Exclusive Interview: No Ordinary Man filmmakers Chase Joynt & Amos Mac on reclaiming & reframing the narrative of jazz musician & trans icon Billy Tipton

One of the highlights of last month’s Toronto International Film Festival was the extraordinary No Ordinary Man, which world premiered at TIFF’s semi-virtual 45th edition. The thought-provoking and emotionally potent feature documentary takes an innovative approach to reclaim and reframe the life story and legacy of popular 1940s and 50s jazz musician—and transmasculine icon—Billy Tipton, with contributions from prominent trans artists and commentators of today both behind and in front of the camera. Directed by Aisling Chin-Yee and Chase Joynt, the film is co-written by Amos Mac, along with Chin-Yee. Read our full TIFF 2020 review of No Ordinary Man here.

Chase Joynt, a moving image artist, actor and writer, is currently developing his Outfest Audience Award-winning short film Framing Agnes into a feature, with a starry trans ensemble including Silas Howard, Jen Richards, Angelica Ross, and Zackary Drucker as Agnes. Joynt’s first book, co-authored with Mike Hoolboom, You Only Live Twice, was published in 2016. Critically acclaimed, it was a Lambda Literary Award Finalist. Writer and visual artist Amos Mac, who was among the subjects of the HBO doc The Trans List, worked on Joey Soloway’s Transparent and the Emmy-nominated LGBTQ+ doc series Gaycation. He’s currently a story editor on the upcoming Gossip Girl reboot for HBO Max. Mac was founding editor of the USA’s first trans male culture print magazine, Original Plumbing, and his photography has been featured in The New York Times, Interview, and Vogue Italia.

Chase Joynt. Photo by Tanja-Tiziana.

Ahead of No Ordinary Man screening as part of the 30th anniversary edition of Canada’s largest LGBTQ+ film festival Inside Out, running October 1st to 11th, The Queer Review’s editor James Kleinmann had an exclusive in-depth conversation with Chase Joynt and Amos Mac about their creative approach to exploring Billy Tipton’s story, breaking through the legacy of tabloid and chat show sensationalism that followed the musician’s death in 1989.

Amos Mac self-portrait.

James Kleinmann, The Queer Review: Before becoming involved with No Ordinary Man how aware were you of Billy Tipton and what was the draw for each of you to fully explore his story?

Amos Mac: “I feel like I always knew of Billy Tipton through the trans ether, as I like to say! He’s just always been a part of our history. I can’t pinpoint an exact moment, and it definitely wasn’t in the history books that I read when I was a young person. It was probably through a listicle or just someone passing around his picture on Facebook, or in some writing about trans history. When Aisling Chin-Yee reached out to me about wanting to collaborate to tell Billy’s story in a new way I was beyond excited.”

Chase, how about you?

Chase Joynt: “Yeah, it was similar for me too. His story was in the rumblings of trans masculine history. When I was approached by the team at Parabola Films to join the project I was inspired to work with Amos in particular, as someone who had an incredibly well-established career in arts and culture, and in thinking about trans history, and then also to welcome as many trans artists and activists into the project, to really think about Tipton’s story in new ways.”

Billy Tipton. No Ordinary Man. Courtesy of TIFF.

Why was it important to you that you had so many trans folks be involved, particularly transmasculine contributors in the film?

Chase Joynt: “I’m always paying such close attention to who controls the narrative, and in the case of Tipton’s story we know that the dominant narratives about his life have been controlled by talk show and tabloid media, and by Diane Middlebrook’s book Suits Me. So it was a really compelling time to think about what was possible if we allowed the story to be told literally through the bodies and minds and experiences of those most impacted by his legacy.”

As a way of exploring that legacy we see a number of trans masculine performers take part in a casting process, where they engage with a script that puts them in Tipton’s life at key key moments. We see both of you as filmmakers in the audition room during those casting scenes, engaging with the performers. Tell me about that process and what was most memorable or surprising to you during those scenes?

