Kevin Smith’s film Chasing Amy was controversial even when it premiered in 1997, and it’s raised even more eyebrows in the past two and a half decades since its release. The film revolves around Holden McNeil (Ben Affleck), who falls in love with fellow comic book artist Alyssa (Joey Lauren Adams). The only problem is, she’s a lesbian. The movie’s exploration of sexuality has long since been debated and even deemed problematic. But for filmmaker Sav Rodgers, the film saved his life — something he spoke about in a 2019 TED Talk that caught the attention of celebrities like Brie Larson as well as Affleck and Smith themselves.
Rodgers’ powerful and beautiful documentary Chasing Chasing Amy goes even deeper into exploring the film’s impact on queer cinema as well as his own life, particularly his experience coming out as trans. I got a chance to sit down with my dear friend and writing partner Rodgers, his wife and documentary subject Riley Rodgers, and producers Alex Schmider and Carrie Radigan to discuss the unique challenges of directing a documentary you turn out to be the subject of, that heartbreaking interview with Joey Lauren Adams, and more.
Alex, you’ve produced several successful documentaries, including Disclosure and Changing the Game. What was it about Sav and his pitch for this movie that made you want to be part of it?
ALEX SCHMIDER: It wasn’t so much even a pitch of the film — it was that Sav met with GLAAD for a general that I happened to be sitting in on, and just hearing about his point of view as a filmmaker really excited me. I thought, “Hey, maybe we could also be friends because we seem to have a very similar and shared sensibility about how we view the world.” So after we met in that general, I did something that was very unlike me, which is say, “Hey, you know, I don’t know if you’d ever need a producer for anything that you’re making, but I’m very interested in supporting whatever you’re trying to create.” We really started just developing a friendship between us before there was any formal project that we were working on, and I had heard about Chasing Chasing Amy over the years that we’ve known each other.
Ultimately, what really excited me when he eventually asked if I would be interested in producing was that the film is both a tribute and a critique of the movies that can have personal significance and also have a complicated and conflicted reception out in the world. It was just seeing and being excited about his imaginative vision of what this would be and how I could support it in the storytelling because I really love him as a person and as a filmmaker.
Carrie, I want to ask you the same thing. I know that you had a previous friendship as well. What was it about Sav’s directing style or the project’s pitch that made you want to come on board?
CARRIE RADIGAN: Yeah, similarly, we were in touch anyway because we had met at a film festival for different short films that we had worked on.
SCHMIDER: Which film festival?
RADIGAN: Vail Film Festival in 2017. Sav had a short film that he directed, and I had produced one that was there as well. We met, and we got along really well, and then we just stayed in touch. Fast-forward I think the next year Sav being in town for his TED talk and his TED residency, and he called me and was like, “So I’m working on this doc, and we’re filming in this really tiny town in Jersey called Red Bank. Are you familiar with it?” not knowing that I was born there and was raised right around there. [Laughs] So it just kind of made sense. It started with the Jersey shoot, and then we just kept talking about the film and kept making it together. So yeah, that’s our story.
Sav, moving on to you. You are kind of the subject of your own documentary, which I imagine is sort of a hard line to walk. What were the unique challenges of being a director and also the main participant?
SAV RODGERS: It’s extremely challenging, in my opinion, to direct a movie that you end up being the primary participant in. It was not intentional when I set out to direct this movie. It was more anthropological about the LGBTQ community’s intersection with Chasing Amy and what it says about us collectively and how we react to movies. What’s good representation, what’s bad representation —- that was kind of the seed of the idea that I started with. And then, because I have such great collaborators like Alex and Carrie, they were like, “Hey, you know, we’re here because of the emotional hook, which is you. We think the most compelling version of this movie is with you at the center of it.”
As a person, I was mortified. I did not want to be the primary participant in this movie. If I was going to be in it at all, it was going to be more similar to what Bing Liu does in Minding the Gap where his story is kind of anchoring it at the end in this meditation about masculinity and what coming of age looks like in that way. For me to be in it as much as I ended up being at the end is really me listening to the really smart people around me who kept insisting, “You could put yourself in it more, you could put yourself in it more.” You kind of have to separate the storyteller version of yourself from the human being who maybe doesn’t want all that attention and maybe isn’t interested in talking about myself for 90 minutes. It was a very difficult bridge to cross, so to speak.
