INTERVIEW: 52 Tuesdays director Sophie Hyde talks Sundance hit

The Australian film 52 Tuesdays, which won the World Cinema Dramatic Directing Award after its U.S. premiere at the 2014 Sundance Film Festival, will be released in the U.S. on March 27. The film follows 16-year-old Billie as her mother announces plans for transition and their relationship becomes limited to Tuesday afternoons spent together. 52 Tuesdays was shot every Tuesday for one year with the actors given scripts one week at a time and only including the scenes they were in to create an authentic experience of the narrative unfolding.

Are you in NYC? Well, you're in luck! Tonight, there's a screening of the film followed by a Q&A with the director, Sophie Hyde, conducted by GLAAD's Senior Strategist Dani Heffernan, at the School of Visual Arts Theatre. Click here for more information.

GLAAD's Video & News Strategist Claire Pires talked with the director, Sophie Hyde, about how the idea for the film came about and why she chose to explore the relationship between a parent transitioning and their daughter. Check out the interview below:

How did you get the idea for the film?
My co-writer, Matt Cormack, said to me one night, "I think we should make a film where every Tuesday for a year, two people meet, and we film every Tuesday, only on Tuesdays." I remember the rest of the crew looking at him like "This is a crazy idea!" But, there was so much silence in the room because, I think everyone felt some kind of potential in that idea. So, the idea of filming only on 52 Tuesdays came first.

For the characters and story, we worked closely together inside a film making lab, and we looked at why we wanted to film over that period of time and what we were interested in, and that came down to a few things. One was we wanted characters who embodied the promise of change. And they needed to be characters who, we felt, were familiar but not necessarily people who we see a lot of on screen.

How did you prepare for the film and tackling the transgender themes in particular?
We explored gender a lot. Before I decided to make the film, the idea of gender and the rigid structure around it that is imposed on all of us is something I feel is rife with conflict and problematic for many people.

In terms of examining the experience of gender for different kinds of people, we read a lot of blogs, very personal blogs, and what's amazing is how specific people can be in that space. So, I think we were looking for a range of experiences in gender. Not just trying to uncover the same experience our character has, but we wanted to understand it in a broader context of people who might identify very differently.

We were working with Del Herbert-Jane, our actor, who identifies as gender non-conforming, and that's a very different experience from Del's character, James, but also there's some similarities in terms of what they share. They share the experience of being treated differently to how you might feel yourself. We talked with a lot of people. We also worked with a psychologist in Melbourne who examines identity with her clients.

We knew we needed to have this really good knowledge behind us, but we also needed to focus on who our character was; the memories, and not just the part of him that was trans. We wanted to make him a very specific character that was dealing with very specific situations.

I had a father who was openly gay and was from the time I was really little. For me, I think of that as a great privilege. I had a dad who was very much himself. And showed me who he was in every form. He wasn't trying to hide one part of himself as something that was separate from being a dad. For me, he, as my dad, and he, as a gay man, were all part of this one whole. And I think it's a really beautiful gift to give to your child to show them who you are in the entire context. And it's something that I think, as a parent, is a challenge to work at how to do that and when to do that and what's appropriate for your life. That's what I started looking at in the story. As a child, when do you meet your parent as an adult for the first time as a real person? As a parent, when do you show your child who you are in a full context? In the whole package?

What were you looking for in the casting process that led you to cast Billie and James?
I was speaking with Del as a consultant on gender diversity. It just organically felt like maybe Del could play this role. So, that was a very natural gentle process.

For Billie, we did some open auditions. We put out the call on Facebook and got a bunch of teenagers to come in from all over the place. We'd play games and stuff like that. What was interesting about Tilda Cobham-Hervey is that she was sixteen, and she was this precipice of shifting and changing, and really delving into that and on top of that, she was a very collaborative, exceptional creator and she worked very closely with us on the story. And she creates her own visual art and performance work. She was a wonderful discovery. Once we found her, that's who we wanted. But, she was quite different from our character. She was very nervous that she was not forceful enough, not grounded enough, not sexual enough for the role. So, she shifted the role a little bit, but that became the part of the process of uncovering who that character was for us. And it was wildly exciting.

James is dealing with a lot of complex and sometimes contradictory emotional pulls over the course of the film. What informed how you chose to depict his emotional arc?
This idea of the promise of change was very important, and it particularly related to James, who has a huge amount of expectations about his life and what will happen to him when he makes the decision to present as a man. It was a great challenge to tell a story when so often the focus is on the physical. For us, we wanted to touch on the physical but actually acknowledge that the emotional part of the story is easily the most important for that character and the other characters.

