This week’s Project Forte continues a celebratory Pride Month with Calvin Woodruff (he/they), an editor and camera assistant currently living and working in Philadelphia. Our City of Brotherly Love boasts many unique communities and it remains imperative, especially in the face of exposed animosity around the globe, that we provide support and safety to the menagerie of folk and their stories. Calvin has been working to do just that for their community, creating safe sets which relieve anxiety and build confidence. As our industry grows right here in Philly, we all have an opportunity to support this initiative and grow a different kind of set from the ground up. This is a time of great reform and recognizing someone’s identity must change from a tactic of weaponization to one of love and celebration so that we can better relate to one another and serve each other.
Written and Edited by Kate Feher
Cal Woodruff: My name’s Calvin Woodruff. I am an editor, assistant editor, and camera assistant, and I use he/him or they/them pronouns.
Kris Mendoza: Cal, thanks for taking the time, officially kicking our relationship off with Project Forte. Can you tell me a little about your story, how you got into the film industry?
Cal Woodruff: I really developed a passion for editing, to start with, in my teen years and instantly knew what I wanted to do because I just loved it, so I went full-force into that. I ended up going to Temple University for film and psychology. My parents are both psychologists, so I had a nice little backup plan just in case. But I feel like learning about psychology has also really helped on film sets and within the industry in general, because you have to deal with so many different personalities. I began my career freelancing, mostly as an editor and also as a script supervisor.
Kris Mendoza: What kind of projects do you find yourself working on, and what do you enjoy working on?
Cal Woodruff: I did anything I could get my hands on while I was in school, but aimed for shooting a lot of queer events, drag, theater, and those types of shows. One of my mentors, Kelly Burkhardt, is an executive producer and was the photographer for a drag troupe I filmed for. She took me under her wing and led me to co-producing and script supervising on my first feature, which was a gay-themed drama called Beautiful Something. She used to work for TLA Releasing, which did a lot of queer films, so I had someone modeling that you can be LGBTQ and be successful in this business.
I explored script supervising, and already knew I loved editing, but one day our camera assistant didn’t show so I gave it a shot and fell in love… It was just such a great skill to learn. So far, my career has consisted of both camera assisting and assistant editing for documentaries, a few features, and commercials, as well as some TV shows like Queer Eye. I’ve had the pleasure of working on a lot of great short films, mostly queer-related.
But you know, when I started, I was not out as a trans man. I worked through college and got my name on projects but at a certain point, I had to put those on a shelf because the name wasn’t correct. I transitioned, and going through that process meant I had to reenter the industry at a later age and as my true self. I had to start over because the people I had worked with before didn’t really know who I was. I think that’s definitely a big struggle for a trans person in the film industry. Being out … can be a gamble. I’ve faced bigotry, judgment, assumption… especially looking young as well. There were a number of years where I experienced employment discrimination and I didn’t get called for work because of who I am. But that inconsistency actually led me to carve out my own community within the industry. I consider myself lucky because I was forced to pick up the work that existed on the margins, but those were the projects I cared about and really wanted to work on.
Kris Mendoza: It sounds like you get to pick and choose projects that are related to the theme of identity, the subject is specifically queer-related, or even just projects where set community involves folk who just share your views… Do you specifically pursue projects to maintain a certain level of comfortability for yourself or are you working to highlight these stories and further them for your community?
Cal Woodruff: I think it’s a mixed bag because, on the one hand, there are projects that I’m getting called for because I’m a trans man working as a crew member who shares the identity, and that feels great. I’ve learned so much from those opportunities. Those in the LGBTQ community don’t often have the same privileges and opportunities offered to others, so we create our own. And, yes, I’ve spent most of my career creating my own opportunities because of the lack of comfortability and safety on set.
When someone says something derogatory about your gender or your presentation, and you know that you’re not going to get called for the next job, where does that place you? I’ve spent a lot of time looking at those patterns and creating better opportunities on the sets I’ve worked on. I have found such an incredible community of queer and trans filmmakers and there are a lot of us out there. We know how to create those safe spaces so we can make projects that are important to us and build our careers.
