Editor's Note: Rebecca Cammisa and Julie Anderson's God Is the Bigger Elvis, which is nominated for an IDA Documentary Award in tghe Short category, aired April 5 on HBO. Here is an article with Cammisa that we published in the days leading up to DocuDay.
Synopsis: God Is the Bigger Elvis tells the remarkable story of Dolores Hart, a rising Hollywood star who appeared in ten films starting in 1957, acting with the likes of Elvis Presley, Montgomery Clift, Warren Beatty and Anthony Quinn, but abandoned her blossoming career--and cut off her engagement to a young architect--to become a Benedictine nun in 1963. Now Mother Prioress of the cloistered Abbey of Regina Laudis in Bethlehem, Connecticut, Dolores reveals details about her life, past and present, while providing viewers with never-before-seen looks at the day-to-day activities inside the enclosed Benedictine monastery. In addition to unprecedented access footage and interviews shot in the buildings and grounds of the Abbey, the documentary includes archival footage and photos from Dolores' movies, as well as intriguing backstories of some of the other nuns who joined her in taking their vows at Regina Laudis.
IDA: How did you happen upon the story of Dolores Hart, given that she left her Hollywood career nearly 50 years ago?
Rebecca Cammisa: Sheila Nevins of HBO Documentaries asked me to make a film about Mother Prioress and the Abbey of Regina Laudis.
IDA: You gained such remarkable access to such a cloistered environment. Talk about the process of doing that: How did you present the project to Mother Prioress?
RC: We did not present the idea to make this film only to Mother Prioress. We asked permission of Mother Abbess Davis Serna, and then the whole community of nuns met with us to discuss what direction we wanted to take when filming.
IDA: Did Mother Prioress set any ground rules or restrictions prior to production? Once she agreed, how did she help to persuade the other nuns to participate as well?
RC: I believe the community as a whole agreed to be filmed. Because most of Abbey life happens behind the Enclosure, we worked on a specifically-designed schedule that enabled us to film storylines and interviews that were important to understanding the depth of life there. Mother Margaret Georgina Patton was our liaison and collaborator in gaining access to film daily events.
IDA: What were some of the challenges and obstacles in making this film, and how did you overcome them?
RC: As a filmmaker, I do like to have free reign when going about filming my subjects, and at any time of day I'd like. Clearly, that way of working was not going to happen in a monastery, so the challenge was to become more disciplined in choosing my shooting priorities. Working in a more limited way was the biggest challenge. I overcame that obstacle by being patient and trusting that the moments I wanted to capture would indeed come on a different timeframe that I did not always have control of. I guess I became a bit more monastic!
IDA: What docs or docmakers have served as inspirations for you?
RC: Frederick Wiseman, Henry Hampton, Lindsay Anderson, Peter Davis, Stanley Nelson, Barbara Kopple, The Maysles, Werner Herzog, and...
Recently, Nostagia de la Luz, by Patricio Guzmán, has been quite inspirational for me.
God Is the Bigger Elvis will be screening Saturday, February 25, at 9:00 a.m. as part of DocuDay LA at the Writers Guild of America Theater in Beverly Hills, and at 12:45 p.m. at DocuDay NY at The Paley Center for Media in Manhattan.