The Queerty Interview

‘Man Made’ director T Cooper: “We are obsessed with the absence or presence of a penis”

Artist T Cooper’s Man Made, premiering at this year’s Outfest, follows a group of transgender bodybuilders: Mason, Dominic, Tommy, Kennie and Rese as they prepare for a nation-wide competition in Atlanta while facing the prejudices in everyday life that trans people routinely face.

T took chatted with Queerty just ahead of the Outfest premiere.

Man Made shows at Outfest July 22. Tickets on sale now. 

You’re a man of varied mediums. You’ve done scripted work, novels, graphic novels, short films, television, directing. What was the inception of this project, and why do it as a sports documentary?

I definitely have run the storytelling gamut. I guess the short, sort of esoteric answer is that I feel like the subject matter sort of dictates the medium. Which is to say, in a more accessible way, my first impulse when I heard about the bodybuilding competition was to write, you know, a piece of journalism about it with some really cool visuals, just a one-off about the competition. But when I started doing sort of the advance work you have to do, you know, you meet with people, set it up, you know how that is. You start sort of measuring the depth of the story, and it just felt super deep and three-dimensional and it just felt like it needed a longer treatment. And, mostly just because there wasn’t just one guy who represented this world. There were, honestly, infinite guys, but just so many different experiences and identities and people coming from such different places to bring them to that moment on stage. But for me, I really wanted to try to tell a multi-stranded story of the people who are drawn to this, the people who do it, all the different reasons they do it, and all the different paths they take, not only to get there but where they go after. And so that just felt like a film.

Are transgender men ignored by the media? I could, right now, name five or ten transgender women, female celebrities. But I think I could only really name one or two transgender male celebrities.

I mean, I do believe it is. I do believe the transphobic kind of line is trans people, a trans woman is really a man, and a trans man is really a woman. And so if you do kind of string that out, and follows it to its logical kind of implications, that is about sexism and a de-prioritizing of what people think of women’s stories. And you know, I just think that culturally, we are obsessed with, just to be blunt—the absence or presence of a penis. So, sort that out as far as which stories make it, and which are fascinating. And to be honest, I think those who give up that power—again, perceived to give up that power—for whatever reason, culturally, those stories resonate more than, you know… I don’t think people want to think about women becoming men, because if anyone can become a man, then that supremacy is called into question.

You’re probably right.

That’s why, you know, to kind of bring it back to the first question, that’s another reason I wanted to tell this story, and I wanted to tell it in a larger way. I don’t feel I see my story. I don’t feel I see our stories out there. And, you know, just being able to show the variety of trans masculine lives in so many different versions and representations, not just one. They don’t all look like Mason. They don’t all look like Tommy. They don’t all look like Kennie [three of the subjects of the film]. That’s just what was so magical about it. It was just people being where they were in their lives and meeting on stage, and being celebrated for whatever hard work they did.

The film explores the transition process without making that the plot. Was that a conscious approach?

Oh yeah, 100%. Because whatever trans storytelling there is out there, and like you said, the bulk of it focuses on the male-to-female journey. And then when it does focus on that, it focuses on the transition and the particulars of the transition which often involve surgery and hormones and whatnot. And then if it doesn’t focus on the transition, then it’s about some horrible thing befalling the trans person. They’re raped, they’re murdered, they’re making their family miserable… Whatever it is, it’s a tragedy. To me, it was like, these guys don’t have to die, or be beaten, or be punished for being trans to care about them. Like, I want you to care about them and their lives and their communities because they are whole people. It’s an honest look at their lives, good and bad, challenging and triumphant. And a lot of it happens to be more triumphant in this film. And a lot of it doesn’t happen to be focused on their transition. Now sure, a character like Dom—it was hugely important to him. His first competition, he stood on stage with his breast tissue still. And the next one, he was going to be without it, and that part of his journey was super important. But if all trans storytelling is on transition, the story of your life isn’t three years in middle school or that time you went abroad, or a prison term, you know what I’m saying?

