A trans teen vies for the female lead in the short film ‘Juliet’

By Rich Lopez

Director Ira Storozhenko creates tension and tenderness in her short film Juliet all within the span of 15 minutes. The film follows Serena, a trans teen, backstage at auditions for the lead female role in a high school production of Romeo and Juliet. Surrounding her are girls who judge and boys who are curious.

Storozhenko and producer Katherine D. May are seeing now what impact their twist on a classic story can make as Juliet is making the rounds in the film festival circuit.

The key players behind the camera were an all women team:

The director began her career as a documentarian before moving into narrative pieces like Masterpiece, which screened at 13 festivals internationally. May, a producer at the American Film Institute Conservatory, has a passion for spearheading female-driven stories. The screenplay was written by Wilandrea Blair, a graduate of AFI, with cinematography by Sarah Anne Pierpont.

In the midst of the film festival circuit for Juliet, Storzhenko took some time to talk about the film and why this story was important to tell now and how gender discrimination has hit close to home.

Dallas Voice: What specifically inspired this particular story? Ira Storozhenko: This story came out as a mix of different people’s life experiences. It started from the idea about the girl in theater, and then it got layered up with the gender discrimination issues. It was always very important for me and my producer, Katherine D. May, to support the community and inspire everyone to believe in themselves.

How did you come to cast Juliet? We were working with Russell Boast, who is an amazing casting director. He brought so many people for our consideration. Katherine and I had a variety of talents whom we were considering for the lead role — until we got Reise’s self-tape.

How did you land on Riese Alexander as the title character? I was blown away by Reise’s performance and almost immediately knew she was the one. I called Katherine right after watching her tape, and we rewatched together. I think even back then we already knew we were going to cast her. Despite the fact that it was very complicated for the student production to bring talent (especially one who is younger than 18) from a different state, Katherine did an amazing job accommodating all the needs.

I think Reise is a very unique actress, and she brought so much of her own experience once she joined the team. We’d had a few Zoom conversations before I was able to see her on set, and I was always surprised how talented she is and how mature her thoughts are.
Why the juxtaposition from first person to third person throughout the film? Working on the visual language, Sarah Anne Pierpont, our director of photography, and I were trying to create a very subjective experience. The visual narrative was developed dictated by Serena’s feelings and internal challenges. It was always the plan to move from a very subjective, personal camera to an objective space in the end. I wanted to emphasize the moment when Serena’s conversation with the audience begins. Also, it was important for the visual narrative to ruin the fourth wall and make the conversation not only between Serena and other school kids and teachers, but between Serena and the audience who will be watching the movie.
Where was this filmed? The movie was filmed in Los Angeles. We were lucky to make production right before pandemic began. Finishing the movie during COVID-19 has been challenging, especially because, back then, when the virus just hit the planet, nobody really knew what to do and how to navigate the process in the new circumstances. We’ve faced many different obstacles, but it always felt positive and hopeful because everyone was working hard as a team to get the movie done.

We could not bring Reise back for a post-sync automated dialogue replacement session, and Melody Gun Sound Studios made it possible to have a distant session, where it almost felt to me like we were all in the same room.

I do really want to credit Katherine, the principal team and all our post-production houses for an amazing job during stressful times.

Why was this story important for you to tell? I’ve been trying to tell this story for a very long time. It has come through different versions, people, even countries — never was possible to make it in Russia. I was always keeping it as my dream project until it was possible to make.

I was a lot less confident before the AFI Conservatory program. AFI Conservatory helped me to grow. When the time came to my thesis project, there was so much encouragement and self-belief in me. I think that, subconsciously, I felt like it was the right time. I was finally able to look back at my past traumatic experience and analyze it. And I just had a feeling that I must share it with people to encourage everyone who ever felt the same way.

What is some gender discrimination that perhaps you’ve experienced that helped navigate this film? I grew up in Russia during the 2000s. It was dangerous even to think that you may be different from others by your feelings and beliefs. Since my teenage years, I did not feel like I would be defining myself by specific gender. I did have issues with my peers and older fellows. At some point I became a joke, and I had to live with a cliche that “Ira is a weirdo.” It was very painful back then, and I am not sure if I have been still able to fully recover.

What helped during the process of creating the movie is a good understanding of fear and how it reflects your internal world. The idea of Serena being silent came from the life experience when you wish you could stand out for yourself but you can’t respond back because of how deeply scared and emotionally unsafe you are.

After the festival circuit, how/when will general audiences be able to see the film? After the festival circuit the movie will be available on Vimeo. It is our goal to make it easy to access for the audience so everyone can watch it and get some inspiration. Since the film is getting accepted into more and more festivals every week, it is a bit hard to tell when it will be released online. I would say in the next half a year we will probably make it available for everyone to watch.
View the trailer at YouTube.com/watch?v=ySrdjvHjx9w





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