T11 Incomplete is a deeply moving feature film, which follows Kate (a magnetic Karen Sillas), who is a visiting home health aide and recovering alcoholic, as she strives to rebuild her broken life, only to have it fall apart once again when she falls in love with Laura (Kristen Renton), her young, paraplegic patient, who then betrays her trust. The film has played at multiple film festivals this year, including BFI Flare and Outfest, and won the prize for Best Narrative Feature at ReelQ Pittsburgh LGBTQ Film Festival as well the Best Actress and Best Long Island Feature awards at the Long Island International Film Expo.

Lesflicks sat down with writer-director Suzanne Guacci over Zoom, to talk nurses, sex scenes, taking a film to festivals during a pandemic and much more!

The following interview has been condensed and edited for clarity (and also to remove all the parts where I gushed over how talented the cat actors in the film are. Yes, the film has cats!)

Lesflicks
What was your inspiration for the film?

Suzanne
I wanted to write something about a nurse, and disability. I didn’t know in what capacity I would do that, so I just started researching. It actually is very timely now with COVID. Nurses are just the backbone of everything. Going back, I have a lot of nurses in my family, my mother and in-laws were both on hospice care at my house, and with my own injury, I’ve had an influx of nurses in my life. I’m disabled, but I didn’t want to tell my story, and when I read about Christopher Reeves and his accident I learned that there’s two sort of paraplegics: a complete and an incomplete. When I realised that an incomplete paraplegic still has some ability to feel it just kind of, I don’t know, it just was the doorway into the story. It gave Laura her injury, and then everybody else in the entire story is ALSO injured, but with some ability to feel. So that was really the gateway in.

Lesflicks
It’s a great metaphor of a title! Kate has a history of alcoholism, that’s heavily hinted at in the beginning, (and then directly referenced) and mistreated her family as a result of that; and her son, well, he doesn’t have problems with alcohol that we see, but he does mistreat his family in other ways. There’s also the interesting through-line of Laura’s family all being corrections officers. Were repeating family cycles in your mind as something else you were specifically interested in exploring?

Suzanne
Definitely, definitely. How things are passed on, are cyclical, and how people mirror each other. Jack is Kate and Kate is Jack, it’s just a different form and the idea is that Kate is trying desperately to break this chain because she’s gone through it, come out the other side, and now sees it differently. Whereas, Jack is right in the middle of his whole thing. Steve too; his damage is having lived through the events with his sister, and still thinking that she’s back where she was, and having absolutely no idea how to deal with the Laura of now and who she is today. So things just keep spinning around and around without any real movement forward until Jack has nowhere to go, but to face things. And with Steve, it’s the same thing. When he deals with Kate, he has to face that “my sister maybe isn’t who I thought she was and I can’t predict or manipulate what she wants for herself any more. I have to listen.”

Lesflicks
There is a particularly beautiful – and hot! – sex scene within the film that is as much about characters being able to fall in love with themselves again, as it is about them falling in love with each other. Was that a delicate balance to strike?

Suzanne
Yeah. It was about sacrifice, you know, they’re both sacrificing something to have that moment. It was tricky, I have to say, but we had a lot of conversations about it and how Karen was supposed to proceed; it could have turned into something where it seemed like she was taking advantage and that’s what we really tried to steer against. But they’re both allowing this to happen sacrificially. They’re each giving the other what they need at that moment. So, it was a little tricky, but good actresses, you know, they can do anything!

Lesflicks
With regards to Kate, Karen Sillis has given such a powerful performance. I know you’ve worked together previously, was the role written with her in mind?

Suzanne
Yes, and it was the first time I’d ever done that. I knew of Karen’s work back in the 80s with Hal Hartley, she was one of his people, and I fell in love with her work back then. When I got her on Stuff (2015), it was just such a miracle, and we developed a lovely friendship. It’s one of those working relationships where we just understand each other. Maybe it’s because we’re both from Long Island? I don’t know what the deal is, but there’s just an understanding. You don’t have to say much to Karen to change her performance. We just understand each other. So writing this, it was the first time I’d heard an actress’s voice in my head. When I was writing, I was thinking of her and the way she would sound when she was saying lines and her looks and this and that, so it was definitely written with her in mind. When she read it and liked it, I was very grateful.

Lesflicks
It’s a very subtle performance. She has a stoic exterior which is contrasted wonderfully with occasional peeks at this deep well of sadness and regret within her. Then, when she’s with Laura, there’s a new hope that comes through and her exterior softens, but at the same time we see things completely fall apart.

Suzanne
Yeah, you can’t have everything!

Lesflicks
No, generally not in life and almost never in films! What is it that you hope people will take away from the film?

