Susan Sandler is, to many, a household name. Best known for her seminal rom-com “Crossing Delancey,” the born and bred Jewish New Yorker is an adept auteur with a keen eye for humor. Her latest is a documentary that tells the tender, funny and moving story of Julia Scotti, a transgender comedian. “Julia Scotti: Funny That Way” explores the unrelenting courage and humor it takes to be Julia.
In the 1980s, Rick Scotti was busy gigging in clubs across the U.S., sharing bills with Chris Rock and Jerry Seinfeld, when he slowly realized that nothing felt right. At a time when the words gender dysphoria were rarely heard, Rick came to a true awakening at age 47, leading to a new identity and gender: Julia Scotti.
Sandler’s documentary, shot over a period of five years, looks back on the seismic shifts in Julia’s life — most painfully being shut out of contact with her children. “Julia Scotti: Funny That Way” follows her triumphant comeback and the complex process of reuniting with her children.
Ahead of its UK release, Kveller spoke with Sandler about her journey behind the scenes with Julia, and what it’s like to have made one of the most important Jewish rom-coms of all time.
What was it like to sit and witness Julia go on this journey of self-examination?
Well, this was five years of working with Julia. The genesis of it began on Nantucket; we met there where I saw her perform with a friend of mine, a comedian, and I just fell in love. She felt like early Richard Pryor — just really urgent, raw and wonderful.
We started to hang out. And I began to work with her on the concept of a one-woman show, which is what comedians do when they want to move on from doing formal sets to telling their story in a more personal way. We began with these long conversations into the night where I began to learn who she was, and a little bit more about her story, and the deeper and deeper we got, the more I realized that this wanted to be a documentary.
And then I got the pieces of the puzzle — archival material is what makes documentaries really sing. There was a huge amount of material that she gave me, boxes and boxes and boxes. So the process of working on this was as an observer and then ultimately a friend.
There was a moment where Julia is watching her old stand up with her son Dan, and he wants to fast forward through the bit [of her pre-transition routine] where she takes a potshot at trans people, and she’s going, no, I need to see this. Observing that parent/child dynamic, it almost felt like it was reversed, where the child was trying to protect the parent from a painful past experience. How do you process watching that moment and then the empathy that you must feel for Julia and her son?
What Julia has given me, and you as an audience, is access to the public and the private. In a lot of documentaries of performers, we get very little of the private, of this kind of vulnerability. What she’s seeing in that sequence is to look at this moment in time, when Rick Scotti was working out a lot of stuff on stage. And that’s what comedians do. You know, good comedians, honest comedians, are struggling. Whatever they’re struggling with, you hear it in those sets, you get a glimpse into that.
Julia looked back at that without any shame. It was what was going on in her life, and I’ve sat in a lot of interviews with her in our press tour, and a lot of folks in the LGBTQ community acknowledge that they have very similar remembrances in their past, where there was a sort of impulse to beat down the truth, to dig down the truth and not accept the truth. And when the truth is embraced, you know, there we are in light and happiness and acceptance and a true voice and all the good things that have come her way.
Obviously there’s something painful there for Julia’s children. What was the process like in making the documentary with them?
You can see that Dan is much closer to Julia; he shares her comedy roots, they have a lot that they talk about in what they care about and their sense of humor. I think it was more difficult for Emma to come back to a lot of those memories. I’m very grateful for both of them for being willing to talk with us and respect all of the territory that was created around that, I didn’t want to go past anything or go anywhere that they would be uncomfortable [with].
There is a lot of discourse around authenticity in filmmaking, and who should be cast to play someone Jewish. Having made a seminal Jewish movie (“Crossing Delancey”), what are your feelings on that push towards having Jews play Jews?
Right now I’m putting together a list of actors for a new project and the character is a Jewish woman of a certain age, and I have a lot of non-Jewish actresses on my list, because they’re great actresses. They have the essence of the character, which is gutsy and funny and a little dangerous, and that’s what I want. I want to know what they do artistically, what they bring to the set. I think that [saying only Jews should play Jews] is a real misguided notion of who gets to do what, because it’s all about playing and expanding our sense of who we are.
I think one of the key things about films is that they create empathy in a viewer with an experience that they may not have had or know. So thinking about that, in terms of “Crossing Delancey,” did you make a conscious decision in the play and film to feature these different nuances of what it means to be Jewish?
The Jewish essence that you’re referencing was not intentional. It wasn’t. It was thoroughly organic. In fact, the bris scene is completely biographical. A friend of mine was a single mom, that was the bris [she held]. She laughs at it whenever she sees that scene. I have lots of pieces of my own life to invest in this story and nothing intentionally on display.
“Crossing Delancey” is one of those films you can show someone and they learn something about what it means to be Jewish. There’s a sense of honoring it, but not to the exclusion of being interrogative of what it means.
It’s all show, not tell.
With “Julia Scotti: Funny That Way,” what do you hope viewers take away?
The documentary comes out on Transgender Visibility Day. It’s a celebration of a beautiful woman. And I think people are going to have a great time meeting Julia and falling in love with her as I did.