Draw With Mean official Oscar entry for Documentary Short Subjectis the story of talented teen artist Brendon Scholl, who identifies as trans non-binary and whose art has been a vital outlet for self expression. The moviecreated in partnership with The Trevor Project and powered by the Onassis Foundationturns out to be inspirational as well as educational.
Windy City Times talked with director Constantine Venetopoulos about various facets of the film, such as Brendon's life and the decision to include singer/actress Jennifer Lopez (Scholl's aunt, who introduces the movie).
Windy City Times: Tell me how this movie came about. I understand it was a collaboration with The Trevor Project.
Constantine Venetopoulos: Yes, it was. I had been a volunteer with The Trevor Project for over a decade. When I was working with Leslie Ann Lopezwho's Brendon's mom and Jennifer's sisteron another feature called The Man in the Attic, and I got to know the family really well through that. Then Amit Paley, the CEO of The Trevor Project, asked me if I could see if one of them can speak at one of [the organization's] events; Brendon and the family was very excited. Then we came up with the idea to tell Brendon's story in a short film. It started as an informational video, and then the family jumped in more and more; suddenly, it was like working on a family biopic through the lens of Brendon's coming-out story.
WCT: What was the most surprising thing you discovered about Brendon?
CV: There was a lot, you know? Brendon's art and confidence and strugglesthe combination of all of this fascinated me. But what surprised me? I guess it was how humble Brendon is. Brendon is not one of those kids like "Let me post this." They really stay true to their activist endeavors, so they're not really carried away by the limelight. For Brendon, it's just something in the background.
WCT: I wasn't surprisedbut I was saddenedby the revelation from Brendon that one of their grandmothers offered them $10,000 to [express as] a girl again.
CV: Yes, that's a jaw-dropping momentand it was a conscious decision to keep that in the story. But my own coming-out journey, from Greece, almost made me feel like they had it easy; there's not so much education around these things there, so I had to train them after I understood it myself. I know much worse stories; Brendon ran into people who talked about being kicked outreal tragedies. That quote from the grandmother was almost like a reality check that Brendon has a supporting family, but it was a journey.
In Greek media, for example, homosexuality is often ridiculed, stereotyped and vilified; it's not always celebrated. In Brendon's case, Brendon had that educated surrounding but still had to deal with that older generation who's trying to understand and accept.
But there's some [backstory] about the grandmother, because no one really knows her story. So, when Brendon said that, I selected a picture with both grandmothersLupe Lopez and the [paternal] grandmother. Because Lupe is in the front of the picture, a lot of people assume Lupe was the one who offered the money.
WCT: OhI didn't think that at all.
CV: You didn't? That's fantastic news.
But some people may think because Jennifer is wealthy, $10,000 is nothing for her family. But it was the mother of [Brendon's father] Rob who said that. So when we had the premiere screening, and the whole family was present, it was so emotional. It's different when you're showing it to the familyand it turned out to be one of the most beautiful days of my life because [the event] broke down walls the family had.
But I was approached by both grandmothers. First, Lupe approached me and we had a really long discussion; she [feared] that a lot of people would think that she offered the moneyand added, "The sister I loved dearly, who passed, was gay and I was there for her." She admitted that getting the pronouns right has been a challengebut, overall, she's extremely supportive of the LGBTQ community.
Then the other grandmother came to meand it was really cute. It was almost like a confessional, an apology. She said, "Hi, I'm the grandmother who said that, and I regret it immensely. I wish I could go back in time and not have said it. I didn't say it because I was embarrassed or shy, or because it wasn't socially acceptable; I said it because I was actually worried for Brendon's safety." I understand it; the trans community is constantly in danger.
When you're making a documentary, you're absorbing a true story but you're deciding what goes out there. It's not fake news, but it's adjusted news.
WCT: Obviously, the movie is not about Jennifer Lopez but I would think her appearance would increase the film's visibility.
CV: Yes100 percent.
WCT: So did you hesitate at all about including her?
CV: There were a few elements in relation to that. First of that, it wasn't always my call; it was the family's call, it was Jennifer's callit was a combined approach.
Working with The Trevor Project, I've learned important things about helping youth. For example, offering advice all the time is not helpful; listening is helpful. I was treading very lightly with Draw With Me around Brendon and their family because I was thinking in the back of my mind, "We could be a Pied Piper that could really elevate the project, but it's fragile. If it goes the wrong way, the message could be lost because it could be about 'What was Jennifer Lopez wearing?'" So that could work against our story and Brendon's evolution as an activist and a person; also, that would not be supporting the LGBTQ community.
In the end, she's included briefly. At some point during COVID, the family, the producers and myself decided to include Jennifer with an educational intro. That elevated the project and had millions of people talking about the project. In one of our conversations with Brendon, they were worried that no one would care about the story but would care about the one minute Jennifer talks about the story. But I think it all tied in nicely.
WCT: Another film you did, The Main in the Attic, has Real Housewives of New York's Sonja Morgan in it as well as Leslie Ann Lopez, correct?
CV: Yes. Sonja was one of the executive producers of the project. As a director, I'm very fascinated by people. I don't necessarily get scripts and start directing; I meet people and am fascinated by their personalities. Sonja and I became friendly, and she became interested in the project. In fact, I'd love to direct Paris Hilton, Lindsey Lohan and Pamela Anderson; they haven't had the opportunity to [recently] showcase their acting. I love the challenge.
WCT: Going back to Draw With Me, what would you like people to take away from this film?
CV: I feel like a lot of people who have seen it have had little to zero education about trans people, so it's almost like an introductory course. For those who don't know about what non-binary youth or they/them pronouns or hormone treatments, it's like a course. It'd be great for people to be partially educated so they can ask questions and learn even more.
And the second thing is that I just want the film to be out there for youth or trans people so they can feel that they're not alone.
Draw With Me runs theatrically now at ArenaScreen through Tuesday, Feb. 9. See ArenaScreen.com .