Kris Mendoza: Within minority groups there can be an array of compounded diversity, for example, I’m Filipino but often get lumped into a blanket “Asian” identity with countless other cultures, from Taiwanese to Chinese to Japanese, etc. In the LGBTQ scene, obviously, there are complicated identities even separate from race, but they tend to place, all gay, lesbian, trans, queer people, into one bucket community. How do you navigate that, in terms of visibility and getting hired, and how does a lack of education keep others from navigating it?
Cal Woodruff: Some people certainly see that you are in the LGBTQ community and want to take advantage of your identity so they can get brownie points for hiring those people. That can be really dangerous. Yes, the hope is you are called for that job because you fit in that community and there’s a certain responsibility to tell those stories as genuinely as possible.
But you also hope to be called for work simply because you are a skilled camera assistant or editor who only happens to be a trans man and in fact, that is of no consequence. My community often loses when it comes to open opportunities because they simply are not thought of and so there’s no invitation to the table.”
Kris Mendoza: It seems like whether it’s racial, ethnic, or gender inequities, folks get “othered.” You will be another if you don’t belong, in terms of a majority point of view. Can you unpack what that means for your community? Do you find there are similarities in what people of color go through on set, or any minority clamoring for opportunity and visibility at the same time?
Cal Woodruff: I’ve noticed something happening in the industry, which is that people are beginning to think about who is on set and how it represents them as a production company. My fear is that at that point, companies are thinking about identity over skill-set and the point is to consider skill-set without excluding a person because you don’t identify the same way. People can use identity as a way to get a sense of who you are before you walk on set for the day, and to me, that can sometimes be dangerous.
Kris Mendoza: Yes, It’s hard to really know or trust people’s intentions. It’s also difficult to separate ignorance from racism, bigotry, and sexism. But once an education is offered, the hope is that person will simply hire folk because they’re good at what they do and they’re a pleasure to work with.
And I do think you’re right, people are very aware and becoming intentional of who’s on set now, and I think that’s a good first step. We do need loud voices in all these communities, to be activists and fight for a lot of this representation, but in your opinion what happens next? What has to happen for us to not even have to have this kind of conversation?
Cal Woodruff: I think we’re a long way away from that. A lot of our communities are being attacked every day, and we still have to be careful about where we are and what we do. If you’re always thinking like that, you’re not really able to focus on the work that you’re doing, on the career that you’re building. And I think that’s one thing a lot of cis-people don’t understand – when you’re sitting there trying to build a camera, you’re also thinking, what are they saying about me and how I present?
Kris Mendoza: You are so aware that they are watching you because of the threat you’ve been under in the past.
Cal Woodruff: They’re watching me.
Kris Mendoza: They’re waiting for me to make a mistake.
Cal Woodruff: Exactly, exactly. And I know I’m not … LGBTQ people are absolutely not the only minority that feels that way. I think productions need to have an environment where you can focus on your job, and that’s something that I have had the privilege of creating with my friend, Easton Carter Angle, who is a cinematographer. We have done a lot of projects, and it’s all about safe sets, about …
Kris Mendoza: Not COVID-related safe sets? Just safe sets in general?
Cal Woodruff: No, no, like safe sets so that you’re not looking over your shoulder, and you’re able to grow your skills and make projects that matter to you. Because as we form the future and recognize that we need to be the ones to tell our stories, the ones behind the camera, the ones making the decisions, it’s not just about calling a trans person to be on set because they’re trans.
Kris Mendoza: Yeah. And you made a good point. It is about having trans people and other minorities in leadership positions. It’s not like, hey, our PA is an LGBTQ, or we have a Black PA. Check.
Cal Woodruff: Yeah, yeah. We’re not checking boxes here.
Kris Mendoza: I think a big part of the solution is certainly placing folks throughout the decision-making process. I think that’s the … I don’t want to say “ultimate solution,” but it makes a huge difference when someone does trust you to basically head the department and to hire other folks. I think that is one of the big first steps necessary in terms of getting more minorities and folks of the LGBTQ community on set. They don’t necessarily have to be the loudest activists, so to speak, but if they are the ones hiring, making calls, creating culture, and setting the tone for set that day… it’s only going to, A: open doors and provide opportunities for filmmakers that are already feeling marginalized, and B: encourage other LGBTQ folks to pursue film in general.
