Feature image of Vuk Lungulov-Klotz by Matt Winkelmeyer via Getty Images
Vuk Lungulov-Klotz is a Chilean-Serbian filmmaker with a Sundance-award winning film — he also happens to live in my neighborhood. When I first heard of Vuk, it was in the context of him being a friend’s roommate. Now, it’s all about him being the hot new director whose first feature film, Mutt, is now on Netflix. We met for coffee and I watched as he entered the shop in a full-length leather jacket, pink baseball cap, and boots that had the same hardware as a harness I wore to a sex party this Pride. I love Brooklyn.
When I pushed my phone closer to Vuk to pick up his voice over the sounds of espresso machines and ABBA songs, he laughed and said, “I hate when people tell me to project more. I’m like, dude, this is years of trauma, go fuck yourself.” I promised him I wouldn’t ask him to speak louder, and that I was confident I’d be able to hear him just fine.
The rest of the interview went a lot like this, the two of us over-explaining, over-apologizing, and over-analyzing. I guess that’s what happens when you stick two trans dudes in the corner of a Bushwick coffee shop and ask them to talk about themselves. Us? Take up space? No thank you! Vuk is at a career high with a wildly successful film about a day in the life of a trans man, which he hopes gets torrented across the globe by young trans punks; and I’m cheesy enough to admit that conducting interviews for Autostraddle has always been a career goal of mine, so why weren’t we acting like hot shots?
“I’m not cool,” Vuk would say. “I’m like the parent of the cool kid.” This self-description stems from Vuk feeling like an elder as he approaches his ten year mark as an out trans man. The more we talked, it became clear that Vuk absolutely is cool. He’s the guy that worked from crew to director, who got his first feature film into Sundance, who’s using his new platform to be a mentor — not only to other trans folks but to everyone. I’d say that’s pretty fucking cool.
We discussed the work that goes into nurturing an affirming film set, the time warp that is transitioning, and the reason why he named his film Mutt.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Motti: I had the pleasure of chatting with your lead, Lío Mehiel, and they spoke about how having a mostly all-trans and queer cast and crew enabled them to give their best performance. What are ways that you create an affirming set as a director?
Vuk: I didn’t set out to have the majority of the crew be trans people because I’m not paying them very well. In the end, we did have a pretty varied set. A lot of that has to do with my background as Key Grip. I worked for 8 years in the industry in New York and I was able to crew up my friends, who are queer people.
The other thing I did was I cast a gay man for the role of the “straight” boyfriend. Not because he was gay, but because he’s an amazing actor and I think his queerness brought something to the set that allowed Lío to feel much more safe in his sexual intimacy. I think people who have been in the closet have an understanding of the tension in secrecy that is very interesting to me. There are so many roles that are stolen from the gay community and given to cis, straight people that I was excited to, in a very small way, give one back to a gay man.
I had a trans AC – that was also amazing. It was really good for me to go to him and be like, “Hey, how was that scene?” And he would say, “I’m crying, that was amazing.” That’s one more person that is in very close proximity to the action that is queer. If you want your lead to be a trans man and to be treated with dimension, then you have to treat every other character with as much dimension.
Motti: I was going to ask you about how your experience doing Grip and Electric impacted your role as a director but I think you just answered it.
Vuk: I’m so proud of it, I talk about it all the fucking time.
Motti: Good! It’s so bad ass and it’s so trans.
Vuk: (laughs) Yeah, what’s the most masc job you can find? I think it makes me very patient and understanding. Doing the grunt work is important in understanding how much work has been put into this project and I think that creates a safe environment where you understand that everyone is needed to make this happen.
Motti: I’ve obviously done some research on you–
Vuk: Oh God, what did you find?
Motti: I found your Myspace.
Vuk: Oh, wow.
Motti: No, I’m just kidding. You did the Sundance Writer’s Lab when you were twenty-three?
Vuk: I did, I did the intensive and the next year I did the week-long one where you go to the Sundance resort.
Motti: What advice do you have for young aspiring writers and creators? I have to imagine it takes a bit of balls to put yourself out there and apply to those labs.
Vuk: As a human being or as a filmmaker?
Motti: Let’s start with a human being.
Vuk: Don’t ever do anybody’s thinking for them. Let them tell you how they feel because you’re going to rob yourself of opportunities by doing that or you’ll think that people are more callous or transphobic than they are. That’s my advice as a human being.
