The American Midwest is not always kind towards different. Filmmaker (and fellow Michigan native) Sharon Shattuck knows this well. So do I. Small towns amplify differences—even the not-so-abnormal stands out like a sore thumb. So when Sharon’s father came out as transgender and later transitioned—and when her parents chose to stay together regardless—people noticed. The change was not easy; in fact, Shattuck processed many new aspects of her family’s shift while shooting her upcoming documentary From This Day Forward (even though her father, Trisha, transitioned in the early 90’s). Through home videos from before Trisha’s transition to footage of Sharon’s own wedding preparations in the family home years later, From This Day Forward follows the Shattuck family’s fortitude. Their story doesn’t come without bumps in the road, but where a town plans for gossip and controversy, Shattuck presents daily living. Where others expect separation, she shows unity. Where the world expects pain and heated debate, Shattuck offers normalcy. From This Day Forward follows a family’s struggle, certainly — but also its resilience, humour, and enormous hope. After all, family is family.
LAB: Could you say a bit about your background? What drew you to filmmaking and storytelling?
SS: I was always fascinated by science and popular science. When I was a kid, I had a mineral collection and a little microscope, and I’d look at my minerals and read National Geographic magazine. When I went to college, I focused on forest ecology, because I was a whiz at identifying plants and memorising their Latin names. I loved seeing the ecosystem working together, how different plants can indicate different soils and groundwater flow, stuff like that. After college, I volunteered as a research assistant for the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute on Barro Colorado Island in Panama, and then I was a research assistant to acclaimed tropical botanist Robin Foster at the Field Museum in Chicago. There, I realised that I missed using the artistic, communication-oriented side of my brain. So I applied for news and documentary journalism master’s programs, and luckily I got in to NYU. That’s where I first started shooting and storytelling with film.
LAB: How do you think your environment impacted your response to this change in your family?
SS: Moving up to a small town in Northern Michigan definitely didn’t help me respond kindly to Trisha’s transition. I felt like my family was under the microscope, and it turns out that I was right! When I interviewed our neighbour for the film, she confirmed that a lot of people were talking about Trisha and my family when we moved to Michigan, and much of that talk wasn’t nice.
LAB: There’s obviously a large gap of time between this story’s beginning and the actual documentary … how did you process / cope in the meantime?
SS: It took many years for me to be able to talk openly about my parent. And honestly, I also needed society to change a bit, to become more accepting and open-minded toward transgender people, before I felt comfortable telling people about my family through this film. In the meantime, I made a really wonderful, supportive group of middle school, high school, and college friends, many who were LGBTQ themselves. I first began telling them about Trisha, sort of testing the waters, and they were incredibly loving and supportive. Then as I grew up, I started to own my story, and to be comfortable talking about my dad.
LAB: Has your parents’ creativity informed your own? In what ways?
SS: Trisha’s incredible artistic talent (and her humour–which I believe is also an art form!) is a huge part of the film, and I think I’ve channelled her in the way I tell stories on camera. I also have a background in botany, so I try to channel a love of place, and of Michigan, throughout the film, with lots of low nature shots and expansive lakes and horizons.
LAB: What was the most difficult part (and most delightful) part of production? Was there anything you were hesitant about? You’ve also said that Trisha was hesitant at first – why? Did her doubts ever make you second-guess the film?
SS: I think Trisha didn’t know if she’d want to be the centre of attention—although watching the film, you’d never know it. She’s quite comfortable in the spotlight! But I learned a lot about my parents through asking them those interview questions—many things I learned for the first time on camera (for instance, that the clown portrait hanging in our basement is a self-portrait of Trisha dressed as a man, looking miserable, or that Trisha’s landscape painting of the marsh and the lake is actually referring to her give-and-take relationship with Marcia, the “Marsh”).
LAB: You’ve described this as a “love story”—in what ways is it different from the standard Hollywood “love stories” we see in mainstream film?
SS: I think this love story is much subtler than most Hollywood stories. The fact that this is a story about a transgender person who’s made sacrifices to stay with the person she loves— and a straight-identified woman who is not attracted to women staying with her transitioned spouse—says a lot about the complex nature of love. My parents consider one another and treat one another gently, always asking “Is this okay? How do you feel?” It’s taken them a long time to get to this point, but they’ve made it through intact.
LAB: Which qualities in your parents do you admire most? Which of their attributes do you hope for yourself?
SS: They are considerate of one another, they communicate, and they rarely yell. I hope I can be as graceful with my husband over the years.
LAB: Could you say a little about your own marriage? How has your marriage / relationship with your husband shaped your perspective of your parents’ marriage?
SS: Knowing that my parents have overcome such steep and obvious hurdles gives me hope for the rest of us.
LAB: What’s the greatest thing this film could achieve, in your eyes?
SS: I hope that through this film, people will get to know Trisha, my dad, and love her as much as I do. I also hope that in doing that, audiences will sympathize with how complicated it is to be transgender, and that transgender people are part of loving families and communities throughout the U.S., not just in large, progressive cities.
From This Day Forward premieres tonight on PBS’s POV (Point of View) programme. POV premieres 14-16 innovative independent films each year and is television’s longest-running showcase for indie non-fiction films. Watch the trailer here.