Chandler Levack on Her New TIFF Short & the Importance of Telling Trans Stories

“It’s a constant renegotiation of who you are,” says Chandler Levack. The 30-year old Toronto native—whose short film, We Forgot to Break Up, premiered at TIFF this past Sunday—was talking about the moment when the film’s protagonist, Evan (played by Jesse Todd), once a woman, returns to an old group of friends to reintroduce themself as a man.

Evan’s coming out and the consequent reactions from his old bandmates consume all 15 minutes of We Forgot to Break Up, which was adapted from the novel Heidegger’s Stairwell by Kayt BurgessBut, despite being a short, the film is a poignant display of the complex, layered relationships between ex-lovers and old friends. FLARE talked to the director about what it was like to adapt a short film from a novel and the crucial need for the telling of trans stories, now more than ever.

Was staying faithful to the book important to you? 

Yes, but this is an interesting question because the book chronicles this band from when they meet in high school to when they’re in their 40s. There’s a lot of backstory and lots of layered character arcs that I wanted to remain faithful to. I really loved the core relationship—the breakup between Evan and Lou—and the atmosphere of being backstage before a show. At the same time, when you’re telling a story in such a short amount of time, with such a contained scene, it’s hard to put all that in.

Aside from length, what’s different about the film in comparison to the novel? 

The scene I adapted is the very first scene in the novel, but in the book, it takes place in a very fancy hotel room and there are tons of people hanging out backstage, so it’s a really different atmosphere. I wanted to show this band as grubby. In the book, they’re supposed to be internationally famous rockstars, but to make them more relatable, I wanted to make them a mid-level working band just trying to survive. In the book, Evan is this very fancy, renegade journalist traveling the world, and I thought, “Let’s just make him a regular person.” It was about taking parts of the book that were great in the original conceit of it, but then trying to make it more relatable and grounded in the kinds of bands that I know.

How did you conceptualize what the band would be like on screen? 

It was an interesting challenge—the book hints at what the band sounds like and the band’s aesthetic, but when you’re building a rock band from scratch, it was really cool and interesting to think about what this rock band was about. Murray Lightburn of The Dears actually came to Toronto and coached the actors on how to be a rock band on stage. He also read the script and gave feedback, so he was an invaluable collaborator. We also watched a lot of videos of bands performing on stage, like Radiohead and Sonic Youth, and we tried to find our own way.

How did you come to cast Canadian Jesse Todd for the role of Evan? 

We knew we wanted to cast a trans male actor, but there weren’t any trans male actors in ACTRA (the actors union we were working with), so we held an open casting call for any trans person interested in the role. We asked people who were interested to record themselves telling a story about an album that impacted their life. Jesse told this really vulnerable story that was also really funny—which they recorded in the bathroom where they work—about Radiohead’s album Kid A and how they listened to it when their house burned down. When I saw Jesse’s audition, I was like “Wow, this person is amazing.”

Why do you think it’s important to tell trans stories? 

Trans people are people. They’re complex, and the need for trans people to see themselves represented on screen—especially in situations where they aren’t being victimized for their trans nature—is crucial.

What advice would you give to others who want to tell stories which don’t reflect their own experience? 

You really need to have as many people as possible around you that did have that experience, and you should listen to them and make them an active part of your collaboration. Alongside collaborating with Jesse on the script, we sent it to some trans consultants, and Jesse spoke with Mya Taylor from Tangerine about acting and sharing their experiences on camera.

What do you think is the next step for telling trans stories?

Trans people should be telling their own stories. I don’t think it’s enough to even cast a trans person to play themselves in a film—they should be the ones behind the camera and writing the script. That’s how we push representation forward in the industry. We’re still at a point where people still don’t really know what trans looks like, so for someone to see a trans character who is making jokes, doing selfish things and awkwardly putting themselves out there—I think that’s nice to see. I want to see more flawed, complex trans characters going through universal stuff, like a shitty break-up.