One of the first things one notices about Silas Howard, director of the new queer movie “A Kid Like Jake,” are his impressive tattoos.
“That’s the benefit of being in a punk band,” he says. “I got to collect a lot of tattoos.”
The transgender artist grew up in a small town in rural Vermont, an upbringing that began to shape his worldview.
“We were very working-class, sometimes more on the poverty line, and that’s what really formed me as much as my queerness or transness,” Howard says. “I was always sort of gender-bending in my own way. That propelled me to go out west to San Francisco and come out in the era of ACT UP, the first Gulf War and Jesse Helms.”
Presenting at the time as a butch lesbian, but still struggling with his sexual identity, Howard didn’t feel at home in either the gay or lesbian communities. He found a home in the queer punk crowd and founded a dyke punk band called “Tribe 8.” The band toured nationally and internationally for the next decade and became a pioneer of the queercore movement.
For Howard, punk is an attitude about life.
“It’s great for filmmaking,” he says, “because it’s about not waiting for permission. It’s great for being trans because it’s about being whatever gender you want. It pushes against binary, pushes against rules.”
He adds, “it’s a natural fit for times such as these when there are a lot of very terrible rules and laws.”
In 2001, Howard turned to from music to cinema. Working with his friend Harry Dodge, Howard wrote, directed and starred in his first film, “By Hook or by Crook.” The film was presented at the Sundance Film Festival and won several major awards on the LGBT festival circuit.
Following his successful debut, Howard says, “I went to UCLA and got my degree and made a bunch of short-format work. I just made whatever I could get funding for and just kept telling stories, mostly about my community.” While he was working on his degree, Howard also transitioned.
Then he made television history. “Transparent” creator Jill Soloway asked him to direct three episodes of season two, making him the first transgender person to direct the show.
The show was a great experience for Howard.
“When I started to work on Transparent,” he says, “the directing felt very familiar which was nice. I felt really at home in the actual work of, ‘What is this scene about?’ and ‘Wow are we approaching it?’ That show was great because there was a lot of permission to experiment and a really dialed-in cast that was just brilliant to collaborate with. What was unfamiliar was that level of cast, that budget, the amazing snacks that were on set, getting paid. That was all very new.”
In addition to “Transparent,” Howard has worked on a number of television series, including “Faking It,” where he helped launch the career of teen trans actor Elliot Fletcher, “This Is Us” and “The Fosters.”
In the midst of all his television work, Howard was asked to direct the indie movie, “A Kid Like Jake” (the Blade’ review is here). Based on the stage play by Daniel Pearle, the movie is about Greg and Alex Wheeler (Jim Parsons and Claire Danes), an upwardly mobile Brooklyn couple who are forced to reexamine their roles as spouses and parents when their 4-year old son Jake (Leo James Davis) begins to engage in “gender-expansive play.”
“I came into a project that had a beautiful script and these two incredible actors,” Howard says. “I was attracted to the script because the dialogue is so honest, so gut-wrenching. I love the little moments and the missed connections between people in the film. They’re so real.”
Once Howard came on board, he and Pearle “worked for a couple of months making some changes.” Some of these changes have proven quite controversial, but they are great examples of how Howard approaches storytelling.
For example, they added the character of Sandra, played by Howard’s “Transparent” colleague Amy Landecker. Sandra is one of Greg’s patients. She is only seen in her therapy sessions with Greg and her scenes have no direct ties to the main plot. But, as Howard points out, “everyone in this film is struggling with identity. Here you’re dealing with someone who didn’t want to be a mother. Her scenes don’t follow a normal film structure, but it fills out the world of the movie.”
In addition, following Pearle’s original stage script, where Jake doesn’t appear on stage at all, Pearle and Howard minimized Jake’s screen time until the final moments of the film. They didn’t want the audience to focus on Jake’s gender identity, but rather on the reaction of his family and their friends.
“I don’t think of ‘A Kid Like Jake’ as a trans story or a gay story or a queer story because Jake is 4 and he may go any number of ways,” Howard says. “We intentionally sort of flipped the camera on the parents and the larger society. It’s not his story.”
When he’s not promoting “A Kid Like Jake,” Howard is focused on two new projects. He is co-executive producer and episode director of Ryan Murphy’s new series “Pose” set in New York’s drag ballroom culture circa 1987. He’s also working on “The Lusty,” a film about the dancers at San Francisco’s Lusty Lady who fought to organize the first union in the world for exotic dancers.
“There are these amazing LGBTQ storylines on every show I’ve worked on as well as storylines about class and race and religions. It’s an amazing time to be working in television. … It’s a privilege to tell these stories and I want to extend that out to newer voices and other stories that need support to get up on the screen.”