Amos Mac: “Well, the idea behind writing for the voice of Billy Tipton, which you see played out in the audition rooms, is something that Aisling brought up pretty early on. I thought that it would be an interesting way to tell Billy’s story because there’s no film footage of Billy as far as we know, so we don’t know what he looks like moving around. We do have audio of him, and we have a lot of photographs, but there is no moving image that we could locate, or that the family had. So we felt that writing these scenes that really highlight certain moments in his life, that are larger than life and important, would be an incredible way to collaborate with so many trans masculine actors to put their own spin on someone who’s never been seen on video.”

Marquise Vilsón in No Ordinary Man. Courtesy of TIFF.

Chase Joynt: “There were so many really compelling moments that came out of the casting scenes. I love the moments between Amos and Alex for example, this incredible moment of recognition, or the scene where one of our actors, Marquise Vilsón, reinterprets a line far beyond the scope of what Amos and Aisling had imagined. To me those encounters are emblematic of the project method as a whole, which is to say we can have all of our best intentions about what we imagined the project to do, but ultimately the project is in the hands and voices of those on screen, and we as makers really need to start following those leads. Of course there’s also the kind of ongoing conversation in mainstream culture about the politics of casting and we feel lucky to emerge at a time alongside a film like Sam Feder’s Disclosure which looks back at the history of moving image representation of trans people and gender non-conforming people and asks what’s at stake in those questions. Rather than asking those same questions we’re thinking about how we can use performance to think about embodiment and to think about history, rather than just as a representational practice.”

Billy Tipton Jr. in No Ordinary Man. Courtesy of TIFF.

We see Billy’s son, Billy Tipton Jr., both in archive footage and also in new interviews which you shot for the film. There’s a really powerful moment which you capture where it’s clear that Billy Jr. is hearing his dad’s story framed outside the context of tabloid and chat show sensationalism for the first time. As he hears that his father is thought of as a trans masculine hero, and that you yourselves are trans masculine, we see that adjustment and realisation on his face, as he takes in what his father means to trans folks. What was it like to be there in the room interacting with him during that moment?

Chase Joynt: “It’s something that we as collaborators and trans masculine people on the film, and in that room, continue to kind of deeply inhale when we think about.”

Amos Mac: “I felt like there were moments of me asking Chase and Aisling, ‘Does he know that there are trans voices behind this project?’ I was wondering about how much Billy Jr. knew about how we wanted to tell his father’s story, and whether he knew anything about us personally. Had he Googled us or anything? And I remember Chase always being like, ‘I think today I’m going to say something.’ But it had to be organic, it had to it be the right moment.”

Chase Joynt: “When we approached Billy Jr.’s house in Spokane, as a very small stripped down team, we didn’t know what to expect. As documentary makers, I think you go in with as much research as you possibly can and then you just follow the flow of what is organically revealed through your ongoing interaction. It’s where I think it’s important to be with people for more than one day, for more than one interview, and to actually build a relationship. But I knew that at some point it might feel impossible to continue asking Billy Jr the questions that I was asking him without meeting him in that vulnerability. And also to recognise that I think I needed a couple days to get to know him, just as much as he needed a couple of days to get to know me, and to figure out what kind of movie we were making. There was a world where we could have made a movie with someone who had ingested and believed the media narrative produced about his father. We also could have made a movie with someone who was unwilling to see the story from another perspective, right? All of these were open questions, and then so to literally experience that with him in real time, that shift in perspective as he’s captured on camera was quite remarkable.”

Amos Mac: “It was so intense.”

We have far more expansive and nuanced definitions when it comes to gender than during Billy’s lifetime, do you see there being any complications in placing today’s perceptions and language around gender on to historical figures who wouldn’t have had those terms at their disposal?

Chase Joynt: “Oh, absolutely. One of the things we try to do in the project is keep transness in its historical context. So to not think about the 1940s and 50s, the 1980s, and 2020, as some kind of connected thread of understanding, and to try and think about what was happening in trans and gender nonconforming communities and in public in these very particular times, and to also recognise that we could be wrong. Instead of trying to create a narrative, the right narrative, the correct narrative, the ‘insert intention’ narrative of Billy Tipton, I think our project asks a different series of questions, the most dominant of which is, what’s at stake and for whom when we look back.”

