North by Current is not the typical documentary film. Directed by Angelo Madsen Minax, the emotional epic feels like it’s going to be a personal examination of Madsen’s trans masculine experience and the way he relates to his family. But once he turns the camera on those around him it becomes clear that the family has more complicated issues that must rise to the top of the narrative. First of all there’s the economic recession that his hometown still has not emerged from, a landscape of addiction and conservative religion. And as much as the family has been dealing with Madsen’s transition for 12 years, the larger issue that looms over them is the death of his infant niece and the incarceration of his brother in law for her death. The name of the film really represents the progression of the story. Madsen takes us north to Michigan but once we’re there we have to follow the current of the story.
I met Madsen at the film’s world premiere in Berlin. OK I met him virtually since no one actually went to Berlin, and I have been anxious to talk to him about the film ever since. I caught up with him just before Tribeca to discuss what it’s like to ask your family those questions that you’ve wanted to ask for 12 years.
Hammer to Nail: Did you expect this film to be what it was when you started? Because I think when you make a documentary, you have to give yourself over to the void a little bit, and the unknown of what’s going to present itself. I mean, what are some of the ways the project changed as you worked on it?
Angelo Madsen Minax: When I started working on it, I was a little bit more interested in rooting it in a sort of overt abolitionist stance, thinking more critically about rural white masculinity and my hometown. At one point in time the town was its own character in the film. I have thought about it in a sprawl of more personal and less personal ways. The way it ended up being super, super personal, was not always –
HtN: Super personal.
AMM: Yeah. But, I feel like at the end of the day, that made the most sense for it. I mean, it really became, as we continued filming and asking questions of each other and learning more about each other, it really just became a story of interconnectedness and our relationships more so than it was really thematic. I mean, in hindsight, I feel like that was probably true the whole time. But I had to position it for my own self and being able to move through it, I had to position it as a sort of like, “Okay, I’m going to explore these themes, these ideas, these topics that I’m politically drawn to.” But of course, obviously, if I’m thinking about rural white masculinity, I obviously can’t separate myself.
HtN: Right. It’s almost, it becomes a dangerous project. Like there’s a little bit of self-therapy, but there’s also a little bit of potential self-harm in diving that deep into what it means to be you.
AMM: Yeah. I mean, that’s an interesting way to put it. I haven’t thought about it that way, but…
HtN: I mean, some people are very like, “Oh, I have lived my life and I know where I am and I know exactly how I feel and how I got there.” Right? And I think those people would not have a whole lot of trouble making an introspective film and have it affect them. But there’s another thing of not only do I not know how I feel about these things that I’m about to dive in, but I don’t know how my family feels about it. And I’m asking them to deal with this in relation to me. I mean, you’re essentially inventing what’s going to be a bunch of mini conflicts that you’re going to have play out in film and spend time in.
AMM: Yeah. I mean, I will say risk, it’s risky. It’s risky to open shit up and kind of not know where the pieces are going to lie. But I also I’m really good at not over-planning what something’s going to look like. I wasn’t writing the film before it was made. Footage tells you what it wants to be, what direction it wants to go in. And it’s your job to follow what the footage tells you.
And I think part of the ways this film is really different from a Hollywood narrative is if you had a documentary about family conflict it would be like, ‘Oh, before they rejected him and didn’t understand him, and now they understand and embrace him and love him.’ and it’s not that it’s not like one to the other, it’s like back and forth the whole time, which is the way real life is. There’s no lack of love at the beginning, I feel like the fact that my family was willing to engage in this from the get go sort of demonstrates straight up that there’s not going to be a huge amount of conflict. Because otherwise, it would not have unfolded so easily. Like, I show up at home and I’m just filming everything. Because there was already a semblance of trust and love and care and consideration. So, even though we have all these ways in which we don’t understand each other, that was never a missing piece. And I think even though there is this kind of transformation of understanding, there’s not this neck jerk transformation that happens.
