UGFTV Professor Susan Sandler's "Julia Scotti: Funny That Way" is a Raw and Renewing Trans Comeback Story

Tuesday, Jun 1, 2021

Julia Scotti

"Julia Scotti: Funny That Way"

There is a kind of poetry to self-discovery and its winding ways. In the case of comedian Julia Scotti, that identity journey just happened to play out on the comedy stage. 

In the first half of Julia Scotti’s life and career she was known as Rick Scotti, a headlining comedian on tickets with Jerry Seinfeld and Chris Rock. Throughout the 80s Rick had a wife and kids, a roaring standup career, and one deep-seated hunch that everything was amiss. At 47, living in a blindingly heteronormative world, Rick risked everything in the interest of finally becoming herself.

Unfortunately, the price of self-discovery came at the loss of nearly all things dear to Julia’s life: her children, her career, and her community of comedy colleagues. Finally at ease with her true self, but at odds with a comedy world and family that had shut her out, Julia embarked on the long path to redemption. After a 20-year hiatus, Julia Scotti began finding her way back to the comedy world, reviving her career with a rollicking performance on America’s Got Talent and rebuilding a life with her children.

In director Susan Sandler’s new film Julia Scotti: Funny That Way, we experience the full breadth of Julia Scotti’s deeply moving story in the way only Julia would have it—raw, heartfelt, and hysterical. Beginning June 1, Julia Scotti: Funny That Way is available to watch on most streaming platforms. We recently spoke with Sandler, a professor in Tisch’s Undergraduate Film & Television program, about her path to discovering Julia Scotti, the comedian’s unapologetic authenticity, and the film’s message to anyone searching for themselves.

Tell me about your early encounters with Julia Scotti. From those initial moments, how receptive was she to the making of the film?

Susan Sandler: Like everything good in life, it was a process. The process for me begins with love—love for the subject, a love for the world, a love for the adventure. When I first met Julia, it began with seeing her work and performance and being absolutely mesmerized by what she does in comedy, which is very much the truth of her life. She uses what her lived experience is in her comedy. When I saw her on stage I was very much drawn to her as a performer.

We met because a friend of mine had produced the comedy evening. I offered to do for her what I had done for another comedian, which was to help her organize and produce a one-person show, [typically] built for comedians out of their biographical story. So, I began to do that dramaturgically and to work on her with that. The more I learned about her life the more I realized the wealth of archival material that existed that gave us the “then and now” of her story. And then the added thread that her children had just returned to her life after a 15-year estrangement… the headline just emerged: This wants to be a documentary.

I think Julia’s accessibility is so special, and that was my pure instinct. I really believe that we operate from that place as artists. With complete honesty, I said [to her], “I think this is the journey we should go on.” My experience is entirely in narrative film, I had not entered nonfiction before, so the journey for me was going to be step-by-step. There were enormous trust issues in Julia’s personal life, and to trust me with her story was a huge leap. And she gave me everything: journals, letters, photographs, and videos of every aspect of her life. That is something that [took] time. We’re great friends; one of the biggest rewards of this whole experience is her friendship.

Julia’s children take contrasting paths toward accepting her decisions. Dan’s relationship with Julia is quite warm, whereas Emma appears more wary and reserved. How did you approach each of them for the film?

Sandler: As you sensed, Dan was much more willing to step into the experience of the film. I think Emma was and is very shy, so it was kind of a tentative experience for her. It was exciting to invite her to see Julia perform for the first time—that was an extraordinary event. What happened over time was that both Dan and Emma became involved more and more in the comedy world. Emma began working as an intern in the management company where Julia is represented. Dan, on the other hand, had been writing sketch comedy all through this period. The section in the film where Julia and Dan are watching archival material and they’re talking about comedy and the process of writing—that is the sort of thematic center of the film. We’re seeing a family using the language of comedy to understand each other and the movement of their own lives. 

One of the most powerful scenes sees Julia review footage of herself as Rick performing a set filled with viciously transphobic views. Did you and Julia have any conversations about not shying away from the shame of the past?

Sandler: It was very organic. I had poured through all of this archival material and she had not seen any of it. She doesn’t like to look at her own material at all, and she certainly hadn’t looked at any of the old stuff. I had edited together some material that I shared that afternoon for her to screen with Dan, and I knew that particular clip was going to be meaningful. It’s a very dramatic moment and it’s a moment when she’s obviously struggling, as Rick, with identity. As comedians do, [she’s] working it out on stage. That’s vividly there. 

The idea of Julia’s journey now, as someone who transitioned 20 years ago, who’s very comfortable with who she is, and who has lived with great commitment to the truth of her life, is so inspiring to so many people. She’s so completely comfortable with the choices that she’s made. Looking back at that history, she can shrug at it and say, “That was then and this is now. I’ve moved past that.” 

This project is also deeply personal to you because of the friends and colleagues who joined you on this journey, and because the film received several Tisch Dean’s Faculty Grants. Describe to me what it’s been like to collaborate with so many artists from the Tisch community.

Sandler: I’ve been beautifully supported by my colleagues at Tisch, by alumni who have come from Tisch. My wonderful editor Marsha Moore McKeever, who teaches with me, we sat together in the editing suite at 721 Broadway and I found the story in that room with her. In that process I brought in the brilliant Lewis Erskine, who is an extraordinary talent as an editor. I was mentored by Lewis and also Sam Pollard, who looked at cuts and gave me notes. 

I had [Tisch Professor and animator] John Canemaker’s eyes on this and he brought me Sam Roth, an animator who came out of the Film & TV program. The DPs and shooters on this film were nearly all out of Tisch, and Nicole Quintero Ochoa— who was a wonderful mentee of mine—came on as a production manager. It was this great experience of bringing together people whom both I had mentored as a professor, and people who were mentoring me. The learning experience, day-by-day, was both intuitive and guided by the people around me. I moved with a kind of assurance because I felt so supported by the people around me.