I’m very thankful that the movie ended up being what it was because I do think, in the end —- despite me not wanting to admit it —- it was the most interesting version of the movie that we could make. But it was so vulnerable going through the process. I would get cuts, and I would dread watching it because I come out as trans in the movie, and I’m preserving a part of myself in the movie that I probably wouldn’t have tried to preserve otherwise. It’s hard to see any moments that you find cringe about yourself happening in real-time, but the director part of my brain is like, “Well, this is the best way to honor the story and to tell it the most authentically.” It was so challenging, but in the end, I’m really happy with the movie that we made. And it’s definitely a humbling experience.
It’s really about so many things — Chasing Amy, you and your transition, obviously. But I think part of the reason that it is so successful is it also focuses on the relationship between you and your wife, Riley. Riley, I’m so curious what this experience was like for you. I’m sure that it probably wasn’t something that you were expecting either — to be part of this so strongly and so at the center of it. Can you talk a little bit about having that spotlight on you and also being directed by someone that you’re very close to?
RILEY RODGERS: Oh, yeah. I mean, I definitely did not expect to be part of the documentary, and I for sure did not expect to fall into a parallel of a movie like that. It was very jarring, but it also helped us — it was sort of an eye-opening experience. It was very interesting to have an extra voice to kind of give you another perspective to show you that things are not black and white. And that kind of helped me to navigate that kind of experience with Sav. It was hard, but it also lasted four years or more than four years, so it also kind of became part of our life. So you didn’t really think about it that much in the end.
SAV: And I just want to say, I’m so thankful that Riley agreed to participate. Because she did not have to. If there was a boundary there where she was like, “I don’t want to participate,” I would have been like, “Great. Fine. There’s another angle to this that I think is compelling.” But the fact that she said, “Yeah, whatever you want — I’m all in” was extremely meaningful to me. I was nervous to feel under a microscope, and I was directing it, let alone for her husband to be directing a movie that heavily involves our lives. It’s an incredible gift, and she’s been so gracious throughout this whole process in ways that I couldn’t be more grateful for.
RILEY: And it was so spread out over four years, and we were long-distance for…what…?
SAV: Five and a half years?
RILEY: Five and a half years. A lot of these things were already documented that, in the end, it was just like, “Give us your material that you already have.” So it was not that hard. All you see is still very genuine. It was already there.
SAV: And it’s not like we were filming every day.
It wasn’t a Real Housewives situation?
RILEY: [Laughs] No. Completely unscripted. Yeah, it was already there.
SCHMIDER: If I can add one thing, too — I think the movie itself would not have ultimately worked had that last interview not been sort of co-directed by Riley asking the questions, which was [producer] Lela Meadow-Conner’s idea. In order to get Sav to be able to reflect on this experience in the film and his relationship and their romance, the only person that could do that interview was Riley, and there’s a funny story behind that as well, but I wanted to say she brings it home in a way. Sav talks so lovingly about their relationship, and ultimately, the film isn’t what it is if she doesn’t ask the hard questions and elicit the honest answers from Sav to look at this in the way he does.
That feeds really well into my next question, which is that Alex, you have said that it’s your personal calling to make a set where people feel seen and feel like they can really be themselves. I’m sure you had to help Sav do that in this case because he’s spoken about how it felt very vulnerable. How did you sort of achieve that feeling of safety and support on this project? And Carrie, that’s a question for you, too.
SCHMIDER: I think the feeling of safety and support often comes from being able to trust the people that you’re in the trenches with. This is a very different kind of documentary in that I wasn’t on the ground for most shoots. The one shoot that I was virtually on the ground for I think illustrates the kind of trust that’s inherent in our relationship and in our collaboration that, again, comes back to the final interview that occurs. But ultimately, a set that’s on a narrative film is going to be different than a set that’s on a documentary, but what is absolutely required is that people feel that they can speak up and say something and adjust based on what people need or what they want. And immense credit to Sav also for always being willing to take a note and take an adjustment. Again, the last 15 minutes for me in this documentary are some of the most powerful because of the authenticity in that room, which is a function of something that happened, which I think illustrates some of that trust that was built in the ongoing process. So maybe I’ll have Carrie speak to that.
