CHICAGO — Somewhere in a Neverland-type realm located outside of an urban center, gender-ambiguous characters roam free, constructing their own sexualities, identities, social rules and families. Far from any sort of utopia, a concept that has been popular in queer theory circles and is perhaps best known by Jose Esteban Muñoz’s 2009 text Cruising Utopias: The Then and There of Queer Futurity, the world portrayed in Madsen Minax’s film The Year I Broke My Voice incorporates select scenes and moments from 1980s coming-of-age films such as Stand By Me, The Outsiders and The Year My Voice Broke. It expands and plays with the social construction of adolescence through a cast of characters that have agency and knowingness about the world around them. This sort of sideways growth emphasizes notions of perpetually “becoming” rather than a linear model of growing up. The characters in Minax’s film defy notions of adolescence as a time of confusion and irresponsibility. Here’s a closer look into Madsen’s fascinating film, The Year My Voice Broke.
Alicia Eler: How did the story come to you? What were your inspirations for the film?
Madsen Minax: In addition to the three coming of age films from which the script is directly appropriating, I watch a LOT of science fiction and fantasy films, and am sort of obsessed with the idea of the reenactment, the nostalgias it triggers, and the idea of having a re-do in the face of the idea that you can never go home, there is no home. Those two ideas are at odds with one another. Also I’m pretty disinterested in visualizing utopias, which have been a queer hot point for the last 10 years it seems. Heterotopias (or perhaps homotopias!) and dystopias are of more interest to me.
AE: Where did you shoot the film? Were you in Gary, Indiana? Tell me a bit about why you chose the location you did.
MM: A lot of the more iconic images in this film were shot in Gary, and some surrounding towns, like Whiting. However most of the interior scenes were shot at different locations around Chicago, some in Evanston in a building I had access to, some in the basement of my apartment building in Rogers Park, and some of the exterior shots took place on the North side, near New Trier High School. I was predominantly searching for sites that felt kind of a-temporal, or places that seemed to have been forgotten by time. Science fiction, dystopias, industrial wastelands, etc. . . had a lot to do with my choices regarding location.
AE: The way the characters roam about without any parental supervision makes me think about a sort of queered Lord of the Flies type scenario in the context of a small, rural-ish town; there are no rules in this place, and the culture of the place just evolves as the characters grow. What other books or films were you thinking about when you wrote the script for this?
MM: I have a huge fetish for coming-of-age films. Especially ones that I saw growing up that lead to my understanding of how growth happens. Most of those initial understandings have been totally refuted by now of course! But at the time they were completely formative. The script was composed in a collage format, by adapting scenes from three coming of age films: Stand by Me, The Outsiders and The Year My Voice Broke all made between 1982–1987 and all very tonally similar. The title of my film, The Year I Broke My Voice, is a play on words (and agency) with this last source title. I knew most of the scenes I wanted to work with because they were the scenes that spoke to me as a kid watching these films. I printed out the scripts for the scenes I wanted to work from and literally spread out 50 pages of script throughout my apartment floor, just cutting up pieces here, and single lines of dialogue there, and moving pages back and forth until I found a narrative (sort of!) that resonated with me, and felt reminiscent of the tones generated by the source films.
AE: I was thinking about Oli Rodriguez’s The Shaving Project that he worked on at the ACRE Residency last summer. Together with artist Steven Frost, the two shaved and cut the hair of residents who were willing.This makes me think about the scene in your film where the two boys semi-violently cut one another’s hair. Can you talk about the haircutting ritual in relation to transmasculinity, or just to the characters in the film, or to adolescence in general? Or all of the aforementioned.
MM: That scene was lifted from The Outsiders, and in that film the scene is in the context of disguise. The characters, Pony and Johnny, have just killed a person, and are cutting each other’s hair in attempt to shift their appearances. There’s no murder that happens in my film, so void of that context, this scene takes on other undertones, such as the rituals of growth, masculine growth in particular. Honestly, this film was so much about making choices based on affect for me that I didn’t lift this scene feeling like it spoke to transmasculinity, but just that it was so beautiful. The violence, the subtle transformation, the negotiating of the body, and the intimacy all play into that aesthetic.
