Pooya Mohseni and Lynn Chen in See You Then
Kris (Pooya Mohseni) and Naomi (Lynn Chen), two women who haven’t seen each other for a long time, meet one evening for a catch-up. it’s a familiar enough scenario, but complicated by several factors. Years ago, before Kris transitioned, they were lovers. The relationship ended abruptly, leaving Naomi with a lot of questions and Kris in the dark about at least one crucial issue. Life since then has taken them in different directions. Can they now be friends?
See You Then is a bittersweet drama with moments of bonding and moments of cruelty of the sort only really possible between people who are or have been in love. Meeting up with Pooya, Lynn and director Mari Walker ahead of its première at South by Southwest, I asked the latter why she chose this subject for her first feature-length film as a director.
“I've always wanted to direct,” she says, “ever since I was in high school. But most of the scripts that I've written are so big that they never would be able to be made by a first time filmmaker. So I really wanted to spend my time focusing on a chamber piece between these two performers. I wanted to really dig into the nuances of directing the actors, and dialogue was one thing I didn't feel was my strongest suit at the time. And then at the time, I was going through my own experiences of coming to terms with the choices I had made: the consequences of transitioning, and work life balance struggles and all those things, and they sort of coagulated into the script. And then I started writing it.
“And then the characters, as they do, care about it and it starts to elevate and become their own thing. We really start to fall in love with them, because they're wonderful, but at the same time for the sake of drama, you know, you have to run their lives and punish them.” She laughs. “So really it was just a wonderful opportunity for me to work with performers and be able to sculpt these characters into something that hopefully became liveable and readable.”
How did the actors find their way into those roles?
“I got an email from a casting office in L.A. about Mari,” says Pooya. “When was it? Two years ago, three years ago?” She glances at the others. “Time has come malleable. Yeah, right, saying, ‘I'm reaching out to you on behalf of Mari Walker.’ And there was a letter attached that Mari had written to me saying where she had seen my work, and that she liked my work, and that she wanted me to play this character. And my first response was ‘Is this a joke? Somebody’s playing a joke.’ Because I mean, how often this has happened that you just get an email from somebody like, ‘Oh, please be the lead?’ But then when I realised that it was real, and when I read the script – and I probably will say this to the day I die – the first time I read it, I felt there were moments that I couldn't breathe. As I was reading the dialogue, I could feel the characters’ pain and anger and darkness.
“That was my first step into it. Also, it was the pitch package. So I also knew who were the other people who were possibly being considered or were considered for the role. But I was very grateful that I got it. When I came to L.A. in December, I believe it was December of 2019, to do the chemistry reads with the actresses that had auditioned for the role of Naomi, and Lynn was the first person - you know, in that moment, when we did her first read – just having her opposite me and seeing her vulnerability, there was this part of me that just felt like, ‘Oh, my God, this will be so wonderful.’ And so that's how we kind of got started.”
Lynn nods. “I received a series of sides and the script, which is how I receive most of my auditions. And I remember when I read the description, I was like, ‘Oh, this is intriguing.’ And then when I read the script, you know, I usually know right away if I want to be a part of something, and I knew right away about this something. Not only that I want to be a part of that - I'm going to fight for it.
“I went in and gave it my all for the audition. I wrote a letter to Mari afterwards telling her just how much it meant to me. I was filming another movie simultaneously, so I wanted to make sure that I wasn't filming on the same day that we were going to be having callbacks. And I also wanted to make sure that I had enough time, because it is so dialogue heavy, to be able to prepare the callback scenes in a way that I felt reflected how much I wanted this part. So that's part of the reason I reached out to Mari as well. And then when I met Pooya and had my callback, I just felt really invested in the story, and in telling the story with these particular people. And I also felt like the story was much more important than me being a part of it. So there was a part of me that was just like, ‘Alright, I've done everything I can, and I'll just let go. And if Mari decides someone else is better suited to tell the story, I give her my blessing.’ And you know, I let go. And luckily, that didn't happen. She didn't find somebody else. So I was grateful that I was able to be a part of it.”
I note that I like the fact that the film has a trans character but isn’t just another transition story, which we see a lot of these days – and also that it depicts a life in which most of the tragic things we hear about over and over again haven’t happened, because sometimes everything is actually fine and trans people just get on with their lives like anyone else.
“That was very important,” says Mari. “For me, I think that we're just starting to scratch the surface of the amount of stories that can be told within the queer community, and particularly within the trans community. I made a very conscious decision very early on that we wanted to tell the story not about transitioning but about post-transition, and about how one comes to terms with one's own history and past. I think that that it also lends itself to a level of universality
“A lot of transitioning stories that are not made by queer filmmakers objectify and sort of deify these individuals, and I think that the truth is everybody is just as flawed as everybody else. Everybody has baggage, everybody has history, conflicts, problems. And I think that that is important. We're not all that different. Just because she's trans doesn't mean that she hasn't the same levels of pain and regret that Naomi went through in her own life.”
“That is the third thing that I loved about this story,” says Pooya, “and I don't even want to say it's a trans story. It's a story about two people, one of them happens to be trans. It doesn't change the humanity of it. It's kind of like, you know, if it's a story about two women and one of them has had miscarriages, you wouldn't say that it's a miscarriage story. We would say it's a story about these lives, and it happens to revolve around this particular experience. But when it becomes about coming out, then the whole movie becomes about wait for it. And it usually goes the same way. Either the person becomes a victim or they lose their livelihood or some violence happens. As I joke, you know, like dead trans prostitute number three at the beginning of some procedural show, but this character wasn't anybody's victim. She was not a villain, like a lot of the other side of trans representation being somehow psychotically unhinged, because that is also not the case. It's not real.
