By Sophie Oswald
Honey & Milk tells a story we have yet to see on screen. It follows Alice and Grayson in their final moments as a couple before the life they once knew comes to an end. As Grayson discovers who they truly are and breaks down the walls of masculinity, everything about their romantic relationship changes. Emotions are high with moments of intense anger and heavy sadness.
Alice wants to take on life together, but Grayson needs the freedom to find themself. Grayson leaves and heads back into the world anew, and Alice is left to grieve what once was. As said on Seed & Spark, “Honey & Milk will leave the audience contemplating how some of the most unconditional expressions of love often come at a personal cost. Love holds the sweet grief of impermanence.”
This uniquely beautiful and inclusive film is being created by an all femme and gender nonconforming (GNC) crew. The short film not only explores gender and personal transformation, but it’s being created by people who truly understand those experiences.
Award-winning filmmaker, Lisa Donato (they/she), is the director of the short film. They were drawn to the deep story of gender identity told through Honey & Milk—especially because it’s one she has never seen before. Donato chatted with Catcall about their journey as a director and the passion behind this film.
Catcall: Queer movies and shows seem to tell the same few stories over and over, but Honey & Milk explores territory that hasn’t been covered much before. What can you tell me about this?
Donato: Media representation for queer characters is improving, but there is more work to be done with showing more nuanced stories and experiences—especially for non-binary people. Gender-nonconforming folks have existed since the beginning of time, yet we are forging our own path through the eyes of the public in real-time. Honey & Milk pulls back the curtain on two romantic partners, Grayson and Alice, who are navigating Grayson’s gender transition from male to non-binary. We see two people—who clearly love each other—struggle to know all the answers. We see that queer people don’t always get it right because even the best of intentions are still bound by centuries of internalized heteronormativity. Without giving too much of the film away—Honey & Milk is one blueprint for navigating gender transition in romantic partnership.
How did you land on this story? Did JP and Dame reach out to you or did it come about in another way?
JP, Dame, and producer—Tani Paige Shukla—asked a handful of directors to pitch their vision of the story (based on a script penned by JP and Dame). After a few thoughtful conversations with the team, I knew that these were artists committed to telling this story with courage, honesty, and open hearts. I was ecstatic to learn that I was hired for the job!
It’s important that queer people get to be the ones telling their stories. What can you tell me about having an all femme/GNC crew?
Ok, I’m going to geek out for a hot minute. An underlying question I have when I direct films is…how do I tell the most compelling story with the resources I have? A film consists of hundreds (sometimes thousands) of decisions made by many crew members. Every decision is being evaluated through the lens of someone’s experience, perspective, sensitivities, etc. If we have an all femme/GNC crew working on a femme/GNC story, we are maximizing our ability to tell the most authentic story possible. Every decision is being made from a deeply personal and shared experience. It’s a win-win-win.
Can you tell me about any of your past experiences as a filmmaker compared to your journey so far with Honey & Milk? From just watching your reel it seems you’ve worked on queer projects in the past, but has this been more inclusive, empowering, etc.?
In my past filmmaking experiences, I carried the responsibility of a film’s success on my shoulders—especially the creative vision. We’re only in pre-production at this stage, but this has been the most collaborative experience I’ve ever had. It’s a dream to be able to work closely with JP, Dame, Tani, and Xan at the depths we’re working in. When one person is feeling low, the others are there to carry the inspiration flag for a while. There is mutual accountability and respect, which empowers us to bring our best ideas to the table. And honestly, we’re all falling madly in love with each other, and I can’t wait to experience the queer magic we create on set.
I understand it might be a while before people can see the final project. Do you guys have a goal as far as when you’d like to release this film?
Making a film made of stardust is our number one priority. But our tentative plan is to submit to some of the top-tier festivals this Fall (Sundance, SXSW, Cannes, TIFF, Tribeca).
How is the film coming together so far?
We are in pre-production…revising the script, crewing up, location scouting, magic-wanding our visions, etc. We plan to shoot for three days in late April or early May with the goal to show the film at festivals starting early 2023.
I read your director’s statement and would love to hear more about your activism journey through filmmaking.
I’m originally from Montana, so my first activism passion was to Save the Earth! LOL. I organized festivals for Earth Day, volunteered for environmental film festivals, and canvassed with the Sierra Club—which got me really excited about filmmaking. When I officially (publicly) came out of the closet in my mid-20’s, I started volunteering for The Human Rights Campaign in Denver. They held a national conference in Washington, D.C. every March, and a group of us would meet with Congress and representatives to educate them on the myriad of rights that were denied to the LGBTQ+ community (there were 1,200+ legal rights that came with marriage when same-sex marriage was illegal!). We influenced massive change for lesbians, gays, and bisexuals—but the trans community was always left behind. One trip, we invited a group of politicians to a film screening called Trans. The crowd was so moved by it that the majority gathered afterwards, discussing gender identity until 3 a.m. It was at that moment that I realized I wanted to be a new kind of activist for trans rights: a filmmaker. I finally left my lucrative advertising career behind and moved to Hollywood in pursuit of a dream. I’ve been making films for and about the queer community since 2014.
The film has raised more than $25,000 so far which is amazing! It looks like you offered a range of perks for donors from special thanks in the credits to more unique options such as tarot readings. What can you tell me about the process of raising money for this project?
We are absolutely humbled and thrilled by how fast we raised this much money. Over 200 people donated to our campaign on Seed & Spark in 30 days. Our incentives are awesome, and I think the story really resonates with a lot of people. We had all kinds of donations pouring in—from $5 to $5,000 per person, and they still keep coming!
Are you still accepting donations?
Yes, we are still accepting donations via Venmo: @Director-Donato
You got inspiration for different aspects of Honey & Milk from films such as Blue Valentine, Marriage Story, Carol, and Call Me By Your Name. Is this a combination of your vision as well as the vision of the rest of the team? How did you land on these films for inspiration?
This was a collaboration between all of us. We picked films that featured a romantic partnership moving through some sort of transition in their relationship—whether it’s seasoned or brand-new. We are drawn to these movies because of their creative teams’ sensitivities toward portraying nuanced and dynamic characters. We are also moved by the innovative cinematography and how they each capture two people in tight, enclosed spaces. And Cate Blanchett. Who doesn’t love Cate Blanchett? (I actually named my cat: Cat Blanchett, and it’s eerie how much they look alike.)
It’s sort of unconventional that the two main roles in this film are being played by the writers. Do you think this has brought a new level of passion to this project and more powerful performances?
Absolutely. I love when actors write their own stories. I encourage all actors to write the roles they don’t see in audition rooms. It’s so powerful and cathartic. It adds a level of investment and connection to the characters and story that may not always be there when prepping for a shoot.
Now that you’ve raised the money you need, how else can people help this film become a reality?
We could always use more money!
Sophie Oswald (she/her) is a writer and creator currently living in Kansas City. She got her degree in mass media with an emphasis in film and video from Washburn University. She also has minors in art, history, and women’s studies. When Sophie isn’t writing or volunteering her time to social justice, she can be found hanging out with her pets.
Photos courtesy of Robin Roemer and Kimberly Millard.