The following questions and answers are excerpted from a conversation that followed the NBR screening of Changing the Game.
Michael, I understand you came to the project when a friend shared that they had a child that was transgender. How important was it to make this film in order to become that much more of an advocate for marginalized people?
Michael Barnett: When I was approached by people that I care very deeply for, and as they navigated what this meant for them and for their family, I suddenly realized that my notion of what it means to be supportive needed to be interrogated a bit deeper. As I went on this journey, I very quickly realized that I didn’t understand much of what they brought to me and I really needed to investigate and educate myself, and get to work in order to sharpen my own knowledge and empathy and sharpen my own tools to be there to support and provide a little love for this family. Initially the point of it wasn’t to make a film. The goal was to go to work and be an ally and advocate as supportively as possible. And that’s when I came across Mack Beggs’ story. His story was compelling to me because at the moment I discovered it, it was helping me contextualize a lot of the work I was trying to do. It had a specificity to it that a lot of people found complex. I started unpacking it in real time before it kind of blew up and became such a big debate. But again, the objective wasn’t to make a film but to contextualize and learn as much as I could. And then the more I thought about it, the more I couldn’t shake Mack. His story was starting to crescendo in the media and I brought it to Clare [Tucker, producer], my creative partner, and we started talking about what it would look like. The complexity of making the film didn’t lie in Mack’s story because we knew what we wanted to say; the complexity of it lied in us as a filmmaking team. Before we reached out to Mack, we called Alex [Schmider, producer], who was working in transgender media representation at GLAAD and we wanted to start a very hard conversation and challenge ourselves. Should we make this film? Should it be us? Should the film exist? Do you want to be a part of this or know someone that does? And that’s when it began for real, when Alex signed on. And then we tried to proceed as sensitively and cautiously as possible.
people need to see who they’re legislating against
Alex, what was your reaction when this film was brought to you?
Alex Schmider: My reaction working at GLAAD and seeing a lot of different projects from well-meaning, well-intentioned cisgender people was that I was very hesitant and skeptical because often the intentions aren’t there to tell accurate and authentic stories about the community. So when I got a cold call from Clare and Michael, I had a lot of questions and I also began reckoning with my own personal discomfort around the subject. We are all educated under the same media blanket and I started realizing that I had a lot of discomfort that I needed to work through. Immediately upon meeting and talking to Michael and Clare, I knew that these were filmmakers that were committed to returning these stories to these young people. And were also committed, as I was, to doing the internal work so that these stories really serve as sources of pride for the young people involved. So I was hesitant and cautious throughout the process, but we’ve been working together now for four and a half years. These people are my family, we’ve had very hard conversations about what makes it on screen and what doesn’t, how it does it, who is it trying to reach, and why? I do believe the film is as powerful as it is due to this trusting collaboration. I’m working with some of the best filmmakers and I’m a newbie to this world. I got to learn from them and they got to learn from me and there was just trust and openness about how we each came to the table and I think the result is a beautiful testament to how the film was created with love.
Clare, what did you feel was so important to share with the audience about the three primary subjects? I also appreciate how their adversaries stayed in the background of the film but still showed us there was work to be done.
Clare Tucker: When we first met all these kids, that was the first thing we wanted to show: that they’re kids. This is who you are talking about. These are their faces, their personalities, these are their interests and hopes and fears and dreams. Michael Alex and I, through filming and through editing threw a lot of things at the table and discussed different thematics, but the one thing that stayed consistent was that we wanted the kids to represent themselves and tell their own stories. As for that other group, it’s just as important to hear that side but the film obviously takes a stance and we obviously take a stance. It’s what these kids are up against and we did need to show that side and what it’s doing to these kids and their lives—the good, the bad, the ugly, all of it.
So much has happened since you started this film four and a half years ago in regards to these issues.
CT: It’s interesting because as Michael explained earlier, we started this film because of this very personal story and this family he knows. We certainly never thought there was going to be a lawsuit that was going to get national attention and that state after state would have all this awful legislation. This was all before that. Our concerns were on an administration level, school to school, state to state. This was not a big topic in the news. It’s been crazy to watch what has happened the last eighteen months in terms of this topic. We had already made the film, so we really wanted to get it out there because people need to see who they’re legislating against. People need to see these kids to understand what they’re even talking about. It’s like Michael always says, it’s like arguing about a solution to a problem that doesn’t exist. We felt more and more that we needed to get this film out to the public however we could. Thankfully Hulu gave it a chance.
AS: As a trans man, working from my own discomfort throughout this whole filmmaking process and untangling all that I internalized about my personal ability to belong and be in the world, I’ve been so inspired to watch these young people knowing who they are at a such a young age and being so unapologetic and asserting themselves in how they know themselves by what they love to do. It’s been such an incredible journey to watch them grow up and come into their voices and come into their adulthood. We talk about kids… they’re young adults now! I’m so excited to see what their future holds because this next generation—fortunately through social media and films like this—are going to get to see themselves reflected and relate to these heroes and their own stories. Simultaneously we need more stories about the Grandma Nancy’s and the Ngozi’s and the Jen’s and Tom’s of the world because in order to find your path to allyship, to showing up, you have to see road maps for that. I think what’s so beautiful about the film is that we see that love and support crosses political party lines; it crosses religious lines. It crosses all of these lines that are drawn in the sand and ultimately when we get to know people as people and respect and accept them and create a world that’s safe and free for people to live, we are going to benefit and see the beauty in that, I hope.
I imagine there needs to be extra sensitivity when dealing with teens. How did you gain their trust before filming?
Michael Barnett: That was a process. We went out to Texas a year before we even brought a camera out to meet with Mack and his family. We had dozens and dozens of conversations with the family to express what our intentions were, to let them know that once the smoke cleared of all this media that we were still going to be there to tell their story through their words, as authentically as possible. And we did that with all of the families to build that trust. That’s pretty rare for us as filmmakers, to spend that much time without a camera. To just be there and be with them, and build that trust together.