One-on-One Q and A with Kimberly Reed – Director, “Prodigal Sons”
Interview by Brian Geldin
“Prodigal Sons” is a compelling family portrait and personal documentary told from the point of view of its director, Kimberly Reed, a transgendered woman who works as magazine editor in New York and goes back to her hometown in Montana for her 20th high school reunion. While on her trip, she is reunited with her estranged older adopted brother Marc, who at the age of 21 suffered a brain injury after a car accident. Kimberly is the middle child of three, the oldest being Marc, and her youngest gay brother, Todd. Kimberly grew up as Paul and was the captain of the high school football team and was voted most likely to succeed. In the film, Kimberly tries to mend her relationship with brother Marc, who seems to come to accept her, but a breakdown with Marc ensues, and it gets harder and harder for them to reconcile, that is until a whopper of a revelation occurs as to whom Marc’s true grandparents were (I don’t want to give it away). Reed does an incredible job showing the complex dynamic between her and Marc and their family, which goes through several more ups and downs throughout the rest of the film. I sat down with Kimberly for the following One-on-One Q&A, where we talked about everything from her filmmaking choices, the emotional impact of the film on her, Marc and her family, to the reaction of others who have seen it in the LGBT community…and Kim also let me indulge my daytime television bug by asking her about the transgendered character of Zarf on “All My Children” a few years ago. What I learned from watching the film and talking with Kim was that the issue of being transgendered recedes from the identity one has within his or her own family, no matter what the genetic makeup.
TFPN: In “Prodigal Sons,” you infuse your family’s super 8mm home movies of when you were young children, and then later when you and your brothers made your own films. Who shot the earlier footage when you were younger? Did that prompt your interest in making movies later on in life?
Reed: My dad shot the earlier home movies. He was always an early adopter. He was always the guy who had the super 8MM camera. Then he transitioned to video and was first on the block to have this two-piece video deck with a massive camera on his shoulder tethered to a VCR on his hip.
TFPN: What was your father’s profession?
Reed: He was an ophthalmologist. I often wonder if my fascination with understanding the world through vision, if you define being an ophthalmologist roughly enough, it kind of started to sound like being a filmmaker. I was fascinated with my dad’s job and how the eye works, but what really made me a filmmaker was experiencing films by being totally transported to a different place emotionally and sometimes even physically. Fairly early on, I was gathering all the kids in the neighborhood and coming up with these scripts and telling everybody what to do. The reason you didn’t see me in any of those later films was because I was behind the camera.
TFPN: So it was your brothers you directed in those films?
Reed: Yes. You can also see me trying to work out some gender issues pretty early on by forcing my younger brother to play the part of the girl. I knew that stuff was going on with me. There’s a reason I chose him and not Marc. I was in such denial of it at that age that I was so afraid of it that it would somehow magically transport me or I’d grow out of it. That’s what I wanted. I was afraid of the power it had and I knew from society that you’re not supposed to do that. I think a lot of people can relate to that. I did it vicariously through my younger brother.
TFPN: Did Marc know you were going to be filming him for your documentary before you both came back to Montana for the reunion? What was his initial reaction? Was he hesitant or cooperative?
Reed: Yes, he knew. I think you can tell from the early films he always wanted to be in the limelight. Sometimes that was him just being a troublemaker, doing crazy stuff that nobody else would do. I’ve kind of wondered if he had a limelight gene, and if he did, I think he got it [from the surprise relationship that Marc discovers that is revealed in “Prodigal Sons.”]
TFPN: By turning the camera on Marc and going down this path, do you think it in any way might have provoked him to have his outbursts, or would that have happened anyway?
Reed: Marc has explosive anger. It’s really interesting, because some people think the camera would make it worse, and some people think the camera would lessen the impact of it. I actually think in almost all cases where you see that, the camera didn’t matter because nobody knew it was on. There’s a scene on Christmas that nobody knew the camera was on, for instance. In that respect, I think the camera really did disappear. I think that it would be naïve to assume that the camera would ever disappear totally. I think if you’re ever going to be close to having a camera disappear, I can’t imagine getting closer than a really intimate family environment where everybody supports the making of the film. They’re used to me and others shooting and everybody’s on board. You’ve got a very open family that’s willing to share their story, warts and all. I think it’s my sense of Marc and almost all people that if the camera is on, it would lesson your anger not increase it. The decision to use (the footage) is also interesting. To that, I would say nobody wanted this film made more than Marc. Nobody. There were times when I was really questioning whether or not I should include some really rough footage. I took Marc as my guide. I took his advice. I followed his lead as to whether or not to show that. There’s a line in the film I really love when Marc says simply, “I don’t know about you, but the truth is the truth.” I learned a lot from Marc from that line, because I was in a situation where I was really hiding from my past in a lot of ways. His advice to me in that situation was “get over it!” It’s just the truth. It happened, deal with it. That’s how Marc feels in some of these explosive moments where we’re seeing warts and all. His response is bracingly honest and really refreshing. His actions may be hard for some people to interpret, because he has different principles, but I think some of those principles are bracingly honest.
TFPN: You seemed to have learned more because of that than you expected when you were going into making the film.
Reed: Absolutely. I had no idea we were going to get into all these family issues, and issues of sibling rivalry. It had always been there, but I had no idea it was really going to take over as much as it did. But probably a good portion of that was wishful thinking that it wouldn’t. You follow it where it goes. You follow your life where it goes, kind of in the same way you follow film where it goes.
