Out of the Celluloid Closet

Henry Hanson Dishes on His Viral Short Film “Bros Before”

There are plenty of reasons to be excited over this month’s launch of Otherness Archive and its newfound accessibility for transmasculine cinema, but one of the key treasures that comes with it is the release of Henry Hanson’s Bros Before. The short, described as being about “two trans bros who just happen to enjoy jerking off together” and the woman who comes between them, isn’t just a goddamn delight: it’s hot, it’s sentimental and it’s unabashedly trans. 

For months the filmmaker has been teasing out the film to an audience that has been incredibly hyped for its release, even ending up as one of Letterboxd’s highest-rated short films with a festival release last year, and various screenings have resulted in nothing but wonderful praise.

Prior to its premiere, INTO interviewed director Henry Hanson over email and discussed everything from the film’s influences and performers to Hanson’s other work (including a personal favorite that was how this writer came to discover him.)

To start off with the basics, you’re pretty explicitly playing off of Gregg Araki with Bros Before – even calling it “a transexual film by henry hanson.” I’d love to know a bit about his influence on you and what other artists were influential in this coming together. 

Obviously Araki was my biggest influence, particularly his 1997 feature Nowhere. I love how it’s almost like a live-action cartoon. It completely captures this certain milieu in a certain time, but it’s not really concerned with naturalism at all. It gets at something so much deeper about these characters by seamlessly incorporating their music, art, and culture until the movie itself just becomes, like, the ultimate piece of pop culture that its own characters would watch. . It’s very artificial but the artifice isn’t the point. The artifice is a tool to arrive at something realer than reality, which is feelings.

In Nowhere specifically it’s the feeling that the world is ending and everything is hopeless, but you want to find love anyway. I know Araki is really influenced by Godard and the French New Wave and a lot of other artsy, foreign shit that Americans consider inaccessible and pretentious (which it’s mostly not, but that’s a whole other story.) But Araki’s movies are like the filmic equivalent of hiding the vegetables. They’re totally pop-y and punchy and fun and unpretentious but they’re very carefully crafted and influenced by some really outre, experimental work. 

So yeah, at the time I made this I was mostly looking to Araki and other North American gay and lesbian movies from the 90s – stuff generally considered to be part of the New Queer Cinema and Queercore movements. But to name a few of my favorites specifically: Bruce Labruce, Cheryl Dunye, Jamie Babbit, and Jon Moritsugu (who’s actually not gay as far as I know but he’s an honorary gay filmmaker as far as I’m concerned.) So these people are like my most direct influences, but to look a generation deeper and cite their reference points I think they’re indebted to John Waters and Andy Warhol in terms of, like, an American lineage of explicitly queer cinema. 

The other major aspect of my influence is just that I’ve always loved really stupid, broad, raunchy comedies my entire life. I didn’t really set out to include these reference points in my work, it’s just that humor on the level of, like, “that’s what she said” jokes are like oxygen to me. I watched the Austin Powers trilogy for the first time when I was maybe 7 or 8 and they were an instant favorite. They’re probably the movies I’ve seen the most times in my entire life. I also watched a lot of what I’ll call “loser bro hangout comedies” growing up, my favorites being Superbad and Step Brothers. The thing about all these movies is they’re just really entrenched in the cis male perspective, to the point where that almost seems to be a genre convention. Some of them are extremely sexist and the ones that aren’t usually still have plots that hinge on the idea that women are totally alien and impossible to understand. It’s funny because I always really related to the protagonists of these movies even before I knew I was a guy (which I think troubles the whole “socialized female” idea but that’s a whole other story.) The movies just made sense to me and I identified with these funny, gross dudes who didn’t understand the hot, popular girls and saw love and happiness as just slightly out of reach. I wanted to play with this genre and make explicit its profound homoeroticism. Of course I’m critical of it, but honestly, I think Bros Before is more of an homage than a subversion. While I do consider the political implications of art, I’m not trying to “send a message” and I refuse to play the game of proving the moral righteousness of an oppressed group. I just want to be honest and funny. 

One of the things that caught me off guard with the film – simply from not experiencing it that often – was this sort of, like, effortless casualness of trans existence. It sounds corny but there’s something so refreshing and kind of groundbreaking about just showing these guys existing – fucking, fighting, watching terrible reality television, etc. All this to ask: what made you want to approach this story by having so much hanging out time and really letting your characters feel like real people? 

Thank you, I’m glad you felt that way. That’s exactly what I was going for. I just wanted to put people like me into the kind of film that I would want to watch. It’s honestly not that deep. I just wanted to make a gay camp/bro comedy crossover starring trans men because that’s just the sh*t I’m interested in. 

