Your short film Trevor won you the Academy Award for Best Live Action Short, when you made this film did you imagine it would get this type of recognition?
My producing partner on TREVOR, Randy Stone, had been fantasising about winning an Oscar since he was 5. He talked about how we were going to submit TREVOR for Oscar consideration from Day One and was completely conversant with every rule and requirement to do so!
At some point, I did have to tell him I didn’t want to talk about it or think about it. I needed to be in the moment, every moment, and keep all my focus on what was happening in the here and now, in front of the camera. Making sure shots were right and performances true. Other folks might be able to create from that other place. I couldn't.
Was there any inkling that you could win the Oscar and what did it feel like to get up on stage and receive your Academy Award?
Well, once you get the nomination, you know you've got a 20% chance of winning, right? But then it wasn't like it is now, with everyone engaging publicists and campaigning away for their short. We made sure we met the requirements for a theatrical play, filled out the application, and encouraged our friends who were members to go to one of the only two evenings when the shorts in the competition were screened at the Academy—you had to attend in person in order to vote. And that was it.
We did write a speech in advance in case we won. The Academy throws this wonderful lunch for nominees, and they beat it into your head that you don’t want to be the person that gets up on stage and dithers. They even show you memorable acceptance speeches to inspire you and Jodie’s acceptance for THE ACCUSED was one of them.
So the weekend before the Oscars, Randy and I sat down at his picnic table, wrote what we were going to say in about 20 minutes…and then prayed!
The night we won..it was kind of crazy. You’re surrounded by a lot of people you know from the business, everybody’s all dressed up like they’re going to prom, and it strangely felt kind of intimate even though you’re in a large place.
I got caught up in all of that and was enjoying myself till all of a sudden, I realised our category was about two away and I started feeling REALLY nervous. Then the moment comes, you hear your name called, and it’s all kind of a blur. I do remember I could see people in the audience I knew from up on stage, and I felt like I was talking to them—my friends, not millions of people around the world. I was really glad we’d written a speech in advance, and I’m still proud I was able to help bring attention to all the young LGBTQ+ young people at risk for suicide from that platform. We wanted to help celebrate the children that make it through—like Trevor— and mourn those who didn’t.
I’d lost my brother Patrick to suicide two weeks before starting to shoot TREVOR, and I certainly thought about him that night.
Trevor is now part of MoMA's permanent collection, what do you think it is about your film that has made it have such a lasting impression all these years later?
I think Trevor’s heart and humour make it timeless. It’s a funny and poignant film, and the humour is part of what helps pack the punch of the near-tragedy that occurs. HAROLD AND MAUDE was certainly an inspiration.
The film still captures what it’s like to feel like no one sees the real you, or worse, that the real you is so shameful, it might just be better for everyone involved if you weren't around. I remember feeling like that in high school when some cool girl mocked me for wearing white socks. The feeling of shame was so powerful, I really did think I couldn't face going back to school. It seems sort of silly now, but believe me, it didn’t feel that way at the time.
So imagine how you’d feel if people were mocking your core identity—which you’re still figuring out—not just something you’re wearing.
I completely related to TREVOR, which sometimes surprises people because I happen to be a straight white cisgender woman (at least this lifetime). But boy, I understood Trevor’s pain, and I think his story is universal. And in an age of identity politics, I think it’s important to both recognise the value of having a supportive identity-based community AND the value and power of allyship. It’s not an either-or. It’s both.
How did you come across Celeste Lecesne screenplay and what was it about his script that connected with you so much?
I met Eve Ensler through a mutual friend and she told me about this one-man show she was directing downtown at La Mama that I should go see. That was Celeste’s (aka James) show. The Trevor section, a less than 10-minute monologue, was the highlight of the show. It stole my heart and had me laughing and crying at the same time. I had my friend and fellow producer, Randy Stone, come see it the next night and he felt the same. We agreed it’d make a great short film, worked with Celeste on the script, and when it was done, I couldn't imagine giving it to anyone else to direct. Luckily, Randy agreed!
The biggest challenge as director was going to be tone. It was going to be trickier to capture the humour in some of those painful moments when you cast a real 13-year-old in the role versus watching an adult on stage pretending to be 13. It ups the stakes.
I have found since then that people are often surprised to discover that a straight woman directed this well-known gay short and started the Trevor Project. I certainly didn’t make the film thinking I’d become the godmother of a national suicide hotline for gay and questioning young people…but when I realised how strong the need was and the HBO interest presented a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to launch something like this, I felt like I wouldn’t be able to live with myself if I didn’t do something.
Trevor is filled with a lot of heart but it never takes itself too seriously even though it deals with such a salient topic. humour is central to the story, how did you go about creating the unique tone of this film?