HtN: Yeah. You do sort of open the film with like a series of microaggressions, which I’m wondering how many people notice, if they’re not attuned to it. But for me, I was like just cataloging them. It’s like the landscape. It’s like that establishing shot of the city, which you also give us. But you’re giving us sort of an establishing shot of the family. Can you tell me a little bit about what you thought going into the project in relation to how your family was going to interact with you –
AMM: Yeah. It’s interesting, it’s full of microaggressions. And I feel like those aren’t things you can make up. They are just there. And the thing that is interesting about it is that I feel like I understand those microaggressions better than I ever have. And that doesn’t necessarily make me happy. You know what I mean? But it does complicate the fabric of my relationship and my sense of understanding where they’re at and what they’re thinking and how they’re processing those things. And I don’t know, there’s an interesting moment where my mom, like middle way through the film, misgenders my nephew as well. I think that only shows up one time in the actual rest of the film, but she actively in her life is sort of mis-gendering everyone all the time now because she’s –
HtN: You broke her.
AMM: Yeah, basically I broke her. It’s really funny. But I feel like I have a little bit more space for her lack of…not lack of awareness of pronouns, but she doesn’t…We might put a lot of weight in pronouns, but she kind of doesn’t put a lot of weight in pronouns. So, I mean, my sense of understanding there is a lot more nuanced than it was at the beginning. It’s not like those microaggressions are gone, but they’re just…they’re shaped a little bit differently.
HtN: I think what is really strong about it too, is it’s clear that they love you and accept you, and yet they still have those. And I think that’s actually a good thing for people to see. Because it’s like, look, it’s a process people are learning.
AMM: Totally. And also my family has been in that process for 12 years. You know what I mean? This is not like a new thing.
HtN: I mean, it’s easy to move into the documentary because you’re giving us those guideposts of where we are. I remember when you first told me about it at Berlin and you were saying, “It’s a very experimental documentary.” I didn’t even know what that meant. I didn’t know ––
Madsen: I don’t really know what it means either.
HtN: Right. When I started watching and I was like, “Oh yeah, this is what that means.” It’s about this, but it’s not about this, because it’s about this. And also, it’s about the town and I’m going to give you all this. I love when you pulled us out of the room and showed us pictures of the river and talked about the area. And just in general, you’re setting us up for like, “This story can only happen in this place.” But maybe the more specific it is, the more universal it is.
AMM: I think there’s something really interesting about the hyper specific actually getting broken open and being completely understandable. And yet there’s so much universalness at the same time. I think it’s a great window into access points for people and creating semblance of how you can kind of understand another experience that’s so different from your own, but actually the nexus of it is completely universal. It’s like, everyone has to deal with kind of where they came from. There’s no way around it.
HtN: Yeah. Now that central scene that’s at the diner that becomes such a touchstone. At what point in your filming process did that happen? How far were you into making the film and then at what point did you know that it was going to be sort of like the linchpin of starting the conversation?
AMM: Yeah. That scene happened really early. It’s chronological. I went and stayed with my parents for a month in the summer of 2016, no, 2015. Yeah. I was editing Kairos Dirt in my bedroom in my parents’ house. I was between jobs and I didn’t have a place to live. So, I went and stayed with my parents for a month, as you do when you’re an adult.
HtN: Yeah. And editing. I mean, it’s a good time to do it.
AMM: Yeah. So, I holed up there and I was editing, but I was also dipping my foot into the shooting a little bit during that summer. That summer of 2015 is when I started shooting. And the shooting I did around that time, there’s not a lot of it in the film. There’s mostly landscapes and stuff like that. But that was just to see how people would feel with the camera around, get used to it, me get used to it. It felt really awkward at first. And then the time after that, that I shot for real and intensive production style was the following winter break. So, winter of 2016 was the first kind of more extensive shooting where I did lots of interviews. And that’s also when I shot that diner scene.
HtN: How aware were you in the moment when you were sitting there that this was going to be the scene to essentially launch?
AMM: I mean, I’d had the scene…the scene came to me, this is so stupid. But, the scene sort of like floated to me, like a vision. When I first imagined the film, I was like, “This is the opening scene of the film.” And in the edit for a long time, it was the opening scene. And I got a lot of complicated feedback about it being too vague to be able to ground anyone in the film. So, I shifted a little bit. But in my brain, I was like, “Ah, open clouds drifting, camera drops down to this sort of snowy diner facade. We’re all walking in, this scene gets reenacted.”