I’ve always loved really stupid, broad, raunchy comedies my entire life…humor on the level of, like, “that’s what she said” jokes are like oxygen to me.

I’ve been trying to keep up with the films by and about trans people coming out at LGBT film festivals the past few years and they usually make me want to gouge my eyes out. They’re usually either trauma porn or inspiration porn, which are definitely the two kinds of porn I LEAST want to watch. But worst of all, they’re almost never funny. This has always been so baffling to me. How did a group of people with such a strong legacy of notoriously outrageous, edgy humor become known as so humorless and pitiable? I think it just proves that a lot of the narratives about trans people are either coming from the outside or geared towards the outside. I don’t care to do that. I’m personally not interested in making, like, edu-tainment about being trans or otherwise gearing my work towards cis audiences. But the thing is even if you ARE trying to do that, you’d be better off just making interesting, cool work about trans people rather than, like, begging cis people to care. I think it’s actually really alienating when you can tell a movie is presenting a protagonist who’s “othered” for an assumed cishet white audience and begging them to care. If you actually want to build empathy for an oppressed group just show them in normal situations being normal people who are flawed yet relatable. It’s pretty simple really. You can achieve a lot more by just telling a good story. 

I’d love to hear about the trio of actors you worked with too: Radcliffe Adler and Meadow Meyer are great, but I was really taken by Marten Katze’s work and how that character is so fleshed out and vulnerable while also being kind of a himbo (who I am in love with.)

I wanted to cast people that were actually similar to the characters. I imagined them all to be sort of broke, alternative kids with a lot of tattoos somewhere on the punk-club kid spectrum. At first, I tried to cast people from the casting website Backstage and I got like 100 submissions of normie cis girls for the part of Grace and literally 2 trans men. So then I realized I needed to just spread the casting call through my personal networks and consider non-actors.  I think in the flier I said “I don’t care about the experience I just care about vibe”. So I just spread it on Instagram and Twitter and got a solid 15-20 trans guys. I had callbacks with 8 of them, just trying out different Billy/Elijah combinations until I found the two people who had the best chemistry with each other, which was Rad and Marten. Then I actually found Meadow by posting the casting call on Lex. 

I think in the flier I said “I don’t care about experience I just care about vibe”. So I just spread it on instagram and twitter and got a solid 15-20 trans guys.

It turned out that everyone I cast had some sort of performance experience, but none had been in a movie. And everyone I cast has their own arts practices in other mediums, too. I really liked working with such creative individuals who didn’t have a lot of preconceived notions of what our process “should” be. Part of the preproduction process involved collaborating on wardrobe along with our amazing production designer Jade Wong, and talking about the things these characters would have in their rooms and what kind of music they liked and stuff. They were all wearing their own clothes and makeup, and both Meadow and Marten ended up contributing some of their personal items to the bedroom sets of their characters. 

Marten is a really keen observer of human nature and has a great eye for, like, hyper-specific subcultural ethnographical stuff. Like he’s the reason we included all those Riot Grrl posters in Elijah’s bedroom. He was like “Elijah would have a Team Dresch poster and part of the reason for Elijah’s struggle with liking men is his past life as a misandrist Riot Grrl.” Which is really funny because that’s actually true for me, that I went through the Riot Grrl to Trans Man Pipeline, but I didn’t put that in anywhere explicitly. Marten just picked up on it and suggested we bring it out a little bit more in the film. 

Beyond BB, I first came to your work through a screening of Monogamy House, which I kind of want to describe as a sort-of spin-off of BB that also just kind of brilliantly exists on its own terms as a reality television parody. Why did you decide to make a whole ‘nother short while making BB and what inspired it (and all the niche jokes within)? 

Honestly, Monogamy House started as just a background element of Bros Before but ended up snowballing into its own project because it was super fun and we got carried away. At first, I wrote the Bros Before script and had them watching reality TV because I thought it just made sense for the story and didn’t think much of it. I figured I would just make a throwaway audio track that sounded vaguely like a TV show and put it in the background really quietly and not show the screen itself. But then I realized that I absolutely love when films have in-universe media because I think it’s like the ultimate world-building tool. And this is something you find a lot of in my direct influences from the New Queer Cinema movement, so actually making the show would be an opportunity to do something really cool and ambitious I’ve always admired that was perfect for this project. I should give a special shoutout to The Watermelon Woman for being the best example of this. 

