I’m struck by how beautifully structured your film is: especially given that its concept probably had to morph a lot as the incredible story of your brother Marc unfolded.
In coming up with the structure for Prodigal Sons, we had to get back to cultural basics, which even shows in the title. [Laughs] If you have a very simple path leading to a very complicated terrain, it can become a good storytelling device. Not that I want to put myself in this company, but if you take a common-sense look at the Odyssey, it’s a story about a man who wants to make it home. All his wild adventures along the way are built around that basic premise. To have such a clear narrative directive is very compelling, and we were aiming for that. My own story is surprising and unique. So is Marc’s. It would be easy to get infatuated with one of these stories and tilt the balance of the whole movie, thus turning it into an exploitation of some kind; a small curiosity told on a cocktail-party-sensation level. I wanted to avoid that and tell the true story of how me and my brother tried to reconnect after years of being estranged.
Did you learn the news about Marc’s blood ties to Orson Welles mid-way into making Prodigal Songs or prior to shooting?
The news hit us a short time before the Helena high school reunion that opens the film. I made the conscious decision of not mentioning it at that particular moment in the film, for the sake of consistency. I wanted to recreate the way our lives went on before all that happened—even though there obviously was some discussion of the Orson Welles thing going on at the reunion. A documentary filmmaker always has to choose which chunks of information should be revealed first, so that the viewer can relate to the events more fully.
How did your earlier experiences as a film editor influence the way you worked on Prodigal Songs?
I knew right off the bat that I needed to hire another editor. [Laughs] I was too close to the footage and thus enormously prone to the kind of myopia that would cloud my editorial judgment. Shannon Kennedy, who’s a wonderful editor, helped me a lot. Also my co-producer and DP, John Keitel—a director in his own right—was crucial in the process, as were friends, and other co-producers and partners from Sundance Channel, CBC Canada and BBC Storyville, who co-financed the film. They gave me lots of reality checks I needed. Ultimately, on a scene-to-scene level, our movie is cut very much like a regular feature.
One of the great things about Prodigal Songs is that the your being transgender is treated entirely matter-of-factly.
It was my aim to make a movie that would first put the viewer in the position of someone who’s transgender and then let them forget it. And then remind them about it yet again, all of a sudden. If you do that, you can tap people on the shoulder and remind them that they had forgotten—and all you do is basically reveal the same information for a second, third or fourth time.
In your work, were you inspired by any particular film?
I ended up seeking more inspiration from novels than I did from other films. I’m not aware of many movies that can duplicate the epic scope a novel is capable of; most movies are closer to short stories than novels. And what we needed was scope: we ventured to span a few generations of my family’s life, along with introducing many different subjects around that.
Were there any specific novels you kept returning to?
The novel that proved singularly helpful to me was Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. Its plot touches on all kinds of hot-button issues: socially, it covers a complicated terrain. Rape and racism in the Deep South: you don’t get themes that are more touchy. And the decision to have that story told from the point of view of this naïve but feisty girl called Scout was absolutely brilliant. To have that kind of scope while preserving a wide-eyed, child-like approach to things was stunningly effective and I tried to duplicate some aspects of it.
Fittingly enough—given his friendship and rivalry with Lee—Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood was another important inspiration for me. His concept of the non-fiction novel; the idea of fishing for truth in this overwhelming deluge of information he had—all that was relevant to the situation of our film, especially when faced with the huge amount of archival footage shot by my family and me over the years.
Were you inspired by other filmmakers who recently plunged into making personal family documentaries? I mean especially Jonathan Caouette’s Tarnation and Doug Block’s 51 Birch Street.
I tried to avoid watching Tarnation for quite a long time: I heard it was based on a concept similar to mine and didn’t want to find myself influenced too much by it. But 51 Birch Street was a big influence. Doug Block is a friend and I actually edited some stuff for him. His notes and feedback were very helpful. I also studied closely the voiceover he recorded for 51 Birch...I liked its personal tone and its sparseness a lot. So often voiceovers are used and abused as narrative crutches of sorts.
Your movie makes a complex statement about identity. On one hand, it seems as transient a thing as Marc’s trying on the cowboy hat in the first scenes. On the other, it’s something one cannot really escape: in the very last shot, you speak about the possibility of getting back to being a McKerrow (the last name you once abandoned)...
I think a lot of us believe that we get locked into whoever we are somewhere in between adolescence and adulthood. I challenge that; I believe we change constantly. Keeping elastic that way is a very healthy thing. The problem is our families remember us differently from how we see ourselves at the moment—and many conflicts ensue. Even in Marc, you see this troubled process of trying to hark back to the image of himself he had in the past. All of that is also related to the identity of Hollywood stars, and how we try to break down that illusion in the course of the film—one of the manifold journeys I was forced to take was to go from perceiving Orson Welles as a movie legend to accepting his new image as my brother’s grandfather. His fallibility and mortality suddenly came into focus.
The prime example of all that within the world of our movie is the character of Paul, my former name, who was always perceived as a perfect guy. For me, to be able to rough up that image is what making this film was all about.
Of all the people in the movie, your mother Carol comes off as both the strongest and the most vulnerable.
She’s the window a lot of people access the movie through. She’s the only character in the film that even I can intuitively define as “normal”. She had to deal with a number of surprises in her life—I’m probably the biggest of them. My mom grew up in a small town in Texas that didn’t even sell alcohol. She married a farm boy from Montana. Her current identity is the last thing she would have ever expected to attain. I always find it amazing that it’s her reaction to Marc’s behavior in the Christmas scene that proves to be the real turning point. She takes a stand; she galvanizes everyone. All of us were pulverized by this episode: it was like a big emotional meat tenderizer striking us. But it also was the moment after which we finally were able to sort things out a bit—and it was thanks to her.
Would you say that your movie is political?
Depending on one’s definition, it’s either not political at all, or ruthlessly political through and through. My belief is that once you strip down much of political discussions to a purely humanistic level—forgetting the opposition of left and right, etc.—you’ll end up with the question of the boundaries people draw regarding their compassion—who receives your compassion, and who doesn’t. Limited compassion breeds social exclusion. I hope my way of joining the political discourse is to encourage compassion in viewers. My brother Marc and I are two people many others wouldn’t want to have anything to do with. If our film encourages anyone to take that steep uphill climb and actually feel something, relate to me and Marc and our mutual struggle to understand each other—then we will know we have succeeded.
Michał Oleszczyk is a regular contributor to Kino, a Polish film monthly. He runs a film blog and lives in Cracow.