The Feedback: David P. Zucker’s ‘Your Friend, Memphis’
Memphis DiAngelis is a young man in his early 20s, living in Austin, Texas. Like many millennials, he is struggling to find a steady job and reliable income; dreaming of following his dreams of becoming a filmmaker; and pining for his best friend, Seneca. To complicate matters, Memphis has cerebral palsy, a condition that can seriously affect mobility and speech. He’s also in a difficult position: he can walk, which in Texas, disqualifies him from state support and medicare.
In 2015, filmmaker David P. Zucker took a PA gig working on a Hallmarkesque film that was shooting outside Austin. On that set, he met Memphis, who was also working as a PA. He was taken instantly by Memphis’s idealism, and his passion for filmmaking. When Memphis was fired a few days into the shoot, Zucker reached out—and learned that Memphis had been vlogging about his life, recanting his forays into the film and challenges in his day-to-day life. Zucker asked Memphis if he could make a documentary about him.
What began as a short documentary about Memphis’s experience working in film quickly turned into a yearslong project following Memphis as he navigates adulthood, yearns for freedom, and struggles with Texas’s unforgiving disability policies. A mix of vérité footage, intimate interviews with Memphis’s parents and friends, and snippets of his vlogs, Your Friend, Memphis emerges an intimate, nuanced, and complicated character study about not just the difficulties of being disabled in a world that doesn’t understand or support you, but the difficulties of being a person with hopes and feelings.
Your Friend, Memphis screened with DocuClub LA in September 2019 at the Film Independent screening room. In 2022, the film premiered in Austin, the home of Memphis and many other participants of the film, at SXSW. By all accounts, it was an emotional and moving event, filled with support from friends, family, and Memphis’s community. Your Friend, Memphis was acquired by Greenwich Entertainment.
The film will be available to buy or rent on Amazon Prime and Apple TV on October 6, 2023. Ahead of the release, Zucker chatted with us about the challenges of making the film, the importance of building trust, all things Memphis, and, of course, his experience at DocuClub. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
DOCUMENTARY: At the end of the film, Memphis says, “You can't have a story without conflict. Story is conflict.” I’m wondering, what kind of conflicts or challenges did you encounter making the film?
David P. Zucker: The documentary financing landscape has continued to trend towards celebrity-, food-, and true crime-focused. Creating a story about a non-celebrity with a disability who's not climbing a mountain or starting a political movement, but rather just navigating universal challenges was rarely considered a sexy topic, so financing was difficult.
Building trust within a really intimate complex situation was also tough. We spent years demonstrating we understand the longevity of this story and that we're interested to see evolution and the way that these everyday moments relate to the big questions of life.
D: I am curious about what that process was like because you are there for some pretty real intimate moments with both of his parents, and with Seneca. How did that go?
DZ: I think both of Memphis’s parents were wary of us at the beginning because they had had several experiences in earlier years where people would come in and offer Memphis something. They described it as “pat him on the head and say, ‘What a cute kid, let me help you,’” in some patronizing way, and then it would rarely amount to anything. But I try to show up to every film saying, “I’m here to learn. I truly don’t know what's happening here and so thank you for letting me into your home. I’d love to observe and chat with you. And when you don't want the camera rolling, it won't be rolling.” I think our repeated commitment to being present and being open to follow where the story took us showed them that we were really here to tell their honest stories to the best of our ability. As intimate as the film gets, remarkably, everyone was on board through the process.
D: What other steps did you take to continue building that trust?
DZ: We promised each of the subjects that they would have the opportunity to see the film at the end, not to have editorial control, but to be a part of a discussion about the story that we were telling. We did check-ins every year asking, “How are you feeling about this?” And telling them, “Here's where we see the story going at this stage of the game.” It was definitely sticky throughout but I think the amount of time that we put into the entire process showed that this is certainly not a money-making endeavor for anyone involved. Memphis’s mom told us that she believed in this as an art project. She was just like, “"You’re here trying to make something cool.”
D: What drew you to Memphis?
DZ: I had a very strong gut instinct about Memphis as a person. I could tell that he had a unique energy and ambition, which is the driver of the story.