I cast Mitch Mitchell as the host because he actually has his own indie talk show called the Mitch Mitchell Variety Hour so he’s literally perfect. We just bounced a lot of ideas off each other for the show and he got a few of his friends to be the contestants plus my housemate Sydney who’s hilarious. I wrote a 10-page script which was 90% dialogue lifted directly from the show Are You The One. I literally just watched a whole season in one tab with a google doc open in another tab and wrote down the craziest shit they said. Then I molded it into the shape of situations that mirrored what was happening in Bros Before. When we got to the actual filming part, all the actors improvised a bunch on top of that, especially in the confessionals. They were all hilarious and added so much to the project. Like the whole thing with Sydney talking about the video game NieR:Automata was all improvised, she’s just a gamer and came up with that whole thing on the spot. I actually had no idea what she was talking about but I put that in the final cut because I figured it would be a huge easter egg to anyone who did get the reference. Every time we screen it there are like, 2 people in the audience who freak out so I figure it’s worth it for them. All of Bros Before is full of stuff like that – lots of little references that you don’t need to get but will make you extra excited if you do. I guess most of the other stuff in BB is visual – like the Lou Sullivan book or the posters in Elijah’s bedroom – but it felt in a similar spirit. 

I just wanted to make a gay camp/bro comedy crossover starring trans men because that’s just the sh*t I’m interested in. 

I wanted all of the situations on the show to be a fun-house mirror, wacky dream version of the plot of Bros Before. I think it lends some explanatory power, and hopefully empathy, to the characters’ behavior. I think, and this is why I often really love having in-universe media in films, that it helps thread the needle of how maybe the story we’re seeing is just one small example of a larger social issue. Like in Bros Before, I think that Monogamy House serves as a reminder that internalized homophobia, which is the driving force behind the entire film, actually comes from somewhere and isn’t just some weird pathology that Elijah has. Hopefully this comes across in a fun and silly, rather than didactic, way. 

Anyway, yeah, I didn’t really have much of a plan for Monogamy House besides releasing it online but it’s so cool that Chris Molina wanted to program it on its own terms. I had a couple screenings where I’d play Monogamy House right before Bros Before and that was always a cool way to present the work. 

It’s been kind of wonderful discovering your work over the past few months and seeing the hype for Bros Before build in real time; how has the festival route and all the positive responses on Letterboxd and beyond felt for this and what are your hopes for the official web premiere? 

It’s been so great to get to release this work into the world and connect with people who share my tastes and are on the same page as me. When you’re making a film it’s like this really intense, introspective thing and it’s almost kind of hard to make sense of on your own. Actually sharing it with an audience helps me make sense of what the film is actually about, and how to talk about it. It’s also helped me find so much more cool film work that I love and connect with other people doing similar things (or at least really cool, related things). Like I obviously have my taste and the movies I love that inspired me, but putting something out there into the world is the clearest articulation of the stuff I’m into. And then a lot of people see it and recommend similar things I’ve never even heard of. That’s been the biggest unexpected perk, honestly. It’s been a real chance to deepen my taste even more. 

Related: Otherness Archive Makes the Past Present

We’ve gotten a great reception online, through a handful of festivals, then honestly a big thing has been like community screenings. Just people organizing their own stuff in a more DIY way. Those have honestly been my favorite events and it’s kind of more meaningful than a festival because it shows me that it’s having an actual cultural impact. If people who aren’t just film nerds are into the movie and want to show it to their friends and screen it in a bar or a living room or whatever that’s actually way cooler to me then a film festival. Because it means that the people it’s actually about and supposed to be speaking to responded. So with the online premiere I hope that a.) more people get to see it and b.) more people decide they want to put together their own screenings of it. Since it’s a short, you can program other stuff with it and I love seeing what combinations of movies people come up with! I’m really excited that it’s going to be available for free because I just want it to get seen without barriers. If you want to put together your own screening, please just do it. I mean it would be cool if you told me about it and asked for a high-quality downloadable file and all that but I don’t even care if you do that. Please just watch it and show it to people. 

What brought along the collaboration with The Otherness Archive and this launching/highlighting of your work? It feels like a match made in heaven and the perfect spot to premiere it.

Thank you, I agree! I honestly just saw The Otherness Archive’s open submission on Instagram and submitted out of the blue. It turns out they had heard about Bros Before and were planning on soliciting it anyway but we were just totally on the same page! I just think what they’re doing is so cool and I really vibe with the fact that it’s all free (except for the works that will link to places where people can pay those artists on their own sites). It’s really important to me that art be accessible. It was just a really nice moment of kismet. I’m honestly just super pumped to dive into the archive and watch more cool stuff! I think it’s gonna be a great resource.♦

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