Suzanne
You know, there’s so much in there, I don’t know. I would never want to suggest what somebody should know but the points I was trying to make were about forgiveness, and sometimes forgiving yourself is harder than forgiving someone else. Kate is having a hard time forgiving her past. There’s a lot of grey in the world, nothing is so black and white and there’s a lot of reasons people do things. They’re logical, and they make sense, but they may not be the right thing to do. So, to judge someone for their decisions is tough. But, of course, where you come into somebody’s life, and where you enter their story matters. To Laura, Kate, is this angel of a presence, helping her heal, falling in love whereas to Jack she’s completely the opposite. But Laura entered at a different place. So yeah, there’s a lot in there to think about.

Lesflicks
I read that you actively sought to hire members of the LGBTQ and disabled communities, what did that kind of casting process look like? Hopefully, other people will read this, and then follow the same framework!

Suzanne
I’m not one to think that you have to cast a lesbian in a lesbian role – you know, Karen is not a lesbian, she’s married with two children – I think a fine actor is a fine actor, and they can do a lot. I think, though, because of what’s happening in the climate of the industry, because people are pushed aside so much; that it is important to make movement forward, if you can. I don’t think it really has to be so on the nose. And so, to move it forward, we just took a lot of time. My casting director was the wonderful Judy Bowman in New York, and we took a lot of time trying to think of ways to cast, because I already knew I had Karen, so who would be a good Laura?

We did initially put it out to wheelchair user actresses but the pool is very, very small. Believe it or not, a lot of the disabilities that you find someone in a wheelchair for, don’t read the same. For example, if you have MS and you’re in a wheelchair, you don’t read the same as if you’re a paraplegic. So these were the kinds of things we had to consider too. I had some good monologues that people sent in but they just weren’t right. So, we kept going a little bit further. Then we thought, well, can we get an actress who has an invisible disability? That’s where Kristen came in – who has lupus which is a very debilitating disease in its own right. So we opted for that instead. Then we tried to do the same thing with the role of Christie with Lauren Russell, who is an advocate for her MS, and then Elizabeth was played by Katy Sullivan, who is a bilateral double amputee. So we flipped it: we had able-bodied people playing disabled; disabled playing able-bodied. We did the same with the LGBT community. We had Zach Booth, who is an out gay actor, and he’s playing a straight son.

I think that representation can come in all different forms; as long as it’s in there, it doesn’t have to be what we expect, but it was important that we satisfied it, for Judy and myself, and I feel like we did, given the circumstances. I have nothing against, for example, Julianne Moore playing a lesbian in a movie. I think she’s fantastic. But, if you’re going to give that to Julianne Moore, then try and figure out how else you can support our community. It takes a lot of thinking and it took a little more time, but it’s worth it.

Lesflicks
There are some quite heavy themes in the piece. Was that reflected in the on-set atmosphere? How did you keep it fun?

Suzanne
They’re fun people believe it or not! Karen is a riot. Zach Booth is a riot. They’re just such fun people, as is Kristen and Katie – everybody! – They’re all such light people that, as soon as we said cut, everybody became themselves. For the filming they were all really tuned in and then are able to, because they’re so great, just tune right back out again. There were no hysterics, nothing crazy on the set! Where my actors were concerned anyway, the crew is another thing!

Lesflicks
I’m interested in what your festival experience has been like this year. So many of them have either moved online, or deferred to next year entirely. What has it been like to take a film to festivals during a pandemic?

Suzanne
Not really fun, actually. I love being there in person and it was always such a fun experience. You know, showing up and talking to the audience and having a drink after. Now you send the film in and you have no idea how people are receiving it. I’m lucky that there’s an audience and that people are still actually supporting film festivals, because otherwise, that would just be another business that crashes. So thank God for audience and supporters who continue to support festivals, and particularly small ones. We played it at a few smaller ones recently and thank god that there’s an audience going there to see these movies. It wasn’t a great time to have this out there. You’re having to decide “do I hold it back? Do I let it go?” But what are you going to do? This too shall pass, right?

Lesflicks
It’s interesting to get a filmmaker perspective on that, because we’ve run festivals at Lesflicks during the pandemic.

Suzanne
And how was that? How did that turn out?

Lesflicks
Really well! On an audience side, you are widening the pool of who can attend by being online. So, for me, I hope that festivals keep that aspect after this ends. There are so many more people, and more diverse people, that can attend and get industry accreditation etc. by having the online option available. Not everyone can make it down to London, so it’s valuable to offer both.

Suzanne
I agree. And I do think it would be a good thing to have included. There’s a lot of community members who can’t get there. So for sure, I think it’s definitely a thing that should be kept, in some regard. I agree.

Lesflicks
And finally, what do you have coming up next? Do you have more projects on the horizon?

Suzanne
I’m helping a friend of mine produce his short. He’s going to shoot that in January, so we’re getting ready to do that. I’m writing a lesbian young adult screenplay now, and I’ve never gone into that area before. So I’m excited about that and I’m about halfway through. I have a couple of projects that I just, you know, need funding for. When that comes, if it comes, I’ll move forwards!

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