“These people are real. The transitioning, yes, is the focal point, but it's just an experience that person has had in their life, which has been a great experience. And the way it was dealt with in the storyline, the way that it was directed, and how the story flows, to me as a trans person, as a trans advocate, as an actor, I felt that it was built with love, and care, and humanity and compassion. And it did not fetishise and it did not deify that experience, it showed two people and how they deal with each other and the experiences that they've had.”
I mention that I like how the film addresses the different ways that people can fail to be perceived as ‘real’ women in society. issues around having children and issues around race as well.
Pooya nods. “That was very important to me, because when you get to a marginalised group and how they're represented, you can end up with monolith, with one type of storyline. And that storyline keeps getting told over and over again. But in this case, here are two women of colour. One is of Asian descent, and the other person is of Middle Eastern descent. What they've gone through with their backgrounds, their relationship to motherhood, to being a woman, what kind of woman do they want to be? What does it mean to be a woman? It just pushes the box of how can these particular characters be represented? And how have they been represented? And also, opportunities for how can they be represented in the future.”
“Something about my character that I really loved,” says Lynn, “is that she was such an academic feminist back in the day and had all these ideas about who she was going to be. And then once she entered the real world she found herself not aligning with a lot of these ideals. And it's only when she reconnects with Kris that she remembers all of what it was and is embarrassed by it. And I can definitely relate to that. I feel like there are a lot of things that are in our heads, and then when you put them into practice and into into your everyday life, you suddenly are questioning ‘Who am I, and what do I really believe in?’ And there are certain people who bring that out of you, and there are certain people you want to bring that out of you. And we're not always lucky that those people remain in our lives.”
The encounter in the film makes her reassess her lifestyle, I suggest.
“Yeah, definitely. Yeah. And I think everyone can relate to that of, you know, this former version of yourself, these ideals that you have for yourself, and when someone from your past comes and questions all of that you suddenly feel like you have to make a choice. I can definitely relate to that a lot.”
It is a very emotionally taxing film, a very intimate film. How did the three of them work together to manage that and the strain that comes from working with that kind of material.
“It's an antiquated phrase, I suppose, but I always did feel like every film was like a horcrux,” says Mari. “It's like a little piece of your soul stripped off. I think that happened during one of our big, emotionally intense days. I just needed a moment.” She looks at the others. “Something that I hope that we were able to give both of you is just the space to be able to tackle those difficult moments, because they're hard enough to write but they're even harder to be able to perform. And to be able to perform time and again, take after take with the same incredible intensity that you both brought to so many of the scenes that required it.
“It was taxing, and it was taxing for the whole crew as well, but we all cared so much about getting the story right that I think that sort of transcended that. At least for me, it transcended the challenges and the pain that we were going through because I knew that the work that was being put onto the screen was so palpable and powerful and unique. I felt that confidence even though it was very challenging.”
“ I will just give you a visualisation of the more intense scenes,” says Pooya. “It was like, okay, you're going to have a boxing match of your life. And as actors, we're like, ‘Oh my God, please let me be miserable and devastated!’ And you know, it's like, completely screwed up in this scene. But they're like, ‘Here is the ring, we'll just make sure that everything around you is perfectly padded. And here's your water, and here's your snack. Now go in there and beat each other up, ruthlessly, emotionally. Enjoy that.’ You know? You knew that everybody had your back.
“And now you just have to go there and be the thing that you knew was coming, be completely open, be completely raw, be completely vulnerable, which again, it's an actor's dream to be able to do that kind of stuff. And knowing that you have everybody’s support, that they’ll give you the space, they’ll give you the time. They were there to guide you when you needed guidance. When you have that support, you just know that you can do whatever feels natural.”
“My hope for the film is that it'll allow the audience to take a walk for a mile in someone else's shoes,” says Mari. “To be able to understand these characters and these experiences. And I hope that it will be a part of a larger scale of trans representation and post-transition stories that come out over this next period of time. I'm just really excited about the future of cinema, and the future of all these things.”
Her own immediate future, she says, will involve working on some of those scripts that were too big for a first time director but might be viable for her to shoot now.
“I am really happy to be helping to promote these movies,” says Lynn. “I'm also in a movie called Pooling To Paradise and another movie called A Shot Through The Wall. And another movie called Paper Tiger. They're all doing the festival rounds right now and I'm still actively promoting my own directorial début, I Will Make You Mine. I was at South by Southwest last year. I just feel like, you know, movies have a long life and they take a while to find their audiences. So anything I can do to help that. And then as a filmmaker, I've been writing and staying busy. There's nothing that I'm planning to shoot anytime soon. I'm just sort of taking my time and I'm in the dream phase and that feels really good, to just be creating and creating from a place not of fear, but of just dreaming.”
“I love this movie and I can't wait for the audience to see it,” says Pooya. “Also, being in New York actor, as theatres are slowly starting to move up out of the darkness, there's a project with a mostly queer team. We're doing something at the Women's Project, which is a project that I have worked on and it was one of those very community oriented things. There’s my own short film, In Transit, which again is tackling the trans experience from a different point of view, or one of the most important things in my life is my role as an Iranian American trans advocate, and how I get to be there for my community, allow them to fully realise themselves and know that they're not alone. Whether it's panels, whether it's speaking at events, where it's writing articles, that is really what propels me forward. Everything I do really comes from that that I may be the first Iranian American woman of trans experience [in the film industry], but I will definitely not be the only one. Whatever I can do for people that come after me, that is really my life's goal and ambition.”
See You Then is screening at South by Southwest today.