off being a little bit taken aback but then he starts listening and watching the interactions she encounters or endures during the elevator ride. By the end, he has, however small, a kind of transition where the sympathy, or rather, empathy towards the heroine and he gives her this kind head nod at the end when she leaves the elevator and that symbolizes the arc he experiences.
It did seem to be very empathetic. You could see the transition. As you were filming, were there any unexpected outcomes that you didn’t foresee as you were putting this project together?
No. Some of the changes really came from having that many people on a set without a huge budget. You’re just bound to have people bail. The guy who I tapped to be the strongest antagonist, who was kind of a bully, wasn’t able to make it on the day of shooting so I had to throw someone else into that role. He brought a different energy to the part that I hadn’t originally imagined, but I still thought it worked. There was also a catty couple of friends, a gay gentleman, and his BFF, they took my direction and brought it to a different level that I really enjoyed. I didn’t expect them to be so obnoxious but being on set I really liked what they brought to the film and encouraged them to go with it for subsequent takes.
What about for you? From beginning to end, was there anything that you felt as you looked back on the experience that you did not expect to feel?
No, which is a beautiful thing as an artist. With so many of my projects, I have one thing in mind and it doesn’t always translate to the final product. I think more than any other project I’ve set up to create, it was really close to what I had imagined. I came up with the concept for the film almost nine or ten months earlier and it really felt like it hit the mark. It really felt like a success as I was able to bring the project to life and it really matched the original concept.
What was the process like to work on Frame of Mind: Elevate?
I worked with a couple of writers for about six months trying to come up with concepts for the ten films and then eventually we decided to focus on just the one film. It was about a year of conceptualizing and then two months to get ready. There was a lot of moving pieces. I had over 20 actors and about as many on the crew.
What do you hope people take from the film?
I hope it stirs up some thought for people. I hope they can relate to different characters. Maybe they will see themselves in one character or another. I hope they can empathize and sympathize with this trans heroine. Trans men and women aren’t often seen in mainstream productions. If they are, historically, they’ve often had bit parts. It is not so often you seen something where they are the main character and they’re the ones looking at you. She’s looking directly into the camera to sort of look for support from the audience with her subtle emotions and facial expressions.
Ideally, it is really meant to humanize the transgender experience. When people are thought of as ‘others,’ so often the general public doesn’t seem as being human, so they’re sort of forced acknowledge how they feel about the transgender experience. By doing so, they might see themselves in the aggressive character or the catty character and if they do recognize some of these negative traits in themselves hopefully they’ll think about that and try to be better.
This film is definitely going to make people take notice. Many people, myself included, have no idea what it would be like to be trans so it might be a tough one for some people to watch to see what the heroine goes through on a regular day.
I think it is very hard. I noticed a transition in myself. Coming out as a gay man in my teens and being a part of the LGBTQ community and never really understanding the ‘T’ in the community or knowing many people who were transgender. Then moving to San Francisco eventually and watching the world respond to Laverne Cox and her emergence on the global stage really helped me understand that maybe I was part of the problem. At some point, maybe, I didn’t see the transgender community on an equal playing field. There is a long history of gay men not being inclusive of trans men and women and I didn’t really understand that I was maybe part of the problem until I started seeing more trans men and women on television and I started becoming friends with more trans men and women and my thought process changed. There was much more of an understanding of where they come from and I wanted to help more people go through that transition as well if possible.
I think you have and I’m excited to see how people react to your film. Who were your biggest supporters on Elevate?
The writer, Marley Frank, and the producer, Matt Gudernatch, are the ones who really worked with me in advance of the shoot day. We had a bunch of chats and writers’ groups to make sure we were addressing this issue properly. We held writers’ groups with trans men and women to make sure our idea of how to approach this film was authentic and appropriate to the trans experience and I think that was crucial to the success of this project. I think without their support this wouldn’t have happened. Without those two, this wouldn’t have been made.
What’s next for you other than social distancing?
A lot of projects are put on hold right now. No one is really looking to collaborate right now, especially with social distancing. I put a lot of myself into this film so I’m seeing where this takes me. Hopefully, there is an opportunity to create more of these films. We’ll see how this one is received by the public at large and I can address more topics that I hope can be improved through art and beauty.