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About The Production
Not long after the premiere of her third feature, Angels Crest, at the 2011 Tribeca Film Festival, Gaby Dellal began mulling an idea for a new film. First in New York and later at home in London, she came across a variety of people who were raising children in the context of the "modern family," in which a parent, grandparent or child might be gay or transgender. Their stories about their experiences with their adolescent children got her thinking: what is it like to raise a teenager in a culture that is in the midst of a wave of change in attitudes about sex and gender, decades after the sexual revolution of the late 1960s and early 1970s?

Her questions ultimately led her to devise a story about three generations - lesbian grandmother, straight daughter, and teenager who was assigned female at birth but identifies as male - living under the same roof in New York City. "I was interested in three generations cohabitating in the same house with one of them knowing he's a boy," says Dellal. "I knew I wanted the grandmother to be in a happy long-term relationship, after having spent years in the closet because in her youth coming out wasn't an option. In contrast, her teenage grandchild is already out as a transgender boy and wants to begin to physically transition. The grandmother can't quite get her head around that idea, and in the middle you have a straight woman who is struggling to raise her transgender child as a single mother."

She saw the potential for humor as well as drama in a story about a family confounded by a situation they never expected to confront. Gender reassignment would be a catalyst for the story, but not its sole focus. Explains Dellal: "I wanted to make an entertaining, accessible film about family dynamics and the trials and tribulations of raising a kid within a close family unit."

She took her idea to producer Dorothy Berwin, who had produced Dellal's BAFTA award-winning film On a Clear Day. Berwin had been out of the film business for a few years and wasn't particularly looking to get back in. Dellal's pitch changed her mind. "I loved the story immediately; it was so heartwarming, funny and intelligent. I said, 'Okay I'm doing this,'" Berwin recalls. "Gaby's concept felt very 'now' in dealing with a serious social issue, but it did so in a sophisticated, thoughtful way that I thought could be very accessible."

Dellal and Berwin next set about commissioning a screenplay, seeking out different writers in New York and London. They wanted someone who could find the right tonal balance between comedy and drama, and they found what they were looking for in the work of Nikole Beckwith, a Brooklyn-based playwright who had been a member of The Public Theater's Emerging Writers Group. Beckwith's plays are fast-paced, dialogue-driven comedies about sad subjects: the death of a family member, abandonment, loss. "As far as theater, I write farces about your darkest fears. It's how I process," she laughs. "I like to take difficult feelings and difficult experiences and turn them into something positive that people can hopefully laugh at and laugh with. Everybody wants to recognize themselves in comedy. It's a beautiful invitation into any story."

Dellal and Beckwith began their discussions about the script and its central themes in the fall of 2012. As straight women writing about a family with a transgender child, they knew they had to do their research, consult and vet in order to tell a story that was authentic to the experiences of trans teens and their families. Their resources included individuals, organizations, documentary materials and, of course, the video blogs and other web materials created by and for the transgender community.

The fundamental goal was to write a story about what families look like now. That family includes Dolly and her longtime partner, Frances; Dolly's daughter, Maggie; and Maggie's trans child, who has shortened his given name of Ramona to Ray. "Every aspect of the family - having two moms, Maggie's single motherhood, Ray's struggle - that's our world today," Beckwith affirms. "I have LGBTQ friends and family, and I tried to do my best to also represent moments in their lives that I was privy to or a part of. The idea was to de-mystify a topic that's usually pushed toward a niche section of film by saying, here's one average American family. At its core, this story is about family, about identity, about love and acceptance. It's about all the questions that are central to any family, any group of people."

Beckwith wrote her first draft in the spring of 2013, and she and Dellal would confer via Skype for subsequent drafts, with Berwin weighing in. "We worked very closely together. I've never worked so intensively on a script, and it the most fun I've ever had on a project," the producer remarks. "The key was to find that balance between comedy, wit and drama. When you can go from one to the other, it makes it very accessible."

Producers Peter Saraf and Marc Turtletaub and their team at Big Beach were struck by the unique qualities of the screenplay, and took the project on. "We all loved the story, and loved what it had to say about a family in a particular set of circumstances," says Saraf. "There are these wonderful characters and with a great dynamic between them. Add to that the fact that it's a dramatic film that has room for humor, and you have the ingredients for a great movie."

He notes that by launching the narrative well after Ray has come out, the film gives the audience an emotional entry point to the story. "When the movie starts, a decision has already been made; a process has already occurred," Saraf comments. "We're entering the story at the moment in which one step needs to be taken. In the process of taking that step, the whole family is forced to confront their own issues, not just Ray. It allows the audience to come in and ask the question, what would I do? And that applies not only to a family with a transgender child, but to any family that has to deal with any kind of big issue: what would I do in this situation?"

