Duncan Tucker puts a new spin on the road movie
Frodo with a lot more laughs." That's how writer and director Duncan Tucker describes his debut feature, Transamerica, a tale of a transsexual woman named Bree (played with amazing subtlety by Desperate Housewives star Felicity Huffman) and her long-lost teenage son.
The Frodo connection isn't likely the first link viewers will make, but Tucker has a point. "Both Bree and Frodo have to leave their comfortable homes and go on a journey they don't want to take to get rid of a treasure they don't want to have," Tucker explains. "They meet friends and enemies along the way, and they come back home changed."
In Transamerica, the journey is across America in a beat-up station wagon as Bree takes her son, who doesn't realize Bree is his father, to Los Angeles. The road-movie genre is a familiar one, but it's one that Tucker embraces. "I love quest stories," he says, "and a road movie is a quest story. As the external journey progresses, that should be a metaphor for the internal journey. I wanted to stay tight to the classic form and also implode it by writing about people whom we usually think of as freaks or outsiders."
But, Tucker notes, "If I've done my job right, within ten minutes people don't see Bree as a freak or outsider but as a human being." To pull this off, Tucker needed the right actor. He found that in Huffman, whose oddly pitched voice and stilted manner mark Bree as a woman uncomfortable in her own skin. But her extraordinary vulnerability transforms the character into something much richer.
"When we finally got the money together, after two or three years of having doors slammed in my face, my producer said we could make the movie but couldn't afford anyone I had ever heard of," Tucker recalls. "But I went to Felicity Huffman anyway, because I love her and had seen her onstage and didn't understand why she wasn't a big star. She agreed to do it, and then she tells me she has this TV pilot to shoot in 14 weeks. Stupid damn TV show, probably won't even make it, I said to myself." Duncan can laugh about it now, especially since the success of Desperate Housewives can only be a boon for his film.
Tucker knows transsexuality hasn't exactly hit the mainstream yet, but, he insists, "The subject of this movie is not transsexuality. The main character may be a transsexual woman, but the film takes that as a given. It's a movie about family, it's a movie about connection, it's a movie about growing up. Bree thinks that her journey is just going to end when she changes her anatomy to match her gender, to become a female. But what she really needs to do is become an adult." Along the way, Bree meets the proverbial cross-section of America, including a Navajo named Calvin (played with marvelous simplicity by Graham Greene) and her mother (Fionnula Flanagan), who's practically disowned her. The mom is based on Tucker's own mother, and those scenes are shot in her house with Flanagan even wearing Tucker's mother's clothes. He's surprised when he hears people call the family scenes over the top. "Boy, you don't know my family," he says.
Tucker hopes to show his audiences a character they might not have seen before. "I hope that Transamerica earns its emotion," he says. "That's what we need, movies that have heart and humanity. What Hollywood does really well is tell a muscular story and entertain. And what indie film does well is find character and interesting subjects. What I want to do is smush those two together."
And if Transamerica does even a fraction of the box office that Lord of the Rings did, that would be okay, too.
Go on the road with Transamerica in theaters now.