Changing how the world sees you and finally doing that has a whole other list of ramifications for you. James is a funny character. At the beginning of the film, he creates a very rigid structure. He puts a box around the core relationship in life, which is with his daughter, Billie. We needed to keep that in play, so it makes him a rigid character. That was interesting to work with. A character that was black and white in many ways. He is black and white in that he says, "I feel like a man, and I need to reflect that in my life," so for us it was about that character uncovering and slowly finding all the parts of them again to see that there were a lot of parts in their life they had to reconcile.

When we started making the film, we thought we'd see the story from both the mother's and daughter's point of view. And as we started to make it, we felt it needed to be told from Billie's point of view, because with the Tuesday meetings, we didn't have access to the rest of James' life. To tell that world, we needed to tell it from Billie, who was coming into those Tuesdays each week.

How does James' arc relate to Billie's arc and her exploration of her own sexual identity?
For Billie, we wanted her to not start out the film from the point of shock or pain or being angry about what her mom wants. But from a place where she wanted her mom to be happy, and she was upset that her mom didn't want her around for this change, because we felt there are a lot of children like that now in the world that are pretty good kids and they want to understand their adults in their lives.

In terms of the arc, I feel that Billie sees her parents who she thought she knew really well, and she discovered she doesn't know some things about them, and I think she's afraid she won't work out who she is for a long time, as well. And so she sets out quite explicitly to uncover who she is and what she wants. She is a bit afraid, so she gets in these experiences with these friends at school to try and uncover who she is. But she's driven by a need to say who she is so she doesn't get to thirty-eight-years-old and have to re-examine that.

What is the significance of the news segments that happen as transitions between the weeks?
When we made the film, we shot every Tuesday, but we weren't going to mark every Tuesday. But we needed to explain the timeline for these characters and the fact that while this one story is going on, all of these other things were happening in the world at the same time, so we chose news clips.

The news clips also follow a series of rules. They had to be things that happened on the Tuesday that we shot or events that were published online on that Tuesday. We wanted them to be a mix of natural events and really important news things and really strange little moments that go on in the world. You have this emotional core of the story, but you also see the world keeps going. It gives a little nod to time.

What message did you want to portray through the bites you specifically chose from the montage of transgender people telling their story to James in San Francisco?
It was important for James to get out of the small town and remember he was part of a greater community. We went over and interviewed lots of people. What we discovered in all of our research was the diversity of experiences were so strong and the specificity of what people went through was so strong. We just wanted to remind audiences that what they see upfront isn't always what's going on for somebody. To show that there are people who are living brilliantly after deciding to show who they really are. We also met Monica, who is the young woman whose father had transitioned when she was seventeen, and it was such a strong parallel to our story. It was a chance to raise some ideas of what Billie was doing from the real world.

What kinds of responses have you received from the film and was there one particular response that stood out to you?
What I get told the most is that the characters in the film are familiar characters of people we don't get to see very much of. They feel like people you know. That's great praise for me. What we uncovered is that the film plays particularly well to LGBT audiences, and also to young people whether LGBT identifying or not.

We have this companion project called "My 52 Tuesdays," and it's a free app and every Tuesday, Tilda sends a question to everyone on the app and everyone answers the question by taking a photo of their answer and it's this beautiful thing where every Tuesday around the world, people answer questions closely linked to our film. Questions like, "What does desire feel like?" or "What would you tell your mom right now?" Everyone responds to that question on the tuesday but over the course of their year you see a range of responses - a portrait of their year.  It feels like the conversation we started with the film keeps going. (NOTE: Today's guest questioner on the app is Desiree Akhavan who created Appropriate Behaviour and is in this season of HBO's Girls.) More details here.

Why did you juxtapose James' transition and Billie's sexual experiments, and did your goal to juxtapose the two change as you were filming?
The stories are all part of a whole for me. I don't see gender and sexuality as the same thing by any means, but I think when we're uncovering who we are, we see the elements that make us up and sexuality is one part of it, and Billie is exploring that but not only that with her friends. She is exploring the general idea of what she wants in her life. It all stems from what works for you and how to treat other people in that context. She's sixteen so that sexual part of her is going to flourish in the film no matter what we do. For James and Billie, they are both coming of age stories. They are uncovering who they are. I never thought of their stories as explicitly gender identity and sexual identity. It was more about identity. Billie's is instigated by James'.

What are your goals for the film moving forward?
We've had this amazing run of playing the film at all of these film festivals around the world. The film did incredibly well. We released in Australia already, which was thrilling. And it's released in various other countries. So, now we're focusing on the U.S. which is where the conversation about non-traditional families, gender, and sexuality are the strongest in the world. So I am really excited that it's opening there. And what you want for a film like this is to be part of that conversation. And you want people to use it as a way of thinking about their own lives and the lives of people around them. You also want it to work purely as a story. I think it's important that people see different people on screen. All I really hope is that people see the film and want to talk about it.