Trailblazing with "SIGN" director Andrew Keenan-Bolger: showcasing a film about the deaf community, experience and talents not mostly often seen in films
An interview with Andrew Keenan-Bolger
by Oliver Carnay
One of the most deeply affecting film I have watched during the recent OUTFEST 2016 was Andrew Keenan-Bolger's short "SIGN." The film is uniquely told with no dialogue but only SIGN LANGUAGE and a musical score. It tells a story about a relationship between two guys -- one deaf and another a hearing man. There are so many parallels between the gay and deaf experiences and communities we don't get often to see depicted in films. There are also a lot of deaf actors not given the opportunity to portray roles that actually fits them and further their careers. This is among some of my favorite shorts during the festival. It played under the yearly BOYS SHORTS program. The last movie I've seen (and impressed with) that doesn't have a dialogue and performed by deaf actors was "The Tribe," a Ukranian feature film in black and white .. here is the trailer: https://vimeo.com/99616606.
"SIGN" has no dialogue, acted by real deaf actors, with great production value and good story telling, perfect cinematography and right soundtrack -- it was a moving experience.
I found myself connecting with its director Andrew Keenan-Bolger:
Hollywoodflip: Can you talk about the genesis and the inspiration you have in doing this excellent film? What motivated you to do this film? Do you have a personal experience or close relation to someone who is hearing-impaired? Do you know how to do the sign language?
AKB: What drew me to the film were the parallels between the deaf experience and the gay experience. Both have fallen under historical systems of oppression and have been viewed by many in the past as something that needed to be fixed or cured. And yet both have managed to build an incredibly rich culture and strong identity. As a cisgendered white man, I'm often reminded of my privilege and think that as an artist I'm not only drawn to, but in someways feel it's our responsibility to collaborate with people who have horizontal identities to our own. I think if we ever hope to break out of the homogenization of LGBT stories in film, we have to embrace intersectionality and tell underrepresented stories. Both my screenwriter and I are hearing but live in New York where there is a vibrant community of deaf actors. We've seen and worked with so many of them and felt that there were hardly enough opportunities to showcase their incredible talent.
Hollywoodflip: What do you aim in creating this film? What do you want the audience to take after watching this film?
AKB: The practice of experiencing film is inherently biased to hearing audiences and we wanted to make a film that would level the playing field. Ultimately, we decided to not use subtitles but to compose an evocative score that would help with storytelling. This way our deaf audience had the benefit of being able to access the love story of these two men through ASL, and our hearing audience was able access it through the score. In the end, our two audiences — like our two leads — understand the film more fully together than they do apart. I think one of the main themes is how gaps in communication affect our lives. We never fully understand other people, we have to fill in the gaps as best we can.
Hollywoodflip: You found two great actors for your film. Can you explain the process you had in selecting your main cast? Did it ever occur to you and consider casting non-deaf actors?
AKB: We knew that we wanted to cast deaf actors in deaf roles. This was non-negotiable. In Hollywood I find it problematic that with as many gifted deaf actors as there are working, deaf roles are still given to hearing people. Adam Wachter, my screenwriter, and I knew a handful of amazing deaf actors that we knew we wanted to cast but when it came down to casting the lead role of Aaron, everyone kept telling us that we needed to check out an actor named John McGinty. I had to opportunity to catch him in a play off-Broadway called Veritas as was pretty much floored by his performance. I knew our film would great if we could just get him on it. As for the character of Ben, it was important to cast a hearing actor who was fairly fluent in ASL. I had been a fan of Preston Sadleir's acting work but never realized that he had a background doing social work within the deaf community. Luckily, both gentleman were game and we offered them the roles without auditioning them.
Hollywoodflip: Am I correct to say the film doesn't have script, but at least a story board? How did you communicate and work or explained to your actors what you need from them, considering you're not deaf yourself? Do you have an interpreter on the set? How long did it take you to finish the story line or story board?
AKB: It comes as a surprise to some that we actually wrote a pretty involved screenplay before beginning production. Even though many scenes have no dialogue, we plotted out nearly every moment on the page. I knew I couldn't direct this film on my own and was fortunate enough to enlist the help of deaf actress and director Alexandria Wailes who served as our director of ASL and Culture. Her contribution to the film is immeasurable. She took the dialogue that Adam had written and created the vocabulary of ASL used through out the short. She was also able to speak to the deaf experience and guide both our deaf and hearing actors. We also worked with a team of interpreters which fostered excellent communication on set. Going into the project I was nervous that there would be some disconnect with the deaf and hearing cast and crew but honestly, I don't know if I've ever worked with a better, more efficient team.
Hollywoodflip: What have you learned that you did not know about before you started the film?
AKB: Filming Sign was a personal test for me. We had a zero dollar budget to shoot this film. I wanted to see if I could tell a complex and important story using only the tools and connections that we had in my immediate reach. Everyone who worked on this film donated their time and talent and they did it because they believed in the story. I hope this film serves as a testament to indie filmmakers everywhere that you don't need a big Hollywood budget to create something that is moving and important.
Hollywoodflip: What was the greatest challenge you encountered in creating this film? How many shooting days did you have? Where did you shoot?
AKB: We shot this film in four days in 17 different locations. I knew going into this that it was truly crazy but something kept telling me that if we just pushed through, it would work and be worth it. The bigger challenge was ensuring that every performance -- from both our deaf and hearing actors -- would resonate with both of our audiences, hearing and deaf. Working closely with our ASL director, we were able to fine-tune John's and Preston's performance in a way that was authentic to their characters and to a signing audience, while still conveying their character's emotions to a non-signing audience as well.
Hollywoodflip: Where else this shorts has been screened and taken you? Which film festival this short has been to and are there any other film festival it is going to after Outfest? What were the audience response from past screenings?
AKB: We were lucky enough to have our world premiere at OutFest. In the upcoming months we've also been invited to a bunch of other film festivals, most of which have not made their official announcements so I'm not yet at liberty to say. Next month though, we will be a part of the Rhode Island International Film Festival. Personally, I've been overwhelmed by the positive audience response. Before OutFest, I had never seen the film in front of an audience or on a big screen. Unsurprisingly, it was an experience I'll never forget. Seeing so many people wiping away tears, especially during a film that's less than 15 minutes long, was so affirming as a filmmaker. I was approached by so many people after who said that they had reservations about seeing a silent film, and one that is in ASL with no captioning, but as soon as it began, they were drawn immediately into the world and became so deeply affected by it. I also hope that people come away from the film with a deeper understanding and appreciation for the deaf experience, and go forth embracing representation in film.
Hollywoodflip: Do you enjoy directing more than acting? What will be your next project? Do you have other dream project?
AKB: It's hard to say which I enjoy more, acting or directing. I think they're so closely related. I like to say that ultimately I'm a story teller, and whether it's my vision, or the vision of someone I respect, I'm so lucky to get to do it as my career. Adam and I are working on our first screenplay for a feature right now. Sign has opened up a lot of doors for us and created a lot of possibilities. I can't wait to get back on set!
Hollywoodflip: Can you direct me to any social media you want audience to check out or any links you want them to check out?