When I watched “Dylan,” a short film by Emmy Award Winning filmmaker Elizabeth Rohrbaugh, I was busy trying to leave my house. I was distracted by a load of emails in my inbox and a sea of unanswered texts. I was planning on watching it later, but I clicked the link anyway.
The film pulls you in gently, like a hushed conversation with an intriguing stranger. I had to watch it a few times to get the nuances. Everything, from the way it's filmed to the way the script is delivered, is subtle but impactful. I had the opportunity to talk with Rohrbaugh about the film, and I'm excited to share that with you below.
What inspired you to create “Dylan”?
I was inspired to make “DYLAN” for close to ten years and the reasons I moved forward with it has much more to do with where I was at in my life than anything else. I initially wrote the script for “Dylan” as part of a documentary-theater writing workshop. We were tasked to do a long and in-depth interview and then edit that down into an artful monologue. I decided to interview my friend Dylan, who was an old friend from childhood but had recently come out as a trans man and had gone through the transitioning process. I thought his life story would make an interesting piece. I always loved the final product but didn’t know what to do with it, as my background was more in television. I put it aside for a long time until about a year ago. I had recently completed my documentary feature and was itching to make something else but wanted a different format and style. I was looking to explore of narrative and documentary filmmaking and I revisited “Dylan.”
Can you pin point an exact moment or example from your life that made you realize, “I have to make a movie about this?”
After I decided that I wanted to move forward with the project and got approval from Dylan, I began thinking about casting. This was a challenge and a big decision as this film is so entirely based on the authenticity of the performance and I wasn’t sure where to turn. I got in touch with my dear friends at Capes Coaching, who are career coaches for people in the performing arts and have a huge knowledge of exceptionally talented actors in New York. As we discussed the role, they mentioned I should reach out to Michael Cyril Creighton, the creator of Jack In The Box. I got in touch with him and he suggested Becca Blackwell, a trans actor. My first instinct had been to cast a man in the role and after talking to Becca my thought process shifted completely. During our first conversation, Becca told me “If there is one thing a man can never understand, it is what it is like to want to be a man”. This stuck with me. We met and I was immediately taken with Becca, primarily as an actor but also because of the similarities to the real Dylan and the authenticity I knew he could bring to the role.
What was the process of recording Dylan’s story? How much of the dialogue is based on dialogue with the real person?
Creating the script for Dylan was a very intense experience based on a documentary theater writing method taught to me by Erik Jenson and Jessica Blank of The Exonerated. The process was to do a very long interview and record the entire thing. We started with very early memories and childhood and spoke about everything up to the present. We discussed every phase of Dylan’s life, and I really just listened and helped lead the direction of conversation. We spoke for over two hours. I then took the audio and transcribed it down to every last detail – every sigh or stutter was accounted for. I then began the task of editing down to what I felt was a moving and artful monologue. There is not a single word in the final piece that was not spoken in that initial interview.
The main actor, Becca Blackwell, has this conversational delivery. How did the two of you prepare the dialogue?
Becca and I did a few rehearsals, but we mostly discussed the intention of the piece more than anything. We dissected and analyzed the specific moments, and then I told Becca a lot about Dylan, the person. Becca then did a lot of work on his own and came to set incredibly prepared. Because of the nature of the script there was absolutely no room for improvisation. Watching Becca work was amazing.
How did you decide on the Coney Island location? Theoretically you could film the dialogue anywhere, what made the location special or integral to the story?
Coney Island was a perfect place to film this because of its quintessential New York City association and its natural connection to nature through the ocean. I was looking for a way for Dylan to remove layers of clothing throughout the piece, as he is shedding layers of baggage to reveal his true identity. I also loved the NYC vibe of the location as I relish in the ability to have anonymity in New York and freedom to truly be yourself.
What do you want your audience to take away from watching this film?
I hope in watching this film the viewer can feel how real and honest this story is, and I hope that the message of self-discovery and acceptance will be embraced by all different communities. I hope that young people who are trans or questioning will feel embraced by this film. I would like them to know that there are people who care about them and that the transition process, while it may be challenging, will ultimately be worth it in the end.
How do you feel about the climate around trans rights and information now-versus when the Dylan character was first coming out?
I cannot necessarily speak to what was happening within the trans community but I think that it has become evident that the trans population is beginning to be understood and accepted by society as a whole. I think at the time that this interview was done that there was a concept of having to “pass” as a gender where as now you can be more openly transgender and that can be part of ones personal identity.
What do you hope to see in terms of trans acceptance in the next year? Next five years?
I hope that people can learn more about the trans community and actively work to understand the movement rather than simply accept it. I hope that more people will learn the differences between gender identity and sexual preference and respect the distinctions between the two. I think only when we continue to educate ourselves, we can truly understand what it means to be trangender. We absolutely need to get to a point where the death and suicide rates of trans people is reduced dramatically and hate crimes against this group are no longer occurring. A big comment I have gotten from people that see this film is that it is so nice to see a trans film that is happy and positive. I want there to be more happy and positive stories coming out of the trans community. I want them all to be happy.
Do you have another film in the works?
I am working to develop some other projects and am very interested in continuing to explore filmmaking that crosses the line of documentary and narrative storytelling.
Dylan makes some interesting statements about surgery and hormones. How would you like to see these conversations progress in the future?
I think that physical transformation is part of the process but clearly not the thing that defines ones gender. I hope that as surgical advancements are made, people take advantage of those advancements only when they are ready for that step in the process.