Director/writer/actor Eric Schaeffer, whose latest film, Boy Meets Girl, is being shown at the Tel Aviv LGBT International Film Festival, which runs from June 9-16 at the Tel Aviv Cinematheque, is accustomed to being an unusual guy.
Early in his career, he drove a cab in New York, “And people were always asking, Are you the only English-speaking cab driver in New York?” Now, he’s taking part in an Israeli film festival, and says, “No one believes I’m not Jewish.” Growing up on the Upper West Side (full disclosure: Schaeffer and I were high-school classmates), “everyone was Jewish, and I felt Jewish,” but his mother’s maiden name was Macdougal.
Not all the directors whose films are being shown at the LGBT festival are Jewish, of course, but most of them could be described by one of the letters in the festival’s title.
Not Schaeffer. “Say that I’m predominantly straight, with an asterisk,” he tells me.
So how did this very urban director, who has made comedies such as If Lucy Fell starring himself, Sarah Jessica Parker, Ben Stiller and Elle Macpherson, end up directing Boy Meets Girl, the story of a transgender young woman in a small Kentucky town? “Things just pop up in my head, and I thought a lot about the theme of exploring what it is to be a real man, emotionally, sexually, in family relationships, spiritually...
And I thought the quintessential character to explore this theme with would be a transgender girl, with a straight guy buddy, and I imagined all the romantic and sexual relationships they all get into. And this would be a way to illustrate the challenges we all feel in our identity. It was very much in keeping with this theme,” he says.
Although he has usually taken the lead role in his own films and television shows, and has worked as an actor in other people’s work, he decided it wouldn’t be appropriate for him to appear in Boy Meets Girl (although he has a cameo as a cop).
"I needed a fresh perspective, and I couldn’t do that and play the lead character,” he explains. “I like people to act as little as possible, so not only did I think a transgender girl would bring the most organic wisdom to the part, I also would be giving her a role in a climate where sadly transgender actresses are not offered nearly as many varied female roles as they should be."
His search for such an actress took him to YouTube, where “up popped Michelle Hendley,” the actress who got the part. Hendley, a cosmetology student from Missouri, had documented her ongoing transition from male to female on a YouTube video diary. Schaeffer had found his lead.
“She looked the part. And clearly, she wasn’t frightened of the camera and was not frightened to share her story with the world.”
Hendley was not only his lead but functioned as a consultant for Schaeffer on whether his script made sense, and if it might be offensive.
“I didn’t want this film in any way to feel like a straight filmmaker’s idea of the transgender experience. I vetted everything through Michelle. She shared that a couple of lines could be unwittingly offensive, and felt like a certain joke... wasn’t authentic.”
But otherwise, Hendley gave the script a thumbs up.
“It was extremely close to her feelings and to many of the circumstances of her life.
She had grown up in the South, where I had set the script. It was important for me to put this story in a small-town setting in the South, because I wanted to turn every stereotype on its head,” he says. “With a transgender girl in the South, you might think people would be against her. But Michelle is from Missouri. I said, ‘Did you get bullied?’ and she said, ‘No, basically when you look like this you don’t get bullied in high school.’ It’s a cliché but if you’re good-looking life is easier for you, guys want to go out with you. They might not say it publicly, but they do.”
The film has been warmly received and Schaeffer is busy traveling the film-festival circuit with it.
“We’re going to 15 film festivals,” he says.
Schaeffer, who has made nine feature films – starting with the semi-autobiographical 1993 comedy, My Life’s In Turnaround, which Janet Maslin of The New York Times called, “a scrappy, low-budget comedy with lots of insouciant charm” – and several television shows, including Starved and Gravity, is used to living the life of an itinerant indie filmmaker.
“The good news is that it’s easier to get films made, but the bad news is that it’s harder to make money from them,” he says.
“I’m at an interesting place in my career. I’m not a hot young kid out of film school. I’m in the middle. And the middle is not sexy.”
When I tell him that Boy Meets Girl is very sexy, Schaeffer smiles. “It’s certainly not going to please everybody. But I just decided I was going to go for it.”
For more information about the festival and to order tickets, go the website at http://www.