He’s maybe the most courageous person I’ve ever met and I know that that language gets thrown around a lot in relation to people with disabilities, but I really don’t mean it in relation to that. He’s someone who is openly sharing his feelings with his crush in an awkward moment in a way that most people I know would not do. He refuses to accept the hand that is dealt and pursues things that make many who watch the film think, “Oh, you've got no shot.” He believes in himself and doesn’t want to settle.
D: Towards the end of the film, Memphis goes from being pro-Bernie to getting lost in the dark web, fake news, MAGA part of the world. What was it like for you to watch his near radicalization?
DZ: Based on my own political position, I was bummed that that was where he was headed. On the filmmaking side, it was difficult. It was difficult in terms of thinking through how an audience might react to this development. Where was I going with this? He’s not the kind of documentary subject who is going to say what you want him to say to fit the constraints of a story. I think that's also what made this entire experience challenging and exciting for me as a filmmaker. I had not only to say, “Yes, okay, so this is what's happening,” but also, “How does it fit into the full story?”
I have complicated feelings about this, but I really believe deeply that we need films about characters with disabilities who in no way conform to what is out there. I feel proud this film went in unexpected directions that force audiences who choose to watch it to grapple with pretty uncomfortable questions.
D: He wants a new life but how do you create that new life in a world that is pretty inhospitable, especially to people with disabilities?
DZ: That’s the question of the film: what is truly on the table for this person? He refuses to settle for his parents’ answer and opens himself up to the inhospitable midst of the outside world. And, to me, that's the super universal thing about the film. Not everyone has the same challenges that Memphis has but, at some point, we’re all leaving the safety of one place to explore better possibilities elsewhere. That’s what he was doing.
D: What was your DocuClub experience like and how did that shape the film, if at all?
DZ: The DocuClub experience was hugely valuable. We were big proponents of rough cut screenings from the beginning because, on representational levels, on narrative structural levels, there was so much to figure out. Different viewers always attached more closely to different characters in Memphis’s wheel. If Memphis is at the center, then there’s his parents, there’s Seneca, there’s Robert. My mom watches the film and connects really strongly to Memphis’s mom. Our associate producer, Reid Davenport, would watch cuts and say, “Memphis's mom is really holding him back in a problematic way.”
DocuClub was a great opportunity to have an audience of folks, most of whom I didn't know, telling me who they connected to and what moments bumped them; when they were on Memphis’s side, when they weren't, and whether that made them not want to keep watching.
In our feedback discussion, we were digging into topics such as poverty and the intersection of Memphis and his family’s financial situations with issues of disability. Right at the beginning of making this film or maybe a bit before, there were films like Life Animated (2016) centering a character with a disability who’s taking a step into the next stage of independence. But it never gets mentioned that he has a team of people around him helping him make this transition.
The absence of that felt so present to me in making the film, and it came up a lot in the discussion at DocuClub. How much of that was reading for an audience, and how we could help to contextualize some of that? I guess I’m not sure if I realized it then, but, to be honest, that was a really important step for us in building the systemic challenge backbone of the film, which is the financial support that Memphis was [not] getting in Texas. That support might be available to him in other states, and that was part of his choice to try to get out of Texas.
D: You premiered at SXSW in 2022. How was that?
DZ: The premiere was amazing. I always had the idea that the premiere would be filled with strange faces. In reality, there were so many members of my family and friends and subjects from the film and their community. So, there was a lot of love in the room, which made it really special because this was a scary film to make and it was a scary film to share. The very first frame of this film that I shot was at SXSW 2015, where Memphis and his dad would volunteer yearly. I always had an outside hope that we'd get to premiere there. It was really affirming from end to end.
D: As of 2022, Memphis is in Colorado studying tech things. Is he still in school? What's he up to now?
DZ: He is still in Colorado, he's very happy to be living there where there is legal weed and greater support for people with disabilities and I think a community that he feels happy about. And yeah, he's been able to find various work and live states away from his parents, which I know is difficult for them but really empowering for him. He has the distance and independence that he talked a lot about throughout the film.
Gabriella Ortega Ricketts is an archival producer and actress living in Los Angeles with her partner and their three cats, Hank, Duke, and Archie. At IDA, she is the manager of artist programs and a proud member of the union Documentary Workers United. In her spare time, she paints and bakes pies. Recently, she's taken up attempting to sew.