Out of the Celluloid Closet

Theda Hammel on Her Queer Sundance Masterpiece My Trip to Spain

When it comes to covering and enjoying the Sundance Film Festival, part of the fun is hunting down all the gems hidden in its massive program. Much noise is made about the features that premiere at the festival, but often overlooked are the short films that remain virtually available throughout the fest’s entire duration. 

Tucked away in their Indie Episodic Program, My Trip to Spain is one such gem; a short film about a trans woman with a house and a mortgage leaving her house in the hands of her bitter friend and brooding gardener as she leaves to Spain for cosmetic surgery. 

Its creator – taking on writing, directing, and starring in the short – is Theda Hammel, who you may know as either HAMM or one of the geniuses behind the podcast Nymphowars. Working alongside actors John Early and Gordon Landenberger, My Trip to Spain is a much more subtle satire than something like her and Macy Rodman’s brilliant “Kill Drag Race” (which I firmly believe is the best radio play since Orson Welles’ War of the Worlds), and its intimate scale and simplicity is exactly why it’s so efficient at skewering the privileged queer people it follows. 

Speaking to Hammel over the phone in a refreshingly honest conversation about her filmmaking debut at Sundance, INTO dove into the process of creating something during the pandemic, the nuances of representation, and the excellent soundscape of My Trip to Spain


So, just to kick things off with the most forward question: what made you want to make My Trip to Spain and what was the inspiration behind it?

There was a longer project at first, but I don’t need to go back to biblical times. I never wrote anything prior to the pandemic and being stuck alone at home I started working on something that was going to be a stage play and got pretty far. I was three drafts in and then completely lost steam, but I had developed some writing muscle there and wrote a longer thing for John [Early] that followed that up. And then it seemed like a good idea to see if I was capable of directing a movie at all before we even shot those longer things.

I was going to be in LA and so it was like, “Do you want to shoot something?” And so I wrote something, our DP got a team together, and we shot it. It was all very haphazard; it does not emerge from a deep, long-held wish to make a short film. It was actually sort of a camera test, that’s it. 

It went well and I’m proud of the work everyone did. I’m proud of the work I did, frankly, not to sound like Donald Trump. I don’t know, it was a good artistic process. Now, fortunately, anybody who has about two hours of time on their hands will be able to easily access it through the Sundance virtual screening website. They’ll just have to go through a couple of gauntlets. 

Yeah, it’s a bit of a journey. 

[Writer’s note: you have to buy an Explorer pass for $50 (or a Day Package for $100 which includes all shorts), add individual films to your calendar via favorites, and then click Watch Now to actually watch the short]

I don’t want to complain though, I’m very grateful to be programmed at Sundance. It’s just the curse of Omicron. 

Of course. And so My Trip to Spain is in the indie episodic section, and you’re explaining that it was something of a camera test – I was surprised it felt like a very deliberately-paced short film instead of something that was a pilot or an episodic piece.

Yes, so a wonderful programmer recommended that we resubmit it as ‘episodic,’ and I have a kind of “no loads refused” approach to the film industry because I feel like I have no right to really be there, so I was like, “Yeah, sure, fine.” And submitting it like this is actually a weird way to short-circuit the film festival submissions because no one makes a TV show on spec. That’s insane; you’re supposed to make money from TV. So then we started building it out, thinking about the way it would work episodically and I have a way to fill it out that, I think, maintains the intensity of the short. 

It seems very unlikely that anyone will make it though. I just told somebody my idea the other day and his eyes rolled to the back of his head. But it was very cheap to make and I took a very economical approach to filmmaking – there’s no coverage, we did long takes, and we were able to shoot 30 minutes of it over two days with no rehearsal and a five-person crew. So, in theory, all I would need is to get into a minor car accident and I could make the whole episodic series with a $10,000 or $15,000 settlement from whoever poor soul happens to be driving their Prius or Tesla. 

I sincerely hope this happens for you.

If anyone wants to make it as an episodic, like I said, it’s not a load I’ll refuse. Raw is law. 

I can’t stop laughing just imagining this being how it happens for you.

I’ll be less funny.

No please don’t – actually one of the things I wanted to note was that, in expanding it to episodic, it feels like it would be ideal for something more “slice-of-life” based. There’s a real mundanity to some of these scenes and I think that’s what makes them more appealing. The scene where you’re just waiting for the water to warm up especially stood out to me…

You’re observant.

Am I? That’s questionable.

No, you are. Yes, I feel a very strong commitment to mundanity or to try and find something interesting or, maybe this sounds a little pretentious, but something a little bit sublime in mundanity. Part of it just has to do with the fact that contemporary films and representation tend to be so sensationalistic. And making a film is a very weird experience, especially in a virtual screening setting where it ends up becoming “content”. 