If you’re considering a career in film, it’s huge to see not only a DP or Producer like you but also the general crew – to see a gaffer or another department director making decisions. That kind of visibility offers the idea, and then young folk can begin to even just consider this field and aren’t immediately edged out. It’s a big part of the reason why I’m doing this – it was not a career path that was expected, at least of me, as an Asian American. And I’m sure there are a lot of very talented Asian-American filmmakers in high school who don’t think it’s for them, just because of what they see or don’t see.
Cal Woodruff: Oh, yeah, absolutely. There’s a yearly Trans Wellness Conference that happens in Philadelphia, and I had the privilege of setting up and running a workshop panel with Easton for trans filmmakers and trans cast. I was shocked by the interest in it. We had a panel of trans filmmakers, and I realized in that moment, someone might see us and say, “I can do that, too.”
And I think that’s the point. While visibility can be a trap sometimes, because you put yourself in danger, it’s also necessary because the next person will see that you’re doing this, and will feel empowered to do it themselves.
It’s a challenge today, to be recognized as a trans person in the film industry, or to be recognized (in my positions) for my talent. If I can use my identity to my advantage at this moment, then I have to, because it will get me in the room. But then, once I’m in the room, other people will see that it’s possible. And I think it’s just … it’s about possibilities because I don’t think, as a young person, I really saw those opportunities at all.
Kris Mendoza: Did you have any role models in the film industry or anyone to look up to as you were transitioning? Or even now, as a trans filmmaker, are there people you look up to in the trans filmmaking community?
Cal Woodruff: I definitely have a lot of mentors, people that I look up to. I also think it’s incredible that, as I’ve grown in my career, I’ve noticed more and more queer people to admire in the industry. They showed me that there are opportunities for people like me. I think of Sam Feder and Laverne Cox for their Disclosure documentary. I got the privilege of working with director Chase Joynt, who did a documentary about Billy Tipton, a trans jazz musician. And there are people that worked on Transparent, like Zackary Drucker. It’s kind of incredible how many trans people are in the film industry right now that you can even point to because I think 10 years ago, I was like … maybe Chaz Bono was the one and only person that I could think of. And now I think, oh god, there’s a whole list of people to be proud of and to work with, even locally!
And I’ve had the privilege of working with trans people in Philly, New Jersey, New York, and all over the East Coast and the West Coast. Just even being able to look up to my friend, Easton, as a trans cinematographer. It feels great to be proud that we’re all sticking together to make it in an industry that can be really cutthroat, even if you’re not a minority.
Kris Mendoza: This is a bit of a side question here because you mentioned Transparent, and it made me think about the bit of a backlash that it got, with Jeffrey Tambor not being a trans actor. I find this interesting. It’s happening in a slightly different way, but on the Asian side, this Marvel actor, Shang-Chi, he’s from Canada and considers himself Taiwanese Canadian, but he’s playing a Chinese-born character. People in China are freaking out, being like, “This guy’s not even Chinese. He’s Taiwanese, and he’s from Canada.”
I’m curious, because a lot of the people that were getting mad about the Jeffrey Tambor thing were not even part of the trans community. They were just people on social media who were angry. So I’m curious about your own perspective … Because I agree that, yeah, the character should that have been played by a trans actor, because there are plenty of trans actors. But is it damning that he is not trans, at the end of the day? Or is it just better that there is even a show about the subject matter which became commercially viable and popular?
Cal Woodruff: Yeah, I go back and forth about this because I know how hard it is to get greenlit on anything. I think when I first saw that news, I was furious. I said, “A trans woman needs to be playing this role. There’s no way that a cis man, especially him, will know what it’s like.” And then I found out that there were trans people in the writers’ room and on the production team, who were leaders and made this happen. And at first, I was a little taken aback by it, but then I thought, as long as a trans person is telling those stories, then it feels somewhat acceptable to me. Should it be a trans woman in that lead role? Absolutely. But my thought is, if a trans person is in a leadership role for this, then it’s just one important step toward creating the next project, in which you have better facilitated an opportunity for the right person in that role.