The casting process moved with unusual speed, to Dellal's delight. "I've never really had a script where everybody's really enjoyed it and wanted to get on board so rapidly. But that's how it was with this one." Naomi Watts was the first actor to join the ensemble cast as Maggie, followed by Susan Sarandon as Dolly, Maggie's mother and Ray's grandmother; Elle Fanning as Ray; Linda Emond as Frances, Dolly's longtime partner; Tate Donovan as Craig, Maggie's estranged former boyfriend and Ray's father; and Sam Trammell as Craig's brother, Matthew.

Fanning found the script's approach as welcome as it was unexpected. "I was so happy that it's not a 'problem film' about being transgender. It's really about a family," she comments. "There's a funny, sweet scene after Ray gets in a fight. Ray lives in a house full of women and they've never had to deal with boy-type problems, so they have to learn how to adapt."

As a 16 year-old, Ray can't begin hormone therapy without the written consent of both parents. Fanning is the same age as her character, and could empathize with Ray. "It's already very difficult being a teenager, navigating through being young and finding out what you believe in and who you are. For Ray, there's an added layer because Ray was assigned female at birth, but knows he's a boy. And he's kind of fed up with everyone and feels it's time that something changed so that he can move along with this process."

Fanning took her responsibility to the character very seriously and did her research. "When you're doing a role like this you want to get it right, because it's a whole community," she acknowledges. "Gaby and I sat down and consulted with a lot of trans kids. We asked them, 'What was it like the first time you came out as being transgender? Do your parents accept it?' And they were so open with us. Adults will say to teenagers, 'You're so young. You're just a teenager. You don't know what you want. How can you make that decision?' But these kids know who they are."

Ray has no doubts about how he feels and what he wants. His mother, Maggie, however, is by no means as certain. As Watts puts it, "Maggie has focused all her energy on raising her child and has hidden from her own life in the process. She's smart and strong, but there's a sense that the challenge that lies before her is bigger than any she's faced before. She's made her decision and is on the warpath to help her child achieve the peace and happiness he rightfully deserves." Maggie also struggles to keep her mother from undercutting her parental authority. Ray is a bit in awe of his grandmother, Dolly, who has managed the careers of numerous jazz musicians and welcomed more than a few legends into her home. As played by Sarandon, the chic and sophisticated Dolly is very much the alpha member of the family. As the actress puts it, "Dolly heads the household in a very outspoken, sometimes indelicate way. She is creative, questioning, loving and narcissistic."

Ray doesn't expect his grandmother's opposition to his transition, figuring she'd be a natural ally as a politically liberal gay woman. But as Sarandon notes, "Being gay doesn't guarantee that you are on board with transitioning to another gender. Being gay is about sexual orientation and being transgender is about identity. I think Dolly speaks for all those who fear the hormone treatments and medical aspects of young people transitioning."

Dolly's partner, Frances, has no reservations about Ray's decision but chooses to remove herself from the discussion. To Emond, this speaks to Frances' role in the family. "With any family, people find their position that is helpful to make that dynamic work and go forward," she reflects. "It's clear there's a lot of love in that house and a lot of support for each other in that house. I think because Frances is just one step outside the biological line, it allows her to have some objectivity. I feel like she's a bit of a rudder in the family. She'll stay the course, and nudge people if and when necessary."

Ray's determination to secure hormone treatments sets in motion a long-avoided reckoning between Maggie, her former boyfriend, Craig, and Craig's brother, Matthew. Donovan first heard about the movie over dinner at Dellal's home in London; the two have known each since college. They talked about it again a few months later when Dellal came to New York, but Donovan wasn't aware there might be a part for him. Then he got a call to read for a part in a new film directed by...Gaby Dellal.

After a long estrangement, Craig's first encounter with Maggie doesn't exactly go well. "Craig is completely blind-sided when Maggie shows up. He's sort of forgotten about that family, and is living in a comfortable suburban bubble. And from his point of view, that bubble is rudely burst," Donovan comments. "Some people might consider Craig a 'bad dad.' But I empathized with him completely. He went through a real trauma in his relationship with Maggie and wasn't treated well."

Donovan researched transgender youths and hunted down interviews with kids and their parents. A radio documentary about transgender teens and their families was particularly enlightening. "One parent was saying, 'I was against the whole idea. I mean, who wants to sign off on having their child, at a very young age, changing their gender? But if your kid is suicidal, and deeply, deeply unhappy with the way they were born, then what are you going to do? You've got to save your child.' That's the thought process that Craig experiences. He goes from thinking Ray is too young to be making decisions about himself to accepting it. And Elle's performance really helped me make that transition. She just connected to that feeling of 'I'm doing to die if this doesn't happen.' It was really powerful."

