Interview with Eli Hershko, Director of Carl(a) (2011). By Junyang ZHAO

An image from Carl(a)

An image from Carl(a)

Junyang ZHAO: First off, can you tell us about Carl(a)?

Eli Hershko: Carl(a) is the story of a young transgender woman named Carla, a web-cam girl, aspiring shoe designer, who meets a man through her job, and falls in love with him (and he with her). But when she finally gets the financial means to complete her transition, it turns out this new love does not want her to change.

Carl(a) is a story about change, about not wanting to be where we are, but finding ourselves for whatever reason stuck in place. While the struggles of the transgender community are very specific to that community, there are universal themes in wanting to change, in wanting to be our true selves, whatever that may be. So I think/hope Carl(a) is able to transcend the “surface” part of the story – the story of Carla wanting to complete her transition – and reach a wider audience.

JZ: This film focuses on the topic of transsexuality; what inspired you to make a film about this?

EH: My writing partner and I read an article about a man who identified himself as straight, but who was looking for a relationship with a male-to-female pre-op transgender woman that was not a prostitute. We started asking ourselves the question of how can this guy can proclaim himself to be straight and yet wants a real relationship with a transgender woman… we decided to explore this idea further but quickly got immersed in the opposite idea for a story, from the transgender woman’s point of view, and we just expanded on it from there. Part of what was appealing about the story is there is a lot of built-in conflict for Carla. She has to deal with her family, a job she hates, etc. She says a few times in the movie, “This is not who I am.” I think that’s something everyone can, to some degree, identify with.

Certainly, not many people are going to have to go through such a dramatic change as a transgender person will go through, but I think a lot of people, at some point, look at their life – what they do for a living, where they live, who their friends are, etc. – and think the same thing. This is not who I am. That was a good launching point for us to start writing the screenplay. That much of it is universal.

JZ: Would you say that the struggle with self-identification is the core of Carl(a)?

EH: The struggle at the core of the character is who she is at the moment, and who she wants to be. It covers most aspects of her life. She doesn’t like what she does to pay the bills, so she’s trying to change it. Though it’s never explicitly stated, she doesn’t like being alone. She doesn’t like her relationship with her family. And of course, she wants the outside of her body to match her soul and being.

[Spoiler alert] When Carla looks in the mirror at the end of the movie, she’s looking at a part of herself – a literal, physical part of herself – that’s not going to be there anymore. She speaks to her old self – or soon-to-be old self – that it is not who she is.

She sees herself as a woman – and if you just saw her on the street, you’d see her that way, too. But the identifier that’s an indelible part of her body – her penis – identifies her to many people as male (if not a man). More importantly, it’s not a part of her identity. She’s not a man, but she has male genitalia.

Add on to that her sexual partner in this film, Sam, and the reason he’s with her in the first place – something never stated explicitly until the end – and you have a recipe for conflict in the story, and conflict within Carla over her identity as a person – who she is, and who she wants to be.

JZ: How have your previous works and upbringing influenced your work on Carla?

EH: Outside of the technical aspects of filmmaking, not much. I’ve worked on a few short films, and various similar projects, so that helps in knowing your way around a set and how to deal with actors and crew.

JZ: Why the focus on detailed facial expressions in the film?

EH: I thought about the fact that Carla is going through a gender identity crisis and is moving from the realm of one gender to another – that makes her unique as an individual in our world, and quite rejected from society. So if you notice she’s having a dialogue of her own, I give her a one-shot only. When it’s on someone else, it’s usually a two-shot. I did this to increase her solitude. Sometimes, the distances on sets didn’t allow us to keep the camera at a distance from her, so we had to get close to her; furthermore, another reason was I wanted to be in the face of the viewer to make them look at this person who’s going through an extreme change. Most people don’t feel comfortable looking at someone like her, and they would avert their gaze if they were on the street. So I wanted to force them to look at her.

JZ: The flashback of the dinner scene where Carla and Sam have dinner is very straightforward; why?

EH: Because that’s the way it worked best. Initially, in the script, it was simply linear. It happened, and not as a flashback. We even shot it with that intention. However, once we got the initial rough cut back, it just didn’t work. So we made it a flashback. As for making it straightforward, that just made sense in the overall story.

JZ: What is your method when you create such lively characters? Do you draw on personal experiences?

