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SXSW '06 Interview: 'Cruel and Unusual' Directors Janet Baus, Dan Hunt & Reid Williams

by Scott Weinberg

The 'Cruel and Unusual' Pitch: An unflinching look at the lives of male to female, transsexual women in men's prisons in the United States. Most transsexuals have not had sex reassignment surgery, and prisons place inmates according to their "gender assigned at birth," not their gender identity.

Describe your movie using the smallest number of words possible.
An unflinching look at the lives of preoperative, male to female, transsexual women in men's prisons in the United States.

Is this your first trip to SXSW? Got any other film festival experience? If you’re a festival veteran, let us know your favorite and least-favorite parts of the ride.
This is our first time going to SXSW, and we're thrilled to be there. We've been to lots of other festivals with other films, mostly within the amazing lesbian and gay festival circuit. Having a great audience is the best part. it's just wonderful when people come and give themselves over to the film you've been working on for so long, and appreciate that you've made the effort. We also love going to see as many movies as possible.

Do you feel any differently about your film now that you know it’s on “the festival circuit?”
We tried show it to as many people as possible before finishing, so we got to refine the film quite a bit, and that calms you down some about the first big screening. But this is our premiere, and so we're excited and nervous.

Of all the Muppets, which one do you most relate to?
Miss Piggy.

During production did you ever find yourself thinking ahead to film festivals, paying customers, good & bad reviews, etc?
Because our film is about a group of people who have survived extreme circumstances, and who challenge some very basic ideas about gender, and basic ideas about how we treat prisoners in this country, we were constantly thinking about how the film would be received. These are women who are transsexuals who have lacked the resources to transform themselves into the gender they believe they are, and have faced life from the outside.

We passionately wanted to communicate the heroism, even in a failed life, of these women who have faced a kind of social rejection that would be unbearable to most of us. And they have lived with humor, conviction and courage.

How did this film get rolling at the beginning? Give us a brief history from writing to production to post to just last night.
We learned about a young transgender woman who went to jail, and we began thinking about what happens to someone who doesn't fit into either gender being placed in a strict and harsh institution that is organized by gender. We found these two amazing women who put out a newsletter to transgender people in prison, and they ran a paragraph about our film project which said we were looking for people who would be willing to be interviewed, given that we could get permission from the prison.

Over the course of 2 years we got hundreds of responses, and began asking prisons for permissions, having no idea what would happen. We requested permission from prisons in almost every state, and got permission to go into 6 prisons for interviews. We were surprised we got into any prisons, given the topic. We also followed two women just after their release, and one who was released in the course of filmmaking, so we get to look at the course of their lives, and what it's like to be a transgender woman, with a prison record, trying to make a living, and hoping, hoping that she can get sex reassignment surgery one day.

If you could share one massive lesson that you learned while making this movie, what would it be?
We've never been able to edit a film over such a long period of time, and I've been stunned that you can look at something a million times, and still come up with something better and new.

Honestly, how important are film critics nowadays?
Very important!

You’re contractually obligated to deliver an R-rated film to your producers. The MPAA says you have to delete a sex scene that’s absolutely integral to the film or you’re getting an NC-17. How do you handle it?
We've decided not to censor our film in it's current version. It has a graphic climax that we think is important to the whole story, and one hopes we would not cut it out for a rating.

In closing, we ask you to convince the average movie-watcher to choose your film instead of the trillion other options they have. How do you do it?
In our film you will meet 5 women who you may not have the chance to get to know otherwise.


Cruel and Unusual, directed by Janet Baus, Dan Hunt & Reid Williams, will premiere at the 2006 South By Southwest Film Festival. Click here for festival information, and be sure to check out the official Cruel and Unusual website.

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originally posted: 03/06/06 15:52:12
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