RADIGAN: I think a big part of what makes this collaboration and this film but also this team really unique —- and even the people who are not in this interview — is that we are very big on communication and very much feeling comfortable with each other on how we feel artistically but even just like sensibility in the world, like what Alex said earlier. I think that a big part of our collaboration is our friendship, too, quite frankly. And I feel like that overlaps so much in another parallel. There are so many parallels from Chasing Amy, and because we’re friends outside of work, I think that has given us this safety net to be able to talk to each other in a way that’s very collaborative and safe. And that leads into the people that we are with and who we hire, and that’s very important to us.
SAV: So what they’re not saying is on the last day, Riley and I did the interview where we interviewed each other that’s featured at the end. I knew I had to do it as a director, but as a person, I was exhausted. I did not really want to be there. I knew that I had to for the movie, but there’s only so much that you can watch cuts of yourself before you’re driven a little mad, in my opinion. I relate immensely to actors who say that they don’t want to watch their own work. It was exhausting watching cuts of this thing because it just required a level of vulnerability. As soon as I was done watching a cut, I’d get another one back, and I was like, “Can I have a break, please?” And so to have to go back and shoot this last interview, I was really not looking forward to it because I already felt so emotionally raw. So we start the interview, and basically, Alex is in Riley’s ear on an airpod. [Everyone laughs]
That’s so The Bachelor.
RILEY: There were a lot of connectivity issues.
SCHMIDER: I was driving back from a first date. [Laughs]
RADIGAN: Alex and I are talking about it while I’m at an airport cafe on the Zoom on the interview so we’re all connected.
SAV: Unprofessional. So Alex tells Riley to stop the interview as I’m in the middle of giving some answers, and I look down the barrel of the camera with the meanest look.
SCHMIDER: And I can see him on the Zoom.
RADIGAN: It was so mean.
SAV: I was basically like, “Are you fucking kidding me? I’m here trying to get through this.”
RADIGAN: We have the video.
Release this cut right now.
SAV: But it’s that level of trust that you have to have with your collaborators to just let me be mad for a second. Let me be upset for a second that the interview was interrupted. I’m taking the note that he basically wants Riley to drive the interview to elicit the emotions out of me that are necessary for me to really show up as myself and not be super guarded in that interview because, at that point, I was exhausted. But I think it speaks to the relationship that I had with these two and the relationship that they have with Riley and all of us together that we trust each other enough to…
RILEY: Let me do the hard work. [Laughs]
ALEX: The reason why it had to stop though was because the order needed to be correct. Sav feels most comfortable as a director because that’s who he is. He needed to be the director first and then put it to Riley to be the director last so that he felt more comfortable answering questions. It had been reversed, and that was where we needed to stop the interview. Had it not been a reverse order, I don’t know that he would have been able to be as comfortable or open up as honestly with Riley because he’d already been in the director’s chair.
RADIGAN: Yes. That was just something that we agreed to offline. And then we were like, “We got to call somebody over there.”
SAV: I was not briefed on this, for the record.
RADIGAN: But I think it was all for the best, you know? We did interrupt it, and that was important. We say this a lot, but it really is friends first, collaborators second. I don’t think that conversation would have gone down the way it did if we all were not friends first. That is really a big part of it, honestly.
SAV: Yeah, and I always say that I just wanted to make movies with my friends and perhaps adapted that mentality a bit. It can get messy making movies with friends. But at the end of the day, I trust these two with my life. I trusted them with my life story. I trusted them to be able to tell me the truth — even when I’m having a bad day, when I’m having a hard time. I don’t think it serves anyone to pretend that this wasn’t a super difficult process for me. But in the end, I’m really grateful for the end results. And it’s a testament to trusting Alex, trusting Carrie, and also trusting Riley because, again, it’s a vulnerable position to be in, and the way that she trusted me with our story to be able to tell it to the best of my ability.
Again, that feeds really well into my next question, which is the fact that Joey Lauren Adams trusted you to tell her story, which I think is really powerful. Can you talk about that day of the interview and how you sort of created that space? Because I feel like, to anyone who watches that movie, that’s going to be sort of shocking, but I think it’s going to stay with them. I don’t think that she would have done that unless she felt comfortable and that you were going to show compassion.
SAV: The interview with Joey is not just a turning point in the movie — it’s a turning point in my life. I think any kind of feedback is a gift, right? And for her to challenge me in that interview and to say, “I don’t know why you’re here. Tell me what you want” and to be able to level and get to that place of total truth, total honesty was invaluable, you know? It was definitely a surprising thing sitting there because, in my decade-plus of research about Chasing Amy, I had no idea how she felt about her experience on it. What I wanted to do was to get to the truth of her experience, and she volunteered that, which is again a privilege when somebody tells you the truth and is honest with you and is vulnerable with you.
