Carmen Madonia as Ren, speaking about the role, she said: 'Preparing for the role completely changed my life beyond my career'
Something You Said Last Night follows twentysomething Ren (Carmen Madonia) as she goes, somewhat reluctantly, on holiday with her parents Mona (Ramona Milano) and Guido (Joe Parro), and younger sister Siena (Paige Evans). The film follows the family’s exploits over the course of the week as small dramas and moments of power play between the family members unfold. Although Ren is a transgender woman, the film is informed by her gender identity rather than being driven by it, which makes a refreshing change and marks out director Luis De Filippis, whose film is partially inspired by her own experiences, as a strong new voice in the world of independent filmmaking. The film has already picked up the Changemaker Award in Toronto - given for films that showcase a strong social message. I caught up with De Filippis and her star Madonia, who should also be attracting a lot more casting directors on the strength of this, to talk about the film ahead of its European premiere in San Sebastian.
First of all we chatted about the Canadian-Italian’s approach to the film, which has universal appeal and wears its themes lightly.
“I really just wanted to tell a story about a woman on vacation with her family, and she just so happens to be trans, but that's not at the centre of the story,” says Filippis “What is at the centre of the story is the family and the constantly shifting dynamics, I think there's so much meat to be found there just because I think family are the people who know you the best, which means they're the people who know how to love you, but also push your buttons. There's just so much to be explored there.”
And the director says she did draw on her own life to a degree when writing the character of Ren and her family.
“I definitely have a very close knit relationship with my sister and my family, my mom, my dad, my brother. And it's exactly that, like my sister and I could be laughing one second, and then the next second, I could be literally pulling her hair. I'm an adult, and we're still having these kinds of fights. And I think we always will. But there's something beautiful about that and very relatable.”
That relatability is all part of the film’s appeal. Unlike many films that seem to include trans characters specifically so that they can single them out and “use” their gender identity, De Filippis' film feels much more embracing in that it frames Ren as it would any other person, with her gender identity just one facet of her personality in the same way it is a facet of all the other characters'. I ask Madonia whether this treatment of the character was one of the things that appealed to her about taking the role.
Paige Evans, Carmen Madonia, Luis De Filippis and Joe Parro in San Sebastian Photo: Courtesy San Sebastian Film Festival/Gorka Estrada
She says: “I was really impressed by the way that she showed a trans woman and her relationships with family. So when I got the script for this movie what really jumped out at me is how much I saw my family and my own experiences with my family reflected in the script. At the same time, it was really interesting to explore the role of a trans person on vacation. I feel like so many times you see trans people on film, kind of really showing out, really glamorised. So it's interesting to be able to explore this role where a trans woman is really not in the public eye. She's really just relaxed around the family. It gave me a lot more confidence to approach the role because I didn't feel like I had to be that perfect glamorised version, I could just kind of strip away and let myself be myself and still, and still represent trans people.”
When it comes to self-perception, we see all the characters having moments of doubt, although Ren is the most self-confident.
“It's a little bit of a reversal in the film where I think, you know, you see all the other cis characters kind of having these insecurities. I think when you see Siena and Mona, they're both characters who do quite a lot. They like to vocalise how they're feeling, they like to take up a lot of space in the room. And, to me, that actually shows their insecurity a bit whereas Ren, I think, is a lot quieter of a person, she’s a lot calmer as a person and, to me, that comes from her being more secure about who she is. She's okay with not having to take up a lot of space in the room with talking. And she also knows how she wants to be protected and how she wants to stand up for herself.”
De Filippis cites a specific incident in the film where Ren and her mum take very different approaches to a fight between children they see in a parking lot. She notes Mona is “very fiery, feisty”, later there’s an incident in which Ren calmly deals with disrespect.
She ads: “To me, it's really important to see trans characters just being okay with themselves, proud of themselves. You know, Ren is not the one who ends up going to the beach with a T-shirt on over her bikini, it’s her sister.”
One of the things that sets the tone for the comedic side of the film is the choice of music, with a thick slice of Eighties Italian pop as the family head off to the resort.
“For me, it wasn't really a choice or an option,” says De Filippis “It was just like, that's what it has to be. I grew up listening to that music on trips to Florida or to the east coast. There's something very nostalgic, very joyous about it. And we spent a good amount of money on those songs. The production tried to be like, ‘There are other options’. And it was like, there are no others. This is it. So I'm really happy that they saw that as well and got that music in the end.”