Sure.

We have these whole lives, and it’s erroneous to suggest that the whole of trans people’s lives is a transition. I understand the cultural fascination, but I think we’re past that point making what’s interesting about their lives being transition. There’s a million things more interesting in their lives. And the guys in the film—look at a character like Dom. Sure, his surgery was important, but look what happens! He finds out where he came from, his biological mother. He faces his origins and finds this whole other thing about himself, which actually supersedes the transition stuff.

A character like Mason–his wife says she’s never seen him naked. There’s almost like this contradiction in that. This is a guy who loves to go to bodybuilding competitions and get up on stage in this skimpy little thong. And it’s like your wife has never seen you naked? How do you, as director, reconcile the two?

First of all, I believe that universally we, as humans, build our bodies from the minute we’re born. Now, some of that is nature, but some of that is every little choice you make affects the person, the body we become. Some people are more radical than that, and some people it’s more, god, even the choices you make. If you eat animal meat or not, we’re all adapting and growing from the minute we’re here on the planet until we leave. And so, yeah, I’ll say that’s the metaphor of it. So that was really fascinating to me, and that was also what drew me to it. All these guys, no matter where they’re at physically are able to stand up on stage with, like you said, literally like three or four inches of material on their body. I would never do that, I don’t care what I look like. I would never be marching around in a mankini.

[Laughter]

Mankini? Is that a proper term?

Yes, that is! I coined that. So yeah, the mental and physical gymnastics that need to go on in order to step up there and be judged, but then also not be able to share that intimacy with someone so close to you. I think that’s fascinating. I do think that’s universal too. I think it’s a metaphor for all sorts of things we share or don’t like to share with even the people we’re closest with.

Sure.

And even then, the relationships. That was also important to me: to show a variety of trans relationships in the film too. Because a relationship like Kennie & DJ’s, yes, is very specific. [DJ is] a lesbian. She thinks they’re lesbians. That’s the relationship she wants to be in. But it turns out, no, [Kennie] is actually a man, and he’s going to transition into passing as a man. And how does that affect their relationship? That’s super specific, but it’s also a stand-in for everything we go through in life with family, or friends, or lovers. God, anything could happen. Somebody could have stroke. Someone can change their mind about having children. There are a million things that happen in life, like I say, as we evolve with our bodies and lives. So yeah, that moment with Mason and his wife, or some of the moments with Kennie and DJ are just really important for me to show the depth of relationships. And yes, they’re specific, but I also believe there’s so much universality going on.

Talking with their families who still can’t wrap their heads around the idea of having a transgender relative, a transgender child…

Yeah.

Was it a conscious decision to try and capture those, and was there anything of that nature that you left out?

So as a trans filmmaker, and I mean in general, we’re not given as much access to tell our own stories. It’s a shame, but if you look at most films—we’ll just take transgender subject matter since that’s what we’re talking about—it could be anything. It could be about poverty, it could be African-American stories. You know, most of those stories, the lights are shown on those stories by people who aren’t on the community. And I’m not saying it’s deliberate, but there’s a constant “othering” that can’t help but go on because you’re shining a light on it for a reason. You’re saying “hey look at this tragic thing you should care about.” So the light that I’m shining is actually from the inside, you know what I’m saying? It’s in the middle of that circle, and shining out, as opposed to shining in. So some of those uncomfortable moments, those intimate, those incredibly you can’t-even-believe-you’re-there-for-them moments, there’s something else going on there because of that inside-out storytelling I’m talking about. And so that’s like that moment when I cut away to my reaction after Dom seeing himself, or when Mason and I are standing in a room of naked dudes with their [email protected] hanging out, when we’re the only trans guys in there, or when DJ doesn’t know how to load Kennie’s first shot. Those are moments of intersection that were organic so there’s a trans eye literally behind the camera.