Amos Mac. Photo by Texas Isaiah.

How did you go about striking a balance between giving some context to the way Billy’s story was represented in the 1980s by the mainstream media and the talks show circuit—which essentially portrayed him as disguised woman who had ‘deceived’ his wife and family and finally be ‘found out’ at the time of his death—without getting sidetracked by it or risk offending your audience?

Amos Mac: “From the beginning of the writing process I felt that it was important to include at least some, and I did compile a lot of different versions of the talk show circuit because that was so many people’s first place to see trans people. Personally it was probably one of the first places where I’d ever seen trans people on television, and although it was exploitative, it was a part of Billy’s story and while it’s uncomfortable to watch, it is a part of his narrative after death.”

Chase Joynt. Photo by Tanja-Tiziana.

That’s something that Sam Feder’s Disclosure touches on as well isn’t it? As offensive and damaging and shocking as some the framing of trans stories was on these shows at least there was some form of representation. It’s an interesting paradox isn’t it?

Chase Joynt: “I think you’re right, it’s a paradox, it’s kind of a trap. How much of the story do you need to know to understand its stakes without reproducing the violence of the initial telling?”

Hopefully it can be part of a mainstream media reckoning of how these stories were covered. I like to think that there’s been a substantial shift. I mean, Oprah for instance is someone who appears in both Disclosure and in this film, but I think she is someone who would probably cringe watching these clips now and would likely cover Billy’s story differently if it was today.

Chase Joynt: “I think it’s really tough to make sweeping statements about progress and visibility, but I will say that I think that there is a reckoning in the talk show format itself. So we can look to people like Laverne Cox on Katie Couric’s show in 2014 for example, who pivots quickly, and I think changes the landscape for all talk show hosts who want to ask questions about trans people’s bodies to come. We can see the way that trans people on talk shows are refusing the kind of formulaic approach in a way that I think is significant.”

As we continue to fight for equal rights for LGBTQ+ people in this country, with trans folks in particular attacked from the very beginning of this administration and trans women of colour the most vulnerable in our community, why is looking back at figures such as Billy Tipton an empowering and important thing to do?

Chase Joynt: “I think that visibility produces the fantasy of social change, and the fantasy of social progress, and often obscures the ongoing contexts of violence against the most vulnerable members of the trans community. And so I think that our project contributes to a number of ongoing conversations about the violence of curiosity, and the violence of a certain kind of media curiosity and, you know, I’m always interested in how we can foreground, the relationship between visibility and vulnerability, and always be thinking about those things as indefinitely sutured.”

Susan Stryker in No Ordinary Man. Courtesy of Inside Out.

Going back to the interviews that you did for the film I love the locations, you chose to shoot your contributors in, venues that look like the kind of places where Billy would have played his jazz gigs.

Chase Joynt: “As a team we committed to not pursuing reenactment in any sort of traditional form, but I see the locations as the closest we get to try to be with Billy in time and space. So, what does the haunting of a jazz club, what does the dirt and grit of a booth give you in the context of an interview? And you know, we could speak at length about the presence of Billy’s music in the film or the recordings of Billy’s voice as other ways that Billy gets to be with us in the film without being in a body.”

Was that Christmas audio recording of Billy speaking to his mother-in-law something that you had from the beginning of the process or did it come later?

Amos Mac: “I feel like that came later in the process, and I was so excited by it. I remember immediately writing down quotes of my favourite parts, because it really said so much about Billy as a father. Also, it was almost like seeing like a moving image of Billy, having him at home where he wasn’t performing or on stage, he was just talking to his mother-in-law.”

Chase Joynt: “Yes, I love that answer you gave Amos, because you’re right there’s such a difference in encountering his voice at home versus encountering his voice in a rehearsal space or through music.”

And his warmth, and the importance of family to him really comes through doesn’t it?

Chase Joynt: “Yes, and those tiny squeaks of Billy Jr’s voice!”

I think there’s something about the use of audio in a visual documentary that can be very powerful. Another interesting piece of audio that we hear is a conversation between Billy’s biographer, Diane Middlebrook, and Billy’s wife Kitty who is concerned about how Diane is going to portray him. How did you how did you get access to that?

