'The Assignment' Director on Transphobia Accusations and the Script Change Michelle Rodriguez Rejected

Walter Hill reveals his star, who plays a male hitman who undergoes sex-reassignment surgery, requested a prosthetic penis that made the character appear "well-endowed."
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Michelle Rodriguez in 'The Assignment' (Inset: director Walter Hill)

The Assignment's journey from page to screen took decades. The film, which stars Michelle Rodriguez as a hitman forced to undergo a sex-reassignment surgery at the hands of a vengeful doctor (Sigourney Weaver), began life as a 1978 story by Denis Hamill.

It caught the attention of director Walter Hill at the time, but nothing came of it. In the 1990s, Hill called up Hamill to ask if the rights were still available, but the project continued to languish until the director rediscovered a copy of the story several years ago in his basement.

The Assignment's uphill battle continued on, as it faced the challenge of realistically transforming Rodriguez physically into a man for part of the movie, and it also weathered accusations of transphobia from GLAAD after the project got off the ground, with a spokesperson saying in 2015, "Stories like these have the potential to undermine the progress we've worked so hard to achieve."

In a conversation with Heat Vision, Hill addresses those criticisms, shares the script change Rodriguez rejected (as well as the one request she had for her character's prosthetic penis), and says that he's spoken with two transgender audience members who "have no objection" to the movie's content.

Michelle's character Frank Kitchen is only physically a man for a short portion of the film. Did you worry that portion would be convincing, and how did you approach it?

The answer is, we did it very carefully. And there was a lot of trial and error and approval, and I wanted to tell that part of the story in one shot. I didn't want to exploit the situation, but at the same time, I wanted you to see that Frank Kitchen was definitely a male. So much of the movie is about aspects of the human body and that's certainly one of the narrative considerations. So it's pretty obvious that's not the real Michelle. That is to say, the makeup isn't, and the prosthetic device.… She had put in a very specific request that she wanted to be well endowed. If she was going to do it, she wanted to at least be well endowed. I said she would be the envy of every guy on the crew. And she was.

 

Frank Kitchen what's he cookin...

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If she wanted to be "well-endowed," how big was the prosthetic?

Actually, I don't think I ever knew. I knew it was right when I saw it. But we never actually got out a ruler and measured it.

Did it take any convincing to get Michelle on board for this movie? 

She was very much on board. She had read the script and we met and had lunch together. I didn't really know her before that. I knew her work. In [2000's] Girlfight she was absolutely great. I go to lunch and she basically is telling me she wonders if I have enough courage to cast her. I remember her telling me, "Nobody is going to handle the guns better than me," guy or girl. And she was right. She handled the hardware beautifully. 

Were there any changes that you made after she came aboard?

Frank Kitchen was actually a redneck name I had adopted when the idea was the character was going to be working out of Houston. I said, "Do you want me to change the name Frank Kitchen to a Latino name?" She said, "Are you kidding? It's not his real name. He's supposed to be using an alias. Why would he do something that would put the cops or whoever more on the trail of accuracy?" And she was overwhelmingly right. So I left the name alone and she is Frank Kitchen in the movie, but Frank Kitchen is not the real name of the character. We never know what the character's real name is.

Sigourney Weaver's character says the sex reassignment doesn't change who the person is. They are just who they are. What was the inspiration behind that dialogue?

Frank is a guy when the movie starts and after being genitally altered, which is very different than a transgender thing, after being genitally altered, he remains a guy. He remains a guy in every scene. He's a guy inside his head. He just has had the body of a woman imposed upon him. And Michelle had to stay in character, she had to stay a guy inside her head for the whole works. It's not an easy task.

This got a negative reaction before it was out from people objecting to the genital alteration storyline, which they considered offensive and even transphobic. What feedback have you gotten now that the movie is out? 

People criticized the movie before it was even completely shot. [That] seemed a rather weak intellectual argument. I was asked to make some statements, and I'm not comfortable getting into a polemical struggle. I try to be a storyteller, but I always said the movie will be my answer to the critique and I think there's nothing in the movie that would make the journey of a transgender person harder and I think there's nothing in the movie that violates transgender theory. It actually supports it. As to people who have seen it, I've talked to two transgender people that have seen the movie, they have no objection to it. We now live in a country where there is a kind of sexual fluidity, shall we say. Very different from the time I grew up in. I think this is a good thing. I think it's a good change, I think it's healthy. And certainly the intention of the movie is to be entertaining within a pulpy, noirish world. It's certainly not intended to be a searing drama about the problems of social reality, I suppose.

As a producer, you helped cast Sigourney Weaver in 1979's Alien and now got to direct her for the first time. What has it been like seeing her develop over the decades as an actor?

Great pride. We made a decision in 1978 to cast Sigourney. She has grown since. She was very good then, she was given the task of putting a movie up on her shoulders and carrying it and that's a daunting job for vastly more experienced actors than Sigourney was, and she came through for us. She's grown as an actress and a presence since then. She's a very positive person. She's a splendid person and it was a great pleasure to finally get to direct her. We've been friends a very long time and we've always stayed in touch.

She and Tony Shalhoub, who plays a psychiatrist who interviews her, have a lot of dialogue and great chemistry in this. How did he come aboard?

After Sigourney accepted the part, she said, "Look, I know this is not my department, but please cast somebody that's really a terrific actor for that part because I have to play off him. My energy will come off him and it's so critical." I told her, "It's going to be Tony Shalhoub," and she was overjoyed. They, I believe, knew each other at Yale and they were mutual admirers of one another. And the scenes, I wouldn't say they directed themselves, but it lightens the load of a director when you have two actors going at it of that caliber.

What has it been like to see Alien continue on without you?

I'm pleased they are still making them. I'm really not a participant in that. I haven't been on the team. [Producer] David Giler and I kind of got a legal separation from Fox after Alien 3 and so we have a contractual relationship with the series, but I don't really have anything to do with them anymore. As far as I can see, they seem to be perking right along and since I do have a financial interest in them, I hope they make 25 more.

The Assignment is in theaters now.

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