By Connor Dalton
24th February 2024

Andrea Pallaoro's new film, 'Monica', is an absolute miracle. It's a portrait of a transgender woman who returns home to care for her ailing mother and reunite with her estranged family. Led by a powerhouse performance from Trace Lysette, it is an incredibly thoughtful illustration of the trans experience. There is not one iota of the stereotypes or vilification that have frustratingly dominated trans representation in popular culture. Pallaoro's approach is far more sensitive, with his emphasis firmly centred on exploring all the nuances and realities of his titular character. The resulting work has undoubtedly moved the needle forward for trans visibility and how their stories should be presented in media.

But perhaps what is equally impressive is the trials Pallaoro endured to realise his vision. To say 'Monica' didn't happen overnight would be putting it lightly. Lysette first circled the project as far back as 2016, but it would be nearly seven years before anybody would see its completed form. However, the pair's persistence paid off in spades. For too long, audiences have been accustomed to seeing cisgender actors play trans characters. While some of these performances were well-intentioned - and some even award-winning - it limited how specific a portrayal could be. A lot of 'Monica's' grace is earned through its authenticity and having someone like Lysette front and centre. In our continued pursuit of artistic progression, the film is destined to be a seminal influence.

Before its Australian premiere at this year's Mardi Gras Film Festival, I spoke with Pallaoro about collaborating with Lysette, his battle for financing, and how he processed an 11-minute standing ovation at Venice. This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

CONNOR DALTON: What was the inspiration behind 'Monica'?

ANDREA PALLAORO: It is a film that is inspired by the life of a very dear friend of mine, and my desire to delve into this story is really rooted in the need to explore the complexities and dynamics of what it means to be abandoned and not recognised for who you are. That is at the core of the exploration of the psychological and emotional world of this character. I believe that abandonment and not being accepted is something that every human being can relate to, to a certain extent. Of course, 'Monica' offers an extreme paradigm of that experience. But I do believe it's a very human thing that we grapple with and something that affects not only the way we relate to the outside world and relationships but also our sense of identity. So that was the impetus behind it.

DALTON: How did Trace Lysette join the project?

PALLAORO: That was a very long searching process. The casting took over a year before we met Trace and decided to work together. I saw more than 30 candidates for the role all over the world, not just in the U.S. - in fact, a couple were from Australia. Many of them were candidates that I really considered, and they were very exciting. But when I met Trace, I immediately felt that she was the person I'd been looking for - the person, the artist with whom I could sculpt this character and bring her to life. She understood the character in a private, personal, and deep way.

It was clear from the beginning that she possesses that very beautiful and raw gift of just being in front of a camera instead of having to act. By that, I mean she is able to reveal the inner state of what she's going through with very subtle movements or even the way she looks at things. They're so pregnant with meaning, and they provide an opportunity for the spectator to connect and recognise themselves in the process.

DALTON: Many films in the past have employed cisgender performers to portray trans characters. Often, the justification you hear is they had to because they wouldn't be able to secure financing without an established star. Is that a pressure you felt when trying to get 'Monica' off the ground?

PALLAORO: That's a good question because that did come up repeatedly in the casting process, and it's something my team and I resisted from the beginning. We knew that this film was only going to be made with a transgender lead. That made the process hard. It was really difficult to finance this very small-budget independent film for that reason. Mainly for that reason, I would say. I hope things are changing. I do feel like something is happening, like the landscape has been shifting, and centring stories around trans characters is becoming less of a rarity.

DALTON: It has been a very long road for this film. Lysette has said in interviews that she first got involved as far back as 2016. Could you tell me about the journey and why it spanned so many years?

PALLAORO: It was difficult to find investors for the film. Then, of course, the first wave of COVID happened, so that stifled the process. Then we did find some investors, but we had to make some very serious compromises on the budget. At one point, we just decided to greenlight the film, even though we didn't have the full budget covered. We basically jumped in the dark, and I really feel like that was the only way to make this film happen.

DALTON: Lysette has also stated she gave notes about her experiences that were incorporated into the script. How much did her insights alter the character and the story?

PALLAORO: Very much so. I wanted her input and for her to make the character hers as much as possible. I believe in that way of collaborating with an actor and giving them the freedom to discover their character and embody them as much as possible. As a director, I want my actor to know the character better than anyone and to feel that ownership. I don't think the story changed, but what happened was she inhabited Monica and embodied her with so much specificity, care, and thoughtfulness. She was able to turn every subtle moment, like the raising of her eyebrow or the way she looks at her mother, with so much meaning. That's why I believe her performance is truly extraordinary. From the very first day on set, I will always remember how every member of the crew was so touched and affected by how she revealed Monica to us. It was a really special experience working with her.


DALTON: What was the general mood like when you were shooting?

PALLAORO: I have to be honest; every time I'm on set, I have a great deal of anxiety. It's a moment of great doubt for me. I don't think that ever leaves in the entirety of the production. It's a constant struggle. That being said, that's something I deal with on my own; it's internal. I have to say I've been blessed with extraordinary collaborators who not only believed in this project with such unwavering conviction but also dedicated themselves so beautifully and passionately to it. I have such fond memories of that process, so I'm very grateful for it.

