Chase Joynt on “Framing Agnes,” Collaboration, and Finding New Ways to Tell Trans Stories

When I saw the short film Framing Agnes at Outfest in 2019, my goals for the industry were simpler. I wanted more trans people on-screen and more trans people behind the camera. I cared about the how but not nearly as much as the what.

That has changed. I am exhausted by our visibility. I still want to see trans people on-screen — and even more so behind the camera — but not without thought, not without care, not without the resources to deal with the backlash.

It’s fitting then that one of the year’s best movies would not only be about trans lives and trans histories, but question the various forms of visibility trans people have experienced over the past seventy years. From short to feature, Framing Agnes has called into question its own premise.

Framing Agnes joins director Chase Joynt’s ever-growing body of work that upends conventional trans documentary filmmaking. From his short I’m Yours in 2012 (watch here!) that comments on the ways trans people are asked to perform our life stories to No Ordinary Man, last year’s unconventional Billy Tipton doc, Joynt’s approach prioritizes formalism and collaboration. The how is not only important to Joynt — it becomes included in the work itself.

It was such a pleasure to talk to Joynt about his influences, his process, and the responsibility of trans storytelling.

Chase: Drew, where are you in the world?

Drew: I’m in Toronto!

Chase: Always??

Drew: No. But about half the time because my girlfriend lives here. I’d never been to any part of Canada before two summers ago and now I kind of live here?

Chase: You know I’m born and raised near Toronto, right?

Drew: I actually want to start with that because I feel like your work has such a specific voice and set of interests and I do just want to know more about your background.

Chase: Yeah, sure. And it’s actually a very Toronto answer. I can skip the like, “When I was a child I felt this way…” details.

Drew: (laughs)

Chase: And instead say that I learned to make movies on account of being mentored by people like John Greyson, people who were making work throughout the AIDS crisis in the 80s and 90s in Toronto. I really feel indebted to a kind of activist impulse and aesthetic that says we have to make movies with what we’ve got, with the people we love and care about most, in the most urgent way possible, for immediate circulation. If we can up our production value then great but ultimately our goals are bigger than that. And I really do cite my early foundations in Toronto as the source of those ideas.

Drew: Do you also have any sort of theatre background? Because there’s a real attention in your work to actors and rehearsal.

Chase: (laughs) Yeah, you have clocked me correctly. I went to theatre school at UCLA.

When I arrived at UCLA I was in a room of 50 students and everyone was introducing themselves and someone in the room — who will remain nameless for the purpose of this interview — stood up and said, “Hello, my name is … and I want to be a star.” And I thought, oh no, where am I? And so I really took a turn away from the more industrial training at UCLA and instead found activist communities in LA. But I’ve sort of found a way back to that industrial impulse in recent years.

Drew: It feels like you’ve found an effective combination of those two practices.

Chase: The other thing I’ll say about theatre is that it’s all about rehearse rehearse rehearse and then when you get on stage you try to let that rehearsal go and be present on-stage, be in the moment, react and respond and improvise and be spontaneous. I think about that as it relates to documentary directing. There’s a kind of rigorous rehearsal to prep that you then try to let go of when you are “on-stage” and in circulation with your participants so you can break open new pathways for storytelling that are impossible to pre-plan.

Drew: For Framing Agnes, was there a rehearsal process before filming or is that all on-screen?

Chase: All of our actor collaborators had access to transcript selects that were loosely organized around the themes you see emerge in the film. How can we talk about love and romance across a variety of case studies? Or how can we talk about work? But what you witness on-screen is actually what’s happening in real time. So we’re workshopping, we’re stopping, we’re starting, sometimes we’re feeding lines back to each other because they’re not working or don’t feel good, and all of that is pretty organic to the set up.

Drew: How did you first discover the archive and how did the short come about?

Chase: We first discovered the case files in 2017 and the short premiered in 2019. We made the short with a little bit of grant money and a lot of credit card debt and many favors from friends. If you look at the short now you’ll recognize that we’re all wearing our own clothes and we’re eating granola bars and juice boxes. We shot the whole thing in one room and stapled curtains on a white wall to make it appear like a black box. I mean, it’s totally DIY and kind of awesome in that regard but when you look back it’s clear there were some experiments.

Drew: And then what was its journey into a feature?

