“A bowling ball has three holes. So do I.” Early into Death and Bowling – a wistful arthouse film by Lyle Kash – we are fed this nugget of wisdom from our narrator X (Will Krisanda). X is a transgender actor whose world we journey through. It’s a world punctuated by the Lavender League, the lesbian bowling club he belongs to, and Susan, the president of the club/pseudo mother to X. During the film, Susan (Faith Eileen Bryan) passes away and the aftermath of grief brings confusion, consolation and even some revelations.
This interview is part of our “Outfest 2021” coverage. Be sure to check out the other articles and keep an eye out for new content!
“All I ever wanted was to star in a film with a happy ending.” In the first part of the film we see X on a movie set about to jump off the roof of a building. We see him questioning the current state of transgender representation in media. He speaks of playing the transgender best friend or “sad transgender #1”. He feels both seen and overlooked.
We see him blow off steam at a gym where his trainer is a Black dominatrix, and then later we see him relax on the lanes as cotton candy colored balls knock down vintage pins in LA’s famous Montrose Bowl. Here we meet Susan and her wife Arnie. Susan is the de facto president of the bowling club, though know one really knows when she was elected. After the game as Susan and X are having a heart to heart, she reveals that she’s ready to die.
The film itself is artfully shot and layered with many metaphors. The cast is almost entirely transgender both in front of and behind the camera. I had the opportunity to speak with writer and director Lyle Kash about the film’s inspiration and the different themes that lie throughout.
The Geekiary: Tell me about you and how you got your start in filmmaking and specifically what inspired this film.
Lyle Kash: I always wanted to be a filmmaker, it was a dream I had for a very long time but I didn’t think I could do it. I had no formal education and was basically self taught. I knew I wanted to do more with it, and the more was Death and Bowling. I dove headfirst into filmmaking and have spent the last four and a half years putting this film together.
TG: Tell us about the themes present throughout the film.
LK: I was dealing with themes of grief and transition and death and I wanted to make something that wasn’t so literal about my experience.
TG: It’s very textured and I enjoyed the nostalgia to this film. It’s a very modern film, made fairly recently, but it has a very early ‘90s gay cinema feel to it. You know how back in the ‘90s everyone was obsessed with the ‘50s? You still see those callbacks even now. Do you find that motif to be comforting?
LK: Yes, and I also think it makes sense that there’s a ‘90s nostalgia that is also nostalgic for the 1950s. In a cinematic context – and since this is for The Geekiary we can get a little denser – one of my favorite filmmakers was Rainer Werner Fassbinder, who was a German guy who was making films in the ‘70s and ‘80s, but he was referencing Douglas Sirk, who was making work in the ‘50s. So I see that lineage of queer filmmaking in the ’90s to be really important to my work.
I’m definitely referencing those artists and trying to be in conversation with the longer history of queer cinema. I wanted to inject some of the [nostalgia] – you know, X has his leather jacket, he’s got the classic Marlon Brando outfit on. I wanted to inject some Rock Hudson, but with trans people. We were definitely in those films, just not in a way that was clear or open-faced.
TG: I wanted to talk about Susan specifically. Before I watched, I didn’t know about the blind casting – casting trans actors even in non-trans roles, and I loved that. I thought it was interesting that Susan who was in this lesbian league and considered X to be the son she never had and then Alex (Tracey Kowalski, Susan’s biological and estranged transgender son) shows up. Tell me about what prompted… it’s not a hypocrisy, but there is kind of an oxymoronic nature to it. Tell me what sparked that?
LK: So I think there’s two ways of reading the film. You come away thinking I just watched this huge community of trans people in which characters are also trans. Or you come away thinking there are these two trans men, one of them was the biological son of Susan (Alex), one was the adopted son or chosen family (X).
Either case, I wanted to stray away from the idea that an adult, white lesbian wouldn’t accept her trans son decades ago and she found this thriving queer community later – maybe she came out later in life – and wasn’t able to reach back out to the person she completely failed, but instead embraced this other adult child.
TG: I thought it was interesting – her rejection of Alex. I found myself thinking ‘how can she have this son all along?’ and then I remembered: Humans are weird. And we’re complicated and we don’t make sense a lot of the time.
