Lost in Suburbia: 'Must Read After My Death' Documents Dysfunction
By Tom White
The American Dream was thrown into sharp relief just after World War II, when millions of soldiers came home, found employment, and in short order followed the marriage-mortgage-maternity throughline right to suburbia. By the late-50s, Suburbia had reached near mythical status, but the Dream had lost some of its luster. Scribes documented the demise with a touch of schadenfreude and a dollop of sadness. Suburbia was a gilded cage, and the roles of husband and wife were so tightly circumscribed that the impulse to escape lost out to the temptations of another martini and a clandestine affair.
Must Read After My Death , which is still screening in selected theaters through Gigantic Releasing and available for online viewing through Gigantic Digital, documents two decades in the life of one such family, headed by Charley and Allis, and told entirely through audio recordings and 8mm home movies. The filmmaker, Morgan Dews, happens to be Charley and Allis' grandson, but given that he didn't discover this documentation until after Allis' death (Charley had died before Morgan was born), Dews might as well have been a stranger happening upon an archaelogical dig. We spoke to Dews via e-mail about the process of making this film, the audience reactions to it both in US and in Europe, and the upcoming narrative feature on which it is based.
IDA: This is a film in which you eschewed talking heads and narration, save for a bare minimum of title cards, and let the raw material--the trove of audiotapes, home movies and stills--tell the story. Talk about how you arrived at that artistic decision. Regarding the process, how long did you spend with the material in finding the narrative?
Morgan Dews: Pretty much from the very beginning, I thought I could avoid doing talking heads. Just from an aesthetic point of view, I find them quite boring. It did take me a while to find the shape and feel of the film as you see it now...a couple of years, even.
When I first got my hands on Allis' audio diaries, I tried interviewing my mother about her childhood. She was great, but the material seemed so removed from Allis' dispatches from the domestic trenches. It took a while to realize that the voices of these people transmitting from the 1960s were what was most compelling.
In terms of the narrative line, it was pretty easy to jettison all my own family stories. When I got my hands on all the audio material I just said, "There's a great story in here! I'm not sure what it is, but I think that if I listen and pay attention these people, these characters will let me know what it is." It was never a story I wanted to tell, but it was very much a compulsion from beyond the grave..."Must Read..."
I have to say that I was quite open to trying out things. At the beginning I tried to use a lot of contemporary archival material. I wanted to use the Folger's coffee ad where the neighbor suggests that the woman's husband will leave her because her coffee is so bad. I had all these school films that I downloaded from the Prelinger Archive about how to date and how to bake your husband a cake.
I wound up backing completely away from this approach because it let the viewer off the hook and took them out of the story, and because you got the feeling of baseline misogyny just from what everybody considers to be normal on the tapes. It's really shocking what they think is normal, and it makes you wonder about what people think is normal today.
IDA: What is also striking about the film is its soundscape--Paul Hogan's music offers a great counterpoint to the crackly tapes and the emotional trauma that persists over two decades in the life of Charley and Allis and their family. How did you and Paul work together in creating this soundscape?
MD: I have to say I had a lot of luck in choosing the right person to work with. Mark Lipsky and Brian Devine at Gigantic were really pivotal in helping with that. Paul Damian Hogan's great band Frances is on Gigantic Records. The credit for the soundtrack really goes to him.
When I came to Gigantic, the film had a different soundtrack, and I had been travelling with the film to festivals with that soundtrack. That soundtrack was really amazing, but audiences really had a hard time with it. It was electronic, intense and demanding. It made it quite difficult to hear the voices the movie is built out of. I had chosen the piece and asked the composer to let me use it. He had volunteered to adapt it and I was thrilled. Unfortunately he started working quite early on the film, and we wound up in very different places. We didn't communicate well throughout the process, and there wasn't much you could do to change things in the mix.
I had been arguing with audiences about it all year at festival screenings and was finally ready to start from scratch and try something new. Gigantic was ready to help and offered to pay for a new score. I had seen Frances and their neo-folk live show the week before. It seemed to make a lot more sense than electronic music.
Initially, Brian and Mark really helped talk through things with Paul. He's also a really sensitive artist who was able to tap into the story. It was also very helpful that the picture was locked when we started. I had been screening it with audiences for a long time and was very clear about where they had to be at any given point in the story. The first time around I had a very stupid theory that I would make the narrative fit the sound and that caused everybody a lot of grief.
Paul would send me sections and then really collaborate with me on fine-tuning the emotionality and foreshadowing at any given moment. The first thing he sent me for the intro was really heavy, and it forced me to think the whole film through in specific terms. "The beginning has to be really happy, but give yourself enough of a clue that things may be going wrong that you won't feel cheated," I'd say. He'd come back and pretty much nail it, with room to adjust in a really nuanced way.