Amos Mac: “That was in the Stanford archive, I believe, which is where Diane Middlebrook’s archive is because she was a professor there and left all of her papers and research and audio files to the university. So I went there with Aisling and that specific tape was something that really caught my attention because it tells the story of Kitty’s point of view, going against a lot of what Diane Middlebrook was trying to say in her book. It was Kitty fighting back really, and I think it’s such a gift that that Diane Middlebrook left that for us to be able to tell a different side.”

It’s an interesting insight into the research of the book and the eventual outcome isn’t it? That back and forth between them, with Kitty participating but also taking on board what Diane’s angle and agenda is going to be.

Chase Joynt: “Right, absolutely. I just think it’s another one of those moments where you understand that the talk show was framing. Journalism frames every person out into a way that they might not particularly appreciate or agree with, and we watch the way that Kitty is also manipulated by the mainstream media to be scandalised. So she’s also a very interesting and important character in the telling of Billy’s story.”

You had access to to Billy’s music as you mentioned. What were your guiding principles on the use of it in the film?

Chase Joynt: “We consider the project to be bookended in the glory of his sound. How can we totally invite you to continue to engage with him, even if only through the sonic underbelly? How can we always be returning you to Billy through the archives, through people’s historical reimaginings and then through his music? Always treating it as a necessary layer of of invitation.”

Is there another historical figure who you feel needs to be reexamined in this way? There are probably many, but is there anyone who particularly comes to mind?

Chase Joynt: “One of the things that came out of our research about Billy Tipton is the story of a Black trans masculine jazz musician who was gigging at the exact same time as Tipton, someone named “Little Ax” Broadnax. There’s an entire documentary project to be made about “Little Ax” Broadnax, and in the early development of this project there was some potential that it might have actually been about both of them. There are so many questions that documentary projects like this can ask, but I would be interested in exploring more of “Little Ax’s” story, or cultural figures that exist in the ambiguous borderlands of identity like Radclyffe Hall. Like you say, there are many.”

Amos Mac: “I always wish we could learn a little bit more about Buck Thomason, whom I mention in the film. He was the the kid of a radio station owner who gave Billy his first shot on the air, who was also transmasculine and kind of disappeared. I’m curious about them and what kind of friendship they had.”

Chase Joynt: “You could make your own trans buddy film!”

Yes, I would like to see that! And we got a little flavour of it from the audition scenes didn’t we?! How did you learn about Buck, was that from Diane Middlebrook’s Suits Me?

Amos Mac: “Yeah, I mean, Diane did an amazing job at the research and covering the bases in terms of people who are connected to Billy who were still alive and talking to all of them. So that is one incredible thing about the book and that was where I found the most information on Buck.”

Amos, as this is the first time we’ve spoken to you for The Queer Review could we take you back to when you co-founded Original Plumbing, what was your initial concept for the magazine and did it evolve over the 10 years that you were running the magazine, and taking most of the photographs as well?

Amos Mac: “Well, Original Plumbing was launched in 2009 and there was really nothing like it at the time, there was no space in the media for transmasculine people. It was really supposed to be a small one-off project that I wanted to shoot and interview people locally for in San Francisco. And my friend Rocco Kayiatos was very excited about it and had a lot of different connections across America because he was a traveling performer for a long time. That inspired us to work on it together and to make it something that was ongoing. Then 10 years later the book, Original Plumbing: The Best of Ten Years of Trans Male Culture, came out and we put out our final issue of 20 issues. The world’s definitely changed a lot since launching the first issue of Original Plumbing. I knew pretty early on, probably like a few years into Original Plumbing that discussing trans stories in a broader sense was something that I hoped to do in my career beyond the magazine, and I’ve moved on and have since been working in film and television, and there’s so much more nuance. Original Plumbing being interview, photo and first person narrative based is one thing, but then going on to research and tell stories of historical figures or to write storylines about trans people or trans characters for fictional projects is a completely different thing, but something that I’m so pleased to be doing.”