TFPN: What has the reaction been by the LGBT community, in particular by those who are transgendered? Has anyone been impacted by the film?
Reed: I love the answer to that question because we’ve had almost completely uniform, positive reaction. We just had a story in Details Magazine, which is really getting the word out, and also recently in Jezebel. I hear from trans people whom I think were empowered and reassured by my story because they think, “Wow, I can do this!” I hear from the families of trans people. Before we even started editing I told somebody at Sundance the story of this and she said, “I’m so glad you told me that, because I’ve been freaking out because the day before I came to Sundance, I found out that my brother is going to be my sister. And my head has been spinning the whole time. I’ve spent the last three days with you and had no idea this was going on with you and it’s really reassuring that you can just share your story.” Even before you make your film, talking about it can reassure people, because a lot of people don’t quite know how to talk about it and hopefully our film will open up that discussion. I think an important element that I hear again and again from people is that, and this is always what I had in mind for the film, the way that the film confronts transgendered issues is important perhaps more because of how little it says about being transgendered, but about how willing the film is to let other things take over. I hear from people time and time again, “thank you for not letting that be the only issue.”
TFPN: I found the main through line of the film to be more about your relationship with Marc than your coming out to your family and friends.
Reed: Absolutely. That understatement, number one, represents my life. It’s very important, but is it the only thing? No. It’s an aspect of who I am. To replicate that standing in the film, I think it’s important to let the topic recede in importance. As a storyteller, too, once you take it off the table, it’s also a lot of fun to put it back on the table. If you ask me, that’s the best way to affect social change is to put people in the shoes of somebody else and then let them forget that they’re in their shoes. Hopefully that happens with my character in the film. Hopefully it happens with Marc’s character in the film. I think he goes through a lot of issues with having a head injury and mental illness that people find very hard to imagine. If people can watch this film and feel like they really feel Marc, they know what makes him happy and what he’s frustrated by. I would be really happy to hear people have that response. I could have started with this side of the equation about people who have these kinds of head injuries and mental illness or with gender issues. This film is really just about family. It’s about siblings and family relationships and we’re all looking for love and want to be loved. In families, that’s such a big part of that currency that everybody is trading and it’s hard because there’s a lot of old pain and even hate sometimes. I think at the end of the day (these issues) operate metaphorically in the film…that thing that creates sibling rivalry. Sometimes I hear, “I was that sister who was envied by the other one.” I think if you have a sibling, you can understand sibling rivalry. In the end, it’s a film about family and love and how as we grow older, our identities change, not often as starkly as Marc’s or mine, but our identities change. We always have to renegotiate who we are within our families.
TFPN: Do you think that LGBT people, particularly those who are transgendered, are properly represented in the media such as film and television? Are they being represented as stereotypes? Can you think of any examples of transgendered people who are being properly represented?
Reed: A big motivation for me making this film was to give a real representation of someone who is trans and to go back to reactions we heard from people. That’s what people appreciate, whether you’re trans or a family member or a friend of a person who is trans, I think it’s really important to show everything else but that issue. That’s where the humanity lies. A lot of times I feel the transgendered issue is where gay issues were in the 1960s and earlier. I didn’t want to make the transgendered version of “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?” In LGB cinema and media in general, the “T” has yet to really undergo that. I hope that our film takes a step toward that.
TFPN: Were you ever aware that there was a transgendered character on the daytime serial drama “All My Children” a few years ago?
Reed: Was the character’s name Cricket?
TFPN: No, actually the character was Zarf/Zoe (Jeffrey Carlson), a male to female transgendered rock star who was in love with Erica Kane’s (Susan Lucci) lesbian daughter Bianca (Eden Regal).
Reed: No, I didn’t. When was it?
TFPN: I think it was in 2007. I watched it and was blown away by it, but I can’t say 100% how realistic it was or not, but I was moved by it. So I was wondering if you had ever seen any of it.
Reed: No, but I ought to now. I thought you were going to tell me that people tell me I look like one of the characters on the show.
TFPN: People used to tell you that?
Reed: Yeah, it was Cricket, but I don’t think it was “All My Children.” [Editor’s Note: If anyone does know what show Cricket was on, please leave it in the Comments.]
TFPN: I don’t remember a Cricket.
Reed: It was probably in the mid-1990s. You would know.
TFPN: Well, that’s not even really my show. My show’s “One Life to Live,” which is on after AMC, but I occasionally watch it and when they had that storyline on, I found it fascinating. I don’t think it had ever been done before where they had a contract character that was transgendered in a major plotline.
Reed: The more stories like that, the better. One of the best reactions I ever had to the film that just floored me was when someone came up to me after a screening and said, “I think I fell in love with your brother Marc.” I love that, because Marc does some pretty intense things, which are hard to digest. The fact that you can go through that and experience it in the film, which is arguably more intense than in real life…and the fact that you can go through that and still see this other side of Marc that’s really sensitive and sentimental that’s terribly connected to our family and our past. I’m almost more proud of the fact that people can affiliate themselves more with Marc than they can with me. The thing about head injuries, the number of people coming back from Iraq and Afghanistan with head injuries…there are going to be so many people dealing with this, questioning where this explosive anger comes from? This is not the person who went off to war. At the end of the day, it’s just about humanity, whether we’re L or G or B or T or this or that. To hear Albert Maysles talk [at Stranger Than Fiction’s presentation of “Running Fence” on January 19] about the humanity in which he approaches his filmmaking and the compassion that he feels for his film subjects, which so comes through in his films, that is what I’m interested in.