Director/Producer Ron Lamothe talks about drinking massive amounts of coffee, mastering the art of the low APR balance transfer and how for Dr. Seuss, idealism and cynicism went hand in hand.
What led you to make this film?
It was more or less circumstance. I was a graduate student of history at the University of Massachusetts, trying to make a film about a rather obscure series of events that took place in Africa during the 1890s (as if breaking into documentary film wasn’t hard enough). In any case, one day at a department colloquium of some sort, Richard Minear—who had recently published Dr. Seuss Goes To War and was one of the first to cast Dr. Seuss and his works in a “political” light—saw me ranting and raving about my Africa film and somehow decided that I was the man to cut together something on Geisel’s editorial cartoons for one of his classes. I had already seen a number of the cartoons from his book and was utterly fascinated by them, and suggested that this little known side of Dr. Seuss would make for an interesting documentary. The project had legs, and before long I was applying for humanities grants and had visions of a PBS broadcast. Little did I know it would take some four years to complete.
What do you hope to achieve with this film?
I hope to come close to achieving that delicate balance sought by every good public historian between academic integrity and entertainment value. Unfortunately, some of the best stories about Dr. Seuss, anecdotes published time and time again in articles and books, turned out not to be true. And yet, just because a film is carefully researched and has some academic merit doesn’t necessarily mean that it can’t also be well-crafted and entertaining. But it’s hard to do, and there are always going to be compromises. I’ve tried to tread the line.
How did making THE POLITICAL DR. SEUSS change the way you think about Theodor Geisel and his work? What did you find out about him that you didn’t know before?
It changed my thinking entirely. Previous to this project, my knowledge of Dr. Seuss was extremely limited. I thought of him the way most people tend to—that he was a children’s book author with a great gift for language and whimsy, the man who wrote such wonderfully absurd tales as Green Eggs and Ham and Fox in Socks. I had no idea about the seriousness of his work. I knew nothing of the care he took writing The Cat in the Hat, for example, or any of the background to books like Yertle the Turtle or Horton Hears a Who!. Of course, I also had no knowledge of his blind spots, and the fact that although he later became a champion of racial equality, earlier in his career he often depicted blacks and Asians in racist ways. All of it was a revelation to me, which made the filmmaking journey especially satisfying.
What do you hope audiences will learn from watching your film?
It seems that in the current political environment it is believed that to be critical of the government or society in general is to be too negative—that we should all try to be “optimists” rather than “pessimists.” Dr. Seuss’s career shows that one can be both critical and hopeful, that in fact to accept demagoguery and the status quo is perhaps the most pessimistic thing one can do. He was an idealist at heart—he imagined a better world, and used his considerable talents to make it a better place. Yet he was also somewhat a cynic and curmudgeon (his license plate read “Grinch”), and thus he never let his idealism fog his vision or lessen the stridency of his messages.
How do you think Dr Seuss has influenced cartoonists today?
One thought that comes to mind is that his story is one that encourages cartoonists to remain true to their style rather than trying to imitate others. A Dr. Seuss cartoon is a Dr. Seuss cartoon—it’s obvious the minute you set your eyes on it. And if you look back at some of his earliest cartoons from the 1920s and ‘30s, and compare them to his books some fifty years later, a consistency in content and style is readily apparent. I think of someone like Matt Groening as a more recent example of a cartoonist who, like Dr. Seuss, achieved greatness because of his unique drawing style and biting humor. Just as I see consistency from Dr. Seuss over the years, one can probably trace the essence of what makes "The Simpsons" so brilliant directly back to Groening’s early "Life in Hell" cartoons.
The independent film business is a difficult one. What keeps you motivated?
The alternative. Being a tried and true member of Generation X, I cannot imagine spending my life doing something any less fulfilling.
Why did you choose to present your film on public television?
It seems to me that PBS is one of the only places left on television that doesn’t pander to its audience with “fast food” documentary of little intellectual or artistic value. I never considered anyplace else.
What are your three favorite films?
David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia, Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life, and take your pick of anything by Hal Hartley.
If you weren’t a filmmaker, what kind of work do you think you’d be doing?
Travel writing (a la Paul Theroux).
What do you think is the most inspirational food for making independent film?
Brow-sweat-inducing buffalo wings.
What advice do you have for aspiring filmmakers?
Master the art of the low APR balance transfer.
What sparks your creativity?
Massive amounts of coffee, or running, though not in combination.