With the Tribeca Film Festival kicking off this week, TSF is looking forward to no film more than Renee, a documentary about famed tennis player Renee Richards and her controversial decision to play on the women’s tennis tour after going through sexual reassignment surgery in the 1970s. We got the chance to chat with Eric Drath, the director of the film, to talk about Renee, the project and his thoughts about transexuals in sports. -NM
TSF: Your documentary “Life Caught in the Ring” was set in the boxing world. Do you see similarities in the boxing and tennis worlds?
Eric Drath: Although it was a boxing movie, it really was a story of redemption and coming to terms with the decision that somebody made so long ago … a relatively bad decision. This movie is not really a tennis movie, it’s a story about a person. It’s a story about a life, about someone who complete courage to be the person that they feel that they are. Even though it’s set in the environment of tennis it transcends the sport and reaches a bunch of bigger topics and universal themes.
TSF: For this film, dealing with something so controversial – especially for its time frame – how hard was it to find distribution? Were you nervous that it might not have an appeal? That it might be considered a big risk?
ED: Yeah. You really never know what you’re getting into when you start a project like this. I started the project knowing that it was a great story that a new generation should be told. I didn’t know where it was going to wind up or if it was going to be too controversial, but I knew I had an important story and a story that transcends the sport of tennis. This is a story of perseverance, courage and the ability to be true to yourself.
TSF: You’re talking about a new generation. Have you been surprised by the reaction from people in your personal life that you’ve talked to about this of people not knowing this story?
ED: That’s what’s incredible: I think that most people don’t know this story. Most people my age – I’m 40 – have probably heard of it. But there’s a whole generation that doesn’t know and it’s more timely than ever with what’s going on with Kyle Allums and what’s going on in other sports. This is a question that is not going to go away. Where do people who are transsexual should be allowed to play? In what age groups and divisions? These are important subjects and they haven’t gone away. There hasn’t been a final determination on it. It’s very timely now, just as it was front page news back when it was happening.
TSF: Have you got a common response from people who hadn’t heard of the controversy and/or Renee? Are they surprised by what she did?
ED: People can’t believe that this really happened. This wasn’t in the day of the Internet and the 24-hour news cycle. But this still became worldwide news. How many people live a life the way Renee has? She’s had so many lives. When I tell people this story, they’re floored that this could actually happen. People are like, ‘what? That really happened?!’ They’re very surprised.
TSF:What about getting pro players to talk on camera about their experience/opinion regarding Renee?
ED: Well it was interesting because we reached out to a lot of players who were overwhelming supportive back then and we also reached out to players who had walked off the court and were not [supportive]. The common demonator was that all of them had ultimate respect for Renee as a person. The question of whether it was fair or not, I thought [the response] was divided. But the question about Renee was overwhelmingly that she is an incredible person and commands incredible respect.
I talked to what seems like the “old guard,” the royalty of tennis: Martina, Billie Jean, Mary Carillo, John McEnroe, Jimmy Connors, Ilie Nastase.
TSF: Does Renee keep close, personal relationships within the tennis world? Or has she sort of removed herself from it?
ED: She’s very welcomed in the tennis community. There was an outpouring of help from the tennis community and she’s still connected to [it]. She still teaches some youths, she still visits the US Open. She’s not a pariah in any sense. Although, she’s definitely still the most controversial female player to ever play the sport.
TSF: How long did this process take from idea to final product?
ED: Two years, almost to the day from when I picked up the phone and called her.
Click here for the rest of our interview with Drath.
TSF: After this project, what is your relationship is with Renee?
ED: We’re very close. I think anybody that meets Renee has met a lifelong friend. She’s an incredible person and I had no idea what to expect going into it.
TSF: Tell me about that. What were the first steps to take in this project? How did you approach it in a way that you were staying true to the story but then also invading Renee’s personal life the way this project probably had to?
ED: There’s three ingredients to any project that you endeavor to do: passion, persistence and determination. Those three buzz words are to live by. First of all, I had to be very persistent in allowing Renee to let me do this. She’s done a billion interviews. She didn’t want to tell her story again. It took a persistence to finish this. We didn’t know who was going to buy it. We were running of money and there was no guarantee on who was going to buy it. The passion ignited those other two for me.
TSF: Is there one story in tennis right now that you see similar potential in? A project that you would consider taking on if you could?
ED: I thought Agassi’s book was great fire for a movie. Otherwise, I’m not too sure. But I do know that if I were to talk to a few players then I would find an amazing story. Anybody who gets to that level of tennis has a fascinating story in my opinion.
TSF: What is the most significant factoid/theory you learned during this process when it comes to transgendered issues in sport?
ED: It wasn’t about tennis for me, it was about identity and about how important and strong one’s need to feel comfortable with their own identity. To me, that’s more important than anything else [from this project]. To give you a quick little example: Frank Froehling, who was her coach, one time said to her, ‘Renee, you know if you want to win these tournaments then you’re going to have to crash the net – you’ve got to serve and volley.’ Renee had stayed on the baseline against Chrissie Evert and lost. He said, ‘Renee, now I’ve figured it out: you want to play like a woman.’ So for Renee, it was more important to play like a woman than to beat women. I thought that was very telling.
(Image via Image.net with permission)