OPEN, a new film by Jake Yuzna, was released in North America in September. Within the last year, the acclaimed film has come to not only a theater near you—the New Museum hosted a sneak peek of the film in 2010—but to a computer near you as well, as September brought nationwide distribution and Instant access for all those with a Netflix account. The first American film to ever receive the esteemed Teddy Jury Prize as part of the Berlin Film Festival, OPEN and its director take first steps toward fleshing out narratives about love, sex, and sexuality in the modern age. Bolstered by a muted backdrop of Middle America, Yunza’s film revolves around several sets of star-crossed lovers, striving to make it honest within the geography of their own physical forms. OPEN is thus a journey from within, mirrored by a journey without—a bildungsroman/road movie combine that left me musing about what the future holds for LGBTQI communities outside of Yunza’s frame.
Legacy Russell Let’s talk about OPEN. How did this project begin?
Jake Yuzna It more or less started when I was co-directing the Flaming Film Festival in Minneapolis. Through the festival, I met a lot of the people who ended up starring in the film. Later I was fortunate to be awarded the first grant for the project, and the rest just developed.
LR The film is set in Minnesota, isn’t it? What role does the landscape of that particular site itself play in building out the story?
JY I’m from Minneapolis. It’s my home and in OPEN the Minneapolis community is in front and behind the camera. OPEN is a very Minneapolis film to me. It’s a little bit of a love song to the city.
LR Can you talk about the cinematography of the film and what it derives from? And what was it shot on?
JY It was shot on super 16mm color film. Fuji.
The cinematography was a collaboration between the cinematographer, Adam Olson, and myself. We’ve worked together for some time. When making narrative cinema, I usually write a script and then make a visual script. The visual script outlines out how the visual elements of the film will be constructed, and in OPEN’s case how they can best convey the character’s emotional landscape. Then I work with Adam to refine my compositions, colors, blocking, camera movements and the like.
LR Can you talk about realism? Do you find that the portrayal of these characters is an accurate depiction of those working to overcome and/or process the challenges of trans-identity?
JY During the making of the film I strived to ensure an honest portrayal, but I don’t know if I would call it a real one. Reality is subjective to the observer, while honesty is the perspective and/or experience of the character being communicated without artifice. Honesty can take many forms, which is why I think it appeals to me so much.
No one uses the terms trans or trans-identity in OPEN, and that was a very conscious decision. I am skeptical of utilizing academic rigor or theory as a basis for one’s identity. It can be very limiting, and an alibi. Individuals can become dogmatic and conservative when they can only understand themselves and others through such a structure. It is extra tricky when so many people study such concepts while in college, a time when a lot of young people are forming their adult identities and positions in the world. In OPEN, every character is a person. That’s first and foremost, they are humans.
I’m more interested in exploring individuals and their emotional experiences rather than minorities. I’m very reluctant to classify people within minorities. I know it can seem impossible to view humanity outside such categories, but I don’t think that means we should not stop trying.
One of the reasons Genesis [Breyer P-Orridge] and pandrogyny was compelling to me was that it moved past minorities. It side-stepped the limits of such definitions and looked to a more holistic viewpoint of what the human race can be. It continues a viewpoint of humanity, identity, existence, and culture as something that has always been in our hands to shape and mold. It’s not a new viewpoint, but one I feel is worth championing. Especially right now, in a time when our ability to shape culture has never been greater.
The structure of OPEN was created more in a reaction to American cinema, and then informed by the individuals in the film. For instance, it was equally important for the structure of OPENto have sections of the narrative in which the audience would add their own elements in order to complete the story. That openess was very important to me. I wanted the structure to reflect the philosophy behind the creation of the film, the emotional experiences of the characters, and hopefully the experience of the audience. That is why I chose the title OPEN. It reflected all of the elements of the film.
OPEN, film still, 2011. All images courtesy of Jake Yuzna.
LR You have a bit of a seed in your own background in the genre of horror, would you as the director of OPEN say that any of the tropes of the horror genre surface within this film?
JY The use of tension. Cinematic developments in tension most often first developed in what’s often referred to as genre filmmaking. Horror, thriller, sci-fi, etc. The use of tension appeals to me a great deal. It’s a major tool for the construction of empathy, attention, and awareness in narrative cinema.
LR With the recent rash of youth suicides and the rise of “It Gets Better” narratives within media, would you say that OPEN acts in solidarity with this position, or works against it? I think particularly of the conclusion of the film, which struck a chord for me, leaving me with the question of “Why?” Cinema is such a site for imagination, it can be such a dream space … I was left imagining an ending, but also wondering about it.
