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A Conversation With the Filmmakers of 'When Men Were Men'

Hours before their line-up of screenings for Trans Awareness Week began, the filmmakers of 'When Men Were Men' chatted with me about the film's personal exploration of masculinity.

When Men Were Men (2021)

5 / 5
4.5 / 5


“Blessed are the queers who choose to raise each other.” – Niko Cariño Tiare

This quote comes on screen at the end of When Men Were Men and it very much encapsulates everything that the film and its creators stand for.

The queer media space is still so narrow and so underpopulated with nuanced and specific narratives about what the exploration of one’s identity can be like. It was therefore such a privilege to be able to chat with a pair of non-binary artists who are carving a path for the rest of us.

MG: So, Incluvie is all about diversity and inclusion and looking at things like identity and that journey. And I feel like that is so on point with what When Men Were Men is about. So I just thought this was the perfect marrying of the two.

AIDAN: Yeah – it’s perfect.

MG: I wanna begin by having everybody introduce themselves and confirm their pronouns so that we can be really respectful of all of that. Especially for this kind of film and this kind of conversation, and this week – also, Happy Trans Awareness Week! – I just wanted to make sure, right off the bat, before we start talking.

So, I’m MG. I’m representing Incluvie on this thing and I use she/her pronouns.

IZZI: Izzi Rojas. They/them pronouns.

AIDAN: And I am Aidan Dick and also they/them pronouns.

MG: Awesome. And in the film, how should we refer to our protagonists, and what pronouns did we want to use for them when we’re talking about them?

IZZI: Kieran uses he/him pronouns.

AIDAN: And Egan also uses he/him pronouns.

MG: I feel like the film is so much about the in-between and the “figuring things out” aspect. So I just want to be fully respectful to the journey that this character goes on because I think that’s so important.

AIDAN: Yeah. Where Kieran’s at in the film, definitely he/him. But who knows after that…?

Aidan Dick as Egan and Izzi Rojas as Kieran in 'When Men Were Men.'
Aidan Dick as Egan and Izzi Rojas as Kieran in ‘When Men Were Men.’

MG: Now that we’ve got the brass tacks out of the way, I want to start by asking: How did this idea come to you and how did the two of you get together to work on this project?

AIDAN: I would say us meeting [at Cal State Long Beach] was kind of the catalyst for this all coming to fruition and this idea coming alive. I was doing sound for a short and Izzi was the lead. And we met and we had a pretty instant connection.

IZZI: I think we were both in a pretty similar place in our gender identity journeys.

AIDAN: We were both using she/her pronouns at that time, sort of in the middle of our own queer coming-of-age – trying out different pronouns and trying on masculinity, and seeing how harmful some of the things we were taking on could be.

IZZI: That realization felt very revolutionary. This is something that we know we went through, so I’m sure almost every trans-masculine person kind of has that same struggle. I think we knew it was something that should be spoken about more.

AIDAN: We both obviously have different transition stories and paths and, in the film, both acting and writing, we changed our roles a lot.

Izzi was definitely more comfortable wearing feminine clothes and presenting that way and still feeling masculine. And I think I was the opposite, so it was also an exploration of each other’s experience and that helped us find areas where we felt more comfortable. So it was like a raw mid-coming-of-age exploration for us.

MG: That actually answers one of the questions I was going to ask which is: How autobiographical is this?

AIDAN: It definitely has a lot of us in it, but is also has Billy Elliot, too. It was a mash-up of some media we really liked at the time and our own stories and journeys.

IZZI: I think over-arching themes can come from media. And then a lot of dialogue, obviously, in the personal scenes, comes from life experience. But, that’s with anything, probably.

MG: It’s that whole Nora Ephron thing of “Everything is copy.” Everything you’re encountering, you’re gonna use.

AIDAN: Exactly.

Kieran in his element on stage.
Kieran in his element on stage.

MG: On the subject of Billy Elliot, how did theatre find its way into the story?

