Author of seven novels including The Beaufort Diaries and Lipshitz Six, or Two Angry Blondes and the non-fiction book Real Man Adventures, T Cooper has had his writing appear in publications such as The New Yorker, The New York Times, Esquire, Harper’s and The Guardian. A graduate of Columbia University, he is currently a professor of Creative Writing and English at Emory University. He has written for TV shows such as Netflix’s The Get Down and BBC America’s Copper and recently added documentary filmmaker to his list of accomplishments with Man Made.
The feature length documentary, available worldwide now on VOD, follows the lives of four trans men as they prepare to take part in Trans FitCon, the world’s only all-trans bodybuilding competition in Atlanta, Georgia, USA. The Queer Review’s Editor James Kleinmann spoke exclusively with T Cooper about what had drawn him to tell these men’s stories and the significance of telling them through a trans male lens.
James Kleinmann: How did the idea for the film first come about?
T Cooper: “Well, once I heard about the bodybuilding competition it was very clear that somebody had to make a film about it, so I guess that somebody was going to be me! I’m mostly a writer of fiction and television and journalism, so I guess my first impulse was to write about it. When I started talking to the guys and doing all the pre-work that you do, all the advance interviewing and whatnot, that’s when I just started realising that 500 words on each person was not going to cut it. I just felt like I had to immerse myself in their lives.”
So initially you were thinking of doing it as a written piece?
“Yeah, I was, I’d pitched it to a couple of magazines that I work with and they were super interested, but I think once I started doing the work, and talking about it and spending time with the guys, it just became clear that it needed more. I think of it as like a 360 degree treatment.”
What do you think making a documentary rather than doing it as a written piece allowed you to do?
“Well, you really get in there and grasp on to each thread in the fabric of people’s lives and it’s all relevant to their lives. I think that if you do a piece that’s shorter and a cursory look into say just the bodybuilding competition, I think you’re really narrowing your view to whatever the 30 degrees is that you can see. Then there’s 330 degrees left, if I did the math right, all around you and behind you; parts of their lives that might have nothing to do with being trans or might have nothing to do with body building. I’m a pretty firm believer that the subject matter dictates the best medium and once I started talking to them and realising what brought them to that competition stage and then where they were going after stepping off stage and what they were going to do in the year between competitions, I just felt I needed to throw a camera over my shoulder and go with it.”
Could you talk a bit about some of the things that draw these men to bodybuilding, as far as you can see, what they get out of it, because it seems like a lot from the film.
“It is. For me, that’s what is not super interesting about mainstream bodybuilding, it’s kind of the same thing all day, every day as far as what you put in your body and then what the result is to the untrained eye. When you look at a cis or a mainstream bodybuilding competition, the bodies don’t look that different. There are just very slight variations in whatever they’re looking for, I don’t even know all the judging components. But I think what was so fascinating about this is that everyone had their own routine and their own way to feeling as good as they could possibly feel when they stepped on stage. Some of those bodies were not traditional bodybuilding types and some were and everywhere in between, and that’s what drew me to the competition in the first place. When I first saw an image from the very first competition, it was just all these different versions of masculinity and all these different body types and life experiences being accepted and celebrated and having a chance to step into the spotlight. It’s a metaphor for, well, I guess there’s that saying that if you’ve heard one transition story you’ve heard one transition story. They all “build” their bodies in their own ways and we all transition differently and it’s kind of an underlying thesis that I think emerges not only in the bodybuilding aspect, but in the way they lead their lives too.”
You were right in the thick of it when you were there for the competition, backstage too, at both Trans FitCon and at the cis or mainstream competition. What’s the atmosphere like at TransFit Con, and being there seeing all those men lined up from your perspective?
“Well, it’s really empowering. I wanted to spend time and show to the audience what a cis or mainstream bodybuilding competition is like, and it’s not like a bunch of dicks, it’s not like their total assholes, but it is a very competitive and a kind of a gruff, I would even say an emotionally shutdown environment. You compare that to what was going on at Trans FitCon, and I’m not trying to suggest that it wasn’t competitive too, but there’s just this sense of brotherhood and camaraderie that is allowed to flourish. I think it stems from the way that everyone is met at where they are, and celebrated for where they are, and welcomed for where they are. And it doesn’t mean that there aren’t winners and losers, but everyone is a winner because they are there and they survived.”
I liked that we saw some of the competitors going to the trans march in Atlanta beforehand, on the same day. That seemed to make the competition itself have an even more supportive atmosphere.
