CLOSE-UP Culture caught up with Canadian film director and writer Eisha Marjara as she prepares for the release of her dramatic comedy Venus.
Q: What led you to write this story?
A: THE inspiration for Venus came from my short film House for Sale, a story about an extra marital affair told from the point of view of the other woman. In this case, the other woman happens to be trans.
I wanted to make a feature inspired by the film, but Venus took on a life of its own when I had the idea: ‘what if our lead discovers that she has a son as she comes out as a woman?’
The parent-child bond was particularly moving and allowed me to explore a dynamic rarely seen in film – one that did not focus on the lead’s transition, rather on her life, desires and relationships. I wanted to create a three dimensional character and humanize her experience without diminishing her transness.
Q: Can you tell us any of the inspirations behind these characters and the journeys they go on through the film?
A: THIS is the story of Sid who comes out to her family, friends and peers as a (transgender) woman after her 35th birthday. Her transition and journey into becoming a woman is not a theme that is entirely new for me, in terms of what I like to explore.
In my films and in my novel Faerie, I tell stories about girls turning into women and trying to figure out what it means for them. In Venus, Sid at the age of 35, is doing just that openly. That is a very scary thing. In this case, Sid is a transgender woman trying to figure out what it means to be a woman as she navigates her new role as a parent and reignites her relationship with her boyfriend.
I wanted to explore the layers and the intersection of her roles and identities – as a South Asian Canadian trans woman carving out a new identity for herself, as we tend to do when we are in our teens and in our twenties. In the film she says to her teenaged son Ralph: “I am going through a second puberty. Basically you and I are the same age.”
I was excited about the idea of a parent and teen coming of age together and forming a bond out of that. As Ralph discovers himself as a man, his mom is discovering herself as a woman. Sid’s boyfriend Daniel is inspired by the character in House for Sale, a well-meaning and passionate man who struggles to move past his fear of coming out (as a trans oriented man) and facing the judgment, hostility and rejection of family and peers.
Sid’s Punjabi parents were the easiest and most fun to write. They just lit up on the page and brought a lot of humour to the film.
Q: Venus is your first fiction feature. How did you find the experience in comparison to the short and documentary work you have done in the past?
A: THE idea of making Venus was more daunting than the execution. Simply because you are trying to figure out everything all at once. I tried not let myself get caught up in fear and just kept the focus on the script and story every step of the way.
Everything that is done in the film, the decisions made by crew and cast is riding on what is on the page. So remembering that kept me focused. Venus did not get traction till I paired up with producer Joe Balass. He was the engine that helped fly the space ship to Venus!
Fiction features are a big deal. When more money is involved, it demands greater excellence on the part of the film-making team. That said, making Venus was tough but a heck of a lot easier than Desperately Seeking Helen my NFB feature docudrama, which was difficult on all levels – emotionally, technically, creatively. It took five years to make and was the toughest thing I have ever done. It was a film that dealt with loss and tragedy and took creative risks that no one had ever done in the documentary genre. It was terrifying to see the response. It did well and won a few awards.
Venus and House for Sale were a lot more fun but not without challenges, hard work and persistence. Both films were made possible by the collaborative effort of myself and the Montreal producers. Etienne Desrosiers, for the short and Joe Balass and Kevin Tierney, who sadly passed away recently, for the feature.
Q: Debargo Sanyal gives a transformative lead performance. Can you tell us about the casting process and how you helped prepare him for the role?
A: WE worked with Montreal’s Elite Casting who were fantastic. But it was not easy. It took us a year and a half to find our lead for the film. The role demanded someone who met strict requirements along the lines of age, ethnicity, (North American second generation South Asian) and someone who was trans but had not “transitioned” (that is, not on hormones or had no surgery). This made casting all the more challenging.
We also needed a strong dramatic and comedic actor who could carry the entire film. We found Debargo through our trans and South Asian channels. When I came across Debargo’s audition tape, one and a half years into casting, I hit the ceiling. I knew in my gut that Debargo was the one. I had to do little to prepare Debargo. When casting is done right, the director’s role is simply to orient the actor and set the tone so she can get the best performance out of them.
I told Debargo – just play it as you feel it. Debargo understood Sid emotionally and got what I was looking for in the scenes. He played Sid for the woman, the human, that she was.
Q: Young Jamie Mayers also does a fantastic job. What did he bring to the project?
A: JAMIE Mayers who played Ralph brought so much freshness and vitality to the set and to the role. Ralph is the most unselfconscious character in the movie which is why we love him.
Ralph is Ralph and we never judge him even when he goofs up. He is completely authentic. Jamie understood Ralph and brought a playful confidence to the role. He did not play Ralph in any clichéd way, as a geek or as socially awkward, which we often see, so it made Ralph a refreshingly unique character.
Q: It feels as though there are more upbeat moments in Venus than the other trans stories we have seen recently – such as Just Charlie and A Fantastic Woman. Were you looking to find a balance between warmth and serious family drama?
A: THE film was originally more dramatic with little comedy. It was not until I developed Sid’s Punjabi parents in the script that the comedy came in. They had a minor role at first, but because readers were really loving the scenes with them, I gave them bigger parts in the story. But the drama still out-weighed the comedy.
When Kevin Tierney, the film’s executive producer, came on board, he noted that the film was more funny than serious and encouraged me to play up the humour which I did. Audiences, including those from the trans community, loved and appreciated the lighter tone and said it was a refreshing change from previous films they had seen with transgender characters.
Q: Venus scooped a number of awards at the Kiel Transgender Film Festival in Germany. What has been the response to the film from the trans community?
A: THE response has been nothing but positive. Trans audience members have thanked us for making a film that authentically reflected their experience.
They also appreciated the subtleties of the character and storytelling and how the film humanizes her and does not focus on Sid’s transition. The fact that Debargo received an award for best Trans* performance at the Transgender Film Festival is a testament to Debargo’s talent, hard work and commitment to the role.
Q: What are your hopes for Venus when it meets wider Canadian audiences in the coming weeks?
A: VENUS is coming out on May 18 in Toronto at the Cineplex on Yonge and Dundas and in Vancouver at Vancity cinema.
I think Venus is really entertaining and will get people talking and telling friends and family about it. It is an out of the box, funny and heart-warming film that everyone will enjoy.
The film has reached such a broad audience and the amazing thing is that the response is consistent regardless of the person watching it. From the white straight guy in LA to the trans woman in Kingston to the Punjabi grandmother in New York, they have all shaken my hand telling me how much they laughed and how moved they were. It is unsurprising because it reflects a human and universal experience.
Q: What is next for you?
A: I AM developing Venus into a TV series with producer Joe Balass. We are at the very early stages now. We are also developing Calorie, a feature drama. Calorie is about an Indo–Canadian single mom grappling with two hard to handle teen girls as she deals with her own unresolved issues around her immigrant mom whom she lost as a teen on the Air India bombing of flight 182.
It is a mother daughter story that looks at the effects of tragedy within a family across generations and cultures.
Venus opens at the Cineplex Yonge-Dundas Theatre, Toronto and at the Vancity Theatre, Vancouver on May 18, 2018
Learn more about Venus