AIDAN: There’s a lot of theatre vs. film conversation, but I really like the marriage of the two. It lends itself to – not totally magical realism – but leaving this world and coming to this other space.

In writing theatre into this specific piece, it felt like a space where someone can feel a little more safe to explore their gender and sexuality. And the idea of a theatre teacher coaching someone in that way – we loved Ms. Doyle and really wanted her to be that cheerleader and grounding person.

IZZI: Aidan had a lot of those experiences with teachers growing up. I didn’t have many, but I know I always wanted that, and always sort of looked to educators for that kind of comfort that I couldn’t find other places, but that just wasn’t the school I was in.

Ms. Doyle (Margarita Murphy) counsels Kieran on his performance.
Ms. Doyle (Margarita Murphy) counsels Kieran on his performance.

AIDAN: At first, Kieran was gonna play Michael Caffrey, who’s the trans character in that film, but then we felt that was – 

IZZI: A bit too on the nose.

AIDAN: And we wanted Kieran to be more of a reluctant leading man.

Then there’s also Billy’s brother, Tony, who he would want to play, because that’s the type of masculinity he was leaning into.

IZZI: Obviously, a trans masculine person, they really want to be this character who knows who he is and is very steadfast in his masculinity.

AIDAN: And homophobic, too. I feel like [Kieran] had a lot of internalized stuff he really wanted to… ‘cathart‘? Is that a word we’re inventing?

IZZI: We also had the brother theme with Alastair mirroring that with Tony.

AIDAN: And also, the parents coming around. We thought that was important for the dad at the end when he’s watching the play. Having that scene in it.

[Billy Elliot] was just rich with a lot of things that touched on parts of our story, that really illuminated them, while being a vehicle for Kieran’s expression.

MG: So, this is like your version of Billy Elliot.

AIDAN: Our Billy Elliot, mixed with Ordinary People. And a little bit of God’s Own Country.

MG: So many of these sorts of stories are about trauma and how difficult everything is, but I like that there are these light-hearted moments and that you have the dad kind of come around at the end.

But I also think it’s very important that the mom doesn’t. There’s still an aspect of that relationship that isn’t there yet and I think that’s a very realistic thing. Did you ever think that the mom would come around as well?

Kieran's mom (Paula McGlinchey) sits in mourning at the end of the film, unable to accept her child's truth.
Kieran’s mom (Paula McGlinchey) sits in mourning at the end of the film, unable to accept her child’s truth.

IZZI: We really wanted to highlight the importance of chosen family, because that was something we were also discovering at this time. How so many queer folks do not ever have their families come around. That ambiguity was important to us. I think, if anything, we lean towards [the reality that] they don’t have a relationship, that she never comes around.

AIDAN: And while that’s definitely tragic, we also wanted to paint it like – yes, that’s sad and awful, but we end on a note of Kieran moving on to something he wants to do. Egan and him are not together and his mom didn’t come around, but he still goes on, and I think we’re hopeful he’ll find family there, too.

IZZI: The Julian character was important for that – in the waiting room, in the audition. We wanted that to highlight that he’s gonna find people no matter what. That chosen family reassurance.

Kieran meets a new friend, Julian (Ángel Gabriel), at his audition.
Kieran meets a new friend, Julian (Ángel Gabriel), at his audition.

AIDAN: We definitely knew the mom was never going to come around because she uses religion to validate a lot of her feelings and fears about society. We always wanted her to be sort of in mourning at the end, because that’s how a lot of people think – that this person is gone. We wanted to leave it a little ambiguous for people to fill in their own experiences. I think that when films are tied with too much of a bow at the end, that closes off a lot of interpretation.

IZZI: We really wanted to push back against that idea that the end of the story is the end of the film, when the true telling of a realistic life is that it’s just the beginning.

MG: I love the idea that it’s just the beginning at the end. I think that’s a really great sentiment.

For so many of the queer conversations and queer stories, it’s all about the journey to coming out and very few explore that there’s stuff after that. So I like the fact that you do have this sort of coda at the end where you get to see Kieran move onto the next thing. That he’s going to find people.

