Following its Audience Award-winning debut at OutFest Los Angeles, Lyle Kash’s Death and Bowling makes its way to New York’s NewFest with its distinctive trans-centric story. It follows a trans actor named X, who struggles with his image within the worlds of film and the community of his lesbian bowling team. When the matriarch of the team dies, X’s journey of self-discovery is further complicated upon the arrival of a handsome stranger at her funeral. At once somber and light-hearted through its camp aesthetic, Death and Bowling sets out to re-frame the narrative surrounding trans representation, as revealed in this insightful interview with Kash.
Shane Slater: What made you want to tell this story?
Lyle Kash: Well, I knew I wanted to tell a story with a lot of trans people in it. And I knew I wanted to tell a story that wasn’t about transness, but sort of took up the story of a trans life that was well after the coming of age, or coming out moment. And I also wanted it to be about universal themes that touche us all like grief, family, love, loss. Things like this. The bowling part was sort of purely aesthetic and captured, I think, a nostalgia for half of the generations that are portrayed in death and bowling. And then obviously, of course, a bowling ball has three holes and so do trans men
SS: This film is notable for having a majority trans cast. What was the casting process like?
LK: We used a lot of social media to put casting calls out on the internet. I think the thing that was so incredible and moving was that we received hundreds of self tapes from people who wanted to be involved. So it really pointed to, I think, a thirst for participating in trans cinema that’s made by trans people. But also, sadly, I think speaks to the dearth of roles that are available for trans actors.
SS: What is like working with Will Krisanda and Tracy Kowalski as your lead characters and bringing out that relationship?
LK: We received casting tapes from both of them. And I had kind of been doing a jigsaw puzzle with who I wanted people to play and how the relationships would read on screen. Inter-generational relationships have always been very beautiful to me. So that’s probably just an autobiographical expression in the film. But also, I really wanted Tracy Kowalski to play Alex, because there are so few adult trans men of his generation that we see on screen or in media. And I think it was really cool for a lot of the younger cast and crew to be around adult trans men who are far along in their lives and are beautiful self actualized people.
But with the relationship between the two of them, Will, Tracy and I had not met until maybe two days before we started shooting, which is just another constraint of a low budget production not having a ton of rehearsal time. And I really wanted there to be great intimacy between them. Some of the rehearsal time we spent on a beach and I just had them spending many long minutes gazing into each other’s eyes, or following each other, or doing any sort of relationship-building intimacy practices. The extra-textual fact of the film is also they’re very close now. And I think that’s sort of a beautiful outcome.
SS: From the very first line, the film is addressing the idea of representation through X saying he wants to make a movie with a happy ending. What is your perspective on this discourse around representation?
LK: As we were making the film, all the way through the final edit, my collaborators and I realized that we were critiquing a body of work about trans masculine representation that doesn’t exist. Very few of us could come up with more than two or three examples of trans lead roles and features. So the statement of the happy ending, I think, sort of brought together a lot of ideas that I wanted to push back against. One of them is the respectability politics that I think gay and lesbian cinema has already moved through.
And the other one is something that I experienced a lot, or come up against as a trans creator, which is this imperative to create positive representation. And a lot of the filmmakers that I really adore, I think sort of avoided this entirely. Like Rainer Werner Fassbinder, the German filmmaker, who was making work in the 70s, and 80s. None of his characters are particularly empathetic or sympathetic characters. And yet he was making queer work that critiqued power structures and portrayed queer lives.
So I think sometimes when we say positive representation, what we mean is don’t show a trans person in pain. And then at best, we’re saying stop making work that portrays violence against trans people and stop making work that portrays trans people killing themselves or work that hinges on transition. So X is wanting a happy ending, and then realizing that maybe that’s not something that’s so fulfilling as a trans cinematic subject.
SS: A key part of this discussion is the crew and the production team. How did your production company T4T approach this project and help to create a safe space?
LK: I see the T4T as a goal in my work rather than a destination. I want to have a feminist and anti-racist and queer practice. And at the same time, I’m in a position to be hiring people. And I think, given the extremely low budget nature of our film, until independent filmmakers are given resources to be able to pay people a living wage, I’m not sure I can adequately speak to T4T productions being feminist or queer in these ways. But it’s aspirational and I really wanted to work with a ton of queer and trans people. And we definitely achieved that. I think you’d have to interview my cast and crew. At least the feedback that they’ve given me has been very warm and positive.
There’s a director I really love, Agnes Varda. And when she was interviewed about her film Happiness, someone said, “Why’d you make this film?” And she’s like, “Oh, I was so depressed, and I didn’t want to work this summer. And I wish that I could just spend the entire summer with my friends at a picnic. I can just write a film that revolves around that entirely and we will have to spend three months in the sun shooting this thing.” And I kind of think that sometimes production can be its own type of performance art and thinking of your cast and crew as the audience who are receiving the events of that performance is sort of a beautiful way to think of it as its own art practice.
SS: I found the art direction and cinematography so striking. Was there any particular inspiration behind the colors and what you did with the look of the film?
LK: First of all, I had an incredible art team. We were working a lot with Rainer Werner Fassbinder and his work. We looked at Wong Kar-wai’s set design, especially for some of the smaller spaces. Agnes Varda was a huge inspiration for color. And then I think the sort of like the elevated camp aesthetic definitely is referencing John Waters in a very large way.
SS: Do you have any projects you are working on now that we can look forward to?
LK: Yes, I’m working on my next screenplay, which I’ll keep most of that secret. But I’m kind of working with the original Pinocchio fairytale. This idea of “I’m a real boy” and taking it up again with an adult trans character who wakes up tied up by marionette strings and has to negotiate the world is an ex-puppet.
[This interview has been edited for length and clarity]