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Yeah.

So when I did leave those moments in, there was nothing that I felt I was exploiting by leaving in, because, honestly, every single one of those guys that I filmed, and even those that didn’t make the final cut, they all said they wouldn’t be doing this if it weren’t me telling the story. And they were all, always very comfortable with me being there. Certainly, there were a couple moments where I was like, holy [email protected], I can’t believe I’m filming this right now. But I’m just here to provide an authentic, honest eye. And like I say, that light from within is something that would never tell a story that I wouldn’t personally be comfortable with telling in my own story. In some ways, it is my story, and I took care of it like I would take care of my own.

Did you know about Mason’s history with Ellen—the run in on her stand-up special before you met him? [Prior to transitioning, Mason thanked Ellen DeGeneres for coming out during a filmed stand-up comedy special. Both Ellen and Mason broke down crying.]

I did not! He mentioned something about it early on. So I think the first time I was filming, we were talking about it and he pulled it up on the computer. And so that really, organically happened, when we were just at his place. And he was just like, oh, that thing I told you about, you want to see it? And he’s not ashamed of it. It’s super emotional for him, and it was a real turning point in his life. He was deciding whether he wanted to live or die.

I saw it on DVD, and that was not too long after my own coming out. I was wrecked after he said what he had to say and got emotional with Ellen. So then to see this later, and see how far he’s come and the state of his life, I was bowled over by it.

That’s so cool. I’m surprised by how many people saw that, but I just think there’s something so raw about that. It doesn’t matter what the “coming out” is, it’s just making your life in the image you want to make it in. And for whatever reason, at that moment, Ellen was a stand-in for so many people in that era. And [Mason] really feels like that helped save his life. And he also feels like bodybuilding saved his life. His parents were not supportive, and even help him find a way to transition. He could have transitioned, I don’t know, 20 years ago, but they weren’t supportive and going to make that an option. So he found bodybuilding, and he could literally build his body. He could adapt and change and live until he did figure out how to transition.

I hope you’ve sent Ellen’s people a copy so they see it…

We’ve tried. We’ve definitely tried. Maybe when the film comes out-out we’ll try again. I think it would just be mind-blowing to show that and just have him come out.

It definitely would be. My mind was blown.

It’s so cool you remember that.

Ellen came out right before I did, and I already loved her, and I loved her show before any of that happened. So to see someone in the media go through everything that she went through after that happened, and to see her just stand there as this island of strength was really, really moving and inspiring.

That’s so cool. I was so happy we got to include that because it was just so, you know…getting to talk to that. And that’s another thing with the storytelling. I feel like a lot of trans storytelling is oh, I was going to kill myself and then I transitioned. And so, you know, it’s just important. That was an important era in Mason’s life, and that moment was so important too. But again, that wasn’t where we started, it’s actually where we ended with Mason just before he stepped on stage.

One last question…I noticed, much to my surprise that Teá Leoni actually produced this film. I looked at her bio, and this is only her fifth project as a producer. How did you get hooked up with her?

[Executive producers] in the doc world are folks who can often come on board with a high-profile that a film might not have otherwise. So yeah, so Teá and I have known each other for years. The reason we actually became acquainted is that she actually mentioned my second novel, and it happened to be set in a tiny town in Texas where both her mother and my mother grew up in.

Oh wow.

So we just had this weird coincidence, and sort of became friends back in maybe the mid-2000s. She’s been supportive of all creative projects. So my wife and I collaborate on television writing. One of the projects that we first sold to Showtime, she was EP on that too. You know, she just puts her money where her mouth is as far as social justice issues are concerned. She cares a lot about trans civil rights. So basically when she heard about this project, she was just like “dude, how do I help get this story told?” She just wanted this story out there. So you know, she’s supported in material and immaterial ways.

So I’m super lucky.

Man Made shows at Outfest July 21 & 22. Tickets on sale now.