Denis Hamill, ‘The Assignment’ Screenwriter: I’m Not Transphobic
“If you haven’t seen it, you don’t have the right to criticize it,” he told me over the phone, when I asked if he was surprised by the initial reaction to the film’s plot details. “If you don’t know what’s in it, you’re criticizing the concept of it. That’s always dangerous—and that, to me, borders on people trying to censor other people.”
I called Hamill—a longtime screenwriter, novelist, and newspaper columnist with the sort of friendly New York City accent that Hollywood actors can only imitate—the day after I wrote a negative review of the film, which was based on a script he had written almost 40 years ago.
He didn’t mind that I thought the movie—which stars Michelle Rodriguez as a male hitman forced to undergo sex reassignment surgery by a vengeful Shakespeare-quoting doctor played by Sigourney Weaver—was dull and offensive, coming out at exactly the wrong time in the history of transgender media representation.
But he was bothered by the fact that I, like writers for many other media outlets, had criticized the film based on its trailer. (In his estimation, I “wanted to be offended” by the trailer and “softened a bit” after watching the film.)
Having seen both the trailer and the movie, I think the former was an accurate indication of the latter’s awfulness, and completely worthy of criticism in its own right. And besides, outrage over the trailer itself is long gone. The movie is here. So Hamill had a chance to respond directly to my criticisms of the film itself.
“I wrote it in 1978, long before there were any issues in the press about transgender people fighting for human rights, which I believe in 150 percent,” he told me. “I believe in the civil rights of everybody. I’ve been a progressive, liberal columnist for 40 years. I have never written a single homophobic or transphobic word in my life.”
It’s true that the criticism of The Assignment, originally titled Tomboy, began before anyone had read a word of it. But films are more than just words, and there is a long distance between 1978 and 2017, particularly when it comes to attitudes and media representations of LGBT people.
Did nobody involved in the making of The Assignment check a calendar before hitting the green light, I wondered, or did they decide to exploit the current controversies around transgender rights for a schlocky shoot ’em up?
GLAAD representative Nick Adams had much the same reaction back in 2015 when he told The Hollywood Reporter, “We haven’t read the script, but it’s disappointing to see filmmakers turning what is a life-saving medical procedure for transgender people into a sensationalistic plot device. We are at a crucial moment in the public’s understanding of transgender issues, and stories like these have the potential to undermine the progress we’ve worked so hard to achieve.”
But as a writer and a storyteller, Hamill thinks that sex reassignment surgery is fair game—even in the politically precarious moment that is 2017.
“If there’s life-saving heart surgery, do we criticize Michael Connelly for writing Blood Work about a character, later played by Clint Eastwood, receiving the heart of a woman who was murdered and then going out and avenging that woman’s murder?” he asked me. “I thought that was interesting but do we say, ‘You can’t make entertainment out of life-saving heart transplant surgery’? How silly is that!”
I pointed out that far-right groups are attacking transgender people, not people who get heart surgery, but Hamill, like many an Eastwood character, stuck to his guns.
“When you’re telling a story and you want to use anything that’s in the bloodstream of modern culture, you should be allowed to write about it,” he countered. “Otherwise, you’re being edited or censored by the far-right assholes who want to subjugate these people.”
As Hamill originally envisioned it while driving down a Los Angeles freeway in 1978, Tomboy was not about a hitman who unknowingly kills the brother of an egomaniacal surgeon and suffers the unforeseen consequences. It was about a violent criminal who rapes the wife of a plastic surgeon and then gets “a taste of his own medicine.”
The surgeon in the 1978 Tomboy script captures the rapist and operates on him, forcing him to live in a female body so that he can experience the fears that women feel—but the rapist goes on being a criminal anyway as the police try to apprehend him, unaware that they should be looking for a woman. In that original version of the script, Hamill sees the horror of waking up in a new body as a particularly fitting punishment for the main character’s crimes.
“He’s so much of a misogynist that to then become a woman, it’s horrific, yes, because obviously he becomes the object of everything he’s ever hated,” he explained.
Some of those details survived the transition to The Assignment—the vengeful doctor, the idea of the feminizing surgery as a reaction to the main character’s masculinity—but, in my opinion, were overshadowed by boring action sequences and flat characterization. Hamill, on the other the other hand, is happy with the B-movie version of the film that legendary action thriller director Walter Hill ended up making, after optioning the original Tomboy story years ago.
