Port Authority features an ensemble cast of Leyna Bloom (FX’s “Pose”), Fionn Whitehead (Voyagers, Dunkirk) and McCaul Lombardi (American Honey, Patti Cake$). The film is written and directed by Danielle Lessovitz making her feature film directorial debut. Lessovitz’s most recent screenwriting effort, Mobile Homes, which she co-wrote with Vladimir de Fontenay, premiered in the Directors' Fortnight section at Cannes 2017.
After getting kicked out of his home in central Pennsylvania, Paul (Fionn Whitehead) arrives to NYC's dizzying central station with nowhere to go. A momentary encounter with Wye (Leyna Bloom), a trans woman of color, leads him to seek her out. Transfixed by her beauty and confidence, a love soon blossoms. But as the two learn more about each other, Paul's false narratives begin to surface and the double life he lives must be reconciled.
Port Authority from writer/director Danielle Lessovitz is something to visually behold. It's a movie that opens your mind and embraces change, culture, and above all else, acceptance. During my brief time speaking with Danielle, I walked away fully admiring her spirit and how she leaned in being honest with herself to create a piece of art that she's proud of, as she should be.
In this interview, we peel back the layers of her personal lived experience and combining it with other shared lived experiences that would soon become Port Authority, the collaborative process with her cast, plus wonderful advice in trusting your voice as a storyteller.
This interview has been edited for content and clarity.
Sadie Dean: What was the inspiration behind telling this specific story?
Danielle Lessovitz: Where do I start? I met my father when I was 19. I was raised by a single mom in the middle of Kansas. It was a really weird experience. And I met him at 19 and we developed a sort of close relationship, and then he took his life. And not long after that, I went to a ball. So that's sort of the order of events.
And at the ball, I had this very transcendent moment. This very profound experience, where I saw someone just dancing, and it was as if I could just see my spirit. They had transcended their body. And the body became a sort of reflection of a soul. And afterward, I just realized how present the culture was and how supportive it was to individuals finding themselves, finding their chosen family. And it was this idea of a chosen family that really stuck out to me that you could have a mother or father that wasn't your genetic mother and father, but it was your mother and father, and siblings, and so on, and so forth. And I found it to be just an incredible sort of act of resistance, from a family rejection, in some ways from dominant culture and society. And I was like, ‘Wow, this is like the most American thing I've ever seen,’ in some sense.
And then I spent about a year kind of thinking about it. To be honest, being afraid of it. Can I tell the story? Or are people going to let me tell the story, even though it's real to me? I spent two weeks sitting there and kind of doing what I call like a vomit draft of just like, going very quickly through it and not censoring myself and just writing as fast as I could. And that became the basis for what would be years of research, and talking to people and workshopping the script with members of the community, and talking with the founders of the kiki ballroom culture to ask them for their input and insight into the story. Meeting with the cast and adjusting the roles to them and to their lived experience. And that kind of that back and forth between my own reaction to the material and then to the lived experience of the people who I was collaborating with in terms of bringing it to life.
Sadie: During that research, especially with that community, because there's such a tight community, how open and welcoming were they to you when you approached them basically saying, ‘Hey, I'm going to make this movie about this really deep and personal story. Can I have permission to do this?’ Was there any resistance from the community?
Danielle: No, there was never resistance, which I was surprised by at first. But I think that there's a difference between the kiki ballroom culture and the main ballroom culture. That might account for it. I'm not sure to this day, but also, I think maybe just my energy, and I’m very open and honoring of others. I didn't personally experience any resistance. And in fact, I felt very welcomed. I would go and I would sit in a corner and people would bring me out in the sense of like, engage me and make me feel really welcomed in a home.
Sadie: Because of your documentary background, I felt like your vision was through this documentary lens where we're seeing real people living real-life experiences. What was the casting process like for you?
Danielle: Yeah, it was really wonderful. It was kind of my favorite part, I think of the entire experience, if I'm honest because that's when the project became real. I met with hundreds of trans women of color of all ages, the older generation, the younger generation, just to kind of learn about the different generations and different life experiences. And finding Leyna was just such a godsend, just an amazing woman. What I learned is that there isn't one trans experience and it should never be reduced down to that. So, it's sort of like, how do you honor the uniqueness of what was experienced, as opposed to like, some monolithic, one experience? I think Leyna helped build that out based on her own experience. And we kind of worked on that together.
And meeting the family, like Africa who plays mother, that wasn't a role in the film at all. I just learned a lot about the community. And also, the ways I identified it, the ways I thought of like myself, also shifted and changed and I enjoyed that process as well.
Sadie: That's a great journey, a self-reflection journey for a filmmaker. So, the film got into Cannes, Martin Scorsese is on board, what was that whole experience like for you and then going right into a pandemic, unfortunately?
Danielle: [laughs] Right? It's weird because more and more I notice that I'm someone who doesn't like attention. If I could just disappear and be invisible just watching everything, I would. The wonderful visibility of the project, which I think is incredible, I’m very excited for that for the film, and especially for Leyna and for Africa and for everyone who's involved, to have that moment of sun and visibility and recognition. And in terms of the pandemic, I'm sad that the film's release was delayed, but at the same time, I mean, it's a film that really honors connection despite everything.
Sadie: That’s definitely a silver lining. Any advice to screenwriters taking a personal experience like yours, and translating that to a screenplay?
Danielle: I would say that balance between honesty with yourself, those emotional resonances that you feel are in you that you want to bring to a project are really important, but honoring, and inviting others into the process at a certain point. And allowing those resonances to find a place in the lived experience of others and being open to that conversation between your ideas and the world. Having that dialogue between yourself and what other people might be feeling and experiencing can just be very fulfilling, I think it layers and adds nuance to a script in general. I teach film and screenwriting, and I think a lot of people get frozen by the task of having to write and be very judgmental of their own work. But allowing space for yourself, I do think that there's a deeper intelligence in ourselves, that if we stop trying to look at ourselves, and we just go, that intelligence often just comes out. So, allowing oneself to be very free. That moment where you can just kind of go without worry or concern and let yourself explore; I think is really important.
Sadie: I think that's wonderful advice. There's always that hesitancy as a writer, putting yourself on the page, or at least digging into those soft spots.
Danielle: It's very scary. Like shaming and very exposing, but just kind of trust that you'll be safe.
Sadie: Danielle, thank you so much for your time and for this movie. I look forward to what do you do next, which I hope is soon for you.
Danielle: Thank you so much, a pleasure talking to you.
Momentum Pictures will release the drama film PORT AUTHORITY In Theaters May 28, 2021 and On Digital and On Demand June 1, 2021.