Summer Solstice took me by surprise when I first saw it at BFI Flare LGBTIQ+ Film Festival back in March. Fresh and funny, simple, but never slight, this meditative indie summer film explores the coming-into-oneself of Leo, a trans man navigating post-transition and the early stages of an acting career, and his relationship with old friend Eleanor, who knew him pre-transition and hasn’t seen him in some time. The film speaks with a voice that feels wise beyond its years, whilst openly admitting that it doesn’t have all the answers and doesn’t always know what direction to take.

That voice belongs to Brookyln-based trans-nonbinary artist Noah Schamus, a first-time feature filmmaker with a background in docufiction hybrid shorts. That filmography is evident in the warm metatext that Schamus weaves through this arrestingly sensitive tale of finding where you fit and where you perhaps no longer fit.

With the film now opening this week in theaters, beginning at IFC Center on June 14, we spoke over Zoom about consciously shifting the focus in trans narratives on film, their love of Rohmer, empathic storytelling, and the power of hybrid forms in filmmaking.

The Film Stage: It’s interesting to be interviewing you about Summer Solstice when it’s so much a film about misreads and mismatches and wanting to be understood as you meant and as you are. So I hope I’ve read your film and understood your intent with it somewhat correctly. I’d like to start by asking a little about your filmmaking background and history that led up to you making your first fiction feature.

Noah Schamus: In my first year of undergraduate I was feeling kind of lost about what I wanted to do with my life. On a whim, I signed up for this film noir class taught by professor Carol Donelan. She walked us through film noir of the 1940s in particular. It was an incredibly eye-opening experience of understanding the power of visual culture and the way in which it’s reifying certain norms, it’s pushing against them. It just completely blew my mind. From that point on I knew I wanted to be a filmmaker.

And since then I have been. In college I made films with my friends; then I went to grad school to study filmmaking, screenwriting, and directing. I’ve been making films in various ways and various scopes since I was about eighteen. Summer Solstice came out of feeling ready to tackle a feature and wanting to talk about what it means to come of age again––and again and again––specifically in your late 20s.

Could you elaborate on those creative seeds of the project?

Me and my New York-based friends: we were feeling trapped in these extended adolescences, not really knowing who we were, how we wanted to be in the world, continuously figuring it out and taking each other along for the ride in a lot of ways. With the film, I wanted to explore friendships that you’ve had for a long time that maybe no longer fit as comfortably.

Buried in all of that as well, I wanted to tell a post-transition trans story, and one that also had a chance to meditate on, chew on, and then push against some of the tropes that have become customary for the idea of what it means to be trans in the world and trans onscreen, and to embed that into the structure of the film as well.

How did you discover Bobbi (Salvör Menuez) and Marianne (Rendón)? The grey-area chemistry between the two is incredible. It really sparks.

I’m obsessed with them; I think they’re both incredible. I’ve known of both of their work for a long time. They were both people that our amazing casting directors and I were very excited about; we sent them the script and they were both pretty on board. The chemistry thing was truly just them being wonderful, because we were supposed to have a week of rehearsals, but then––in some permutation––all of us got sick the week before and the week during rehearsals.

We had a 45-minute Zoom call before we started shooting. And I was like, “Whoa, this is going to be a tough shoot.” But when we got on set they were both completely on it and completely in it. So I’m super-grateful to them. 

That must have brought an immediacy to their performances. Was everything ultimately as scripted, or were some elements devised as the two got into the material?

Everything was scripted, but I would say to them, “None of what I have written, it’s not Shakespeare––if there’s anything that isn’t working for you or anything that feels like it would work better, let’s include that.” We didn’t do a ton of improv on set, but there were a fair number of moments where one of us would say, “Should we try it a little differently?” It was wonderful to feel somewhat loose about the dialogue.

I love the dynamic that you’ve got here of a trans person coming more into themselves and, simultaneously, their cisgender friend observing that and feeling comparatively stuck in themselves. It’s humanizing of both of them. You’ve made a human story foremost, rather than a ‘trans story’ necessarily.