DALTON: The film is a refreshing take on this kind of story. Similar titles that tackle this subject matter tend to include excessive levels of oppression and loud confrontations and the protagonist being disowned by their whole family. 'Monica' doesn't play into any tropes or stigmas; it feels far more authentic.

PALLAORO: Thank you for saying that because that was always the intention. I wanted to give the spectator the opportunity to penetrate the internal world of this character with their thoughts, emotions, desires, needs, and struggles. I wanted it to be an internal experience as much as possible and not to fall into the stereotypes.

DALTON: It also nails this blend of specificity and universality. I could relate and see myself in these people despite their lived experience contrasting so much from my own. Was that something you were consciously trying to attain?

PALLAORO: Yes, absolutely. As a filmmaker, what automatically becomes important for me to create is the opportunity to have a very personal and individual experience with the character. [I want audiences] to connect with and project themselves onto her. The ambiguity becomes a very crucial thing for that to happen. So I try, with the use of all the elements of cinematic grammar, not to impose a particular feeling or reading onto the spectator but to let them have their own experience as much as possible, independent, individual, and free.

DALTON: When it came to the film's music, you elected not to use a traditional score. Instead, you utilised a playlist of popular songs. How was that list curated? Were any tracks challenging to source?

PALLAORO: Well, there are 11 tracks, and nine of them had been written in from the script phrase. I selected them very carefully with my co-writer, Orlando Tirado. But, yes, the process for independent film securing the rights of various songs is always challenging. There had been some issues in the process, of course, but it was very important from the beginning that the auditory approach to the film was a diegetic one. [This stemmed from what] I shared with you before about not wanting to manipulate the spectator's experience and not give them the freedom to come to their own reading of the character. I feel like music can often manipulate the spectator's experience more than what I like.

DALTON: Another intriguing choice you made was to shoot in a nearly 1:1 aspect ratio. Why did you choose to work within that narrow frame?

PALLAORO: It's something the director of photography, Katelin Arizmendi, and I created for this film. It's 1.2:1, and it's something we selected very early on in the process because we wanted to create a claustrophobic kind of experience to feel closer to how Monica feels. It was like a cinematic static that would enhance the codependence that Monica feels towards her family and mother. This square-like portrait ratio is one in which two or more bodies within the same frame creates this feeling of suffocation. It's certainly a type of framing that privileges the face and body over the landscape. It also allowed us to draw even more attention to what was left outside of the frame and to create tension through that.

DALTON: When you had your premiere at the Venice Film Festival, the film received an 11-minute standing ovation. How gratifying was that moment? What was running through your mind?

PALLAORO: That was an extraordinary moment. As a team, we talked about it before, and it's something we will not forget easily, for sure. For me, it was the catharsis of it, the climax. To turn around and see Trace and Patti [Patricia Clarkson] experience it with so much gratitude and see how proud they were of the work that we did together and how meaningful it was for them. There was a moment in which I saw Trace welling up and tears forming in her eyes, and I felt that we really succeeded in what we wanted to achieve. It's always a beautiful moment to premiere at Venice. I have such a strong relationship with the festival. I premiered every single film of mine there so far. I've built so many indelible memories at the festival.

DALTON: Not to take away from it, but when you're receiving such a prolonged ovation, do you start to wonder when it will end once you've hit the six or seven-minute mark?

PALLAORO: Oh, yes! You go through so many different cycles. You're overwhelmed, embarrassed, dumbfounded, amazed, then worried (laughs). It's a constant cycle, and you keep shifting between all of these emotions. So it's not just comfortable. It actually does bring some anxiety, awkwardness, and discomfort, too.

DALTON: What conversations do you hope this film will spark with audiences and the industry?

PALLAORO: When my collaborators and I created it, we were focused on the human characteristics of Monica and how universal her experience is. I would say our objective was not to be political or to make a political film. That being said, I do believe that it does have a political meaning, and that's what I'm grateful for now that the film is out there because so many members of the trans community feel represented on the screen. As I've travelled with the film all over the world, I was able to meet with so many people and see how much it meant to them that the film humanised the trans experience.

For some people who have never met a trans person, they have so much prejudice, and they don't have a human reference to connect to. To see a film like this that doesn't hammer the trans experience but is about a trans character who deals with abandonment, I hope it makes a difference in educating people about what it feels like to be trans and to make people feel closer to it.

DALTON: This is such an excellent film and a great step forward for trans representation in this medium. To talk with you about it has been a real gift.

PALLAORO: The pleasure has been mine. Thank you for your thoughtful questions. Hopefully, we will have a chance to meet in person in the future.

DALTON: For sure! Feel free to come down to the Sydney Film Festival next time you have something to share.

PALLAORO: I've been to Australia, and I love it. I have such a strong relationship with it, but I've never brought a film to a festival there, so I would love to.

DALTON: I'll get in touch with the festival director and tell him you're keen. I'm sure he'd love it.

PALLAORO: Yes, please do! Thank you, Connor.

'Monica' will have its Australian premiere at the Queer Screen's 31st Mardi Gras Film Festival on the 27th of February.

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