Even in today’s changing cinematic landscape, disabled people rarely have prominent film roles. And queer movies whose main characters are females over 40 are also uncommon. Now, blend these two scarcities and add a May/September romance and you have Suzanne Guacci’s deeply affecting new film, T11 Incomplete.
The plot revolves around an imperfect, economically-struggling, middle-aged woman, Kate played by an astonishing Karen Sillas (Stuff), who is still trying to make up for past mistakes while making a host of new ones. Kate is specifically trying to make amends to her equally imperfect and not-so-forgiving son Jack, portrayed by Zachary Booth (Keep the Lights On). While on a job as a home health aide, Kate meets and falls for the young and vibrant Laura, who is a paraplegic, played by Kristen Renton (Sons of Anarchy). Laura returns Kate’s feelings but complications arise when issues of trust surface. The film also features Colin Bates (Rust) and Katy Sullivan (the Dexter reboot).
Writer-director Guacci creates palpable empathy for her characters, who are all flawed but trying their best in a world that continuously throws them curve balls.
FYI: the term “T11 Incomplete” refers to the point of severing on the spine that causes paraplegia. Being an “incomplete” paraplegic means that the patient still has some feeling, which has great metaphorical meaning in the film.
Guacci, a former New York State Trooper who lost her leg in the line of duty in 2001, created Aspire Productions in 2007. Her award-winning feature film debut, Stuff, was a Festival favorite in 2015. The filmmaker has made good on aspirations to create authentic character-driven narratives about the LGBTQ and disabled communities while employing actors and artisans from those underrepresented worlds.
T11 Incomplete had its World Premiere at the Mardi Gras Film Festival in Australia and went on to play the BFI Flare Fest in the UK before its U.S. Premiere at OutFest Los Angeles. Gravitas Ventures will release the film on iTunes on April 13th.
Awards Daily spoke with the helmer about the film and her life.
Awards Daily: You’re a former cop who became disabled in the line of duty, then became an actress and then a writer-director! Can you speak a bit about that journey now that you have some perspective?
Suzanne Guacci: Yes. I became a cop because I couldn’t be an actress. I had the heart of an actress but I didn’t have the skin of an actress, because I just couldn’t take the rejection. It got to a point where I was feeling bad about terrible jobs that I wasn’t getting. It was so ridiculous…so I sort of gave up the acting to pursue something else, which was the police department.
AD: That’s so extreme.
SG: Yeah, but my father was a civil servant. He was a sanitation worker. And would always say, be a civil servant and you will always have a job. And I loved Charlie’s Angels! …I took a bunch of tests, like the NYPD, the MTA police, the Long Island Railroad police and the State Police called me first. And I kept saying, I’ll go with it as far as I get. If I pass the psych, if I pass the physical…I’ll keep going and if it’s meant to be, I’ll just continue. So I get on that job and then I get hurt four years in. And lose my leg. And after having that happen, go back to the place where maybe I shouldn’t have left in the first place. But…I had no desire to be an actress at that point because of the physical disability and how my body had changed. And it was much more of an inner metamorphosis I was going through, too, going from able bodied to disabled. So I started writing about things. And I thought, it’s now or never. After you get hit by a car, you almost die, you say there’s, no time better than now…And part of me (wonders) should I have left the career in the first place? But I think I had to go through everything I had to go through to get to this place that I’m in, so I wouldn’t change any of the dominoes. I couldn’t do acting anymore. It was too heartbreaking, not getting jobs and feeling like shit all the time.
AD: Tell me about T11 and why the project is so important to you?
SG: To be an honest voice for the disabled community. A voice that’s been through so much and been there. I think now is a very important time because a light is being shed on the disabled community like no other before and I think the timing is pretty perfect. Margarita with a Straw was the only other real disabled LGBT film that I’ve ever seen that has made a little bit of an impact on me…you don’t really see them. So I thought, our community needs a film like this and who better to tell it than me. And to hire disabled actors to be part of it.
AD: There was an open letter sent to major studios last week pushing for inclusion for individuals with disabilities. Are things changing and what can be done to push things further along?
SG: I do think they’re changing. What needs to be done is to think outside the box when casting. That’s where it all begins…And I think being creative in your casting and in your writing. We have Katy Sullivan who is a bilateral double amputee playing an able-bodied character. We shot her a little differently because her gait when she walks is sort of evident sometimes that she has a disability—just like mine is when I walk. But you can be a little creative and find places to put people that maybe you wouldn’t necessarily think of. Just because it’s not written that a disabled actor needs to be in this role—I think you really need to start thinking outside the box when you’re writing and casting. And the actors being okay with things. Like Katie was okay with (playing able-bodied).
AD: Let’s talk about casting. How important is it to cast authentically? There’s this debate right now about how queer characters should only be played by queer actors. Where do you stand on this?
