Still from Dusk
Still from Dusk

Award-winning trans director Jake Graf’s newest, Dusk, reflects on the sunset of a life spent grappling with self-determination.

Inspired by the true story of a 70-year-old man who, making peace with the confines of society, lived his life as a woman, Dusk’s series of flashbacks through the life of Chris (Sailors) reveal the gravity of the choices we make, and the impact of cis-normative culture.

The powerful short film, starring Elliott Sailors, Victoria Emslie, and Duncan James,  has already racked up three Best Short Awards, two of those from US festivals, and is lined up for over 25 festivals, across the US, and internationally, spanning India to Switzerland.

DUSK TRAILER from Jake Graf on Vimeo.

We caught up with Elliott, Victoria, and Jake to chat about Dusk.

How did Dusk come about?

Jake:  The inspiration for Dusk came last year when I received an email from a festival programmer in Canada. They told me that although they had lived their life as a man, they had always known that they were a woman and despite much heartache over the years had chosen to accept their lot in life.

Now aged 70, they told me that they were essentially happy, but had simply needed someone to know who they really were. The email stayed with me and made me start to think of all the thousands, if not millions of trans folk who had never had the chance to live as themselves, and how devastating that must have been.

What do you think is the greatest message to come from Dusk?

Elliott: Choices – recognizing what choices are within our control, which obviously isn’t, and then being honest about what doesn’t occur as a choice, but really is. We can always choose love. And the courage to be, to exist, to continue on and how worthwhile that is.

Victoria: Love and acceptance: both for yourself and for other people. Only after you are truly able to love yourself are you capable of loving someone else. Irrational fear and hatred comes from a place of one’s own insecurities; it is our job to find the root of this in ourselves and really examine why it is that we feel like this and to question to what end is this hatred and fear useful? It is much easier to love than to hate.

What was your favourite scene to shoot?

Victoria: There were so many scenes that will stay with me after the shoot; although I cannot say I have a favourite scene in the conventional sense, there were scenes for me that were eye-opening and for that reason, they were my favourites. There is one scene in particular where Julie and Chris are walking into a nightclub which I shot twice, once with Duncan and once with Elliot. In my own personal life, I could identify with what happened during the scene with Duncan, but I have never been in a situation where I have had to be careful of public displays of affection with my partner for fear that I might get attacked because of my sexual orientation.

Even though we were in a safe space of the set, I found the scene that followed particularly hard to come to terms with. For me, when Julie kisses Chris in front of a group of men, this is one of the moments when her strength shines through. She is defiant in her love and is proud to be with Chris. And why shouldn’t she be: love is love.

Elliott: As an actor, I would have to say the fight scene was the most impactful for me. It was really great getting to work with Elijah Harris – he’s so talented and I was really grateful for his willingness to help me prepare emotionally for the scene.

Any behind the scenes antics you can share?

Jake: Sue Moore, who plays the 70-year-old version of Elliott’s character ‘Chris’, is only 5′ tall to Elliott’s 5’11, so for many of the scenes, we had her tottering around in 5-inch platform heels. For a 70-year-old woman who had never worn heels before, that was certainly an unexpected added challenge for her.

Victoria: So, Jake doesn’t know this yet, but after a long day of filming on our last day, in between our early evening scenes and our night shoot, Duncan and I snuck into a pub on the way back to base camp and did some of the shots of tequila. So naughty; but it definitely helped fight off the cold, as I was wearing a miniskirt and was about to spend the night getting beaten up and rolling around on the floor in a car park.

Elliott: As you see throughout the film, Duncan and I are dressed in the same outfits. So, he and I went for a coffee in the denim and corduroy, thinking it would be hilarious. We were looking to get a good laugh from people in the coffee shop and on the street, but no one seemed to notice and we were trying so hard!

Jake: There were also the concerned citizens who kept running into the fight scene thinking it was real, causing us to have to reset over and over during a 14 hour day, which is funnier in retrospect than it was at the time.

Jake Graf and Elliot Sailors
Jake Graf and Elliott Sailors via Chilla Palinkas.

Let’s talk characters. What are Julie and Chris like? How are they as a couple?

Elliott: Chris is very shy. He’s had a very long process of self-discovery. We all have these times in life when we’re trying to figure out who we really are, but for Chris, that’s in another way many of us cannot imagine. And so Chris spends a great deal of time in his head, internalizing a lot and in a fairly consistent state of fear – fear of being hurt again. All of Chris’ strength goes into defending and supporting who he loves.

Victoria:  When they first meet, Julie can see that Chris is very guarded and has built up many walls. She sees Chris’ fragility and vulnerability as beautiful qualities and, being the more outgoing of the two, she hopes that she will be able to be the one who Chris can finally trust and share a side with them which no one else has been able to see before… She is strong-willed, passionate and knows what she wants. She is a fighter and fights for her love, even though she might be surrounded by people who do not understand it or accept it. She is loyal, and even when things get tough, she does not turn her back on Chris.

Elliott: I think perhaps Chris’ biggest struggle was the state of constant fear all around him. His parents were terrified to the point of what could feel like abuse, his teachers, schoolmates, people in the park, Julie’s parents were all so afraid that they behaved with such hatred.

Victoria: She is Chris’ rock, and this moment of stability allows Chris to be able to open up little by little, so much so that in the end Chris chooses Julie over anything else. Or not even that, it was never a choice, it is a natural and authentic progression of true love.

Jake, Dusk is obviously the second instalment in the trilogy. How did the process differ from Dawn?

Jake: I had wanted to work with Elliott and Victoria for some time, and the idea of the two of them together on screen was always incredibly exciting to me. I wrote the script with them in mind but based very much on this story that I already wanted to tell.

I usually self fund my films, but this one was a much bigger creature, and so I was lucky enough that a good friend and prominent member of the LGBT community in the UK came on board to co-executive produce the film.

I have great relationships with most of the queer film festivals and the LGBT Press, and they are always supportive. And with such stunning leads as Elliott and Victoria, who wouldn’t want to see more of their stories and the beautiful connection that they have on-screen?

Dawn was essentially one location and two actors, and although we were hugely dependent on the weather as it was all shot outside, it was a largely stress-free shoot. Dusk upped the ante in every way: more money, more locations, more planning, more actors, and more pressure for it to surpass Dawn.

And what can you tell us about the final piece?

Jake: The most exciting development in that respect is that rather than focusing on the third instalment right now, I have had strong advice to go feature-length with ‘Dusk’. With 6 short films under my belt, it’s definitely time to make that leap, and the general consensus seems to be that ‘Dusk’ has the scope for that. I’m just starting to write it now, but the story is already in my head, so hopefully, it will really flow, and we will be talking about Dusk The Feature in a year or two!.