“I’m satisfied with it,” he told me. “I think Walter kept to the spirit of what I had written and made, for me, an entertaining, different kind of noir thriller.”
And in both versions, Hamill wants it to be absolutely clear that the lead is “not a transgender character,” as some outlets have mistakenly labeled him. The surgery itself might be a crucial part of transgender medical care but operating on a cisgender person’s genitals doesn’t magically make them transgender.
But there’s no denying that the film intersects with transgender issues; in fact, as I noted in my review, there are a handful of moments in which the script explicitly addresses—and seems to sympathize with—the plight of transgender people seeking costly but medically necessary surgery that comes with a lengthy waiting period. And Hamill himself told me that he came up with the idea for the original 1978 version of the script after “read[ing] about a transgender person.”
At that time, some of the worst media representations of transgender femininity—often violent ones—hadn’t been made yet.
Brian De Palma’s Dressed to Kill, starring Michael Caine as the cruel and now well-worn stereotype of the murderous transsexual, came out in 1980. The Silence of the Lambs followed in the same vein 11 years later. Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, of course, predated Hamill’s idea for Tomboy but the character of Norman Bates is explained away in the film’s final minutes as being more of a multiple personality situation than a “transvestite.”
“Certainly, I wasn’t influenced by that,” Hamill said, adding, “I wasn’t influenced by anything else except sometimes you get hit with a bolt of lightning and a story idea.”
But between the time Hamill came up with that idea and 2017, media representation of transgender characters has been abysmal.
GLAAD’s 2012 Victims or Villains report, for example, looked at 10 years of television featuring transgender characters and found that they were cast as victims 40 percent of the time and as “killers or villains” in at least 21 percent of the episodes in which they appeared.
Even today, as representation and transgender storytelling improve, transgender actors are still being played by cisgender actors—with a few notable exceptions, like the Gotham Award-winning web series Her Story.
“It was written in 1978,” Hamill reminded me, to which I replied, “But it’s coming out in 2017.” The question remains: Was anyone aware of how the film might come across today?
“All the filmmakers involved are progressive people who also like film noir B-movies and that’s really what it became,” Hamill told me, adding later: “None of us sat around and considered any of that that we were offending anyone. That didn’t even come up.”
My issue with the film—and yes, even with the trailer—is that it comes after decades of associating transgender female bodies with violence, and that, as GLAAD pointed out, it uses sex reassignment surgery for shock value at a particularly inconvenient moment in the discourse around transgender rights.
(As I wrote when I saw the trailer, “If The Assignment were coming out in a distant future when transgender medical treatment were not under attack… then maybe, just maybe, it could get away with its hokey premise about a gruff assassin who is forcibly feminized.”)
But Hamill respectfully disagreed with me that the current timing matters, pointing out that Hill secured the financing for the film before transgender issues became a major national talking point.
“You have a bunch of storytellers and filmmakers that want to make a movie and we’re supposed to test the political winds before we say OK, let’s make this movie that we like?” he asked.
Now that the movie is out on video on demand—with a limited theatrical release to follow—Hamill is happy for anyone to criticize the movie however they see fit.
If people want to call it transphobic, fine, so long as they’ve seen more than the trailer. Hamill doesn’t think of it as transphobic, but as a “different kind of movie” with a unique plot device. (“I think we’re getting knocked for being different the way transgender people are getting knocked for being different,” he told me.)
But whatever opinion the movie’s critics form, he wants the world to know that there’s not a bigoted bone in his body.
“Please don’t paint me that way because it’s not me,” he told me. “My mother would turn over in her grave if she thought that I was offending anyone, or involved in any way in any kind of bigotry. That was never allowed in my house. You got smacked with a dish rag.”
But the movie that sprang from Hamill’s brain nigh 40 years ago now has a life of its own, apart from its creators and separate from their intent. And my hope is that the entire story of The Assignment—from the initial controversy around the trailer to the negative reception for the movie itself—can be a cautionary tale for film studios and producers making the trans-themed movies of the future: Now is the time to get it right, not to make a cheap, exploitative mess out of the transgender moment.