What I always tell students – which is my favorite thing, I love talking to them – is “Don’t scoff at short films.” They’re very useful. That is you saying, “I can complete this.” If you enter the film festival world with your short film, that’s you getting to those places and being able to have those conversations, and it’s like finishing college: it’s not so much about the college degree, it’s about finishing four years of something.
So just make a short. I know everybody wants to make a feature film but there’s steps to it. Be as vocal as you feel comfortable being. It took me a second to feel like I could take up space and say, “Hey I’m making this, I went to the lab, I need you to listen to me.”
Truly be in love with your project. You are the single engine behind your project, so you have to be in love with it. You have to believe that it’s worth everybody’s time, not only the people that are working on it, but also the audience members who are going sit through whatever the fuck you made. So just be in love with your project. If you’re not, it’s not worth it.
Motti: What was it like promoting Mutt in the midst of a writer’s strike and an actor’s strike, on top of being a small, trans film?
Vuk: It’s been incredible and exhausting, and also new. I’ve been continuously learning about myself, about what it means to be a director, which I feel like is something that is never going to stop. I am so ignited by audiences. The idea of stepping in front of an audience and being able to talk to them for a Q&A gives me life even if I’m tired. You’re a comedian–
Vuk: (kissing his fingers like a chef) Making an audience laugh in a Q&A is a high – I’m never going to fucking do standup – but it’s very exhilarating to talk to a live audience because that’s not always going to be the case in a filmmaker’s career.
Who knows where my career will go. There could be a moment where my film goes straight to theater and I don’t go to film festivals, and I don’t have that interaction with people. So it’s been interesting to gift the movie to an audience. The movie is no longer mine and that feels amazing. Now you guys can do whatever you want with it.
It’s been great. I didn’t think that it would be successful.
Motti: No? Why not?
Vuk: I believed in my qualities as a filmmaker and I knew it was going to be a good movie, but that doesn’t mean it’s going to be successful. The movie is more accessible than I ever thought it was going to be. It’s a really good gateway drug for queerness, and it also says stuff about me and who I am, and how I navigate coming out and including people that are not trans. The ex-boyfriend, the father, and the little sister that surround this character, I’m trying to be on their journey too, you know?
When you come out, you transition, but everybody else transitions, too. You are changing something about the way they used to see all of their memories and the way they’ll look at people now. They are changing with you and I find that very beautiful.
Motti: Do you think it’s as important of a film for cis people with trans people in their lives, as much it is for trans people themselves?
Vuk: It’s always going to be more important for trans people because we have nothing. I think parents watching Mutt is really encouraging. We’re all changing but trans people and their family members are going to get something more out of it. I hope that everybody gets something out of it.
I was doing a Q&A in Geneva and these parents, instead of asking a question, shouted out to their trans son. They run a support group of parents with trans kids. I was so excited that they were making themselves known. Seeing people support their trans kids or their trans friends is great. Cis people understanding that we don’t exist in a vacuum and knowing that we have a support system that goes beyond our chosen family is really exciting. That is not something I knew was possible when I was coming out. That makes me want to cry – to know that there is a parent out there that is so proud to stand up in a crowd of strangers and say “My kid is trans.”
Motti: My mom is that way, which feels very lucky. Beyond lucky, I guess.
Vuk: I like being a spokesperson for transness but it is also exhausting. I’m very proud to be trans and to be a director that someone can point to and be like “I wanna be like you, man.” I don’t want transness to hold anybody back.
Motti: Speaking of trans…
Motti: I find myself wanting people in my life to have a window into 24 hours of my life so that they can see just how different a day in my life is from their own. I’ll be out to dinner with my cis girlfriend, and I’ll get misgendered by the server, and she’ll be like, “You just got misgendered.” I hardly even notice because that was the sixth time that’s happened today, but to her it’s the biggest deal.
Vuk: Does she correct people?
Motti: She asks my permission and I tell her that I’ll do it myself if I need to because I don’t like making a fuss. Not that standing up for yourself is a fuss, but I’m a people pleaser. Do we need to correct this server right now who’s probably on the twelfth hour of their shift?
Vuk: Is it worth the energy? is a very valid and very trans barometer to have in your life.
Motti: It makes so much sense, as a trans person, for Mutt to take place over 24 hours.