That’s something that you’re kind of surprised sometimes by, once you start to live as your authentic self, how quickly you start to find your people. Because you’re like, I’m putting a part of me out there – 

AIDAN: – and people see that.

MG: Exactly! The energy just radiates off of that and I think that’s so wonderful.

IZZI: That’s what we wanted to really highlight.

A close-up of Kieran.
Kieran ponders an acting choice.

MG: Whenever I tell people about When Men Were Men, I say “passion project,” because this is a film that the two of you have put so much of yourselves into. Not just in the writing, the story, the characters, but the editing, the directing – this is your baby.

In juggling all of these different roles, were there any scenes that were really difficult to film? Or aspects that you wouldn’t assume would be difficult to film, but for some reason, there’s something that just wasn’t hitting?

IZZI: That’s a really good question because we both found it quite difficult. I don’t think either of us would voluntarily direct and star in something again. Just because you’re in the middle and that takes you away from doing either to its fullest potential.

AIDAN: I think it only really worked for this because part of the fabric of the story was it being such a personal experience for both of us. It had a rawness to it that would allow for that sort of play of us being the main cast.

And we were both writers on it, so we knew these characters so well. We did so much pre-work that on the day, we were able to just go read and hit those emotional points that we wanted to and play in that space.

Kieran helps Egan repair his shed.
Kieran helps Egan repair his shed.

IZZI: But, specific scenes that were difficult… The ones that you’d think would be difficult were difficult, emotionally. But one in particular that you maybe wouldn’t – that little short scene when Egan’s drunk and he’s trying to get Kieran to come out. Clearly, that was an emotional scene for Kieran, but in general, it was really hard for us to get the physical aspects. I was trying to continue with this sad frustration within the character, but then these physical things were getting in the way.

AIDAN: The logistics sometimes made things more emotional. Most of the scenes we’re in together, like in the shed, we have another cinematographer who was doing that, so that helped lighten that load. But the scenes when we’re in Ireland and it’s us two, those were particularly hard – that scene, the “What are you wearing?” scene, the post-date. It took a lot of pre-work to have all those things in place so we could just go in and act.

MG: You know how much I love the “What are you wearing?” scene. Just the whole arc of figuring out Kieran’s look and how clothing plays into that was something that I really resonated with, as somebody who is masc of center. So it was really wonderful to see that focused on so much in this film.

And I love how, in that scene, you’ve seen Kieran go through this montage of choosing different outfits, and then he shows up and Egan is wearing something that is just so gender fluid. Like, who knows how many hours Kieran spent trying to figure this out and Egan just shows up and is just totally himself.

Can you speak about that whole journey with those two characters and the appearance aspect?

AIDAN: I think for us and a lot of people, clothing is just so integral to that process of figuring out who you are. Those moments alone when you’re standing in front of a mirror, trying on everything and it’s not working. Like, yesterday it was working, but today it’s not. What I learned from Izzi during my transition was that you could wear these things that maybe aren’t “masculine” and still be masculine.

Most of our costumes were each other’s clothes.

IZZI: Especially in that scene.

AIDAN: The sheer shirt I’m wearing and the short shorts are both Izzi’s and the jeans and button-up are mine. So, we were in the middle of learning that that can be something we can play with.

At first, wearing that outfit, I was a little uncomfortable not knowing if this felt masculine to me. And I don’t think that’s an inherent feeling I had. It’s a lot from the outside world, how I’m being perceived, and the characters feel that way a lot, too. And Kieran seeing Egan be able to play in this space and still be this cis guy, he has a bit of that edge of defensiveness. And then Egan just nonchalantly repeating that line back to him encapsulates that learning process so well.

IZZI: We knew that the club scene was gonna be that really eye-opening experience. He’s never been in that queer space at all, and even just seeing people being happy within themselves and being free, in something as simple but as important as clothing. In and of itself, those three scenes are sort of the entire arc that Kieran is coming to terms with. And it all comes so effortlessly to Egan.