And speaking of your TV work, I know that Gossip Girl is being rebooted and it’s going to be on HBO Max. Why was that something that you wanted to be involved in, and what can we expect in terms of LGBTQ+ representation?

Amos Mac: “Well, Gossip Girl is going to take place in the same world. It’s going to take place in New York City around eight years after the original series ended. So it’s going to be a new group group of kids, and you’ll see some queerness in there.”

And why did you want to be involved?

Amos Mac: “I’ve been working towards becoming a television writer for years when I had the opportunity to interview for this show, and I love young adult stories, I love young adult voices, and so it felt like a great match.”

And when we were talking earlier about seeing ourselves on screen, I find it very exciting to see more TV series and books aimed at younger audiences incorporating LGBTQ+ narratives. To see that representation is there and thankfully being handled by people like yourself and not doing more damage like some of the other representations we were talking about like the talkshows that we grew up watching on TV. Chase, you’re working on a feature based on your short film Framing Agnes aren’t you?

Chase Joynt: “Yes, Framing Agnes is about never before seen case files from trans history that were found in the archives of a doctor who was working alongside the UCLA gender clinic in the late 1950s. It focuses on the case of a person named Agnes and it stars a number of trans culture makers Zachary Drucker, Angelica Ross, Jen Richards to name just a few. We’re in production, we’re in a little bit of a COVID pause, as we like to say, but we will resume as soon as we’re able to be closer together.”

Is it a narrative feature film or a documentary?

Chase Joynt: “It’s a hybrid documentary beast!”

And Chase, you’ve been doing some acting as well and you’ve got a film that you’ve finished working on, Last Car?

Chase Joynt: “Yes, that’s a movie made by a Canadian queer experimental filmmaker icon John Greyson and is still in post production. It’s a project that was developed out of the first serial narrative project that ever played on Toronto’s TTC system. Every day for a month there was a short format episode that if you were reading the commuter paper you could find a clue about. It was an interactive commuter murder mystery. He’s moved that project, which was on the small screens of the subway, into a feature length project.”

Marlon Riggs’s Tongues Untied (1989)

Here’s a final question for for each of you. What’s your favorite LGBTQ+ either film, TV series, book, play, musical, artwork, music, or person? Someone or something that has made an impact on you and really resonated with you over the years and why? Or it could be something current.

Chase Joynt: “Recently, I’ve been spending a lot of time with early AIDS cinema, so returning to the work of Marlon Riggs and Richard Fung in particular. I’ve just been thinking a lot about cinemas of urgency and how documentary about trans and gender nonconforming subjects could be historically considered as such, especially in this moment, and trying to think about their audio visual tactics.”

Lou Sullivan. Photograph by Mariette Pathy Allen.

Amos Mac: “Okay, so I’m going to go with a couple of the most recent things that have inspired me. The book We Both Laughed In Pleasure: The Selected Diaries of Lou Sullivan, edited by Ellis Martin Zach Ozma, which is incredible. Lou Sullivan was a trans man who created FTM, a huge San Francisco based organisation, that went on to become international, connecting trans men together. He’s also one of the first noted trans men to have died of AIDS. He was a gay trans man who fought for trans men to be allowed to transition if they were gay. That’s the most recent book that I can’t stop thinking about. And then I have a character from My So-Called Life, which started Wilson Cruz as a queer teenager Rickie Vasquez, who was one of Angela Chase’s friends, Claire Dane’s character. I think a lot about him as a character. It only lasted for one season. I think it was a bit ahead of its game for the mid-1990s when it came out. Also it was on ABC. It might have been up against 90210 or something, I’m not sure what happened. But the character, Rickie Vasquez, in My So-Called life is someone that I think about fondly.”

By James Kleinmann

No Ordinary Man premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival and is now playing as part of Inside Out, Canada’s largest LGBTQ film festival. Head to the official Inside Out website for ticket information.

For more on Chase Joynt head to his official website and follow him on Instagram @ChaseJoynt and Twitter @ChaseJoynt. And head to Amos Mac’s official website here, and follow him on Instagram @AmosMac and Twitter @TheAmosMac.

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