Making a film is like being in a rock band: the artistry comes from collaboration, but a small amount of discord can ruin everything.
Toronto writer and director Chandler Levack knows this well. After years of working on music videos for the Canadian band PUP and covering music for outlets such as NOW magazine and Toronto Life, she wrote and directed We Forgot to Break Up, a perceptive short film set around a concert.
The milieu clearly resonated with the filmmaker, as did the subject matter. As one may expect, Levack wrote the film shortly after a relationship ended.
“In a weird way, the script kind of paralleled my own situation,” she tells The CJN. “I was in that headspace, which allowed me to be able to talk about all the kind of pain and confusion that comes with breakups and exes.”
The 15-minute short premieres at the Toronto International Film Festival this fall. It screens as a part of Short Cuts Programme 05 at the Scotiabank Theatre in Toronto on Sept. 10 and 16.
The drama, adapted from Kayt Burgess’s novel, Heidegger Stairwell, focuses on Evan Strocker, a trans male who’s reuniting, quite awkwardly, with former bandmates years after he’s abandoned the group.
A few of the rockers fail to recognize the person standing in their midst in the Danforth Music Hall dressing room, while others are nonplussed by Strocker’s presence.
“The realities of being in a band are pretty grubby and emotionally charged and really hard,” Levack says, referring to this early scene in the film. “I think having this idea of rock stars before they play a show, but are breast pumping and arguing about the craft services … it’s kind of funny.”
However, Levack – who co-wrote the screenplay with actor Steven McCarthy – had some trepidation when it came to her, a cisgender filmmaker, telling a story with a trans male protagonist. She says she was disarmed when she realized that there were hardly any trans male actors working in Canada and very few Canadian films dealing with the subject.
“For so long, the only trans roles were always played by (cisgender actors like) Hillary Swank in Boys Don’t Cry, or Jared Leto in Dallas Buyers Club,” she says, naming two films that also premiered at TIFF. “It’s so much more empowering and exciting to see somebody you’ve never seen before on screen.”
We Forgot to Break Up marks the arrival of not just a new storyteller, but also an appealing new actor. Trans actor Jesse Todd gives a thoughtful, sensitive performance as Strocker, whose experience is as much about a physical transition as an emotional one.
Todd and Levack’s familiarity with the subject matter helps the story, which is told in just 15 minutes, ring true. For the filmmaker, collaborating with Todd helped her consider some of the assumptions she had about the protagonist.
A significant portion of the film’s dialogue also came from discussions and improv sessions with Todd and the short’s Canadian cast, which includes Sofia Banzhaf, Cara Gee and Mark Rendall.
The variety of acting approaches among the principal cast was one of the biggest learning curves in the filmmaking process, Levack says.
“Part of being a director is knowing how to deal with different personalities to get what you want,” she explains.
Beyond her directing, as well as screen and journalistic writing, Levack is a fixture of the Toronto arts scene. Her popular Feminist Live Reads series – which re-casts popular movies with gender-swapped or female-dominant casts – is still going strong.
Next up for that series: a reading of Romy and Michelle’s High School Reunion, as part of Toronto’s Just for Laughs festival on Sept. 29.
The writer/director is now developing a feature-length film with Zapruder Films. Levack says she is hoping to shoot it next summer.
As for what she learned on set, a great deal of inspiration can come from being both a decisive leader and open to new directions.
“It’s amazing to be really adaptive and fluid, and feel what people are feeling on set,” Levack says. “It’s actually your feelings and vulnerability and your emotions that make you strong (as a director), as opposed to having the most knowledge about everything.”