Hopefully, after the whole process of writing it and making it, you get an ideal setting for viewing it with other films of that nature, in which it feels like a departure from the “content space” and more of a contemplative space where I can convince people to place trust in the idea that it does amount to something. It’s not intended to be boring, but it is deliberate, you know? 

 If you’re someone like me, for example, a bourgeois person, I think it’s just like sort of dwelling on those moments rather than concocting a spectacular scenario where a bunch of aliens land or, like, you have to get $800,000 by Friday or you’re going to get killed by the mob. That’s not something I have any experience with; I’m not a “woman of being killed by the mob” experience.

I feel a very strong commitment to mundanity or to try and find something interesting or, maybe this sounds a little pretentious, but something a little bit sublime in mundanity.

Just to jump off this notion of deliberate mundanity: I remember reading this interview with you that noted this idea of “boring trans stories” and I feel that goes hand in hand with this. Not to say this is boring, because I truly love it, but there is something low-key revolutionary about having just scenes of a life instead of these fictionalized constructs of either a perfect trans person or…

Or a martyr.

Exactly.

Yeah, that article is about a play where I was a character that was not written to be trans, never said the word trans, and no one ever used the word trans when referring to her and you sort of infer from that that the character is not terribly interested in thinking in those terms, either out of haughtiness or even just boredom. And I think the headline of the story was “Theda Hamell wants more boring trans stories” and I don’t want stories to be boring, but I think it’s certainly true of my experience that transness itself is a lot more boring than it was when I was transitioning. 

You have to sort of go insane to transition, then you spend a year being insane and everything you do is ‘I’m a trans person going on the street, I’m a trans person getting lunch, I’m a trans person eating a sandwich, I’m a trans person going to the bathroom.’ As time goes on, and you get situated to it, you’re not foregrounding the transness, you’re foregrounding the sandwich or the bathroom itself, you know? And so, from my experience, the whole idea is to present characters in the event that the characters I write are trans as they would be if I were writing for myself or many of my friends who happen to be trans; trans people who are a little bit bored with their transness and are capable of thinking about something else. 

I think it’s certainly true of my experience that transness itself is a lot more boring than it was when I was transitioning. 

Now, the woman in this short, she’s making this allusion to not wanting to be living in Bushwick or fucking married men for rice and beans, but she’s a thoroughly bourgeois trans woman working in film and television production in Hollywood. She has a mortgage, a beautiful house in Silver Lake, and is getting this facial feminization surgery–which for many people is a quite urgent medical necessity, but I don’t believe that it is really true in her case when she’s saying she wants it so she can travel and go to the pool. She is valid as a trans person, but I think maybe she doesn’t actually deserve our complete pity and solidarity. 

It’s something different and that is a part of my life that I think is boring. I’m not a revolutionary, you know what I mean? As a trans person, I’m a follower. I’m a post-“tipping point” bourgeois transexual woman who has suffered very little for it, so hopefully I can make a gentle satire about it in the depiction of this character and I would hope it’s not misconstrued as being empowering. 

I don’t think it comes across as that, but I also think a lot of cis people will think it’s a criticism of them with something like John Early’s character saying, “You already have a beautiful face.” They’ll feel guilty, but I think it’s very clear that these characters are both just deeply self-involved. Obviously you and John collaborate a lot so I was wondering how you sort of keep that balance as both actor and director of not going into a caricature or falling into the routines of your existing friendship. 

The character I wrote for John is actually much more like me than it is John, so I wasn’t worried that I was writing his secret self of anything. I just sort of gave him the direction, “Don’t imitate me. Just sort of make your way through it,” so I was never worried about it. I feel like the strange thing about working with your friends when they are performers – and John is, to me, such an exquisite performer – you’re not necessarily friends with their brilliance, you’re just friends with your friend. And I was so surprised editing the first footage and seeing all the little details that he brought to all of these scenes. 

“I’m a post-“tipping point” bourgeois transexual woman who has suffered very little for it, so hopefully I can make a gentle satire…and I would hope it’s not misconstrued as being empowering.”

He’s so expressive and it’s strange because we handed off the pages and everyone was manically learning their lines, and this is grandiose and maybe totally inaccurate, but my experience editing it as a filmmaker was that his emotional expression is so immediately coherent and complex in a way I was not expecting at all. And I don’t necessarily feel like I was working with my friend in the edit. I’m not sure I’m giving a satisfying answer to your question, but I guess the answer is that it’s not difficult to separate because he’s a very gifted actor and it’s not overlapping. 

John Early and Theda Hammel in “My Trip to Spain”

I think that’s a great concept of the acting and directing process in something like this though. To pivot, since you were talking about the film being something like a camera test, and because you primarily work in such an audio-based realm, I couldn’t help but notice a lot of the sound mix itself. The sound of construction and tools as both ambiance, while also being this distraction that punctures conversations and silences, is so fascinating. 