I think that I’ve always been drawn to telling stories about––I think this is maybe a little lofty––but stories about our shared humanity, the ways in which we’re all sort of messy and figuring it out forever. I wanted to prioritize telling that story. In the last few years there’s been this wonderful explosion of trans filmmakers telling trans stories that are off the beaten path of what we, in the last 15 years, have thought of as trans stories.

I was wanting to be a part of this loosely defined cohort of trans filmmakers who are flipping the script around trans stories. I’ve been wanting to see the kinds of films that these folks have been making, and wanted to make a film that is focused on what it means to be a person and being trans as a part of that. Ultimately we are all made up of many, many components and I wanted to focus all of them.

In the film, Leo says of a potential role that “it’s nice to have a character that’s not just talking about transitioning the whole time.” I think that’s what I find most refreshing and surprising about Summer Solstice: it feels impressively everyday. It’s a trans character whose experience is informed by his transness, but––as you’re saying––you don’t limit him to that facet and that facet alone of his life within the film. We do seem to be in a moment of shifting the conversation. 

As you were saying that, I realized something about what I’m drawn to, as a film viewer and as a film maker, which is often these sort of “inside baseball” stories. I love All That Jazz. I love 30 Rock. [Laughs] Like, I’m just pulling out all these little peeks behind the curtain of the Hollywood machine where––to go back to my 18-year-old route of becoming super-interested in film––the human beings who are behind these films are imperfect and working through all this messy personal stuff, and then that’s coming out in their work, their production, their output. And I didn’t go fully “inside baseball” with [Summer Solstice], but I think that I really wanted to find a way to bring in a little bit of that acknowledgement of trans representation in film through a character who’s an actor.

And I think that’s probably because I’m obsessed with All That Jazz. It’s not a one-to-one, but I think I was really wanting to create a character who is able to meditate on his goals as an artist, and then more largely about what has been available to him as an actor. And then, yeah, bringing in sort of insider / outsider discussion about trans representation. 

I think those metatextual elements in the film are really effective. The opening scene challenges expected trans film modes. Because you’ve got that monologue to camera, but then you pull back and remove the artifice and the didacticism. Then it’s the script reads, the film text within the film, that strip away the characters’ barriers and reveal their emotional truths. I think your history in making documentary hybrids is evident in how you approach this. To me it feels like you’re questioning the spectator and challenging our preconceptions.

It’s a very kind reading. I think my hope is to invite people in without being like “you were wrong about trans representation,” more “I’m inviting you to be aligned with this character who is having these feelings and experiences” and for them to hopefully see both sort of the specificity of his relationships, of his desires, and also be able to more broadly be like, “Oh, either I have had a sort of similar coming-of-age experience or I can sort of relate to it.” I think challenge is maybe the right word, but also what I hope is that it’s an invitation to reconsider. The hope is to have a kind of gentle humor that allows people in. 

I love how you explore different wants and attachment styles in relationships. It feels a film that is both very introspective and is taking an external view on people. It’s a very emotionally intelligent film. It’s your tempo and your approach to characterization that really set Summer Solstice apart.

I think part of that is loving Éric Rohmer and then also having a background in post-production and editing. So I was approaching a lot of the thinking about pacing and tempo and dynamics as an editor before letting myself see what happens on set.

Tell me about the Rohmer influence. You mentioned that at BFI Flare and I’ve been curious to hear more.

I think that he does such a wonderful job of bringing people into these very quotidian, quiet moments of––I keep saying messiness––but these moments where his younger characters are trying to figure themselves out by making a lot of mistakes. Not to be too Hollywood about it, but the stakes are never that high. There’s this wonderful meditative quality.

He really lets the characters meander through their lives. There’s this way he uses the camera, a little bit pulled-back, to let us observe the full scene as people are moving in and out and looking at each other, glancing. I really appreciate the looseness and the gentle, observational nature of so many of his films. That was a big influence as I was starting to think about directing Summer Solstice.

I noticed some of those perspectival similarities. You also very much make it your own. I love the camera perspectives once we’re inside the house––we’re placed at these angles and levels that feel like objects on mantelpieces and pictures on walls. It’s a weird space, the summer home, and you capture that kind of strange, quiet otherness of it quite acutely. 