We both love that scene, too.

MG: I feel like that is the comedic moment in the movie. And it totally cuts the whole journey that Kieran has been on in the scene before of trying to find the outfit.

IZZI: And also, Kieran DID find what made him feel comfortable. That’s not to say that Kieran in a sheer shirt, with top surgery, without top surgery, would actually ever be his style. But in that moment, he went and tried on all these outfits and put on what ultimately made him feel comfortable. Even if that was, maybe, too masculine or there’s too much going into the thought process. But that’s also still very important to him. That he looks like every other lad.

MG: And then, just immediately, he’s reminded of the real world that he lives in because he encounters the person from the theatre group.

So much of this is about how Egan’s influence allows Kieran to open up, and so you get to see that, but then you see that there are still things he hasn’t worked through; and I think that’s really important, especially right after having this amazing sequence. To know this isn’t the end of the movie. That there’s still a journey here.

IZZI: Even after this euphoria.

AIDAN: I feel like, narratively, you need those moments where the character can see the light at the end of the tunnel, but they haven’t reconciled with those things that are catching up with them.

IZZI: To knock him back down, but not as far down as he was.

AIDAN: And still see his toxic innate reactions.

After taking his frustrations out on an unsuspecting Egan, Kieran inspects the damage he's done.
After taking his frustrations out on an unsuspecting Egan, Kieran inspects the damage he’s done.

IZZI: And also, at the end of the film, Kieran does say to Egan: “I don’t know if I can be the person that’s not gonna hurt you again and I don’t wanna ever do what I did.”

As writers, we don’t want any of our films or stories to neatly tie up that the character’s perfect now and their life going forward will never have any real bumps. Because that’s just not realistic. Even though Kieran realizes the fault of his ways and has these moments of apologizing and coming to terms with people in his life, he still could very well have toxic reactions in the future because he’s not a fully-formed version of himself. He’s still figuring it out.

AIDAN: That, to me, is more of Kieran’s arc than his coming out or his understanding of himself. It’s his understanding of his capacity to hurt the people around him and being aware of that and protecting those he loves around him. Because he’s not in the place where he’s figured out who he is. He’s still realizing his actions – although not innately wrong or bad – are hurting the people around him.

IZZI: I just wanna say I’m realizing that we never really talked about how that also was something that we both realized in our lives, separate from our trans masculine journey. We were learning to do that in general for the people we love around us. We do have to take responsibility for how we hurt people, whatever our intentions. That’s where we were at in life and that really played into Kieran’s arc, too.

MG: Accountability in general is so important, but it’s also so hard. Especially when you’re making an effort or you’re going through something yourself, and you’re like “feel bad for me.”

AIDAN: Yeah, like, “this sucks for me, too”

Kieran looks at himself in the mirror.
Kieran looks at himself in the mirror.

MG: It is such a personal story for the two of you, but there are people who resonate with what Kieran is going through, whether it’s the same kind of thing or just little bits and pieces. If you do kind of open up that grey area a little bit to let people interpret what they need to from this story, I think it resonates with more people that way.

AIDAN: Thank you. Yeah – we hope that it can touch on masculinity in any form that manifests in people’s lives.

IZZI: We were kinda surprised, though, because we were quite focused on the journey of this trans masculine individual finding masculinity and wading through that. But when we got to Ireland, so many cisgender men – of all ages – were like “that is so important for all of the men in Ireland, we have a huge toxic masculinity problem, we have a huge rising suicide rate because men don’t have an outlet.” That was really something that we didn’t expect, but it was really humbling. Wonderful.

MG: Can you talk about the impetus behind setting the story in Ireland?

AIDAN: We wanted a location and a space that externalized the internal conflicts of Kieran. So we wanted somewhere that had sort of a duality of liberal areas and conservative areas in proximity to each other. We thought Ireland was perfect because it’s very socially Catholic. But at the same time, Ireland was the first country to ever legalize gay marriage, so there’s this duality of social conservatism but political liberalism. It felt like it had these conflicting poles in the same way that Kieran has.