LK: Yes, I wanted it to be a little messy and really want to challenge the audience with – as you’re watching the film, and you have certain narrative assumptions, how are you reading the characters and what are your assumptions about their identities about what’s possible with queer families, or what people mean when they talk about their mother or their child?
TG: I really liked the dynamic between Alex and X. Even down to the name, X is the unknown and Alex is also the unknown just in a slightly different way. Before we knew who Alex was there was this intimacy between them. I don’t think it was supposed to be romantic, but there is something that’s more than platonic. When you were forming that relationship – because these are two men who don’t know each other, but also know each other intimately – what was it like putting that together?
LK: I think I was trying to capture something that I experience when I feel desire for other trans people. Especially trans masculine people. Sometimes there can feel like there’s this assumed intimacy. There’s an initial rivalry or a difficulty between Alex and X where there’s this mirroring where they played a role in someone’s life who was able to love one of them well and not the other. It’s never really spoken what one got from the relationship with Susan that the other did not, but their closeness tools with the idea that we all have this shared past and that’s what makes us all trans.
It’s worth mentioning that Death and Bowling features African American characters as well as Tamil-Sri Lankan and Turkish trans actors and their characters bring their own version of grieving to the film. I asked Kash about the different methods everyone had for expressing their grief, and Kash informed me that while the script was completed before casting, several changes were made to accurately fit the personality of each character. Kash was willing to make changes based on comments from his actors and try alternate takes.
LK: Some of what you’re seeing was much looser behind the scenes from the script. For example, when we see Arnie (Denise Turkan) and Gio (D’Lo) pouring the wine for the empty table setting. These moments were written into the project, but these actors brought hugely biographical parts of themselves into the project.
TG: I think that’s so important so you do get well rounded representation. That act speaks specifically to a specific group of people and you wouldn’t have made that connection without it. So I think being able to collaborate with your actors while maintaining the integrity of the story you want to tell speaks highly and you can feel it throughout the film. Especially Joyce (Leontine White Foster) who told the story of Susan being the first woman to punch her in the face. I connected with her deeply!
Kash and I spoke at length about the theme of death in Death and Bowling.
TG: If you think of death as a transitional period, I can definitely see the similarity in Susan’s decision to die to coming out as transgender. It may be my ignorance, but I imagine that if you’re – for example – born a woman, just into the wrong body, that there’s a death or a casting off of your old body to get in touch with who you are. What are your thoughts on that?
LK: I have a lot of thoughts on that! I wanted to inject the film into a kind of middle space between what we’re talking about where there’s this rhetoric of dead names and your past self being dead giving way to re-birth, but also I’ve had the experience of my parents saying, “I feel like my daughter is dead”. So I wanted there to be a bit of reversal coming from an older trans actor who says, “I’m ready to die.” Ideally you wouldn’t have to have a disavowal of your body; it’s sticky, it’s beautiful whatever way people organize themselves in time and their identity, but I struggle with that a little bit.
TG: I like X because he’s been here before. So often we see stories at the beginning of their journey or at the end right before they off themselves, but X is just living. He’s been through his transition journey and now he’s on a new one which includes his transness, but it’s not defined by it. I’m very excited about this film and the doors it has the possibility to open in the future. Is there any kind of take away you want from the audience?
LK: I really hope other trans filmmakers who see Death and Bowling and other filmmakers in general or people interested in independent cinema take notice. I think there’s an incredible moment happening right now where trans filmmakers are beginning to bridge away from this impulse to always having to offer authenticity, realness, and truth in visibility. I believe trans filmmakers should be able to make fictional work that doesn’t check these really narrow multicultural, diversity, and identity based representation values.
I think fictional space should be open to trans makers. Sometimes it feels like we’re making work that’s knowledge production about our characters and while that can be valuable, I think we also need trans art. So I hope this sparks for people that it’s possible to make something for low budget with a trans cast and crew and that risk taking is possible. Whether they think it’s successful, I hope they find something exciting in that.
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Check out the trailer for Death and Bowling:
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