Kris Mendoza: First you have to prove that people are going to watch this, and next you get to replace him with someone-
Cal Woodruff: Right.
Kris Mendoza: Exactly.
Cal Woodruff: In my mind, I would say, sure, get it greenlit with Jeffrey Tambor. Get people excited about it, and then do better. It’s about taking your privilege, knowing where you are, and then pushing it to the next step. You can make a show about trans people, but don’t exploit us and our stories. I always say we should be the ones telling our stories. And yeah, I think it is hard because, on the one hand, as a viewer, as an audience member, it’s infuriating to see somebody play a role that has nothing to do with them. And then, on the other hand, it’s hard as a filmmaker, knowing how hard it is out there to even get these stories told. And I go back and forth between being thankful that this story exists, and upset that it’s not the right person that’s telling it.
Kris Mendoza: You brought up a really good point right of just how hard it is to get something greenlit. It goes back to what you said earlier, it’s like … yes, Jeffrey Tambor is an amazing actor. You can package him with a good director, a good script, and that will get greenlit, right? But a talented trans woman who no one knows yet, will that get greenlit? Probably not. You do what you can and then focus on what you can do next to push it, building trust and using privilege to do better afterward.
On the other hand, I’ve seen executives in studios just go for it, right? If they have a really good story, a really good director, but they don’t know the trans-woman who was casted, they might still take a chance and it should be considered exactly the same amount of risk as taking a chance on an unknown white male or white female cis actor. People get discovered all the time. You may not know who the star is. So it’s no different. I think executives should get over that hump, that it’s all the same, giving someone a chance, and that studios make enough money at the end of the day to take chances here.
So let’s touch back on having representation in the writers’ room. I’m also conflicted in some regards when you see a film and recognize: this was not an authentic story because the director or producer, whoever put this together, clearly was not of this background or ethnicity. But if you find out that the actor who, let’s say, was playing someone with AIDS – actually spent years with AIDS patients and researched with them, listened to their stories, and befriended a lot of people – really took this role seriously. You think a little differently about it because that is the role and the opportunity for a performer. A good actor needs to be trusted to empathize and reflect real life.
I’m conflicted. There are some instances where that’s okay, and others where there were dozens of people you could have hired for this role who probably didn’t even get auditioned. It’s like they didn’t even have the privilege of getting declined this role. They never got called. Those situations are nuanced, of course.
Cal Woodruff: Yeah. I think you make a really good point about taking chances because there’s so much money and stress behind every choice that you make, every casting choice, every crew choice. And I think that, as we go into the future, people need to stop being afraid to take chances. Take something like Pose: many of those performers had never had acting experience, and just look at what happens when you take chances and you allow those people into the room. They will surprise you.
Take chances on the people that you’re most nervous about, because – and I speak from experience – they are the ones who will be most excited and ready to be in the room and take on the work. Especially with some of these big indie projects, you can take a chance on an unknown trans actor and really surprise everyone.
Kris Mendoza: Let’s talk about what happens after an opportunity. I always say there’s internal validation and external validation, speaking on what people know you as, not even exclusive to gender identity, etc. I know people that are known as a PA or known as, say, an AC, and then all of a sudden, they get an opportunity to DP, and all the people that knew them as an AC begin to meld their identity. They’re kind of like, “Oh, so-and-so is an AC but kind of a DP now,” but all the people that met that person on the set as a DP only know that person as a DP. They don’t know them as anything else and that DP has a right to assume the identity because they have gained the experience. All they needed was the opportunity to prove themselves.
So from that point on, there’s this external validation of, “Oh, I know … yeah, or I know her. They’re a DP.” But a person won’t know them as an AC, they don’t know what it was like prior to that. So how does that apply to how you present on set and how people know you, going forward? If you’re not outwardly presenting as a trans man having, in fact, completed your transition, do you find that people speak freely and differently around you?
Cal Woodruff: Absolutely. And I think you’re hitting an important point on the head. On one side, it’s how you identify yourself. “I am a trans man who is a camera assistant and editor.” Or, “I am a camera assistant and editor who is also trans.”