IDA: Home movies reveal a different truth about the subjects. They're made for private use, to document experiences and preserve moments in time. Despite the amateur camerawork and the self-consciousness of subjects before the camera, there's an honesty and poignancy in home movies--and in matching the words and the images, you bring out a real poetry in the home movies that was merely B-roll before. Talk about this process of combining words, images and sound to bring out a deeper truth in all those elements.
MD: It's funny you say that because, though they do capture a sort of truth about how families wish to be, I tend to think of home movies and pictures as the most self-conscious form of image production. My mother used to complain that their father would make the family do multiple takes coming down the stairs in their bathrobes on Christmas morning. Home movies are almost a form of portraiture--a very formal and self-conscious form of self-presentation.
When I was going through all the material I was really shocked at how many shots there were of "my shiny new car," "my beautiful garden," "our beautiful children," "our wonderful vacation." It seemed as if all the shots came with quotation marks around them. The tape recordings had an almost opposite quality to them. They are whispered confessions in the night of almost unspeakable feelings.
To make matters more difficult, the images are mostly from the '50s and the audio is all from the '60s. What this led me to was the juxtaposition of the darkness of the family's words and the brightness of their lost dreams of happiness. This functions on one level by showing the viewer what the audio tells them has already been lost. On another level you are contrasting the very public presentations of picture and film with the very private constructions of recorded confessions.
The poetry of the images arose, as you would expect, from extreme limitations. By restricting myself to only material the family produced, I was down to 250-foot 8mm films, or only about eight hours. I had 17 boxes of photographs, but there was only one film with sync sound--the interview with Charley in Australia. So this became a license to look for allegorical or poetic connections between things. Thankfully, there were not enough images for a literal interpretation of the audio material.
IDA: Post-World War II American Suburbia is a well-mined conceit--the province of Cheever, Updike and Yates--and Must Read After My Death exudes the themes that those authors explored in their work: dysfunction, angst, disillusionment. As you delved into the material that your grandmother left behind, how much did that mythical landscape resonate for you?
MD: I grew up in the '70s. My parents were hippies. The '70s was the slide of the generation of '68 into their own dysfunction, angst and disillusionment. I could only ever envision the Great Generation as a mildly repressed prelude to the id-fueled boomers, who, by virtue of numbers, have managed to overshadow all other generations, including my own.
So the authors you mention never really spoke to me. The mythical landscape you refer to was a formative mythology for my mother and uncles, but it had no more impact on me than The Wizard of Oz did. The entire era of Technicolor never referred to anything other than its own lurid colors for me.
None of the post-War landscape resonates for me personally. I came of age in the '80s. It was certainly a peak of Cold War angst, but quite pointless and stripped of all the ideological underpinnings it may have had previously. But there is something very universal about this story of love gone wrong that does resonate with me. I can only imagine that the very specific nature of the story makes it resonate so widely.
The baby-boomers are certainly the core audience for my film. Those are the images of their childhood, the sounds of their childhood. In that first wave of mass-production they almost all shared those same toys, those same cars, those same clothes. My film is in some ways the story of many of their lives, more than the story of my life. It's been really wonderful to talk with audiences about how aspects of the film mirror their own experience and learn from them what the film means.
IDA: Although you knew your grandmother, you were never aware of the turmoil that your mother and uncles grew up in. Given that you were one generation removed from the narrative that you created for Must Read After My Death, thereby affording you a more objective perspective, how might you and your team have approached the film had you grown up in that household? How involved were your mother and uncles in the process of making this film? How did they react to your wanting to make the film, and what was their reaction to the final product?
MD: I'm not sure I could have made this film had I grown up in that household. Even one generation removed, it was a hard film for me to make. One of the tricks I used in order to tell this story was to pretend that the people in this film, my family, were in fact fictional characters. It became clear to me early on that everything I knew about the family and all the wonderful stories I had were completely useless. The only stories that counted were the ones in those tapes and dictaphone records. The only voices I could use where those voices from the past, so much more powerful than anything anyone could tell you about it today.
Once I accepted this premise, things got much easier. It was as if I was writing a work of fiction; I had only to listen hard to my characters and they would tell me what their stories were.
I'm working on a film about the years I spent in Spain, about my friends and loves. It's made out of all of our home movies. Even though it's going to be a fictional romantic comedy/road movie, it's quite difficult to distance yourself from your onscreen self. It's a bit like the hypothetical film you're suggesting.
There's nothing traumatic or shocking about the material and it's all being twisted fictional, but still, we're dealing with real images. Its working title is Friends of Paco. I guess I'll have a better idea how to answer the question how would I make a film if it were my about my own life when I'm finished.