Chase: We needed more money, to be perfectly frank. And so we started applying for more grants and received the Telefilm Talent to Watch grant which was enough production funding to pivot meaningfully toward the feature. And then we added our two extraordinary collaborators Jen and Stephen. We were in conversation with them about the short as well and it was scheduling and a variety of other things that didn’t work out. But in some ways I’m grateful because we were able to test drive some of the method in the short that we were then able to tweak and further refine when we approached the larger cohort in the feature.

Drew: So you knew Kristen Schilt (co-director of the short, researcher on the feature) before making the film? Can you go into more detail about discovering the archive?

Chase: If we had a lot longer I would really elaborate this story just for the humor, but Kristen was a TA at UCLA in a class where I was an undergraduate. She emerged in the room as this very goth, hair half dyed black, half dyed platinum blonde, beesnest style, and I was like a corduroy pant-wearing butch dyke. We looked at each other from across the room of blondes wearing Juicy sweatpants and knew we needed each other.

Drew: (laughs)

Chase: Cut to a couple of years later, I received a fellowship to work with Kristen at the University of Chicago where she is a professor of sociology. The fellowship charged an artist and an academic to work together collaboratively around a set of shared issues. And so we taught a class and one of the things we explored with our students was the case study of Agnes. We used it as a way to think about how different disciplines can attach to the same source material for very different sociopolitical motivations or research conclusions. And since we’re geeks we managed to find our way into the private archival holdings of Garfinkel and continue to explore our obsessions from there until we arrived at the transcripts and unlocked the whole project.

Drew: How did Morgan M Page and Jules Gill-Peterson get involved?

Chase: I’m a longtime fan of Morgan M Page. We identify as ships in the night in the Toronto up-and-coming queer and trans scene. I approached Morgan about collaboration precisely because of her extraordinary work in One from the Faults and broader trans activisms. I was so thrilled to be able to collaborate with her in that way.

And I knew Jules through her work and as an expert of this particular moment in time — the construction of the gender clinics in the US, the specifics of the kinds of research being done, and, of course, her writing on trans kids. We shot the majority of the film before the pandemic and had to take a break as all productions did. And in that break Jules and I started zooming.

I was really troubling over what the point of the film was at this point. Why now? Why continue to make this project? What’s at stake? For whom? It was through conversations with Jules that she emerged as the interlocutor that she is and I asked if she wanted to come onto the project more formally and more specifically.

We shot with Jules in the pandemic and finished the film on account of her extraordinary skill of interpretation. One of the things that doesn’t necessarily read on camera but is true to our method is that the night before we shot with Jules in LA, we screened sections of the edit in progress. Here’s what this section looks like when we’re thinking about the following thing. And then we had a core team meeting about the film and its on-going construction. So what’s happening on-screen in our project is Jules critiquing the film we’re making from within the film. And it’s only because her arrival to the project was delayed that she’s having something to actually react to and feed back to which then becomes the fabric of the project as a whole.

Drew: That’s so interesting. I do feel like your work in general is very aware of both the benefits and the limits of visibility. Even from the short to the feature, do you feel like your goals for our communities and for trans art shifted because of increased visibility?

Chase: Absolutely. And I can speak to your question concretely because you’ve seen the work. If you were to compare the short to the feature you would immediately recognize that we’re still trafficking in personal narrative as the way in which trans people are arguing for their dignity and their rights. “I was born in this place,” “I had these feelings,” “My feelings changed,” etc. We’re all familiar with the trans life narrative. And what I think emerges in the feature is a concrete refusal and resistance to play by those rules.

One of the ways it becomes visible is in my conversation with Angelica when she says, I’m tired of telling certain kinds of stories and I don’t want to do it. I want to control the ways in which my narrative is used regardless of what your project might be claiming to be about. I love that refusal. Refusal is an ongoing theme in the feature in a way that it is not in the short. And I think that refusal is precisely on account of your question — people’s exhaustion around a certain kind of visibility, the overuse of personal narrative, and the ways in which certain kinds of narratives are reproduced at the expense of so many other ways we could be talking about trans life.

Drew: Maybe the film itself is an answer to this but how do you as a trans artist… I guess I’ll just make it personal and say that while I feel like we’ve reached a sort of peak of visibility, I still have stories I want to tell, stories that haven’t been told, art that I want to make. And it’s frustrating to me that all of that is inherently going to be added to the visibility as opposed to just being my story or expression. And, of course, there are benefits to that as well, but I was wondering if you can speak to how you’re grappling with that moving forward in your work.