AE: The Year I Broke My Voice has such a different focus from your last film, Riot Acts: Flaunting Gender Deviance in Music Performance … how did the switch occur? What led you away from a more documentary style film about trans musicians to something that is purely about constructions of boyhood, adolescence (I know the boys are preparing for middle school, right? So they are all about 12-years-old-ish in the film?)
MM: I don’t know how “real” artists work, but for me, pretty much everything I’m working on is reflective of a position I’m in, or working through in my life. During the time I made Riot Acts I was in a touring band, making records, doing documentary focused non-profit work and thinking a lot about how hormones would affect my own voice. Also the collaborative nature of my work on Riot Acts with Simon Strikeback, who isn’t an artist (persae) but an organizer and activist, made that format more of an appropriate middle-ground for us. With The Year I Broke My Voice I was just finishing grad school, had had the last year to delve back into more of the theoretical underpinnings of my practice, much of which having to do with notions of home and lackthereof, as well as transformations and liminalities, for example the space between childness and adultness.
I don’t understand The Year I Broke My Voice as something that is “purely” about boyhood. I know that is a complicated idea that might not totally get flushed out, but… the actors and I had a careful understanding of the elements being explored in this film, and one of those ideas was to understand that yes, much of the source material was intended to be understood as being about boyhood, but that the ideas presented in these source films, specifically those of coping with trauma, developing non-normative familiar structures, exploring sexuality, negotiating death, etc. could and do transcend the simplicity of a masculine-feminine construct. All of the actors in this film are trans and gender variant, and were instructed that they could portray these characters in whatever way feel good and interesting to them. My directing in terms of how the actors wanted to interpret and understand their own characters was very subtle if present at all. Simply because they were reading lines that were originally read by a masculine character, didn’t mean that character stayed masculine all the time. I’m also quite interested in how age functions. I’m not trying to hide the fact that these actors are adults portraying children, even though how they are being read age wise is varied, perhaps because transness (and queerness) suggests slippage in how age is being interpreted. The source characters are around 12–15, but the characters in The Year I Broke My Voice aren’t beholden to position their characters in this age range specifically.
AE: How long did the film take to make?
MM: One year from start to finish. We shot from November 2011 – March 2012. Then I spent the next six months editing and a few more months pulling together things like websites, and design stuff and a trailer. We had the first screening at the London Fringe Film Festival in the UK, in April 2013. I couldn’t be there, but was told the audience liked it. The reviewers had some other things to say. [Laughs]
AE: There’s only one visibly feminine-gendered person in this film; everyone else is androgynous or pretty boyish in nature. Why did you set-up the gender dynamics in this way?
MM: I touched on this earlier … There was a lot of flexibility in the ways these characters were developed. Some folks who identify as being on the more feminine spectrum were performing more masculine characters and vice-versa. Interpretation was open to the actors’ decisions. Some of them felt connections to these film sources from their own experiences growing up, and that definitely informed how they wanted to portray the characters.
Also, the lines of dialogue being delivered by actors weren’t beholden to specific characters of the source films. So for example sometimes Cat would read lines from the character Freya in The Year My Voice Broke, while other times she would be reading lines that were originally delivered by Emilio Esteves’ character in The Outsiders. This kind of crossover happened a lot, and made narrative constructions more complex and interesting for me and I think for the actors too.
AE: What are you working on now? What’s up next?
MM: I’m working on a few things. I’ve been working on a choral arrangement for a children’s choir, which is pretty much finished, the hard part is finding a choir to perform it. I’m also writing a new fantasy film script with my friend and collaborator Paul Kruse, we should have a full draft together by this fall. I’m wrapping up a short video installation project that I’ve been working on for that past year that I got a Warhol grant for in Houston, and I’m developing a live music performance to accompany video work by Jules Rosskam, which we will debut in New York this December. Never a dull moment. :)