JY I’d never thought of the two together. I don’t really know if it does get better. It just gets different. That sounds bit bleak, but I’m not certain hope lies on the horizon. Right now, in my own limited perspective of someone under 30, it seems that you just no longer become interested in the horizon. You begin to look elsewhere, with different perspectives. Although it does get more manageable. Emotional hardship that is. You get better at managing it with time. God, that still sounds awful bleak …
LR It seems that within OPEN the plane of “emotional hardship” (to use your words) is nearly geographic … as the interior landscape of each character unfolds, we begin to see common points amongst the dual storylines, points where these vectors seem to intersect and mimic one another. Can you touch on how the mechanism of twinning plays a role in the visuality of OPEN. Does this type of mirroring appear in other parts of your practice?
JY The narrative structure of OPEN was based on the fugue musical structure. Where two or more voices sing on the same theme, and gradually build into one unified and harmonious expression of that theme. I had noticed a few other directors in the 1990s making fugue films. People like Todd Haynes and David Lynch. I thought this was an interesting—and under-recognized—genre that I’d like to work in. It was especially apt because it reflected pandrogyny. Shifts in perspective seem to play a role in a lot of my work. Sometimes mirrors are used, sometimes not.
LR A question that often surfaces for me when thinking about these various identities and their presence within popular culture is, “Where’s the T?” We’ve got a growing but still very narrow set of representations of LGBTQI within mainstream media, and trans culture is yet to be addressed in a substantive way within these public spaces. Can you address where the politics of the body come into play in OPEN? How do you as a director situate yourself and your work within this history—and under the weight of it?
JY OPEN did originate, partially, out of a dissatisfaction with the breath of humanity being shown in cinema. When I first began
OPEN there were a lot of films being released that continued the same old and incorrect stereotypes of trans and queer people. However, this has slowly changed over the years it took to finish the film. It’s tricky, though, with representation of groups. It’s difficult because there are so many perspectives within any community, and it’s an easy target to fault any medium for not representing every viewpoint…I don’t know how realistic that sort of goal is. I workshopped with the performers to alter the original shooting script so it would reflect their experiences. Since I couldn’t personally empathize with their experiences, I thought this was a vital step in creating the project. However, this was to find an honesty to the situations the film depicted. Those situations are as diverse as experience itself. Some great, some sad, some demeaning, some cruel, and all wonderful on some level. It’s just as dishonest to remove the unsightly boils and warts of ourselves as it is to present only stereotypes.
OPEN wasn’t created as a political statement. I’m not a political director. I distrust politics. I am interested in humanity and the emotional condition. I believe you can strip everything else away, identity, politics, race, gender, etc., but you will always still have emotions. Everything else can just get in the way of understanding those emotions. It’s like layers of mud caked on a window. If you can get past all of that apparatus and find the core emotional landscape within a person, you’re getting closer to an honest depiction of existence. It’s like the walls of behavior individuals will put up in order to keep others at an arm’s distance from them. They don’t want to get hurt, or open themselves up to the possibility of being hurt. It’s a very vulnerable place to be. But, I’m fascinated by those tender places. Those are the more beautiful pieces of humanity. I’m interested in understanding them. That is part of why the film is called
OPEN. All of the elements of the film are about opening up.
LR What role does loyalty or fidelity play within this film? Honesty?
JY Loyalty, fidelity, and trust are some of the highest virtues anyone can strive toward. That sentiment runs throughout all of my work. Honesty is also very important, but can be very, very elusive. Often, in order to get to a core of something, before you can communicate it, you have to slip past structures, reason, and expectations. I find that today so much of culture is taught to us through cinema and media. To the point that too often we don’t explore. We just go along with it, no matter how unhappy it might make us. The common thread of work that has inspired me is to shift perspectives. To open up possibilities. Joy, love, sorrow, and other emotions cut through logic, societal structures, culture. That is why I want to explore them.
In making OPEN, I was not committed to integrity of form, but of emotional honesty. Every element of the film was chosen in order to reflect the emotional landscape of the characters, and strengthen/reinforce the emotional resonance in the viewer. The characters are based in part on my own script and the lives on those individuals performing the parts.
An approach like this, one that merges constructed psychologies and scenarios with, shall we say, real ones is as old as theater or performance itself. However, these methodologies have gained greater attention in the turn of the millennium.
For me, everything boils down to emotions. It’s the trail of breadcrumbs that can lead you into (and out of) the dark forest.
LR What about setting models for trans, intersex, and queer identity within the public sphere? One of your characters states (about going through the process of transitioning), “I thought transitioning would solve everything, but it doesn’t solve anything.” Can you touch on this?
JY S/he says that “I thought transitioning would solve everything, but it doesn’t solve anything. Your problems are still your problems. It’s just the outside that’s a little bit different.” That line came from the performer. We were talking about what someone from a more experienced position would want to explain to a younger person who was trying to form their own identity and considering surgery. I believe such alternations of one’s form are amazing, but they need to be done for the right reason. It’s the same as moving to another city. You can do it for healthy positive reasons or to run away from internal anguish. But the key is that the internal anguish will follow you. No change of scenery is going to help that.