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Interview: Writer/Director Mari Walker and Stars Pooya Mohseni and Lynn Chen Talk Trans and Female Represenation in ‘See You Then’

March 31, 2021Ben MK

Catching up with a former romantic partner years later is usually an awkward experience, but it can also be a good opportunity to reminisce about days gone by. In See You Then, however, director Mari Walker uses the situation as more than just a storytelling device. A drama that had its world premiere at this year's SXSW Film Festival, the movie follows the reunion between a woman named Naomi (Lynn Chen) and her former partner, a trans woman named Kris (Pooya Mohseni). What follows, of course, is more than just your average dinner date, but rather it's an eye-opening look at the complicated issues facing those in the trans community today.

I caught up with Mari Walker and stars Pooya Mohseni and Lynn Chen to chat about See You Then, what the film means to them in terms of representation, and where the film industry as a whole goes from here.

Obviously, this movie addresses some very important and very topical subject matter. And I know it's also very personal to you, Mari. Where did the idea for the film come from?

Walker: My dream, ever since I was a sophomore in high school, was to direct a feature. But everything that I had written, up until this point, was just really far outside anybody's first-time filmmaking budget. So I felt it was incumbent on me to write a story that was a chamber piece, where I'd get to actually work with actors — which, coming from a documentary background, I hadn't had as much experience in. At the time, I was going through a lot of the themes of the movie — about what it means to be a woman, what it means to desire motherhood, what it means to try to find that work and life balance. And all those thoughts were rolling around in my head as we started writing. It became a form of art therapy. And then the characters one day just magically manifested themselves and came to life, and started speaking on their own like great characters do.

Lynn and Pooya, how did you both come to be involved in the film and what made you want to be a part of it?

Mohseni: I got an offer from a casting office in L.A. about two years ago, and attached was a personal letter from Mari saying that she had seen me in something and that she was working on a feature film, and that she was very interested in me possibly being the lead. So, at first, I honestly thought that somebody was playing a prank on me, because that doesn't happen very often. But then I read the script twice, and I had a visceral reaction to it. I gasped for air, I cried, I couldn't wait to see what happens with the two characters. So I knew that I wanted to be in it.

Then a few months later, I got to have a Skype session with Mari and it became very apparent that we both had similar visions of the character and what the story was about. They brought me to L.A. when they were doing the final round of callbacks for the chemistry read for the role of Naomi, which is how I met Lynn. And after the audition I was like, "I want her to be the person!" We were given the space to really embody and explore these characters — and if the movie's our baby, the whole village came together to give birth to it. I'm grateful to each and every person that helped us get there.

Chen: When I came in for the initial audition, I saw that it was taking place at Vanishing Angle, the same production company where I filmed a scene for my own directorial debut a year ago. So when I walked into that audition, I didn't have that desperate acting thing that I usually have — which is "Please give me the part!" — but more of a colleague vibe going with Mari. I was like, "Oh, we're both Asian American, female, first-time directors just trying to make it happen." And it immediately put me at ease. It's rare, because I've read a lot of scripts and I've gone on hundreds and thousands of auditions over the last couple decades. But when you find a project that's special you have to fight for it, and so I fought for it.

Was there a certain scene in the film that was the most memorable for each of you to shoot?

Walker: For me, the most fun I had on-set was definitely our second week. Because we were doing a 3 am to 3 pm schedule, and that sort of schedule is so crazy that everybody's brain is scrambled by the end of the week. So we were all a little punchy, and it was really great to cut loose and relax. Especially in preparation for that final week and that final scene, which definitely was the most emotionally challenging, but also the most rewarding scene that I've ever had the opportunity to direct. It definitely felt like there were times where part of my soul was being taken out of my body and put onto the screen. But at the same time, to be able to excise those emotions was just so incredibly rewarding. I felt liberated after it, even as exhausted as we all were.

Mohseni: I would second that bar scene. It was the second week, so we definitely found our rhythm. And we were indoors, so we weren't cold. The schedule itself — show up to hair and makeup at 2 am because you're going to start shooting at 4 — was a little challenging. But what we were going to do in that scene, how we were going to interact, that was the most joyous part of the story. And, like Mari said, there was the huge climactic scene, which is different. But this scene was fun scene to do. And it took a few days to do it, so it was great to be in that world.

Chen: I would say that bar scene was very cozy. But I do think that there was something about that day that we were filming that climax scene — that big fight. Knowing you're going to be doing something so huge and you're gonna be giving a lot of yourself, how do you take care of yourself and how do you do your job? And how do you do this without expending too much energy? So trying to find that balance, and then trusting and knowing that we could get there was a real breakthrough for me, as an actor. Because I don't usually find myself in situations where I'm able to really fully be both Lynn the actor and also Lynn the human being.

Of course, the 2021 Oscar nominations were announced recently, and for the first time we have two Asian directors and two women directors in the running. What does that mean for all of you?

Walker: Joy! [laughs] But I feel like these last few years in particular I'm starting to see a shift in what in what the industry in general wants to focus on, the stories that they want to tell. I think that we're heading into a time in which we're gonna see an insane amount of new voices and new perspectives that are gonna really blow the hinges off what we presume is cinema these days. I'm psyched about it, but I also know the pendulum swings back, and just as much as these things are happening now they could be taken away from us in a couple years. So it is incumbent upon us as artists to keep on pushing the bar. And to make sure that representation is a force to be reckoned with. That we're making that stuff happen, not only in front of the camera but behind it as well.

Mohseni: I feel that the audience is becoming more picky about where it is that they're willing to put their money. Because that's also what it comes down to. But [in regards to] the status quo — as it was predominantly a white cis hetero world — I have no illusions that the day of that has come to an end. It hasn't. But we've come to accept that that is not the only narrative. That it is not just the male gaze that can tell stories. People can go and will go and watch stories about communities that are different from their own. But just [the fact] that the two leads [in this movie] happen to be two women who are not white, who don't necessarily fall into the traditional cis hetero lexicon of storytelling, that itself tells me this story has never been told.

Now will this open a gate for many new kinds of stories, many new kinds of storytellers, many more trans directors and writers of color? I certainly hope so, but what that gives me is the impetus and the drive to want to keep driving it. So we continue to fight, we continue to tell the stories, and we continue to come together so that as many different kinds of stories can be told. Because the magic of cinema is not just to show us fantasy, but that it can also show us the reality. And the reality is much more colourful than it's been represented in cinema.

Chen: I'm just really going to enjoy this. Cuz I've watched so many Oscars and just been like, "We are so far from being invited to this table to eat. We're not even sitting at the kids table." I felt so rejected. And this year, not only are there people nominated who I'm friends with, but people are just part of my community. I'm just gonna think on that and and enjoy it. And not worry that it's gonna go away. Cuz it's been too long of that bitter feeling.

Last but not least, what do you want audiences to take away from the movie and where do we go from here in terms of representation on-screen?

Walker: I hope that they are able to walk a mile in these characters' shoes. That they will come away understanding that just because one characters is Asian American and the other one is Iranian American and trans, that they share the same challenges and life experiences that we all face. We've all felt guilty about something that we've said, we've all felt that a choice that we made a long time ago still echoes into our future. And I think that the power of cinema is the ability to take these diverse voices that we haven't necessarily heard before and bring them to the fore and say, "Look at us. We're not that different. It doesn't matter where you come from."

See You Then screened under the Narrative Spotlight section at the 2021 South by Southwest Film Festival. Its runtime is 1 hr. 14 min.

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