"She told me what it was like being a trans woman."
Filmmaker Maureen Maundu, 32, was talking to me the other day about Lila Star, the lead actress in Maundu's upcoming short film, "Tranheist."
"Lila's great." Maundu said. "She completely understood who Morgan was." Morgan is the film's lead character, a transexual woman desperate for reassignment surgery, and willing to do anything to get it.
"There's a scene where Morgan looks in the
mirror and starts crying," Maundu continued. "Lila got it right away. We didn't have to do many takes (throughout the shooting)."
I spoke with Maundu on a recent cloudy afternoon at Chicago's venerable Heartland Cafe, in the city's Rogers Park neighborhood.
Maundu hopes to premiere "Tranheist" in Chicago soon, and submit the short to film festivals, including to the Sundance Film Festival and to the Chicago International Film Festival. She is hoping her short film is expanded eventually into a feature film.
Here's the film's set-up: Morgan, a pre-op tran woman, is a determined strip club manager who needs money for her surgery. Her female roommate and friend, the stripper Iffy, pitches an idea to steal the needed funds from Iffy's drug-dealing boyfriend, Mikki.
"'Tranheist' is definitely a unique, one-of-a-kind film," continued Maundu, who wrote and directed the work. "There's never been a story like this. This is more personal. It's not a heist film like a bank heist. It's personal because every character represents someone you know, someone you've heard about, or seen. Or someone you're curious about."
Maundu was born and raised in Nairobi, Kenya, a capital city of 1.3 million in eastern Africa that the filmmaker characterized as a "boiling pot."
"Nairobi has 43 tribes," she said. "We're all different. We have different kinds of food, ... (different) dialect(s)."
"That's pretty much how my films will be," she continued. "I want my films to represent that – people from different backgrounds all living together, blending together, like our society right now. That's not being represented in Hollywood."
Speaking to Maundu, I got the feeling that here was a young, personable woman of ideals, who wants to express those ideals in her films.
I also got the feeling that she would have no trouble letting her cast and crew know who was in charge on her shooting sets.
She left Africa about 10 years ago, and has spent most of her time since then in the U.S. learning about and working in film and TV – including in her recent graduation from Flashpoint Chicago.
For example, she worked on projects in various cities in positions such as a Camera PA, or production assistant. The projects she worked on – such as American Horror Story – often followed the best tax incentives for film and TV production companies around the country, to places such as Troy, Mich., Austin, Tex., and Baton Rouge, La.
Maundu lived in Louisiana from 2011-2014. She explained, "The tax incentives in Louisiana were better for film because they were trying to build back after Katrina."
In terms of funding "Tranheist," several routes were tried. The filmmakers did attempt to raise cash through the crowdfunding site Indiegogo. However, because the project did not meet its goal, the money was refunded to donors.
"Basically, I used my tax (refund) money to fund the film," Maundu explained. "If it's your passion, you do it."
Chicago entertainer and actress Lila Star leads the cast of "Tranheist" as Morgan, the central character. An illusionist, impersonator and rap artist, Star made her film debut in the 2017 neo-noir Chicago short film "Lakeshore Drive."
Iesha Rochelle plays the stripper Iffy. Among her credits, Rochelle acted in the 2017 TV movie "The Five Black People You Meet in College," as well as in the 2015 TV series "Mind of a Single Male."
Julian Griffith plays the drug dealer Mikki. As a child, Griffith acted in the hit 2001 film "Hardball," starring Keanu Reeves. More recently, Griffith appeared in the 2017-2018 season of the TV series "Chicago PD."
Both Rochelle and Griffith are members of the trade union for film and TV actors, the Screen Actors Guild, or SAG.
On social media, "Tranheist" can be found on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. A Teespring.com campaign was launched recently to raise funds for film festival entry fees, by selling clothing featuring the movie's title and images.
Maundu hopes to have a trailer for the film ready by the end of October.
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