While I can’t speak for Joey by any means, for me, sitting there was extremely gratifying to just have that honesty, for her to tell her truth, for her to trust me enough to at least talk to me about it on camera. And I will always be grateful for that. It was hard — it was a hard day to direct. But, at the same time, it was hunky dory by the end. She invited the whole crew to stay over and have vodka sodas with her. We listened to Dolly Parton. It was invaluable that she trusted and invited me. I took it really seriously along with Alex and Carrie in the edit and Sharika and Lauren, our editor and our AE. We just wanted to do right by what she told us.
I think it’s a much more powerful movie because it is in there, but I think it would have been easy to take the easier road and leave it out. Was there ever any discussion or hesitation about including it for anyone?
SAV: There was definitely hesitation on my part in that I was embarrassed. It’s not an easy interview to sit through the raw footage, it was not easy to sit there on the day, and it was not easy to cut it together. I often had conversations of, “I want to honor Joey’s truth, and also, this is so vulnerable for me.” The idea was never to take it out or anything like that, but I was like, “How can we do this?” I needed to really trust in my collaborators that I wasn’t just making myself look stupid for no reason — that there was a purpose to it, that there was a point to it.
And so there were a lot of conversations had about what was the right way to honor Joey’s story. What order do we put everything in? Should we introduce it earlier in the movie? Should it be in the middle? What does that look like? But in the end, my gut instinct was, “I want the interview with one of you, I want the interview with Kevin talking about Harvey Weinstein, and I want the interview with Joey to be a 1, 2, 3 punch in the way that it was in real life.” And so it was difficult, but I’m really glad that we showed it as it happened. Again, there was never any question of if we were going to show it, but it was like, “What’s the best way to honor Joey’s truth here?” And it takes a lot of challenging your own ego. Of “God, I feel so stupid sitting here watching this. I feel embarrassed.” But again, her truth was a gift, and that moment is about her and not about me.
SCHMIDER: Ultimately, what audiences can hopefully resonate with is that growing hurts. That’s why it’s called growing pains. When you are undergoing that kind of awakening or social consciousness because of something that’s happening, there is a visceral reaction to that. So I think it was important to include some of how Sav was reacting in that moment. And we understood that it was a very sensitive, raw, uncomfortable experience for him to have to see cuts of that and put himself in that position of sharing that very openly, that this was something that really struck him. And at the same time, I think it lends itself to the credibility of him as a filmmaker to make the best decision for what the story is and to allow the audience to experience that — that gut punch with him in the decisions he made about the order of events and how that was being shown and to put himself more in it. And for you to see that growing up that’s happening in real time.
RADIGAN: And I think that you can even see that in the interview in real-time as well, specifically when Joey is like, “This isn’t just another Chasing Amy interview.” I thought that was really satisfying to see as a viewer and as a collaborator on it, too. We are with Sav noting that this is not like every other interview that she’s had because she hasn’t had hard-hitting questions about herself and her own experience. I think that was a really showing moment for everyone.
SAV: And one more thing: The discomfort I had watching cuts of it doesn’t compare to the actual shit that Joey went through during that period of her life. That was another reminder to me of like, yeah, you’re uncomfortable, but again, honoring her truth is the priority here because that’s real shit that she’s never shared with people before — at least publicly in this way that I’ve ever found. It’s checking your own ego and saying, “Yeah, but like, who’s the priority here? And trust me, it’s not you.” [Pause] ‘You’ referring to myself. [Laughs]
That’s really well said. Something else I took from that interview that’s really stuck with me is when she says that part about, “Are you looking for something that I can’t give you?” I want to turn that on you, Sav. Alex was talking in a different interview about the burden of representation when you’re a minority in film and your story is one of the few stories. Is there a pressure or fear that you personally feel to be something for people?
