“From This Day Forward,” a documentary by Petoskey native Sharon Shattuck, is an exploration of her father’s transition after coming out as transgender and her family’s journey toward acceptance. It is above all a love story, a touching and intimate portrayal of a family that stuck together and the Northern Michigan town they live in.
We were able to speak with Sharon about her filmmaking process, and what insight she gained into her father’s own story while making the film.
When did you know that this was a film you wanted to make? Which of your parents did you first approach about making the film, and did they have any reservations about it?
It’s been a long journey. I knew that I wanted to make this film back when I was in Journalism school. My undergrad was in Botany, I was at the University of Michigan and then I volunteered in Panama with the Smithsonian Institute, and then I did some work at the Field Museum in Chicago assisting a Tropical Botanist. At some point, I wanted to use my communication skills and my art skills more. I started making short projects about transgender people in New York City. And I was profiling different people, and was happy to be working in that area, and talking to people about their experience, and I was inching towards wanting to make this film.
But I assumed my parents wouldn’t let me make this movie. They’re very private; they’re not looking to be activists. They live in a small town in Northern Michigan and don’t want the exposure. So I didn’t even talk to them about it for years, and just worked on other people’s projects. Eventually, I asked my dad if I could make a short piece for The New York Times Op-Docs video. And Dad said “sure,” so I started interviewing Trisha, my dad, who it turned out was really comfortable talking about everything. And that’s when I thought it could be a longer topic, but I had to really run it by my parents and it took a few years of me interviewing my dad and not really making it clear that I wanted to make a feature film. Just sort of running it by them and asking “how do you feel about this and could I interview you?” At first my mom said “no.” For like a year, my mom just didn’t want to talk to me, she’s so shy and I don’t think she wanted to be on camera. I think after awhile, after seeing how comfortable Trisha was with it and how it was a good thing – we were talking about things we hadn’t talked about before, I think my mom came around. And when she finally sat down with me I was so nervous… But it was fine, I told my parents they could always tell me if there’s something you don’t want to talk about. They never did, they never said “stop talking” or “don’t ask that question” or “turn off the camera.” They were really open.
How much of your parents’ story, your father’s specifically, did you know going into this project?
I didn’t know that much. I think when I was younger I wasn’t ready or willing to put myself in Trisha’s shoes. I was struggling so much with getting by in high school and middle school, but I just didn’t have the maturity to understand where Trisha was coming from so I didn’t ask that many questions. I didn’t even realize – the whole painting thing being a diary, that was completely new to me and it makes so much sense now, but the idea that all of these personal events were tied up in the paintings, I had no idea. And I feel like so much of Trisha’s personality is in those paintings, and there was a huge part of her that I didn’t understand.
Do you think growing up in a household where your father’s art was such a crucial part of her expression, that this influenced you to follow your passion in filmmaking?
Yeah! It’s funny, I’ve always been, I’ve always felt like I was more of my mom’s daughter in that I was always pursing science for a long time, and until grad school when I went towards the documentary side, that was the first time where I really was like “oh, I can be an artist too!” And now what I’m trying to do, I do a lot of communication of science, so this film is a little outside of my normal wheelhouse. But I love focusing on personalities and people, and so even if it’s science-based I’m trying to focus on interesting stories.
The film paints a very intimate portrait of your family. To what extent did you decide to focus on your family alone, compared to feeling any obligation to represent the transgender community as a whole?
That’s a good question because a lot of kids of LBGT families, the kids feel this pressure to show that everything is fine. And it is fine, you know, we’re just like any other family in so many ways. A lot of the time we don’t want to talk about anything that’s negative at all because there’s so much debate about whether LGBT people can even have kids that we want to be like “we’re great and everything’s completely perfect!” and it is a little difficult to bring up some issues that aren’t completely perfect. I really struggled with that movie, there were earlier cuts where I didn’t touch on anything that was sad or dark, and in the end I worked really hard with my editor Frederick Shanahan and producer Martha Shane and we came to an agreement that it’s better to include that stuff, it makes you understand what life is like inside a real family, in a more real way than the glossy superficial portrait. But it’s difficult because you don’t want to give anybody any ammunition against LGBT families. I don’t think that anybody who sees the whole movie would ever feel like they could use that as ammunition, but it’s always a concern.
Arguably, this has been a landmark year for LGBT individuals becoming a more vocal and accepted part of the cultural conversation. To some extent, all of you discussed how leading an upbringing in sheltered communities lead to a lot of frustration and conflict. Have you noticed that attitudes toward your family, and your father specifically, have evolved over the years?
I think definitely in the past few years, people are starting to use the word transgender even in small towns in Northern Michigan. It’s helpful for people to understand where Trisha is coming from. I know that a lot of people still won’t speak to Trisha at all, and will cross the street rather than acknowledge her, so unfortunately, it’s not like the whole town has come around. The people who know Trisha, it’s about 50/50 at this point, people who are friendly and who are really good dear friends and people who won’t have anything to do with her. It’s been cool this year just seeing the strides that transgender people have taken, but it’s a little slower to come in smaller towns.
Something the film discussed was finding the balance between being true to yourself with the responsibility of knowing that those decisions place a lot of stress on the people you love most. Can you speak a bit about that?
It’s tricky, I’ve talked with my parents about this a lot and there are people in the transgender community who I know would never do what Trisha did and who would by all means get a divorce. But this is Trisha and Marcia’s decision, it’s unique to the individuals who make it, whether to stay together or get a divorce. They made the decision to stay together because that’s what they wanted more than anything else. I just have to respect that and be in awe of it because I don’t know if I could make the same decision. But it is a balancing act and they do that every day. It’s compromise in a way, but I also think that anybody who’s married has these compromises with their significant other, all the time. It’s a dance, you’re always considering the other person’s feelings. And I think with my parents, it’s more visual, more apparent, kind of a dance. For other couples, it’s just less obvious.
Do you believe that this film is essentially a love story?
Absolutely, yeah. It’s their love story, Marcia and Trisha, and it’s a love story to a place, in a way. I love Northern Michigan, and despite the scrutiny that my family receives, there are a lot of great people there and they’ve found a great community, and it’s a beautiful place. Sometimes people in the [film’s] Q&As will ask “why not move away, why not move to a city?” and it’s because they love it up there! I think that LGBT people have a right to live outside of cities and shouldn’t feel like they have to move to an urban center as soon as they come out of the closet. I really think that most people in our town have been really wonderful to my family.
Katy Gwizdala is a Michigan native who currently lives in Brooklyn, NY. You can find her arguing with friends, colleagues, and her cat about all things pop culture. Follow on Twitter @katygwizdala.