Chase: It’s an ongoing battle to be frank and succinct. But I think one of the things that Jules offers us at the end of the feature is this challenge of thinking beyond visibility. What happens when we think about invisibility or opacity as holding an incredible amount of political power? It’s still being said and baked into a project that is deeply interested in and invested in a kind of trans visibility, a kind of public reckoning with the ways transness emerges in culture. But that to me is the answer to your question — living in the tension, of the collision of those two things. How can we be at once talking about the limits and the dangers and the violences of a kind of return to visibility while making visible other forms of knowing?

This is for me as a formalist where I deeply start to rely on the role of the frame as one of the ways to organize our attention and to organize my own anxiety as a maker. If we’re thinking of the frame of the talk show or the frame of the documentary interview or the frame of the medical diagnostic exam, what can we learn about transness by actually deprioritizing the trans subject and instead thinking about everything else that is happening in that scene? Whether it’s the Mike Wallace or the Garfinkel or the me, what are the lights and stage that afford us the kinds of visibilities that we’re talking about?

Drew: When it came to the casting process, both for the short and the feature, was it just about picking great actors you wanted to work with? I think something for me that’s so effective is you have these people who — at least within the community — are these sort of icons. It feels like you’re playing with a tension there. Did that come about naturally or was it conscious?

Chase: It’s incredibly strategic. We open the feature thinking about the legacy of someone like Christine Jorgensen and the role celebrity and iconicity play in how we come to remember certain kinds of trans histories and subjects. And so it felt really important to me as a maker to be thinking with folks who already imagine themselves as being oriented toward a kind of public. I like the sort of meta geekiness that you can google everyone in our film and realize they’re each a portal to trans cultural production in very particular ways. They’ve each imagined their lives, their creativity, their art practices, as a way in which to intervene upon or think about trans life. We don’t need to tell you every single beat of that in the film but I like that it exists because I also think that it informs how people are approaching questions of performance, of truth, of visibility.

It’s also a deeply baked in acknowledgement of the limits and violence in documentary as a form. I’m not interested in trafficking in vulnerability for vulnerability’s sake. We’re asking a different set of questions. And I wanted to be sure that as we ask people to walk toward these subjects based on the sparks and resonances between their lives that everyone had already thought about what it means to be packaged as a trans subject and be able and willing to think about what’s at stake.

Drew: Was that part of the decision to not cast an actual teen to play Jimmy?

Chase: Yes. Precisely. And also because what a gift to be able to talk to Stephen Ira, someone who went through the very same clinic — albeit generations later — with those who were trained by the very researchers who we’re interrogating and thinking with. I mean, it was shocking and overwhelming and so emotional to be able to sit with him in that space. And he was a teen when he was there and that to me was all we needed.

Drew: Yeah, I mean, I’ve written a couple features about trans teens and I’ve thought a lot about the responsibility I’d have working with trans teen actors were I to make them. I’ve always been a pretty firm believer that teens should be trusted as people, but—

Chase: And they know who they are.

Drew: Yes! But that said the kind of visibility that is granted to a teenager who is put on-screen in a movie — even a movie that’s opening at the Film Forum — has an impact. And I think any filmmaker needs to be conscious of that and as protective as possible.

Chase: Absolutely. I know this is a grand statement — so recognize I understand that as I’m saying it to you — but I really invest in this kind of cohort doc as a way in which to protect and take care of each other. It’s a way to show up differently in the face of a culture that desires to consume and repackage our lives for various sociopolitical agendas that are actually designed to exclude us and/or limit our ability to survive and thrive. And when we’re reckoning with the logics of visibility I just could not imagine putting a trans teen in the center of the frame in this particular moment.

Drew: Staying on the topic of visibility, have Framing Agnes and No Ordinary Man increased your own visibility? Both among cis people and trans people and if so what has that experience been like?

Chase: No one has ever asked me that… You know, I think the visibilities that I’m most interested in are the ways in which people recognize the potential of hybrid form. So what happens when we run documentary alongside narrative cinemamaking techniques? What happens in that space? What happens in that friction? And if there’s any way I hope the visibility of these kinds of projects endures, it’s encouraging more risks in the non-fiction space by borrowing from beauty and aesthetics and narrative drama and all the other tools that are often stripped from more rigorous or gritty sociopolitical portrait pieces.