The cinematographer Jack Davis and I talked a lot about having the camera as much as possible feel like a third friend or an observer in the dynamic rather than trying to get into anyone’s subjectivity in particular for the most part. When we found that summer home we thought, “This is a lovely and strange space, so we’ll really lean into the angles and frames-within-frames and all that good stuff” because of our discussion about that observational nature of the camera and the weird architecture in that home.

Could you tell me about the process of the acting within the acting? You’ve got these scenes of Leo’s audition script reads where your leads do a really fantastic job of carrying through the characterizations of Leo and Eleanor, but simultaneously the characters that those characters are trying to find their way into. That’s surely quite challenging for a performer.

Yeah, I think I didn’t quite wrap my head around how challenging it was. It ended up not being a mistake, but I think it could have been. The second scene of the whole shoot was the first rehearsal-of-sorts that Leo and Eleanor have, where she’s giving him bad directions. As I was watching Bobbi go through doing the mediocre read and then the terrible read, I was like, “Holy crap.” Bobbi is doing all these hairpin turns that I had sort of anticipated, but not to the degree that they were taking them. I was blown away watching Bobbi handle it with such great detail. I really owe a huge debt of gratitude to Marianne and Bobbi for being able to track every day where their characters were and then where the characters that they were maybe playing were. They really were on top of it.

How long was the shoot at the house? How long did you spend there?

We had fifteen days in total. It was seven days at the house––that was their home base. Then four days for the exterior woods, and then we were in Brooklyn for the rest of the shoot.

In one of the film’s funniest lines, Eleanor suggests that she’s perhaps “queering heterosexuality.” It’s a hilarious notion, but in a way it’s adjacent to what you’ve done with this film, because you haven’t started from a typical kind of queer mold. It’s fresh and original, and also, I think, quite approachable for any audience. I’m curious how you feel the film might play outside of LGBTQ+ circles or how important it is to you for your work to be seen beyond those.

My hope is that I would like it to reach many people, and I hope that queer audiences really respond as well. There were two filmmakers that I was looking at: Nicole Holofcener and Kelly Reichardt. I guess they’re quite different, but I think both of those filmmakers really do a wonderful job of exploring these small moments of change for their characters. I think these small moments of cracking open for their characters were a big inspiration in my thinking about Leo and Eleanor.

Nicole Holofcener speaks to the Upper West Side-specific experience in New York, but I think that her films reach all people who have ever felt neurotic at any point. I’m maybe just speaking for myself and my milieu, but I hope that Summer Solstice can speak to people who are also continually grappling with what it means to be a person in the world and a friend and maybe an artist or an adult. I hope that it can reach lots of different people, even if the specificities of these characters are quite specific.

Kelly Reichardt obviously is quite different from Holofcener, but there is something about the seemingly small moments between characters that shift something within the characters and their dynamics with each other that goes largely unarticulated by the character themselves. That was also quite inspiring.

I want to ask about the climax of the film, or rather the lack of a climax in the bedroom scene. It’s nonetheless a release for the two characters, of the tension and confusion between them. There’s an unexpected vulnerability and emotional honesty to it that elevates the film. Did Solstice always end this way?

Yes, the film always ended with the “non-climax,” as you put it. This kind-of-terrible sex scene. But the first draft or two, it was like, “This is the end of their friendship and this is the worst thing that could have ever happened. It’s terrible. They’re very sad, the resolution is basically that they’re no longer friends.” It’s not funny in the first draft.

I reread that draft when I was thinking about edits and realized that this isn’t the world that I want to live in. This isn’t the friendship that I’m hoping to represent. I want there to be this sort of grace note that even though they do the most chaotic version of forcing a change in their dynamic, I want that to actually be sort of a relief for both of them and an opening for them to enter a new place of vulnerability within themselves and with each other.

The film feels very considered and conscious in its depiction of intimacies. Thinking on that scene especially, you’ve worked with an intimacy coordinator on this film. It’s curiously evident. It feels a very post-intimacy coordinator film, and I wondered if you could elaborate on that vibe I got from it.