The question about how my family was involved and reacted is one everyone is interested in. It's almost the first thing you ask yourself when you watch the film. So here's the story...
When I first heard all the tapes, I realized there was a great film in there. I wasn't sure what it was, but I was sure I could find out. So I went to my family and told them I wanted to make a film and that I wanted them to sign releases to use the material they're in. They sort of looked at me and said, "No." Then they backed up and said that they weren't saying "No" to my making a film, they were just saying "No" to signing off on it sight unseen. What they said was, "Make your movie, and then we'll decide whether we think it's OK or not."
That put me in an odd position. On the one hand, that made it very difficult to fund the film. But on the other hand, I had 50 of the worst hours of the worst moments of the worst years of their lives. I wouldn't have let someone make a film if it had been about me. I had given them all copies of all the tapes, but they were unable to listen to them, they were just too traumatic. So really, their position seemed pretty generous.
Anybody who makes a documentary is taking their subjects' stories and lives into their hands, and you have a responsibility to tell those stories in a way that the subjects think is fair. In my case, these are people I love. So it was pretty easy to say OK, I'll make the film I want to make and if they aren't OK with it, I'll make changes. I wound up having to finance the film myself anyway, so while a few people told me I was crazy, there was no one to stop me.
One thing we established pretty early is that they didn't want me to use the family name in order to preserve a modicum of anonymity. That was pretty simple to arrange. While I was making the film and listening to the tapes, I was constantly calling up my mother and my uncles to ask them what this or that meant, what story was being referred to, etc. By the time I had something to show them, they had a pretty good idea of what my approach was.
When I had a solid rough cut I sent them DVDs and I waited...and they were all really impressed. They thought the film was beautiful and fair and captured the honesty of the situation. They gave me permission and signed the releases. They also gave me some very helpful feedback on my way to the final film. Since the film has come out, it's really got the family talking about these things for the first time.
IDA: The film has garnered a lot of accolades in festivals in Europe--probably more than in the US. Talk about the audience reactions in Europe vs. those in the United States--what resonates most for each audience?
MD: I've been so thrilled with response to the film in general. I think on the one hand, Europe really loves a good story about the rotten core of the American Dream.They just can't help themselves. I say that with a great deal of love, having spent most of my adult life living in Europe. It's also true that it's easier to accept lessons that come from afar.
The other thing was the just timing and luck. We started off in Europe. By the time we had our US premiere at Film Independent's wonderful Los Angeles Film Festival, we had found a distributor in Gigantic and were already gearing up to release the film. I would have really loved to have the same kind of long festival run in the US that we had in Europe, but the focus had changed, and I can't tell you how happy I am that it did!
I have to thank Rachel Rosen from LAFF for being the first real champion of the film in the US. She really got the film and that was just so incredibly gratifying for us. They also treated us so well there, and the audiences were just spectacular.
IDA: I understand that Must Read after My Death will be made into a feature film. Are you participating in the production--say, as a consultant, or producer?
MD: I'm going to be a producer on the film as well as a consultant in so far as they need me. I think for this kind of thing it's really important for me to step out of their way and let them really own their version of the film and the story they want to tell. I'm taking my participation as a learning experience.
This is something else that came out of being at LAFF and just seemed meant to be. Apart from doing a filmmaker retreat and taking us all up to Skywalker Ranch for a few days just to hang out and make friends with the other filmmakers at the festival and meet more experienced filmmakers, they also organized lunches in LA. They paired all the filmmakers up with somebody they thought would be a good fit.
In my case it was lunch with Alan Poul, who was directing and executive producing Swingtown. I came down to their Van Nuys soundstage while they were shooting the last episode. I got a tour of the stages and watched them shoot a scene. We had a great lunch and Alan promised to let me know what he thought of my film when he finally had time to watch it.
I got an e-mail three weeks later saying that he had really loved it and asking if I had thought of adapting it for a dramatic feature. My executive producer Alison Palmer Bourke always said there would be interest in an adaptation, so I was prepared. I said I had absolutely no interest in making the film over myself, but that I would be thrilled if someone else wanted to (hoping it might be him).
A week went by and he still couldn't get the film out of his head, so he asked if he could show it to a writer and if they were interested, develop it for Alan to direct. That writer turned out to be Craig Wright, and he was interested too. Well, six months go by and finally our lawyers hammer out an agreement. Craig comes out to the opening of the film in New York, and it turns out that not only are we neighbors in the West Village, but we are neighbors across an alley and our living room windows are only ten feet apart!
I just went to see his amazing play The Unseen last night and am completely thrilled that he's writing the dramatic adaptation of my film!
Thomas White is editor of Documentary magazine.