“Yeah, at first I was annoyed when I found out that it was on the same day. I was just worried it would split things, but then I realised that some of the folks who are less crazy about prep – you know because walking around losing all those calories is not great right before you step on stage – but for the guys who were willing to go, I was really grateful that they went. It was actually my first time going to a trans march in the south and so I was surprised as much as they were that there were all those protesters. I was really taken off-guard. Once I started running around and filming them and getting that out of my system and asking around people were like ‘oh yeah, they’re always there, they’re at every parade, every trans march, every anything of difference’. I think that allows it to feel so triumphant at the competition because they are just like ‘here we are, we’re not going anywhere, you literally want to erase us and say that we shouldn’t exist, that we should be dead, but we’re here’. You know, Mason said right before they stepped on stage that everyone should just be proud of themselves for getting there.”
How did you go about deciding to mainly focus on the four men who are at the centre of the film?
“When you’re building a story you have to make some really hard decisions in the service of telling the best story that you can and not confusing the audience. I think that too many people, even though you want to hear their stories, can be a little confusing for some audiences, especially if this is a new world to them and a new topic so to speak. It might be hard to keep storylines straight, especially if they start intersecting. So there were some guys that we filmed that just didn’t end up making the final cut as far as hearing more about their stories, but when you get to the competition there they are. I just wanted to be very mindful and smart about selecting a cross-section of trans males, and reflect what trans life in this country right now. So with diversity and age and race, size, bodytpes, familial acceptance, relationship status, geography is important too, because living as trans person in New York or LA is really different from being in the middle of the country. I really wanted to be mindful about getting a rural person, someone who comes from a religious background, someone who does speak to their family and then folks who don’t speak to their family. You know, I just think it was important to get someone with a kid, someone who is married, someone who is about to get married, that kind of stuff.”
And I think by just focusing on those four men for the first part of the film it allows the depth that you achieve as well. We really feel like we get to know these men pretty intimately.
“That was the goal!”
One of the things I mentioned in my review was, not to say that a cis person couldn’t have done a good job of making a documentary about a trans bodybuilding competition and its participants, but I think in some people’s hands it might have been fetishized or sensationalised…
“Yes, just by changing who’s looking through the lens, for instance at a body part. When it’s a trans person who is choosing to highlight or talk about a body part it is very different from when a cis person is doing it, because a cis person, no matter how awesome they are, is always coimg from a place of ‘this is different from me, I’m going to try to explain it, or translate it or make it familiar to my audience’. Whereas for me, I am just familiar, I just walk into the story and I get to let the story unfold, I don’t have several layers where I feel like I have to be ‘what is this strange thing that we see before us’. I feel that with a lot of filmmaking about different communities, traditionally made by people who are not in that community, there’s just a little bit of a film across it. I’m not saying that folks who are cis can’t do a good job or don’t do a good job, but I just think that if you allow us to tell our stories that we know how to tell our stories, it’s not like we can’t be trusted with our stories, we actually know better than anyone how to tell our stories.”
In terms of the camera work, you filmed most of it yourself didn’t you?
“Yes, I’d say I probably shot about 85% of it myself.”
I wondered how deliberate a decision that was in terms of establishing the trust and intimacy with your subjects that really comes across in the film?
“Yeah, that’s a really good point. First of all it was out of necessity because when you have no budget you just have to do everything yourself from audio, to producing, to video, to travel, to interviewing. It is a lot. In my dream of dreams, how cool would it have been to have had a camera person, a sound person, even just that much. A PA would be great too, that’s the dream. But I also recognise that there were so many moments where this film would have been changed as far as what was happening on screen if there had been more people in the room, literally in the room. So I feel like I had to balance that. You know, making documentary films isn’t a very lucrative venture, so it’s like you’re begging and borrowing and stealing the whole time. For me it was like ‘this person is doing this thing, let’s scrape together enough money so I can go and be there for it’. So when you’re doing that you’re not even thinking consciously of things like ‘is it just me and the camera?’ If I had the budget it’d be ‘let’s hire someone.’ There were a couple of days with Dom, early on when I had a bit of extra budget where I did get to hire an audio person and a camera person and I could actually just direct. Out of that actually came one of my favourite moments in the film, early on when Dom is trying to pull down his binder and is really hot and sticky and he’s like ‘hey, T, can you help me with my binder?’ Had I been handling the camera that moment of me jumping in and pulling it down for him wouldn’t have happened, and like you said a cis filmmaker would never have been invited into that situation. Those little kind of organic moments that happened, it was just really great to be able to include those when I could.”