In the midst of his inner turmoil, Kieran takes a moment to breathe in the Irish countryside.
In the midst of his inner turmoil, Kieran takes a moment to breathe in the Irish countryside.

IZZI: And they were just so happy. Everyone was just thrilled that we were in their little town. We walked into a bar the first night and the guy was like: “Here is a list – if there’s not a bar on this list, do not go in there.” They were just looking out for us in a way we didn’t even expect. Quite kismet, for sure.

MG: You’ve now been to a few festivals with this film, so what has the response been like?

AIDAN: Our favorite audience is baby queers. I think there’s a kinship that they’re so stoked about and excited to get to talk to us and we’re just as excited to get to talk to them.

IZZI: And I do think the reception from younger minds who are much more aware and familiar with the trans identity and the trans experience, even if they aren’t queer themselves, is important. Because when we screened in my hometown, Montclair Film Festival, there were a lot of my family and friends and “boomers” of that age who would come up and be like: “This is my first experience with this identity!”

AIDAN: We randomly really hit with middle-aged white men. They were like: “I would’ve never thought of this!”

IZZI: And it’s sweet, because they’ve been performing masculinity their whole lives and are now seeing it from this trans-masculine angle. They are enthusiastically admitting that they would have never thought about the trans experience if they hadn’t seen this and it’s funny how we’ll see people in their enthusiasm sort of out themselves. But it’s also like – this is their first in.

AIDAN: And that was a goal we had. Other than being able to show people of our community or people that identify with this in any way, we hoped to maybe be a safe space to interface with a trans narrative or trans people, so they can have those initial reactions that may be not so great to have in person. And have that be better if they ever run into a trans person in real life or someone in their family comes out, to be that safer space for them to have whatever reactions they’re gonna have and process that and not affect someone in the real world.

IZZI: A friend in Austin brought his mom and he did it in order to teach her more about his experience. And it’s just so sweet. The educational aspect was not something that we sought out.

AIDAN: Especially not for outside the community.

MG: That’s also the power of media and film. It can create that space to have that dialogue that maybe you wouldn’t have aside from that. Movies are really a way to reach people in a more accessible space than just having that one-on-one conversation.

AIDAN: And you have the help of things like music to really get you in there. If I’m talking to someone, I don’t have Victoria Romano’s beautiful score behind me lightening the mood.

Title card for 'When Men Were Men'

MG: I wanna talk about the title: When Men Were Men. I feel like it does speak to this whole concept of Kieran navigating his masculinity and what that means to him. It’s not just like “I’m navigating a gender transition,” it’s “what kind of man do I wanna be?”

IZZI: Our first title was To Be A Man. But that touched too much on what we were talking about because we don’t know if he is a trans man. It’s about a person figuring out how they relate to the world and taking responsibility for that.

AIDAN: Ultimately, I was inspired by [the marketing campaign of] Spring Breakers. And we thought that maybe this title could do a similar thing in marketing to get people in the door that might not get in the door.

IZZI: To do what we were talking about – to give them a safe space.

MG: Based on what you’ve said about the reception of the film, I’d say you’ve done that. If the title is what got them there, good job!

IZZI: When we were in Austin, we put up posters around the city that were a shot of the exterior church scene, and then the quote from Ms. Doyle where she says “He always rises, even though every day He falls.”

AIDAN: And we capitalized the “H”s –

IZZI: – to make it seem like we were talking about God. And screening in a church… At the second screening, we think we saw an elderly couple get up quite soon after it started and leave.

AIDAN: Which we kind of loved. We caused a reaction that big – I’m here for it.

IZZI: Something’s happening.

MG: It’s having an impact.

IZZI: And better to have that reaction there in a theatre, than in front of a real trans person who might be harmed by their reaction.