I made sure that our lead actor was never commenting on the character as he was playing it. Every moment he had to be sincere and every character had to be committed to their part. The sincerity of the performances along with the set design, the costumes, the staging, the choice of camera angles, the timing of the music and timing of the editing…all those directorial tools were used to create the humour.
Only four people ever spoke, but boy it was a great cast!
Diana Ross's music is an integral part of Trevor, was her music always in the script and do you know if she's seen the film?
Yes, Diana’s songs were ALWAYS part of it! Randy and I knew we wouldn't have a movie if we didn't have those, so the first thing we did as producers was to go after the rights. Even though Diana Ross technically didn't own the licenses, Lionel Ritchie asked us to make sure she was okay with it, and bless her, she was. And bless him too for writing Endless Love and a million other outstanding songs.
The movie was set in 1981 and I grew up with Diana Ross. She was HUGE and, like Trevor, her songs got me through many an occasion. Remember how much impact music can have on you, particularly in your teens. Music got me through dark times as well as the good.
"And now, believe it or not, TREVOR has been adapted as a stage musical and is opening off-Broadway in fall ‘21!"
We’re all hoping Diana will be there for the opening.
How soon after directing Trevor did you begin to think about creating The Trevor Project and how did you go about creating TTP?
Randy, my producing partner, worked in TV and was able to leverage his contacts with HBO to secure a ‘special presentation’ of our film—unprecedented for a short— IF we got a high profile person to do the wraparound. Enter Ellen DeGeneres, the hero of our story. This was 1998, the year Ellen publicly came out. If you weren’t around then, all you need to know is that her face and story were EVERYWHERE. With Ellen hosting, I knew a LOT of people would be watching, including young kids. I was talking with a good friend of mine who said in passing ‘you should put up a number at the end of the film so that kids who are feeling like Trevor could have a place to call for help. ‘
She had no idea what an impact that comment had. It was like a lightning bolt went through me. I knew I had to do something.
First, I looked everywhere to see if I could find a 24/7 service tailored to this audience. There were none. Frankly I didn't trust regular suicide hotlines. there was no national standard for training and the last thing I’d want is for some kid to call a line in Texas and be told they should kill themselves. so, my producer side took over and I decided there must be a way to set up one myself. I called friends of friends of friends and found a highly respected crisis service operating here in LA. It was run by a wonderful gay man, Dr. Jay Nagdimon, who was open to partnering on this endeavour.
Once I knew a national 24/7 specialized crisis service could actually be pulled off, I asked my fellow filmmakers, Randy and Celeste, if they’d like to be involved. That’s how The Trevor Project started. I went on to serve as Executive Director for the first three years, making sure it got off the ground. I won’t lie. It was pretty hairy in the beginning, but I was determined not to let it fail. And a lot of great people came along to help.
Nearly 25 years later I get to help celebrate all the great talent that’s taken that vision and run with it. TTP now has in-house crisis services on the text and chat as well as phone, manages crisis outreach from over 200,000 youth a year, runs a social networking site —TrevorSpace—where kids from the US and over 100 different countries safely connect online, provides educational resources for schools and teachers, and has a lobbying arm in DC to help forward legislative efforts around the mental health needs of LGBTQ+ youth. I am immensely proud of the impact we’ve had.
Where did your passion for filmmaking come from?
I loved watching movies as a kid. Saturday mornings, our local TV station ran all these great old film series--Sherlock Holmes, Charlie Chan, Tarzan--and great flicks from the '30s and '40s like The Maltese Falcon, Auntie Mame, His Girl Friday, gumshoe noir to screwball comedies. I didn't know what an education I was getting!
Movies showed me a world bigger than myself and they got embedded in my imagination. My Dad had a Super 8 camera and I started making films in high school and just kept going when I got to college. I didn't know if I'd ever been able to make living at it, but I loved doing it--every single part of it. shooting, editing, sound, etc.
What are some of the best advice or tips you offer filmmaking students?
Take risks, be willing to fail--it's the only way you learn--and learn to listen to your inner guidance. I think we're all in service to something much bigger than ourselves, and it's our job to learn how to honour that muse...which means getting your ego out of the way, learning where to bend and compromise and where to stand strong. It's very hard for emerging filmmakers--as well as seasoned ones!--to sometimes know which is what.
And finally, what do you hope new audiences will take away from Trevor?
I hope they'll laugh and cry, be moved and entertained! And in the process, I hope that leads to healing -- that people see a bit of themselves in Trevor regardless of their orientation, have more compassion for people who are different than themselves, and be willing to support any and all at-risk LGBTQ+ young people out there who are in crisis and fundamentally feeling undone by shame.