Director, writer Susan Sandler releases ‘Julia Scotti: Funny That Way’
By ALAN SMASON
It’s taken more than six years of her life, beset with challenges such as a global pandemic in the final year of post-production and editing, but Susan Sandler has finished the documentary film she began in 2015 and released “Julia Scotti: Funny That Way” in time for Pride Month.
In the Jewish universe, Sandler is noted for her work as a playwright and in particular for her play “Crossing Delancey,” which was later turned into a memorable 1988 rom com film staring Amy Irving for which she was the screenwriter.
With Julia Scotti, a funny comedian Sandler first saw performing one evening in 2015 in Nantucket, Sandler found a new subject with a different kind of “crossing,” a story that spoke to the heart of their common humanity.
Julia has been living life as a trans woman for two decades, but first started out as Rick Scotti, a comedian who had opened for headliners like Jerry Seinfeld.
As a playwright, scriptwriter and teacher of film studies at NYU’s Tisch School, Sandler had been working as a dramaturg for comics looking to develop one-person shows. She was immediately struck by Scotti’s story: a nationally-ranked comedy star of Italian heritage, who had married three times and become a father to two children, but was largely unhappy living life as a man.
Sandler’s initial intent was to work with Scotti in developing her stage repertoire, but Scotti’s life story took on so much added weight that the filmmaker realized it was compelling enough to become a documentary film on its own.
“She had transitioned 20 years ago, then, at a time when people did not understand anything about gender dysphoria and the consequences of that were enormous,” Sandler told the CCJN in a phone interview about her film and its unusual subject.
“She lost everything she had in the way of contact with her children, with members of her family who walked away from her (and) with a lot of people in the comedy world,” Sandler continued. “She did what she had to do for her own truth in a very brave way at a time when people weren’t really able to support her with that kind of knowledge.”
Fortuitously, it was at the time the two connected that Scotti’s children had begun to reenter her life after a 15-year estrangement. That emotional connection, coupled with the enormous library of archival material Rick Scotti had as a performer, gave Sandler the impetus to commit to undertaking her very first documentary film project.
Sandler consulted another filmmaker, who told her that commercial release films or documentary films are the same at their core. “It’s all about storytelling (and) finding the story,” Sandler recalled what was told to her.
“Figuring out what the story is, understanding what the spine of the story is and, ultimately, what all stories are about, is an emotional connection, how you as an audience are drawn to a subject, and are drawn into the story,” she continued.
As the producer of the project, Sandler had to make proposals to potential backers, but had no clear indication as to where the story would lead. “I had no idea where life was going to bring me,” Sandler explained.
But Scotti’s tale did not disappoint.
Unscripted as it was, Scotti’s life – as captured by Sandler – included several visits with her formerly estranged children, a network cable special, an unexpected foray into a national talent competition TV show and an even more unexpected challenge to the stand-up comedy performer’s health.
Along the way, she also enlisted the services of an animator, who rendered several images of Scotti that effectively complemented her live captures. Sandler also worked with an editor for much of the last year and found out about clearances and rights for all kinds of elements in the film that required untold hours of dedication to detail and additional expense in post-production.
But in the end, her subject trusted her completely. “She did not see any of the footage and was just incredibly gracious with access,” Sandler noted, especially appreciative of the personal side Scotti exposed with the camera rolling. The final 79-minute film was culled from hundreds of hours of film and archival material.
When it was time for release on the film festival circuit last year, the COVID-19 pandemic added additional layers of difficulty for Sandler and Scotti, who had hoped to piggyback live performances at the festivals who would be showing the film. With public performances cancelled, Scotti was sidelined and the festivals had to determine different methods to show their films virtually.
“We learned to do protected platforms that are geo-blocked,” Sandler explained. This was done so that competing festivals would not lose revenues by having their films able to be seen other than on a regional basis.
“Julia Scotti: Funny That Way” by Susan Sandler is now available on a number of streaming platforms. Check your provider to see the film here.