MG: How do you feel about the state of trans and non-binary representation in the industry at the moment?

IZZI: We often are critical of Sean Baker’s Tangerine, because he’s a cis white man making a film about Black trans women.

AIDAN: I don’t think that he shouldn’t make that film, but there should just be space for so many others to be made.

IZZI: Because I think if anything, that’s what we’re mainly critical about. There’s this level of exploitation that’s still happening because they want to check a box to seem inclusive. But there’s no one who’s transgender behind the camera. When we sought out to first start campaigning for the film, that was quite prevalent still in Hollywood. Hopefully, things are shifting and won’t ever go back, but… 

AIDAN: I think it’s so rare that a queer person gets to have total control of their film that when that is the case, it either speaks for everyone in the community or, if it doesn’t do well, that’s a consequence for any other queer filmmakers.

The future for queer film that I want to see is for queer people to be able to make bad films. Because cis straight white people get to make bad films all the time and that doesn’t have a consequence for their community making film. It’s a heavy burden to bear of being THE representation and that can stifle your artistic choices. And I feel that if we had the freedom to play and the freedom to mess up, there would be so many beautiful films coming out of that. Having time to play and find your voice is not something that a lot of queer people or POC people have the privilege of doing in the filmmaking space.

IZZI: Even if you succeed, you still basically fail because you don’t have any opportunities presented to you after that.

MG: It’s a different kind of imposter syndrome to try to get into that space, when you haven’t seen your story in that space. Especially when you start feeling valid and you’re like “okay, my story matters, it deserves to be seen, I want to tell my story;” but then you worry because if it’s not good or doesn’t do well, I’m now letting down the community and no one’s gonna care about the story.

IZZI: We vocalize a lot that this is our experience, it’s not the whole community’s experience. It’s something that we needed to make for ourselves.

AIDAN: And hope it gives people that push to make their own stuff.

MG: It’s paying it forward. It’s that domino effect of once one person shares their story, then everyone else feels like “okay, there’s a space here.”

AIDAN: I think feeling like you need to represent everyone because there are no stories like this, it tends to make things more general, to sweep that. But I think the more specific you can get, the more general the reach it has. Because these nuanced experiences really speak to people more loudly than if you were like “oh – this is a general ‘coming out’ story.” I think the more detailed you can get, the wider reach the story will actually have.

IZZI: It is quite a specific story about a specific individual’s experience, but it does speak to a wide audience because of that.

MG: I feel like there’s an element where specificity can be universal. It’s like a weird paradox.

AIDAN: Yeah – it crosses back!

Egan and Kieran share a tender moment.
Egan and Kieran share a tender moment.

MG: Well, I know you are busy people and I appreciate you taking the time to chat with me about this wonderful film. Thank you for making it and thank you for stepping into that space and getting over that imposter syndrome that I know is there.

This film carves a pathway for other people to feel like they can tell their stories. So, thank you for that.

AIDAN: We also want to thank you for being such a champion for our film. It really means the world to us. These connections are what we really wanted to come out of this, to be able to be in a community like this, so it really means a lot.

IZZI: Truly. Hearing the reception from people in our community is what makes this all worth it, so we can’t thank you enough.

MG: Thank you for thanking me for thanking you.

Do you want to tell people where they can find you or how they can help fund the film?

AIDAN: We have a website:

IZZI: We really want that to be a resource.

AIDAN: It has information about the film, but also resources to donate to different organizations, resources for education if you want to educate yourself on the many different communities that we touch on. Resources for trans people in general.

And it also has a short documentary that our composer made which tells people about her process and our process in making this.

IZZI: It has queer commentary, which we love so much.

AIDAN: And then, we both have Instagrams. I’m @adickydicky.

IZZI: And I’m @actorwho_lovesyou.

There are still a few more chances to catch the film this week during its run at the Cinelounge in Tiburon, CA. But you can follow @whenmen_weremen to stay up to date on when it will be available in a city near you!

Official poster for the film 'When Men Were Men.'