Yeah, I like that––”post-intimacy coordinator film.” I think it was important for me to make sure that the cast had the support that they needed to be vulnerable onscreen, emotionally and then also in these intimate scenes. We worked with an intimacy coordinator named Joey Massa. They talked me through how to approach it. I think the thing that was the most helpful was this counting system where they broke everything down to the most basic physical maneuvers, so that it became less about this intimate moment and instead like, “Okay, how are we going to get from physical point A to physical point B?” They would count out the moments. And I was like, “This is so helpful.” I think that them creating this safe space during the intimacy scenes and giving me additional language to be able to talk about it was really wonderful. I’m glad that work was evident in those scenes.

I want to know more about the acoustic score by Margaux. Listening to it feels a bit like sitting in a hammock, if that makes any sense.

Oh, I like that. Yeah, Margaux is this wonderful musician that one of our editors, Chris McKee, is friends with. I was hoping that we would have a score that felt more like indie folk than a traditional score. This was her first time composing for a film. We would talk together about themes, variations on themes, building an experience for each character and giving them each a little flavor. She just really ran with it. And I’m super-happy that it felt like sitting in a hammock because I did want it to feel very cozy and summery and playful.

I read that everyone on the team was paid equally. That’s admirable.

We knew that, because of the budget, we would be capped at a certain pay scale. I wanted to break down some of the hierarchies that are built-in to both pay structure and on-set work. It felt wonderful knowing that everyone from the PA to the producers were all being paid the same day rate. That built in a feeling of open communication, being like, “Oh, we’re all making the same amount of money and we’re all here making this tiny indie film. We’re all on this team together.” There were so many talented crew members who were like, “I normally wouldn’t take this rate, but since you’re paying everyone the same, let’s go.” I was super-grateful that that equity and pay structure allowed us to collaborate with people who’d never been on a film set before and people who were real, real pros.

Can you tell us anything about your second narrative feature? And you’ve got a documentary feature in the works as well. 

The second narrative feature is in development, but I’m keeping a bit of a lid on it because it’s an adaptation. I’m pretty excited about it. And I’m using this summer to hopefully write some more. The doc feature: I’m collaborating with Jesse Miller, who was one of the producers on Summer Solstice and is now one of the producers on this doc, which is currently titled With Time. And I’m working with a long-term co-directing collaborator, Brit Fryer. I love working with both of them. We’re hopefully making a doc that follows a group of trans folks over the age of fifty as they come together to just do this devised theater workshop. We’re going to recreate and film the scripts they write from that workshop to bring in a hybrid element to the film. That’s beginning production in January next year.

What did the experience of making Summer Solstice do for you personally? Where has the film left you?

I’m so grateful that I got to make this film. Professionally, I’m really excited about sharing the film with wider audiences. Personally, I’ve always said that being on set is when I feel like the best version of myself. I’m the most-present, I’m the least-anxious, quickest to problem-solve, most communicative. All of the things I want to bring in my daily life click into place on set. There’s this real sense of calm I get. For the past few years I’ve always been like, “Oh, I’m just the best version of myself when I’m directing,” but I think through the process of making Summer Solstice I got to move forward with some of that feeling in my personal life. I’ve been able to incorporate that sense of being present. So I feel immense gratitude when I think about the personal changes that I went through and have been able to carry forward since making the film. I just love directing and I love being present and it’s been so great to bring that presentness into my personal life as well.

I love that the shape of what we’ve discussed here is much like the film itself. We’ve discussed the whole scope of your experiences with the trans aspect as just one facet. But I do want to ask what, in the current moment, excites you in the trans filmmaking space.

I don’t think I have the big takeaway, the narrative thread, but watching trans filmmakers––especially in the documentary space––use hybridity to meditate on certain trans experiences has been really exciting. There’s a formal inventiveness happening. Hopefully this moment feels a bit like New Queer Cinema, where people are pushing against what is possible formally in film to explode what it means to be queer and trans onscreen and in life.

Summer Solstice opens at the IFC Center on June 14 and expands to further locations in the coming weeks.

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