Throughout the development of the project, Dellal had also been in touch with numerous trans teens and their families. As they prepared for production, the filmmakers consulted with GLAAD and The Center in New York City. To prepare the film's team, an advisor from GLAAD spoke to the cast and crew about the experience of being trans, what it means to be transgender, and how it is distinguished from sexual orientation. Explains Saraf, "We tried to get input from as many different people as possible as to what we were getting right, what felt authentic, what we might change and what didn't feel real to the experience of trans kids. You don't want to simplify or whitewash it, but you want to make sure you're being as realistic and authentic as possible."

About Ray filmed for 25 days from November-December 2014, in New York City and Westchester County.

The film's primary location is a multi-story 19th century house on Stuyvesant Street in New York's East Village. A steep staircase is the only means of access to the various floors. Curiously, there are two kitchens, one of them on the top floor - this became Maggie's kitchen. Dolly and Frances occupy the first two floors, while Maggie and Ray live on the top floors, which were made to look more dilapidated than the lower floor. Says Dellal, "I was very keen to have a situation where the house is very narrow and cramped. This house felt not too big, not too grand and there was a certain amount of dishevelment, which was good. The central staircase is a nice metaphor for Maggie's life. She climbs these endless stairs to the top of the house where she hides."

The production crew emptied out the home and brought in the furniture, artwork and other pieces of decor. The state of the rooms depended on which characters occupied the space. Explains production designer Stephanie Carroll, "Dolly and Frances' space is all freshly painted; it's minimally furnished because Dolly is a very tasteful person, and the art reflects her life in the jazz world and her interests. As you climb the stairs, the house gets a little more decrepit. Gaby and I wanted it to look run down - Maggie never planned on living here her whole life, so she hadn't put a lot of time into it."

Costume designer Arjun Bhasin was able to envision the characters' wardrobes just from reading the screenplay. "The characters were so fully fleshed out, so real, that it didn't call for much design beyond what was on the page," he recalls. "Maggie's wardrobe is indicative of her state of mind, so she's always kind of messy and thrown together. Dolly is very much the grande dame so she's got very chic, almost vintage look.

Throughout the film, Ray skateboards around the city, and Fanning's wardrobe reflects not only Ray's male identity but his allegiance to skater culture. Says Bhasin: "Ray wants to be a boy and be just like everybody else. He wears oversize men's trousers, oversized baggy shirts, sweaters, flannel shirts, and the same yellow boots every day. It's a very contemporary, street, East Village schoolboy look."

On set, collaboration was welcome, says Emond. "We all were given great freedom to pipe in, as is the case in any good creative environment, so that you make the piece better and truer and move it forward. One rainy night, all five of us women, including Gaby, were in the car at a gas station in Pleasantville, New York, after shooting too many hours. We needed to film the scene, but there were certain things that we all had questions about. For maybe five or ten minutes you're in grumpy-land and suddenly you come through the other side and the scene is a lot better. And everything is better. It was just a great experience."

A lot has changed in the world since Dellal had her first thoughts about a film about a family with a transgender teenager. In fact, quite a bit has changed since the film wrapped in December: the U.S. military announced that it will consider allowing transgender people to serve openly; The New York Times launched a dedicated op-ed section covering transgender issues; Caitlyn Jenner captured the world's attention and won admirers with her transition to female; a transgender man became the leading contender to be the cover subject of Men's Health magazine's annual Ultimate Guy contest; and "Transparent" won the Golden Globe for Best TV Series. As Saraf notes, "What was unimaginable in terms of the global conversation happening around transgender issues, even eight or nine months ago, is now very much in discussion. It's fascinating and wonderful, and it allows this movie to enter into a very dynamic conversation, which is exciting."

His thoughts are echoed by Sarandon, who has a long history as an activist, and was an early ally of the gay community as it confronted AIDS in the 1980s. She expects that people may recognize their own thoughts and feelings when Dolly expresses dismay and bafflement over Ray's choice to transition. "When Dolly speaks her objections, she gives voice to those watching who have those reservations. But when Dolly comes around to the realization that the person she loves is not changing, only the 'details,' that's important. We are more than gender, age or color."

Dellal hopes audiences will recognize something of their own lives in the story of this modern family. "Every family faces challenges in raising children. This family unit is working to understand gender identity, but for other families it can be something totally different. I'd love people to feel that the emotion and intimacy of this family is relevant to their own set of circumstances. I hope people leave the cinema feeling grateful for their family."


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