I think that transness emerges in the projects you’ve listed as a kind of method where we’re thinking across gender, we’re thinking across genre, we’re thinking across in a variety of different ways. I think we’re in a moment where we’re all inundated by a streaming culture where nonfiction work is routinized. We understand what it is before we even click on it. There are a few exceptions to the rule and wouldn’t it be glorious if we were able to really intervene upon the genre? Because I think intervening upon the genre creates a lot more space for minoritized subjects.

Drew: Yeah… You don’t have to answer, but I am going to push a bit.

Chase: (laughs)

Drew: I’m interested in all that. Don’t get me wrong. But I’m also interested in the ways in which— Look, the number of feature films getting any sort of theatrical release this year directed by trans people are minimal. And you’ll have one of them. I’m curious what that experience is like. I’d imagine there’s a lot of pressure that isn’t fair.

Because I actually am more interested in the things you’re talking about in terms of form. It’s why I respond so deeply to your work — I want trans art that is formally interesting. But I do think it’s worth talking about the experience of being a trans filmmaker in this moment in time. If for no other reason than to discuss that pressure and reduce it or, at least, contextualize it.

Chase: Yeah, it’s… (laughs) You know, I’ll be totally honest with you, if we were not being recorded, I think we would have a really different conversation.

Drew: (laughs) For sure.

Chase: But I’ll say that it’s a lot of pressure and it’s a lot of pressure differently from cis audiences and from trans audiences. I think that when we’re in a market where there’s only ever one trans film or a small handful of trans films, the pressure for that film to do many things for many people increases.

It also pressurizes the people in the film and around the film to become speaking subjects for the current moment. And so when we’re experiencing the extraordinary backlash against trans rights or against trans kids all of a sudden everyone in the film becomes a kind of speaking subject. Of course, Jules is ripe and ready, but there are different ways in which it pressurizes people beyond the means of their original participation. And I feel really protective and anxious about that cultural climate and I think it works against nuance to reduce everyone down to a kind of activist speaking subject especially if they don’t want to be such. The film should exist as a text outside of its people and the people should exist as texts in circulation outside of the project and I think you’re identifying something where everything becomes collapsed and pressurized.

One of the ways in which I manage it — which perhaps is very clear and very obvious by the way in which I work — is that I’m so interested in and inspired by the cohort approach to filmmaking, to storytelling, and to trans worldmaking. This interview is an exception to the rule. Very rarely am I alone with the film. I am always at every turn trying to be with other people precisely because I don’t imagine myself to be the person with all of the answers. I don’t imagine the film to have a static beginning, middle, and end that I can succinctly summarize. I hope that it is always something that is transforming and being reinterpreted on account of its context or its audience.

One of the ways in which we try to reckon with that in the film is to break frame and to have Jules walk away from us in the end. We’re not able to neatly summarize and conclude which might be frustrating for some people who desire a kind of emotional attachment or completion or catharsis from film. But I think we’re trying to say that now is not the time. We can’t meaningfully produce that because we can’t meaningfully produce it in the world that we live. And so how can we be somewhere else together in the space of the film?

Drew: I love that. Thank you for that answer.

Chase: Thanks for challenging me. (laughs)

Drew: The last thing I want to ask about is a brief moment with Barbara. I think she is such a fascinating figure. Like what you’re talking about in regard to a cohort, the trans histories that I’m most drawn to are ones where people were in community. Obviously not everyone had that as a possibility but I do love these little pockets where all these trans people were together and, you know, if not making art together, making life as art together.

Chase: Yes.

Drew: Anyway, she mentions something about a Hollywood starlet?? I mean, it’s very appropriate for the film that on the one hand I’m like, well that’s not my business, and on the other hand I’m like, wait tell me more! Is there any more context? Like is that suggesting there was someone who was a famous actress who was stealth?

Chase: That’s how I interpret it. The only person in the world who might have a better answer than that is Morgan M Page. But that’s how I interpret it.

I love not knowing who she’s talking about. What an extraordinary middle finger to the whole apparatus! And I include myself in that.

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Drew Burnett Gregory

Drew is a Brooklyn-based writer, filmmaker, and theatremaker. She is a Senior Editor at Autostraddle with a focus in film and television, sex and dating, and politics. Her writing can also be found at Bright Wall/Dark Room, Cosmopolitan UK, Refinery29, Into, them, and Knock LA. She was a 2022 Outfest Screenwriting Lab Notable Writer and a 2023 Lambda Literary Screenwriting Fellow. She is currently working on a million film and TV projects mostly about queer trans women. Find her on Twitter and Instagram.

Drew Burnett has written 538 articles for us.

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