A few years ago when T Cooper and his wife and creative collaborator Allison Clock-Cooper moved to Atlanta for his work as a visiting lecturer at Emory University, he knew he was in for a major life change, just not as major as he suspected when he came across a unique competition, the Trans Fit Con Bodybuilding Competition, happening just blocks away from where he lived. As Cooper began meeting the muscle-bound transgendered men from across the country who compete, he realized he wouldn’t necessarily get a chance to properly settle down, deciding rather quickly that he would have to make a film about this.
“It was dizzying,” says Cooper, who has written for such shows as “Copper” and “The Get Down,” but had never made a documentary before. “I’m just now talking to you, starting to come out of it. It’s really a three-year process where it’s like literally, what am I doing? I feel like my wife and my kids and my dogs rarely saw me and thank God I was in Atlanta. I can fly anywhere from here. If I was at a smaller airport hub, I don’t know how I would’ve gotten places. Sometimes someone calls and says ‘This thing’s happening’ and I drop everything and I go load up the gear and shoot.”
The effort shows as Cooper, a trans man himself, captures an eventful year in the lives of six contestants in the Trans Fit Con Competition for “Man Made,” which is making its Los Angeles premiere this weekend at Outfest L.A. after taking home the award for Best Documentary at the Atlanta Film Festival, which he may have cherished as much for being able to sleep in his own bed as being acknowledged with the top prize. Cooper spent the previous 36 months racking up frequent flyer miles heading to such cities as St. Paul, where he got to know Dominic, a 26-year-old preparing to have top surgery in addition to his workouts to improve upon his 3rd place finish in Trans Fit Con a year earlier, and Cleveland, where Mason, a full-time bodybuilder starts submitting to mainstream competitions unaware of his trans status. The film also finds compelling stories in Conway, Arkansas where Kennie and his girlfriend DJ are going through relationship issues as DJ, a proud lesbian, becomes less attracted to the man Kennie’s set to become as he transitions, and back in Atlanta where Rece, a young father faces an uncertain future after being cast out on the streets and has been cut off from much of his family.
While bodybuilding gives each of the men a sense of purpose, that’s about where the comparisons end in “Man Made,” which shows the diverse array of subjects Cooper follows experiencing their transitions on their own timelines, with some entirely settled into the identity they’ll keep for the rest of their lives while others are still coming into who they are, and yet the filmmaker is careful not to let their gender status be what defines them, presenting them first as people with interesting, complicated lives having nothing to do with the bodies they occupy. As the film makes its way into Los Angeles, Cooper spoke about getting into the minds of his subjects, as well as taking on the storytelling challenge of making his first nonfiction film.
As soon as I heard about it, I was fascinated by the existence of an only transgender bodybuilding competition and it was literally around the corner from me when I moved to Atlanta. Obviously, [there was] a metaphor in bodybuilding to marry with the transgender experience in general, but then also the specificity of these guys’ stories once I started talking to them. My first impulse as a journalist and writer was to try and do a long format piece about it, but when I started talking to the guys [about] their journeys and what brought them to this point of stepping on stage and then also where they were going after stepping onstage was just overwhelming. It didn’t feel like just one piece would cover it, so it was at that point I felt this could be a cool sports documentary where you have competitors heading to one point, but like all good [sports] films, it started to be about way more than just the bodybuilding.
Did you know how many of the bodybuilders you would follow from the start?
The cool answer is it just came together naturally, but the real answer is I sweated it for nine months in the edit and writing. I had so much material to digest. I shot probably about 85% of it myself and had experienced huge things not only with the guys that ended up as the four main subjects, but also with probably about three or four others, who I filmed with and maybe didn’t fit as far as that larger story I was trying to tell for whatever reason. I feel like there isn’t a ton of trans made storytelling about trans life at all, but especially trans male life — I don’t feel like I see that story or my story out there, so I felt an incredible amount of pressure and responsibility to not just say, “Here, this is how all of trans male life is, but to offer a diversity of experience, not only on the surface, but racially and socioeconomically and age and geography,” but also [show] trans stories that weren’t just focused on transitions.
So it was like a very complex math problem as far as trying to figure out whose stories [would be in the film because] I didn’t want to see four of the same trans stories, one after the other. I really felt that responsibility of representing adequately the diversity of these guys’ lives and that there’s not just one way to be a trans man. There isn’t just one version of masculinity. These guys represent all sorts of versions of masculinity and come at it from so many different angles. I also wanted the audience to feel like you’re on a journey and not only do you care about the characters, but you’re like, “I want to see who wins.” In some of those amazing sports docs that we all love like “Murderball” or “Spellbound,” you really get wrapped up in who’s going to win and what’s going to happen.