Vuk: I love continuous time. So many good movies are continuous time: Victoria, Good Times. 24 hours, narratively, is very rich. It’s very humanizing to see the highly dramatic parts of someone’s day and the more mundane parts. You’re along for the ride. Getting to know this person, feeling like you just spent the day with your trans friends. This may be very philosophical, and not something I’ve actually brought up to other people, but when you’re trans, the beginning feels so dark, you have no answers. Every day is a completely new experience and you have no idea how you’re going to survive it. Maybe continuous time is a love letter of that exhaustive way of living in the beginning.
I remember when I started taking testosterone, it was interesting to watch my life be sliced up into week-to-week increments. It gave a time sensitivity to my life that I appreciated.
Motti: When you say “spliced up,” is that because of the life cycle of the two weeks between shots?
Vuk: Especially in the beginning when you’re like “I’m on shot number ten!” Time was quantified differently. It was slowing down and going by quicker. I was watching my body change and wrestling with time differently.
Motti: Were you waiting for each body change to drop as you were going?
Vuk: I resented any changes that weren’t permanent because I felt like no matter what I did in my life, it was always borrowed. It’s not that I wasn’t excited about all the changes, I was excited about the changes that were permanent like the voice, the hair growth, and my top surgery. It made me happy to think that no matter what, those things can never be taken away from me. That I had permanently made my body more trans. It’s nice to be stronger.
Motti: Are you a gym guy?
Vuk: (laughs) No, but I’m a key grip. I just did it four days ago, I’m going to do it tomorrow. That’s a very physical job. I like using my body.
Motti: We see Feña in a lot of tender moments in the film, how did you strike the balance between the pain and tenderness while writing the screenplay?
Vuk: I’m a cutie pie. Isn’t that obvious? I think I’m a very cute being but I hated being called cute when I was presenting as a female. Mutt came out of me wanting to understand the fear around me coming out and being trans. How do I tackle my fear of not being desired sexually? How do I understand my partners’ and ex-partners’ side of it? What is it going to do to their sexuality?
The tenderness was always there and my script started with what would it be like if I just spent a day with my little sister? What would be important? Would it matter if I was trans? You, as a trans person, might watch Mutt and see that it is balanced and sweet. A lot of people who aren’t trans think I’m putting my character through a lot.
Vuk: They see the movie as trying to teach you a lesson, that this is what it is to be trans. That is never what I wanted to do. But as a trans person, you are a teacher, because people put you in that position when you’re asked questions all the fucking time. Trans people see this movie, and they go “oh, slice of life. This is what my life is like. I get misgendered multiple times a day. I’m asked questions about being trans multiple times a day.”
If a cis person watches this movie, they go, “there’s no way, there’s no way you have to fucking teach that much and talk about being trans all the time.”
Motti: They think you’re wrapping up five years into one day rather than showing what an actual day is.
Vuk: Exactly. If we can’t make a joke and we can’t be sweet about something, then we’re fucked. Sweetness is very important to me.
Motti: Mutt is about a trans man, but more than that, it’s a story about a Chilean trans man, a big brother, an ex-boyfriend, a son, all of these different identities. How important was it for you to tell the story of a multifaceted human being?
Vuk: That’s nice, this is what I want to talk about, the multicultural aspect of MUTT. If you take transness out of the movie, it’s about a multiracial, multicultural person that has an international family and the hardships and the pressure of having your father come for just a weekend. He wants to show his best self and he doesn’t want to be a fuck up and he wants to be seen as worthy… that’s just universal. It’s the idea of only having a weekend to say “I love you” and to have a window into my life and vice versa.
That was my life. My dad is Serbian and I only saw him here and there and I loved him very deeply. He’s in Serbia right now and my mom’s in Chile. I grew up in Chile, so it was really heartbreaking to not have everybody you love in one place. That multifaceted, multidimensional thing of being an ex-lover, being a brother, being a son… that’s something that I miss in my life here in New York. I’m the trans filmmaker, I am the friend, I’m the ex lover; I’m all those things, but there are a few parts of me that none of these people will ever see that I miss and that I wish that I could have it all at once. That’s very important to me.
I like the word mutt and I named my movie Mutt because I wanted a word that encapsulated the inbetweenness. This is my experience as a trans man. “Mutt” is not as strong of a word as “faggot,” but to be called a mutt has a little bit of an insult to it. I love these spaces that can be seen as negative, and turning that into armor. In-between-ness and this idea of never feeling at home in one place feels trans to me. That’s being a multicultural person. That’s being someone who has to disclose parts of their identity in order for you to know who I am.
Mutt is now streaming on Netflix.