LOS ANGELES — Charlie Chaplin shot silent films at the corner of Lillian Way and Eleanor Ave. in Hollywood. So did Buster Keaton. More recently, so did John Maucere and Alek Lev. Their film "WHAT?" is a feature-length, black-and-white silent film about a deaf actor trying to make it in Hollywood.
In many ways, it’s Maucere’s own story. The actor stars as Don who is trying to get a director to hire him. Instead, the director hires a hearing actor to play a deaf character and asks Don to help teach him to sign. Although it’s a comedy built on many levels of miscommunication, it’s clearly born out of real frustration.
“I produced it because I wanted to have deaf characters played by deaf actors,” Maucere signed. “I thought ‘let’s stop standing around and complaining. Let’s get together and make a film that’s done the right way.’”
Every actor playing a deaf character on screen is deaf. So are many of the crew members including Raven Taylor in his first experience working as a key grip.
“It was my first time being in a place, a work environment, where there were more signers than there were non-signers and more deaf people than hearing people,” Taylor said through an interpreter.
Even the film’s investors are deaf, leaving director, writer and editor Alek Lev among the few people on set who is hearing. He chose to sign during our interview to support his cast and crew.
Lev has been deeply involved in the deaf community, particularly in the arts, since he took an ASL course in college. That same year he discovered the films of Buster Keaton.
“I’ve been thinking about silent films for 25 years,” he signed. “And I’ve been working with the deaf community for 25 years. So to bring the two together is amazing.”
He’s the former vice president of the International Buster Keaton Society. Keaton’s great-granddaughter appears in the film and the filmmakers incorporated many locations from the classic films into this one, like the recently renamed Chaplin Keaton Lloyd Alley.
“To see John walking the same path that Buster Keaton walked is just, I mean, come on, beyond amazing,” Lev signed.
They even filmed in front of the TCL Chinese Theatre – which incidentally is where the movie had its world premiere at the Dances With Films Festival, one of 21 festivals they’ve been selected for.
Maucere, who once performed the National Anthem with Alicia Keys at the Super Bowl, set out to make a comedy because he wanted to make sure his hearing audience could relate to the material. Plus laughter just helps people feel more comfortable.
“In the beginning when we were coming in, it was sort of like very robotic,” he described. “Hearing people were like ‘Oh, we’re around all these deaf people. There’s sign language. What do we do?’ And after they saw the film, everybody was so jovial and having so much fun and wanting pictures made with all of us and that was the goal of the film.”
Things are changing in the industry with films like "CODA" and "The Eternals" which feature a deaf superhero played by a deaf actor. The “WHAT?” team is excited about the advances being made and proud of the film they created on their own terms.
“It’s a great, kind of a once in a lifetime project for me,” Taylor signed.
“No!” Maucere insisted. “There’s more coming!”
He’d also love to see more opportunities for deaf actors to be considered for roles that weren’t specifically written as deaf. “If a role is written for a hearing person but could be adapted to be played by a deaf person, I think ‘why not?’” Maucere explained. “Right now there are many very talented deaf actors out there and the only difference is that they use American Sign Language. That’s the only difference. And sign language is beautiful.”
He hopes “WHAT?” will open the industry’s eyes to the pool of talent they’ve been missing and serve as a model for what inclusive filmmaking can be.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story had an incorrect spelling of Alek Lev. This has been updated. (Nov. 15, 2021)