The family dynamic achieved by Madonia and the rest of the cast is very believable, with them like a machine made up of constantly moving parts, sometimes reacting with a hair trigger at events while at others tuning out the other members of their clan completely, with mini dramas including a borrowed hat and a missing vape.
Madonia says that the family “is so real for the actors.” She adds: “I think we all could see parts of our own family in the story. But Luis also brought us up to set early, we got to stay in the resort as kind of a family and have some meals together and really just get to know each other. And I think that made a big difference to feeling comfortable. And it's not lost on me either that I have this awesome opportunity as a trans person to kind of meet my family after transition. So that was like such an interesting thing to explore, to build this chemistry with a family that we could really show an exceptional family because they didn't have to get over the whole transition thing. They got to meet you here. And for me, that made it like a really special experience to get to build this family bond as a daughter. So for me that made me really comfortable.”
The thing that Ren doesn’t want to talk to her mum about is one of the smaller things in life that anyone can relate to - the fact that she’s lost her job.
“Exactly,” says De Filippis. “I went into it knowing that I didn't really want huge plot points. What I hope is that when you watch it, you really feel like that fifth family member on vacation with the family. And so you get really invested in all the small things, like where is that vape? When you go on vacation with your family or with anyone really, I think your life shrinks very quickly, because you don't know anyone else and so all of a sudden all of your issues become very magnified. And your relationships also become very magnified.
Luis De Filippis on Something You Said: 'What I hope is when you watch it, you feel like that fifth family member on vacation with them'
“All of the good times become very heightened. All the bad times become very heightened. That was the experience I wanted to show. I also want to show like there was seven days and for you to really feel that passage of time, both in how it sped up and slowed down.”
De Filippis says casting the film was pretty easy and that each actor brought something “intrinsically wonderful” to their character.
She explains that it was a friend who told her she ought to cast Madonia in the key role after she walked into her store.
She adds, speaking to Madonia: “We met up a week later. And I feel like you were like, Who is this person? What am I doing?”
Madonia, laughs and replies: “I was a little hesitant. Once I saw your short, I felt a lot better. I just saw so much of my own experiences in these subtle ways, without you having to say anything, so it made me trust you. The casting experience for me was wild, because I kind of went into it more because I wanted to be Luis’ friend. And it caught me off guard how excited I was to actually do it.
De Filipis adds: “I mean, it caught me off guard when you read the script, because I gave her no context. I was like, here's a scene. Let's see what happens. And she knocked it out of the park.”
I ask whether as a trans director she feels as though there is any pressure on her to make a movie that has these sorts of layers within it.
“I do, and I try to ignore it,” says De Filippis. “I kept just reminding myself, almost like a mantra, ‘This is not the story of trans experience. It is a story of trans experience.' And hopefully by telling this story and it getting the attention it’s getting, it means that financiers will look at other trans stories and be like, ‘Okay, so obviously there is an audience for this’, and more stories can be told. And that's also why mentorship is important to me as well. So we like ran a mentorship on the film. We had five trans youth kind of with us from pre production all the way through to production in different areas. That was important to me, because that's the way that I can ensure that trans storytellers are building their skills and getting the hours on set so that they can later go on and tell their own stories.”
Carmen Madonia in the film. 'It's interesting to be able to explore this role where a trans woman is really not in the public eye. She's really just relaxed around the family.
Madonia says the film has been a game-changer for her. She says: “This has been the best job I've ever done in my entire life. If I can find other projects to be a part of in any way that are like even a little bit as meaningful as this one it would be awesome. Preparing for the role completely changed my life beyond my career. It just gave me so much confidence in being a more authentic version of myself, showing up as a visible trans person everywhere that I go without apologising. It's opened up a lot of possibilities that I didn't even think about, even a year ago before. It's been really awesome to see other trans actresses really get their moment as well and being able to point to them and be like, ‘I want to be like that. I want to have that career’. I have roadmap as well to talk to people in the industry. But before I met Louise, I would have thought, you know, there's no space, no one will understand a person like me and I won't be able to find the space to be authentic as an actor on camera. And my opinion on that has very much changed."
Looking to the future, De Filippis adds: “I definitely want to keep making work about families and like intergenerational conflict relationships. I definitely also want to continue making stories about trans people with trans people. I have a couple of projects bubbling in my mind but nothing official yet.”