SG: I feel that a good actor can do anything. I’m never going to hire a person simply because they’re a gay male actor for a gay role. You have to be a good actor, first and foremost. It might not be the answer people like…We chose to have Kristin Renton, who does have a disability—it’s not an apparent disability–she has lupus, to be in the wheelchair role. I could have gone and hired someone else who was a wheelchair user and maybe compromised my integrity with what I wanted in the role to fill that other criteria of what the world would want to see, but I couldn’t do that because I think the acting is the thing. So it’s a difficult and very tricky thing but, again, if we’re not using the wheelchair user in the wheelchair role, well let’s find another way to do it, that will satisfy…and that’s where having Katie in there and having Lauren Russell who has MS as Kristy. There are ways to do it. You just have to take time and think about it.
AD: And you cast Zach as a straight man.
SG: Zach as a straight man, exactly. And we still have our LGBTQ representation with Zach. It may not be exactly the way you want to see him but, he’s an actor. First. And he’s a darn good one.
AD: Karen Sillas is someone you’ve worked with before. Tell me about your dynamic with her and if you wrote Kate with her in mind?
SG: I did. Karen is my friend. We became very good friends after Stuff. And so when I wrote (T11) with Karen in my mind, I had never written for an actor before. But I knew her so well and I heard her voice and I thought this would be a perfect vehicle for her. I think she’s such a fantastic actress and so underused, I thought this is a diamond I could write something really wonderful for. It’s very easy for Karen and me to communicate. I don’t have to give her great detail in terms of direction. She knows before I ever say anything –what’s a little off or what’s not right. We just have a really great connection.
AD: Did the script change a lot from the first draft to production and how long did it take to write?
SG: I wrote it when we were on the Festival circuit for Stuff. That was 2016. So it took almost two and half years to make. There weren’t a lot of changes. It came out of me very, very fast…I was in a Lab with NYWFT, New York Women of Film and Television. It was almost a year-long, a group of 8 women who would meet and talk about each other’s projects. And they were all low budget indies. We did our look books together, our pitches, our budgets. So over that time, that extra year, I really got to know the film and the story much more intimately. It was a great way to really connect to it on a different level. And then we shot the summer of 2018.
AD: The film is so intimate and the scenes of intimacy are handled with care but, also, an awkward realness. And it’s sexy. Did you know from the get-go how you wanted to capture that on film?
SG: Yeah, the sex scene was a little nerve racking. You have to handle these things delicately and you don’t want to make anybody uncomfortable, so I did have an idea of it before going in and discussed it with Karen and Kristen. Had a closed set, of course. We all kind of knew what we were going for. And before we went in, we knew where the camera was going to be and what would be shown and the actors just took over.
AD: In both Stuff and T11 you like to depict flawed characters and explore the gray areas of life. Is it something you are consciously setting out to do?
SG: I think it’s just part of my life –that there is nothing that is ever so completely clear to me. That life is just so gray so often. I don’t really write happy endings. (laughs) I can’t do it. I don’t know what it is. As bad as Kate is, she’s also so good. Even Yvonne’s character, Deb (in Stuff) was for cheating on her wife, she’s also so good. I just find that, in life, it’s not so clear.
AD: And especially important now when we seem to be living in a time where one bad thing you might have done in your past defines you.
SG: Absolutely. And that’s the thing, we’re holding people up really high for one thing and then, oh my god, they do something and we completely tear them down. It’s crazy. We’re human. That’s what we’re here for, to make these mistakes and try and do better.
AD: T11 also deals with economic hardship, which is another thing we don’t see a lot onscreen—characters who are forced to do certain things when they’re stuck. We tend to judge people when we haven’t been in their situation but those of us who have been there completely understand it.
SG: Absolutely. The days where you can’t buy the ice cream for your grandson or your child. I’ve been there. I’ve been there over and over again. Usually films are glossy and about the bright side of things and the great jobs and the jets. My life has been more the other, more the struggles. And I think I definitely wanted to show that with Kate.
AD: This has been a really odd year to say the least. And it’s affected the festival experience. T11 has traveled the fest circuit. Has it been as fulfilling an experience?
SG: No. (laughs) One of the best things is when it’s done, getting it out there for festivals and to see how people respond in the theaters and to talk about it and answer questions. That’s part of the thing in this world I’m in with indie movies. So to not have that, yeah, it did take something away from it. It did. But I just want an audience to see it, regardless. Things will change. It’s all coming back, I think.
AD: What is coming up for you?
SG: I’m almost done writing a lesbian young adult story. And I have a couple of scripts done that range in the ultra-low budget/low budget world. Hopefully a producer will come along and help me get it done. Whatever is next, I’ll just keep writing and trying to get it out there and see if I can get some people on board to help me make it. Money is always hard to come by because there are a lot of talented people out there so we’ll see…
T11 Incomplete is available on iTunes on April 13th.
Watch here: https://apple.co/3uf1klh