So, I had it as, it was a sort of a key visual marker for me. But at that point in time, I was also thinking about lots of different reenactments and other ways we could sort of revisit experiences. I think it becomes pinnacle because I didn’t know that it would be referenced later, in the way that it is. And once that happened, it definitely sort of earned its role in the edit.
HtN: How did your family feel about the idea of reenactments?
AMM: They were into it. I mean, they were into it. The first thing I wanted to do, actually, when I pitched this film the very first time, was I wanted to get actors to play my family members. And I wanted my family members to each direct their own actor. And obviously that takes a lot of money and I just didn’t have any money. So, that’s that.
HtN: That’s such a different project, you could still do that.
AMM: Totally, yeah. But I was like, when we decided not to do that, it transformed a lot, it took a different shape. I think they were not super aware of the fact that we were doing a reenactment. When I’m working with people that will be on screen, and not just my family, I try to keep it as simple as possible. So, there’s not too much like back end thinking about necessarily needing to understand deeply the concepts and why this is happening or whatever. And part of that is because I don’t know what’s going to happen later. I don’t know if I’m going to be end up actually exploring those concepts or not. But I basically was just like, “Hey, I want us to sit down in the booth like we’re going to have lunch and I’m going to film it. But you don’t have to pretend like the camera’s not there, it’s going to cut, so it’s clear that I’m holding the camera and then sitting down with you. How do you feel about that?”
AMM: And I mean, the song is not playing in the diner when we’re filming. That’s put in later. But that song was on, in the memory that I’m referencing. So, it wasn’t like I made them do a full like, “Now sit through this painful song.” You know what I mean? We just sat there for a minute and I was like, “Just be quiet for like 10 seconds.” I mean, I don’t know how deeply aware they were. And it became clear to me later that none of them remembered the song being on the jukebox in the background, which is why I was like, “That’s so fucking weird. Did I make it up? Did I dream it?” I’m pretty positive I did not, because I was like, “This is so weird right now, this song is on and we’re sitting here and not knowing what to say to each other.”
HtN: The question I always like to ask everybody who makes documentaries is how did you know you were done? Because you could film forever. So, what was the moment when you’re like, “I think I’ve got the film, I just have to put it together?”
AMM: I’m not sure. It’s a really good question and I think sometimes people have really definitive answers. I feel like it took making most of the film before I realized that it was way more personal than I ever expected or intended it to be. And then I think once I realized that, then it was sort of like oh, no holds barred. Like, that’s the meat. Once I actually got really honest with myself, I was like, “If I’m going to use …” I said this to myself, “If I’m going to use this as a transformative tool to have more meaningful relationships with these people, then I need to ask this one question.” I feel like asking the question at the end was really when I was like, “Okay, I’m done now, mic drop, movie’s over.” I can ask the question that keeps me awake at night.
AMM: And even though I didn’t get an answer that I liked, it was still like, “Okay, fine.”
HtN: Sometimes that is your answer.
AMM: I can take that, yeah.
HtN: Yeah. Yeah. So, when you did have that realization of what it was about and how personal it was going to be, does that make you change sort of how you thought about the first part of filming it? I mean, was there anything you wished like, “Oh, I wish I had figured this out earlier and then I would’ve done this differently.”? Or does it all get wrapped into its part of the process?
AMM: No, I think it’s fine. I mean, I think part of what allowed me to actually go there with the more personal stuff is that I wasn’t withholding in my early interviews. Even though I didn’t think that stuff was important at the time, the interviews were very conversational. And I was also talking a lot about, even with my brother-in-law, there was a lot of back and forth talk between us during that interview. And I get to use that to springboard directly to the more personal stuff pretty easily. It’s a film that’s sort of like peeling an onion, it’s like a rhizomatic structure that kind of unfolds on its own terms. So, because of that, I think you start somewhere, you end somewhere else. And you don’t necessarily need a bookend or a reference point, the way you might end something a little bit more linear.
– Bears Rebecca Fonté (@BearsFonte)