I’m a queer transgender man and film director who has dedicated my life to telling trans stories, to expanding the boundaries of what a trans story can be, while seeking to improve the condition of trans people’s lives through storytelling. Right now, I’m in the midst of post-production on my first feature film called Adam, based on the novel of the same name by Ariel Schrag. Set in 2006, the book has been described as a story about a straight cis teenage guy who pretends to be a trans man in order to get girls. When I first heard of the book’s premise, I thought it sounded pretty weird. So why would I choose to adapt it into a movie, let alone now in 2018?

Believe me, I had some concerns. Though I didn’t read it at the time, I had heard about Ariel’s novel when it was published in 2014, and when the screenplay for Adam dropped in my inbox a few years later, I was admittedly apprehensive. I was ready to be offended and to tell the producers to look elsewhere. As trans awareness has exploded in recent years, a byproduct of this is often a fetishization and tokenism towards trans identity. I’m used to saying thanks, but no thanks.

But when I finished the script, I was stunned and pleasantly surprised. It wasn’t at all what I had expected, and I couldn’t get it out of my head. The screenplay flipped the “trans deception” narrative trope on its head. It was poking fun at, but also challenging, cis people’s obsession with transness. And I was pleased to see that it included several complex trans characters who defied stereotypes. I also saw huge potential here to push and pull on the screenplay to further center trans characters in deeper ways. And in the casting and shooting, I saw an exciting opportunity to showcase a large and diverse cast of trans performers.

Coincidentally, the story takes place in Bushwick in 2006, the same place and time in which I was beginning to explore my own trans identity in earnest. I remember those days well. The parties, nightclubs, conversations and relationships depicted in the screenplay were eerily accurate to my experience and memory of that corner of Brooklyn that I used to call home, warts and all. After all, in 2006, well before the trans tipping point, we were still reckoning — sometimes poorly — with concepts around gender and trans identity, and I was interested in exploring this awkward period of time.

It was only after I had read the script for Adam that I tracked down a copy of the novel. And indeed I did have issues with it, many of which have been outlined by its critics. But in the journey from novel to screenplay, I could see how many of those issues had already been wrestled with directly, and that the main problems I had with the book were no longer present in the screenplay. Of course I had more ideas and changes to propose — a primary condition to my working on the project was that I would tell it from a trans perspective. My job as the film’s director, after all, was to create a whole new work inspired by, and also in critical dialogue with, the source material. Bottom line, the film had to be its own thing.

Once work began, I continued to add to the changes that had been made in the script; I believe the changes address many of the concerns that have been raised about the novel:

Adam is trapped in a lie, but he is ultimately culpable. In the film, Adam meets a cis queer woman who assumes he is a trans man. He doesn’t realize that this is her assumption until he has accidentally painted himself into a corner. When she finally reveals that she thinks he’s a trans guy, he freezes and doesn’t correct her. It is not premeditated on his part — in a moment of panic a young person makes a mistake. This is, of course, an uncomfortable and complex scenario.

In my telling, what Adam does is wrong, it affects people, and that is the point. Furthermore, the trans and queer characters in the film exist in a way that is wholly independent to Adam — the spaces are not for him, the characters do not revolve around him, and they will go on existing long after he has gone home. The cis straight male is the one who has to learn to adapt to this queer, trans and largely woman-centered world, not the other way around.

The uncomfortable — and at times, problematic — depictions of sex between Adam and Gillian in the book were changed. Gillian is given more agency in the film, and we explore her queer identity more deeply. Transmasculine characters feature prominently in the film, their identities acknowledged and unquestioned. We center the experience of Ethan, a trans man who befriends Adam, and the impact that Adam’s deception has on him. Finally, the film’s ending is very different than the book’s. These were important changes that I felt were needed, and I was consistently supported in making these changes by everyone involved.

Going into production it was a joy to cast a dynamic group of queer and trans actors in this big ensemble period piece. There is an incredibly vibrant community of trans actors and creators in New York City, many of whom were new people to me, as I live and work in Los Angeles. A re-occurring sentiment among myself and the trans folks on set was that this is the time to make things on our own terms. My belief is that during this production, we all felt that we were doing just that. We talked regularly about how we could keep in touch, foster further community, and how could we support each other as we continue to make art. I’m grateful for the relationships that were created through this project and am excited to see what these folks go on to do.

Because of the long history of harmful and outright false depictions of trans lives, our community is rightfully distrustful of material that might add to this negative legacy. However, I believe in the power of trans art and storytelling, even when it is challenging or uncomfortable. Creating trans art often requires difficult conversations, and I strive to show up, be present and responsible to this dialogue. As a trans person, I know our concerns are often ignored by those with greater privilege, so it is important to me to share the work that we did on the project and to claim it as a trans story.

Ever since the 90s, when I was a queer youth activist, high school dropout, and burgeoning artist growing up in North Carolina, I have sought to reflect my queer and trans experiences, friends, and community. I’ve spent years working on projects with collaborators such as Zackary Drucker, on our photo series Relationship and films such as She Gone Rogue, often featuring our trans forebearers such as Flawless Sabrina, Holly Woodlawn, and Vaginal Davis. I worked on Transparent for four seasons as a director and producer, where one of my primary roles was to bring in and hire as many trans cast and crew as possible, taking time out to create projects such as the Emmy-nominated docuseries This Is Me, profiling a diverse range of trans issues and people; a portrait of a pioneering gay trans man and HIV/AIDS activist in Dear Lou Sullivan; and We’ve Been Around, a series of short films about trans people throughout history. I’m proud to add Adam to my ever-evolving body of work; it’s both a look backward at a formative time in trans culture, and a challenging step forward into new and complex territory for me.

While we’re still in the midst of finishing the film and determining when and where it will premiere, I know the conversation will continue. But I’m excited and can’t wait to show you what I’ve been working on for the past year.

I hope what I have shared here shows the careful consideration that has gone into the creation of this film, and I’m eager for the film itself to take up its role in these ongoing discussions.

In solidarity,
Rhys Ernst

Written by

Filmmaker & Artist

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