Growing up as a queer kid in Kansas, Sav Rodgers often struggled for the exact words to define himself. He eventually found those words in Chasing Amy, the 1997 romance between a straight man, Holden McNeil (Ben Affleck), and a gay woman, Alyssa Jones (Joey Lauren Adams), written and directed by noted gift of gab, Kevin Smith. "That movie provided me with language when I otherwise had none," Rodgers tells Yahoo Entertainment now. "It provided a sense of safety and a life raft that I desperately needed as I became a teenager. That movie was everything to me as a kid."
It wasn't until he was in college that Rodgers learned of another word frequently associated with Chasing Amy: "Problematic." While the movie was widely acclaimed upon its release in the late ’90s — rescuing Smith's Mallrats-imperiled career and promoting Affleck and Adams onto Hollywood's A-list — its depiction of LGBTQ characters fell out of step with the more personal stories being told by a new generation of queer directors, writers and actors. For viewers raised on films like Hedwig and the Angry Inch or Fire Island, Chasing Amy increasingly looked like a relic from another age, when gay stories were largely filtered through a straight lens.
But Rodgers always found the dismissal of Chasing Amy as "problematic" to be problematic itself. "There's always an opportunity to learn from movies of the past," he explains. "Not everything is meant to age perfectly, because our culture is rapidly evolving. I have a hard time with idea of just outright dismissing any work that people put years of their lives into. I look at Chasing Amy now and what I see is a young filmmaker with an incredible point of view, and point of view is, to me, everything in storytelling."
"Chasing Amy is very indicative of what a straight person who is empathetic towards queer people — and might know queer people — would make," Rodgers continues. "It's a movie that exists in a time capsule. A lot of the critiques are, 'Why didn't someone else tell this story?' And I always say, 'Someone else didn't tell this story. Kevin told this story.' That movie wouldn't happen in the same way today, and I think it's a measure of progress in society to see how stories evolve over time."
Rodgers used his own point of view on Chasing Amy as the inspiration for a viral 2019 TED Talk where he hailed it as the "rom-com that saved my life." And that TED Talk became the jumping off point for his first non-fiction feature, Chasing Chasing Amy, which has its world premiere at the Tribeca Festival on June 8 with Smith in attendance. The Chasing Amy writer/director is an eager and active participant in Rodgers's film, which is both a making-of story and a coming-out story. During the four-year process of making the movie, Rodgers finally found the words to come out as transgender — an evolution of identity and appearance that's presented on camera.
"A big thing that we explored in the documentary was how to address the fact that I come out as trans," Rodgers says, adding that he was uncomfortable building to the kind of "giant disclosure moment" that's the traditional centerpiece of coming out narratives.
"My initial instincts were to regurgitate the messaging that's been fed to trans people [in movies] which is, 'Here's what it's like injecting hormones,' 'Here's your private medical history on display for the whole world,'" he says. "But my producing partner, Alex Schmider, challenged me and was like, 'What if you didn't do that?' So the way we handle it in the documentary is exactly the way I handled it in real life: I change as a person a lot over the course of the film, but it's also an emotional change."
Rodgers is also conscious that he's telling a trans story at a time when those narratives are under attack by conservative politicians in states like Florida, Oklahoma and his native Kansas. But he refused to play politics with his own life. "Identifying as trans is not a political thing — it has become a politicized by people who don't know anything about my life experience and want to cash in on votes hoping that a culture war will keep them in power," he says pointedly. "But we're so much more than this moment where we're being directly antagonized."
In fact, Rodgers thinks that the best way for trans storytellers to meet the current moment is to diversify the kinds of trans stories that are being told — moving beyond traditional coming-out narratives or harrowing tales of prejudice. "Let's look at the nuances of what our lives actually look like, which aren't [defined] by the worst things that have happened to us. Most of what I do during the day is hang out with my wife, play with our pugs and play Pokémon. What's missing in trans representation is the boring stuff: We have always been here, and I don't think it's unreasonable to hope for a wider diversity of storytelling."
At the same time, Rodgers recognizes that access to trans stories — including his own — is increasingly imperiled by the Ron DeSantises of the world, who are using state houses to restrict what children can read and watch in libraries and schools. Asked if he worries about today's queer teenagers not being allowed to find a "life raft" like Chasing Amy or Chasing Chasing Amy, Rodgers visibly tears up. "I think about that a lot," he admits. "I didn't know that I could be myself when I was younger, now people are trying to ban books and movies that help people embrace who they are. It's more important than ever to have access to physical media, and access to stories that save our lives."
As for Chasing Amy, Rodgers says that the process of making his documentary allowed him to still love Smith's movie, but also let it go. And he credits the movie's star with helping arrive at that realization. Towards the end of the movie, Rodgers has a one-on-one conversation with Adams where the actress offers the most revealing interview she's ever given about the film, one that's not always flattering to Smith. Over the years, the writer/director has said that he and Adams — who were dating before and during production of the film — broke up due to the pressures of being in the spotlight and that the movie is a love letter to what they had.
But the actress reveals to Rodgers that Smith's version of events isn't her "truth" about the Chasing Amy experience. Instead, she describes being deeply uncomfortable with her ex's insecurities about her dating history, and how that became embedded in his portrayal of Alyssa. "I don't love looking back at that time," she admits, adding that she had her own run-ins with Harvey Weinstein, who produced the movie. "I was trying to be taken seriously as an actress, and I was dating this guy who made me feel bad about myself."
Adams's confessions clearly catch Rodgers off-guard, and you can see the director trying to reconcile her account with his own relationship to the movie. "I have nothing but respect for Joey for being honest with me the way that she was on that day," he says now. "She could have given another bulls*** Chasing Amy interview, but she chose to share her truth with me. And sitting in that chair in that moment required me to reflect on my own growth as a person and as a filmmaker."
Adams also makes it clear in the documentary that she's still grateful to have been part of Chasing Amy, and remains friends with Smith. (The actress reprised her role as Alyssa in the director's 2019 comedy, Jay and Silent Bob Reboot, which reveals that she's married to a woman and Holden was the sperm donor for their child.) Rodgers says that Smith has seen the finished cut of Chasing Chasing Amy and called the actress's interview one of his favorite parts of the film, but isn't aware of whether or not it's the first time that the director has heard her be so candid about the movie.
"It allowed me to evolve," Rodgers says of how his difficult but necessary conversation with Adams impacted him personally. "Nothing will ever change my relationship to Chasing Amy — I've really put myself out there as the Chasing Amy guy! But that interview gave me permission to not cling to this movie in the way that I needed it when I was 12. I entered the next phase of my life where I got married, and made a lot of other changes. Not that I needed anyone's permission to do any of those things, but it told me, 'This is your life now.' It allowed me to close that chapter."
Chasing Chasing Amy premieres June 8 at the Tribeca Festival