You only appear on screen a couple of times don’t you and I love the moment when you appear to say how moved you were to be there to witness Dom seeing a photograph of himself after top surgery.
“I didn’t even know what I was going to do with that moment, if anything. In a way I was maybe just filming it for my wife or something. But I just knew that I had to hold my shit together and then when I stepped outside I just kind of let it go and it kind of blew me away. We had more of those moments and we looked at versions of the film where there were none of them and everyone who saw it said that they were missing me in the film. I was like ‘what do you mean, I’m all over the film’ but I wasn’t really. So those interactions felt very organic. Like me and Mason in that room at the cis or mainstream bodybuilding competition with a bunch of naked guys with their dicks hanging out, that’s like a real insider moment between him and me when he’s looking into the camera and nobody knows who or what we are and yet there we are standing in this room. That was another one of those moments that just kind of happened and it was just magical.”
Moving away from the film specifically for a moment, what do you make of the representation of trans men in the media and entertainement in the US right now? Is there a way you’d like to see it evolve?
“You know, I work in TV as well and have worked on trying to develop, and actually have sold trans masculine projects. We’re talking more than ten years ago. I just think that the world wasn’t ready for a story where you got a 360 degree look at a trans guy where his life wasn’t just about being trans and being trans wasn’t a source of pain and suffering. So it’s something that’s on my mind all them time, it’s also why I made Man Made, honestly, because I look around and the guys I know look around and we don’t really see our stories represented anywhere, so here’s a chance. That’s why it’s so great not to just focus on one guy for this film. I guess a lot of documentary filmmaking is floating a bit more towards single subjects or issue based, or celebrity based films. For me it was important to insist on making this multi-subject, almost like a traditional sports competition doc, because that’s a familiar framework against which you can actually show the fullness of these four guys’ lives and accurately represent trans male life. I’m not saying all of trans male life, but I do feel like you get a decent idea about what it’s like to be a trans guy at this particular cultural moment through these four guys. I can’t think of a better film right now that embodies the spirit of trans awareness week than Man Made. This is a segment of the population that doesn’t get a lot of airtime, trans men, but especially trans men of colour, so it’s really cool to be able to hopefully let people know that these stories are out there and if you’re interested in them, here they are.”
You’ve mentioned that Pumping Iron was one of your favourite documentaries growing up. Could you tell us the impact it had on you and did you rewatch it before making Man Made?
“You know I didn’t want it in my mind until we were editing. I remember watching that doc as a kid and even watching bodybuilding live down at Venice Beach. I remember watching the guys pumping iron down there when I was little and just being really drawn to that notion of utter self-transformation, that insistence against whatever your body was. It’s like taking your body and making it what you want. That was obviously super fascinating to me. And then going back and looking at Pumping Iron and some of those themes that focuses a little less on the metaphor of building bodies and building lives. As a jumping off point that film was great for me because this goes well beyond the bodybuilding for me, this is about constructing ones life in the image that you desire and how we all as humans have that right and for whatever reason tat’s very threatening to people who think that people should just stay the same throughout their lives. That’s literally against life, that is what life is, change. People are very threatened by the notion of change, but life for me is about changing from the minute we’re born to the minute we die and so for me moving beyond the physical stuff and making it about these lives that we build throughout our lifetimes both physically and emotionally, that was at the forefront.”
I always like to ask people we interview if they have a favourite LGBTQ+ film or TV show, something that’s really resonated over the years, or something more recent.
“What about a book?”
Yes, I’ll take a book and should offer that as an option as well in the future.
“Giovanni’s Room by Baldwin. That sense of freedom. I read it in High School and I re-read it a coupe of years ago, it was really different from being young to reading it now. I was realising that there was so much I missed, but I was obviously picking up on something. I think there’s just smething so freeing about that notion of leaving a place where you’re thought of a certain way to go to this other land and just be free to live one’s life and to not be constantly a victim of whatever it is the world has decided you are. That freedom was just always so attractive to me. And it’s just such a beautiful book. I love all of his stuff. Also, Michael Cunningham’s Home At The End Of The World was really foundational for me, and that’s almost like a multi-subject documentary in a way, of life during the AIDS era in New York City. That was a really seminal book for me.”
Man Made is available worldwide now on VOD platforms including iTunes, Google Play, Amazon and Vimeo. For more information on the film head to the Journeyman Pictures’ Man Made page here and the film’s official website here.