The film is a documentary about jazz pianist Billy Tipton. It’s not just a documentary but a major cinematic contribution to transgender history. I love the approach that co-directors Aisling Chin-Yee and Chase Joynt take in directing the film. It’s part documentary and part holding casting auditions to portray Billy Tipton in a film. This audition approach is easily one of the strongest parts of the film. We have trans-masculine actors sharing their own stories and what Tipton meant to their own history.
The film’s main interview subjects include Kate Bornstein, Zachary Drucker, Jamison Green, Amos Mac, Thomas Page McBee, Stephan Pennington, Scott Turner Schofield, C. Riley Snorton, Susan Stryker, Marquise Vilsón, and Billy Tipton Jr.. In addition, No Ordinary Man also features Alex Blue Davis, Holden Bernstein, Emmett Preciado, Ellis David Perry, Zelda Vinciguerra, Ryan Cassata, Carter Ray, Hennesy, Skylar Marshall, Morgan Sullivan, and Tyler DiChiara.
Oscilloscope Laboratories is releasing the film in theaters on July 16, 2021.
It’s been a long road for No Ordinary Man since premiering last fall during TIFF. When did you first hear about Billy Tipton?
Chase Joynt: I heard about Billy Tipton on the internet. And by that I mean, captured on various lists about trans people who you know or should know more about from history. The story that I knew about Billy Tipton was what was produced by the talk and tabloid media. It wasn’t until joining this team and spending careful time with our project that I was able to understand his story with much greater complexity or engage his story with much greater complexity.
Aisling Chin-Yee: I learned about Billy essentially from making this film. When I was invited in to make the film about Billy Tipton’s life, I hadn’t encountered him before. I started doing my research into who he was and again, the internet offered a certain type of narrative about who he was that the media kind of spun since after he died. That became clear from my own research and obviously, when the team came together with Chase and Amos, that that was going to be part of the history that we were going to also unpack—how he was represented and misrepresented in the media the years following his death.
What was the genesis for making No Ordinary Man?
Aisling Chin-Yee: There’s lots of different beginnings of this film, I think. It began, at least on our side of it, with Sarah Spring, our producer at Parabola films. She had been developing an idea to make a documentary about Billy Tipton. It was sort of just of broad leashed, presented as that, essentially. I’m based in Montreal—Sarah’s a good friend of min and a fellow documentarian based here. When I came on board, that was that beginning research period. As a non-trans person working on this film, quickly, we needed to expand the team, obviously. Through mutual friends, that’s how I met Amos and Chase. The three of us really came together and the film that you see is the creation of us as a trio and with Sarah, our producer, that made this the film that you see on screen.
I just love the approach in No Ordinary Man with featuring scenes where do you basically have an all-star lineup auditioning. Was there anyone that you wanted to include but scheduling did not work out?
Chase Joynt: That’s a really great question and to be honest, in almost a year of doing interviews for the film, I don’t think we’ve ever been asked it. One of the things that was a geographic limitation is that we were shooting auditions in LA and New York. We are so thrilled to be in conversation with all of the talent that you see on screen but we definitely recognize that we’re missing the opportunity to engage those who weren’t able to travel to those cities at that time.
Aisling Chin-Yee: Yeah, we could have just kept auditioning all over the country til kingdom come. But yeah, there was definitely I think there was scheduling conflicts with Becca Blackwell and maybe even Murray Hill. I don’t remember—it seems like 10,000 years ago because it was pre-pandemic. We got such an amazing amount of self-tapes sent to us and our casting director was so great. So many people showed up to the casting call and we invited people in the days that we were doing the live sessions. We were really lucky that people really stepped forward to be part of this film.
At what point in the process of making No Ordinary Man did you approach Billy Tipton’s son?
Chase Joynt: Billy Jr. was on the project before we were—so early on in development when there was a different group of makers approaching some of the questions. We have always known that Billy Jr. was excited to be a part of the project. In part, it’s because Billy Jr. really identifies as the keeper of his father’s history and of his legacy. It’s incredibly important to him to be central to the ways in which the story is told today.
One of the things that I just have a hard time wrapping my head around is that Billy is so closeted that not even his family knew until he died.
Chase Joynt: I think one of the things that we love and this is something that Thomas Page McBee says in our film is really underestimate the wives and what they knew, right? I think that there is a way in which the narrative that’s told about Tipton after his death is rightly and necessarily defended. I really appreciate the ways that Kitty Tipton and Billy Jr. lock down on that question and don’t give the media an opportunity to speculate or think that there are other answers. I think that there’s some beauty in that (The audio on Zoom broke up at this point) I was just saying that I think that there’s something really beautiful about the ways in which Kitty Tipton and Billy Jr. on the talk show circuit in particular closed down the opportunity for further engagement with those questions and hold strong to their lines. I think it’s a beautiful way to protect Billy’s privacy.
What did you make of Diane Middlebrook’s biography, Suits Me?
Aisling Chin-Yee: We had a lot of colorful language, I guess, attached to Diane Middlebrook’s biography. All kidding aside, it was really useful resource in knowing biographically where Billy was, who he met, certain dates, certain places that he went to. She did an immense amount of research and she also donated that research to Stanford University for the public to go in and look at. Amos and I went down to Stanford and spent a few days just going through everything, photographing things and reading these letters and all these things that she had collected from the family over the number of years she was gathering material.
It was incredibly frustrating, obviously, to read the biography that painted him as an ambitious woman that just wanted to play jazz music and her love of jazz was so great that even she would change her gender for her entire life. To do that was just so absurd and ridiculous that she was so thorough in her research but just had such crazy blind spot for this really, really significant part of this human that she was want to write about.
When we were going through the archives, to really find that she had read and highlighted and collected texts by trans-masculine people. She had copies of FTM Magazine, she had talked to Jamison Green, she had read Kate Bornstein’s texts. She had access and she decided to not bother including into the narrative that she was constructing about Billy Tipton. That was like, Okay, you’re not ignorant anymore; you’re someone who’s willfully trying to change a person’s legacy based on what you think is the story that should be told.
Chase Joynt: One of the things that we love as a filmmaking team is paying attention to how the text betrays itself. There’s a moment where Diane Middlebrook talks about how Billy would know no one like him and then talks about someone just like him paragraphs later, right. It becomes the fuel for the buck scene which emerges on screen in our film. If you close read, you can see the moves that authors are making. For us, the Middlebrooks book is an important text to consider but it’s only one of many that animate how to tell a story about his life.
How have you managed to keep busy during the pandemic?
Chase Joynt: Well, we are both I still very actively busy on the circuit with No Ordinary Man and I’m also in post-production on a feature film called Framing Agnes, which is about never-before-seen case files from trans history in the mid-century.
Aisling Chin-Yee: The film has toured worldwide and we have toured with it from the comfort of our couches and living rooms, which has been nice. It’s been really wonderful to see how people are reacting and embracing the film from all sorts of different corners of the globe. That’s been really heartwarming through the sort of difficult times, and yeah, just been in development, getting different products up around, and really kind of refocusing and personally just reminding myself what types of stories I want to be involved in, what types of stories I want to tell.
I think this sort of pandemic reset, for me anyway, as someone who doesn’t have kids and doesn’t have the things that other people have been having to figure out has been a way for me to kind of take pause and rebalance my life and continue to seek out the types of stories that I want to tell and put out into the world. It’s been busy and I got a puppy so he’s keeping me busy, too. Chase also got a puppy during the pandemic as well.