Still, and this may sound like a backhanded compliment, I found myself largely forgetting about the competition until the end. Was it much of a decision to have that take a backseat when you’ve got such interesting stories going on elsewhere?
One hundred percent, and I co-wrote this with my wife, who I collaborate on TV writing as well as young adult fiction writing together, and it’s funny [because] I’ve been going to the festivals and seeing so many of my colleagues’ films and I feel like this one was very written. We really went over that to make it feel almost like a nonfiction, deep dive book with multi-subject approaches. For me, having little touchstones to the competition, even if it was just a little nod like a food prep or just one comment from the guys, like Dom saying, “This is my winter weight,” [were important], but I love hearing that falls away for you and for other viewers because it really doesn’t matter. The body building is really a metaphor for what we all do with our lives. From the minute we’re born to the minute we leave this planet, we all change and adapt and make choices as far as what we do with our bodies, who we love, where we go, what we do, what we eat, how we spend our time – all that stuff is relevant here to the notion of “bodybuilding,” so all the huge stuff happening in these guys’ lives I wanted to feel like they were building their bodies and their lives just as much as the physical stuff.
Most of this was hit the ground running, on the job training. This was my first documentary feature, certainly the first thing that I filmed myself, and it was really like, “Let’s get everything and see what we have later,” but I did have some broad brush strokes of things that I knew some of the guys would be going through. When I started doing all that advance work that you do, I started going, “Oh wow, Dom just found his biological mother on Facebook, and he’s having surgery. Oh my God, Kennie’s decided he’s going to transition. Mason’s doing non-trans bodybuilding competitions — and that’s a huge thing for a trans guy to step into when people don’t know that he’s trans.” I spoke with Rese shortly after a competition and I found out he was homeless. So there were these broad strokes of these important things going on in these guys’ lives, so then for me, it was like how am I going to get them [on camera]? So I just started for that year between the first competition and the second, filming every single thing I could with them and their families, friends, partners, so I could tell each of their journeys to stage, but also in a larger way where it wasn’t just about being on stage.
As a writer, I really try and remain open to the subject matter dictating to me the format that things take. Now, sometimes that’s like this story feels like it should be a young adult story or this one, oh that’s a teen story or that one’s a novel. So once this one really started speaking to me as a multi-subject documentary competition film, I really remained open to whatever happened. What was surprising was just the depths that I kept getting into with them. Because I was coming from a similar experience as a trans man, I was told by all of them that they really felt like they would not have done this and opened up if I weren’t trans and that I would tell this story like it was my own because it is my own, and there were several times where I would be like, “Oh my God, I can’t believe I’m shooting this right now.” [laughs] And what that translates into is [when] somebody who is taking care of them as if it is their own story, there’s things in here that have never been seen before and I just feel so happy that I got to do that in an honest, authentic, non exploitative way.
The reason I keep bringing it back to the diversity of the stories is because, for instance, there’s a theme of self-harm. A couple of the guys experience and share that they had either tried to kill themselves or struggled with that or a lack of family acceptance, and I didn’t want to hit that note over and over, so I tried to emphasize those things at different times in [the different subjects’] trajectories because I feel like with Mason, the way that we get introduced to that stuff is literally at the end before he steps onstage [because there] was a time when he literally was deciding whether he wanted to live or die, and here’s this thing bodybuilding, which he attributes to saving his life, so I tried to juxtapose things like that to emphasize some of these stories [that] there’s a lot of transgender people struggle with self-harm and suicide.
I love it. I really love when eyes get on this film and especially eyes that think they know and have seen everything and then actually reflect back that it’s something that they’ve never thought of before. My very first screening was a very informal screening to all trans men, and it was just mind-blowing to see so many guys, not only wrapped up and teary-eyed and whatnot, but also to say, literally, “I’ve never seen my story and I literally feel like I’ve just seen five of them or six of them.” It was so hard to feel like you’re making a film that needs to represent so much and work so hard — for cis people, for trans people, for LGBT people — [in] one little 90-minute film, but it’s really a gift to see people from all walks, reflecting back that even if it’s not their experience, that they see themselves in the film, whether it’s through relationships or parental or sibling stuff. And I’ve loved being at the festivals with the guys. I’ve had at least one of the subjects along with me at almost all the festivals, so I really love seeing them engaging with the audience and people caring where they’ve been and also where they’re going.