I am a passing white trans man and that has definitely put me in situations where I’m able to defend others. I feel lucky that I’m even in a position where I’m able to defend someone … if there’s another queer person on set, you better believe I will be defending them. I’ve been on sets where I don’t get defended by other people, and I would want someone like me to be that on set.
But I certainly don’t hide my trans identity, because it’s important to just allow other people who are queer know that I am a safe person in that community. I choose to be out. What is difficult and unfair is that sometimes it’s safer to hide that part of my identity.
Kris Mendoza: That’s so unfortunate that you have to navigate it at all, right? Like, do I feel safe to say this or not? To not have to constantly assess and reassess even how you introduce yourself is, quite frankly, a privilege other people take for granted.
Cal Woodruff: Right. And I think I mentioned it before. I am unabashedly myself, and people know that … people find out that I’m trans, and then I don’t get a call for the next shoot because of it. I choose to take chances on that because I don’t want to hide that part of myself.
Kris Mendoza: Do you also find yourself questioning if you’re not getting called because you said you were trans, or because you messed up in some way? Do you think, am I just focusing on this as the reason, or are they just not busy and don’t have work to offer?
Cal Woodruff: Yeah.
Kris Mendoza: The fact that you have to reconcile all those thoughts takes your focus away from your actual work. And it’s hard to not have insecurities when you have all those conflicting thoughts inside.
Cal, this has been great. I think, to wrap up, let’s talk about what you’re working on now. I’ve seen See Us in the Wild‘s cut and it’s looking sharp. Ayumi Perry and Sophie XU actually came by the office and screened it.
Cal Woodruff: I feel really, very privileged to be able to edit that piece. It’s beautiful and I always love working with Eurica Yu. I’m really excited for that to come out. I didn’t realize you got a little private screening, that’s exciting!
Kris Mendoza: You were working on another trans project?
Cal Woodruff: Oh, yes, Trans in Trumpland was the most recent film I worked on, which was a feature documentary that I AC’d on all last year and then was an assistant editor on. And that was a great chance to travel and capture stories of people that are like myself.
Kris Mendoza: Absolutely. What’s next for you? Anything cool you’re working on that you want to tease, or next steps that you’re looking at?
Cal Woodruff: So the biggest thing is that I’m leaving Philadelphia.
Kris Mendoza: Oh, man.
Cal Woodruff: I know. My partner, her name is Ariel Mahler, she got into AFI‘s directing fellowship program for next year, and so we are leaving Philadelphia in late July to move to LA for a time. I plan to continue freelancing as an editor and camera assistant, and trying to work bicoastally as much as possible. Ariel already has an east-coast based project called Bad Ally, which is a web series we just shot an episode for on Sunday, and-
Kris Mendoza: I heard about this! You posted something about it I think –
Cal Woodruff: Oh, yeah. That’s Bad Ally, it’s been a really fun project to work on! They’re doing a whole section of quarantine chronicles because they can’t shoot a whole second season yet. So that’s probably going to be ongoing, and there’s another short film that I’m working on in June for Morgan Sullivan and Noah Schamus who are trans New York filmmakers. I’m excited to go to LA and enter a new community of trans filmmakers, some who I already know and some who I’m anxious to meet. My biggest dream is to have this coalition of trans filmmakers that can all work together and support each other, uplift each other, learn from each other. I talk a lot about the niche Philly filmmaker scene and to have our own community where we all lift each other up and give each other opportunities… I can see it happening, and I can see that as a driving force for my career and my life, as well.
Kris Mendoza: That’s awesome! First off, congrats on the move and to Ariel with AFI, that’s huge. You’ve got an exciting future ahead. As the world is opening back up, it seems like no better time to embrace a new city, new excitement, and new beginnings. Good luck to you there! I really enjoyed this conversation. Do you have any parting words for us?
Cal Woodruff: Thank you. Yeah, I just want to drive home the point that, if you are in a position of power in the industry, allow yourself to take chances on people that we both know have incredible stories to tell and also have incredible skills that they need to develop. I think that’s just the most important thing that we can do, as a community and as an industry.