An image from Carl(a)

An image from Carl(a)

EH: This was a tough one for me, because no matter how much I would like to write in all of those wonderful voices I realize that taking on such an enormous task of creating a believable world is daunting at best and that you need to sacrifice a lot in terms of allowing others to come into your creation and collaborate in order to allow the one most important thing on a movie set: and that is to create another world the viewer will believe… in order to do so, after I cast the movie I set in individual sessions with each and every one of the characters I created and we had a lengthy conversation about their character… I was not selfish and asked them if they felt comfortable with the way I wrote their character’s dialogue, I kept asking them to say the same things I wrote but in their own unique way of speaking; thus I allowed them to dress themselves in their new “skin” where the dialogue was already theirs to begin with. That is how I think I was able to make them lively. Certainly there are things you can do in a script, and there is a lot that the actors can do when bringing life to a role. A lot of this is inherent in the situation itself, but also in basic story structure. I think you have to keep in mind that there are ripple effects in a story. When something happens to the protagonist, then it’s going to have an effect on everyone around them, positively or negatively. If you don’t write that, and if the actors aren’t able to show that in their performances, then you should probably start rewriting.

Also, if the situation isn’t having an effect on the protagonist, then you may need to rethink the situation or the protagonist. Most of the time when we go to the movies, we want to see a journey. We want to see Act 1, Act 2, and Act 3. Yes, we want to see something new, but there’s something inherently satisfying about the three-act structure. You have a character in Act 1, living their life, going about their business, when they are confronted with something outside of that life. And they have to go on that journey. Of course, that journey takes them into uncharted territory, and they’re presented with challenges. Sometimes those challenges are epic, sometimes they’re personal. But they are there.

Of course, some characters are naturally lively, such as Cinnamon. I think that just has more to do with our having fun with her character than anything else.

JZ: What challenges did you face while producing this film?

EH: Trying to make a film with only 29K is a bitch and a half. You have to will the movie into existence. It’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life with such a small amount of cash. But, while working 16-plus-hour days for three weeks straight I was by far the happiest man on Earth and it made me feel like this is the reason I was put on this earth… to make films!

Obtaining locations with no funds at all reduces you to begging, borrowing, and bartering your skill. You do anything you can to get to the finish line sometimes – if you have to, you even end up “stealing” a shot and risk being arrested, funny enough.

JZ: What is the truth of Sam’s sexuality, and how does it affect Carla and the story?

EH: Sexuality is fluid, more so for some people than for others. I think that’s what’s going on with Sam. I know that when we wrote it, Christopher and I didn’t really think too much about that. It felt natural to the story that Sam would fall in love with Carla, and that he would want her to stay the way she was, the way he fell in love with her. I don’t know if that makes him gay, but like I said, sexuality is fluid. Also, I thought that exploring this question would have been a little much to open up in the movie as well, and besides I wanted to stay focused on Carla.

JZ: When and how did you realize you wanted to pursue a career in film?

EH: When I was six years old, my older brother introduced me to black and white photography… I was mesmerized by the “magic” of images. When I turned fourteen years old I wanted to go to art school and my parents refused… so I stopped going to school altogether for four months till they gave up and enrolled me in art school. I ended up going to that art school in Israel for four years where I learned filmmaking and photography. I joined the Israeli army and became a teacher for photography and filmmaking. After three years of service, I went through two years of college in filmmaking. Came to the States and started working as a full-fledged photographer shooting album covers, and worked with music industry professionals. After sixteen years of that, I dove into working as a filmmaker, and I’ve been doing that ever since.

I prefer filmmaking over photography because there’s more depth to it. Don’t get me wrong, you can tell a story with a photograph but I find photography has two dimensions only, whereas the moving image of film allows you to explore a third dimension and allows you not only to paint with light but to paint with souls.

JZ: What’s next for you?

EH: Right now I’m in preproduction for a feature – I’m the producer/writer/director. It’s titled The Closer. It’s a drama with thriller/criminal elements about three friends in the real estate market in 2009. We’re going into production in late May of this year.

Carl(a) will be available on Vimeo on Demand and Google Play soon, and has been recognized with the following awards:

  • 2013 Long Island International Film Expo – nomination for Best Feature, Best Director, won for Best Original Story
  • 2013 Canada Film Festival – won the Excellence award in Filmmaking
  • 2013 Palm Springs Gay and Lesbian Film Festival – Won Festival favorite cinema diverse award
  • 2013/2014 PRIDE Film Festival of Bloomington, Indiana
  • 2013 Q-Fest in St. Louis
  • 2013 Victoria Film Festival
  • 2012 Washington DC Reel Affirmations International Film Festival

Author Biography

Junyang ZHAO recently graduated with a BA from the University of Alberta, where he majored in film studies and minored in philosophy. He has the deepest passion for both theoretical film studies and practical film production. And his motto is: “Responsibility is the foundation of all.”

To read a review of Carl(a), please click on this link:

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