SAV: Hm…I have no way of anticipating that at the current moment just because the movie is not [widely] out yet. I don’t know. I have no idea. I wouldn’t say I feel a pressure. I guess, if I ever feel pressure, it’s just to try to make sure I’m doing right by the community as a whole and that I’m never trying to speak from a place of, “Well, all trans people experience this. Well, all queer people experience this” because we’re not a monolith. My experience is not the same as your experience or Alex’s experience or Carrie’s experience or Riley’s experience. I just don’t want to put my foot in my mouth ever. But, you know, I’m very aware of what my life is, which is: I’m a guy who wants to make movies and wants to keep making movies, and I want to hang out with my pugs, and I want to hang out with Riley.” And that is the life that I choose and the life that I enjoy more than anything. So I don’t feel that pressure right now. Maybe, if this movie does really well, that could start. But even then, I’m just going to quit Twitter or Instagram or something and try to just focus on the things that are important, which are the people in this room.
You have to stay on Twitter for me.
SCHMIDER: We’re saying on Twitter, like, literally for you. But what I’m just going to add is, that’s one of those moments, when she says that, it occurs to me every time I watch it that so often we’re put into the positions where we’re expected to do something or say something because of the power dynamics at play. And I think because of who Sav is and his openness and ability to allow her to go beyond whatever the expectations have been historically, for the interviews that she’s participated in about Chasing Amy, that is what allows her to break free from what those expectations have been despite what Sav’s personal hopes may have been of like, “It was a good time to make the film.” But even if it wasn’t, I think he as a filmmaker and him as a person would rather hear the hard truth than have someone give a bullshit interview. That is the function of authenticity and breaking free of whatever is prescribed of you — of who you are, of what you’re saying — and being able to self-decline in that moment. That moment, for me, I also really resonate when she said, “What are you looking for? Because I don’t and can’t fit into that anymore.” And Sav being like, “I’m telling you what my experience is, but I’m welcoming and inviting you to share what yours is” is just really fucking awesome.
If you had to make a documentary about another movie, which would you pick?
SCHMIDER: Oh, that’s a great question.
RILEY: Oh, damn. That’s tough.
Hard ones for last.
RADIGAN: That’s a tough one. But it’s a fun one.
RILEY: I have to think about it. Give me 10 seconds.
SCHMIDER: Everyone keeps asking about when Chasing Chasing Chasing Amy is coming out. That’s interesting to me because being extra meta is always fun. But the movie that I would make a documentary about because it had the lifesaving impact on me is already sort of being made, so I don’t need to go make it. But I’m really interested in continuing to see and make new stuff not based on old stuff. Because in my work at GLAAD, I see a lot of things that are about the past and sort of unintentionally sometimes replicate stories of the past, and I’m not really interested in that. And that’s sort of the reason I even signed on to be a part of this is — while it is a commentary about a film of the past — it’s really about a filmmaker coming into his own and his life, too, as the last scene as he walks out of the studio shows. And that’s sort of the point: Can we go into the future with stories that we can imagine greater and bigger and beyond anything that we’ve seen before?
So…you’ve given me a beautiful but cop-out answer.
SCHMIDER: [Laughs] It’s true! I’m sorry — it’s true.
RADIGAN: I think of things that really made me happy as a kid that lit me up or filled my cup, before it was films, it was actually theater. I feel like it’d be very funny, although probably someone’s made this or making this, is like a doc that’s like Theater Camp but unscripted. Something of that nature. But ideally, the tone of it just being queer joy — something that relates to that in some way. For me, I think of theater, personally. Musicals.
RILEY: Funko Pops.
RADIGAN: Oh my god, Funko Pops.
RILEY: Or final girls. Or Imagine Me & You.
These are great ideas. Sav, I’m making you name a real movie. I think I know what it’s going to be.
SCHMIDER: I think I do, too.
RADIGAN: I think I do, too.
RILEY: I just want to say: He pitches a new documentary to me every day.
SAV: If I put this on the record, it becomes my intellectual property, right?
Sure. Yeah. We’ll say that.
SAV: Okay. I would do a documentary about The Truman Show and how we are all now living in The Truman Show. And honestly, Chasing Chasing Amy accidentally became my Truman Show, which is kind of my worst nightmare.
SCHMIDER: That did not go where I thought I was going.
SAV: You wanted a real answer! You got it!
I thought you were going to say Barb and Star Go to Vista Del Mar.
SCHMIDER: That’s what I thought!
SAV: It crossed my mind to say Barb and Star, but to be completely frank, we do not have enough distance. And what I would probably spend the most time talking about is that it would be as culturally relevant as Bridesmaids had the pandemic not screwed over its release because it is a brilliant comedy and one of the best comedies of the 21st century. But also just the way that it pushes cinema forward is legitimate.
— Taylor Gates