Off-screen space is a subject I’m very interested in, because it’s something that can only be created with an image. It’s different working with radio or podcast, and I think I did pretty complicated and ambitious work in a narrative radio space. On those podcasts, all of the sound is heard and inherently is on screen, do you know what I mean? You can’t have a divide between the foreground and the background really in audio; it’s all one stream and, in life, there is no such thing as “off-screen space” because there is no sound in your vicinity that you can’t turn your head to look at. But there is this thing you can do by pointing a camera at something and hearing the sound of something else that exists in a dimension that is off-screen. Here it really helped because you can point the camera at something, do long takes, and then turn the camera rather than cutting to a zone that was previously off-screen.

The sound of work is because, well, people in Silver Lake do not do their own yardwork. I don’t mean to generalize, but the people who own homes in Silver Lake hire laborers. My version of that is Bruno, played by Gordon Landenberger, who is doing work around the house for her, but there are also the sounds of lawnmowers, leaf blowers, the sounds of work happening in the outside world that can impinge on this little solipsistic idyll. The sound thing that I feel most proud of is that, if you listen closely, there’s a long scene where the house is being hammered and begins shaking with the sound of this hammering outside, and that sound is repeated in the scene where my character hits her orbital ridge – the part of her face that is going to be sawed off in Spain – against the wall three times. 

Hopefully the connection that I can draw there using sound is that here is somebody who can only have work done, not somebody who is capable of work. This house that we are shooting in is actually in disarray and you can see all the aborted home repairs; you can see foam on the wall, you can see the plastic hanging. Her attempt to remake her life, and remake her home, was a total botch. And she has to hire people to either fix her house or fix her face, and, in the meantime, the closest she can get is to hammer her head against the wall. And I think there’s something poignant about the fact that something like that comes out of the sound mix and sound edit. 

That’s something that emerges from my sensitivity to those things and from working in radio. I’m not a very visual person; image is a pretext to explore interesting narrative possibilities with sound. There’s actually a very Nymphowars sound effect where, every time in [the characters’] lunch conversation where somebody talks about “the procedure”, the gardener Bruno makes a very loud sound with a buzzsaw. 

That’s such a great gag and the sound work also extends to the way the whole short flows. It oscillates between these stream-of-consciousness monologues and dialogue between characters. How do you strike an ideal balance between the two? 

I think my approach to sound in the short was very realistic. This is another thing born of my experience in sound editing: I actually hate sound editing and I hate foley. I had to mix the whole fucking thing on my own and we ran out of money. So I did the dialogue edit, the sound edit, I did some of the foley, and my brilliant friend who is a trans foley artist did the footsteps because they are fucking impossible for me. That stuff is going to give me carpal tunnel. We actually planted mics as many places as we could to get as much live sound as possible, so there is a liveliness to the sound that gives it a sort of realism, even though that’s a loaded word. 

The voiceover is doing this very specific thing and emerges from this weird thing which is that I don’t really know how to write scripts. When you open to page one of a script and it says ‘Jerry is sitting on a park bench in Brooklyn’, I feel like my first thoughts are: which park bench, where am I going to find a park bench, can we shoot the park bench? Like what the fuck – this is all fake and I’m making this all up. There’s no Jerry, this is all bullshit. 

But if you use more of a prose strategy, you can go, “The morning of my trip to Spain I woke up a few hours before my alarm went off and thought to myself, ‘Is this the new me?’” For me, writing that and reading it is just more convincing for forming the idea in my own imagination and then laying it in without any rules. It makes everything more exciting for me. If you’re not willing to use voice over, you have to do stupid montage things like showing copies of the plane ticket and having her look at the website of where she’s going–just trying to get all that information across, you have to do all this horseshit. Why can’t I just say it and then figure it out? 

“When you open to page one of a script and it says ‘Jerry is sitting on a park bench in Brooklyn’, I feel like my first thoughts are: which park bench, where am I going to find a park bench, can we shoot the park bench? Like what the fuck – this is all fake and I’m making this all up. There’s no Jerry, this is all bullshit.”

Voiceover is very important to me in that sense because you can skip over so much and it’s also this weird floating thing that interacts with the realistic material in a way that makes it more interesting than if it were just pure verite documentary realism.

Yeah, and within fiction, voiceover allows you to make it more personable to some extent.

I don’t want to quote Martin Amis’ bit about [James] Joyce and [Vladimir] Nabokov, but I totally will: “If you go to Nabokov’s house, metaphorically speaking, you get his best chair, in front of his fire, with his best wine. If you go to James Joyce’s house, you come into this big drafty edifice, and there’s no one there. And then you find him tinkering around in some scullery. And he offers you two slabs of peat around a conger eel, and a glass of mead.”

And there is something about a little voiceover in a movie that’s like, “Come in, sit down, welcome. This is who I am. Let’s have a little movie.” ♦

Read More