Refrigerator Mothers evokes the injustice of the history of mother blame through both somber moments and ironic, satirizing touches. The complex score helps to lend a deeply emotional tone to the film and gracefully ranges from playful to solemn and even mournful. Refrigerator Mothers also draws on archival footage to help create a sense of the era in which vast misunderstandings about autism and its causes were possible. Director and Co-producer David E. Simpson talks about the process of scoring the film and the choice to use home movies and 1950s era advertising footage and educational films.
POV: How did you choose the music in Refrigerator Mothers? Did you have a list of songs you wanted to use and found the appropriate place for them or did you search for songs/lyrics for particular scenes and choose them based on the film?
Simpson: Finding the music composer for Refrigerator Mothers was a fortuitous accident. Audrey Flack, the mother in the film who we see sculpting statues in her studio, mentioned to me that her daughter is a talented musician and maybe we should use some of her songs. In my experience, mothers are not the most reliable judges of their children’s talent, so I am sure that I nodded patronizingly before obliging to take home some of Audrey’s daughter’s CDs.
For the next two weeks I could not stop listening to Hannah Marcus’ music. I was awestruck by its exquisite depth and originality. Hannah’s dark tonalities and cutting wit seemed to harmonize perfectly with the stories we wanted to tell in this film. What is more, Hannah had lived through this story — watching her sister Melissa’s autism and the blame and guilt heaped on her mother turn their family life upside down. This combination of Hannah’s artistic talent and her rich relationship to the subject is what, in the end, gives the film’s score such power and resonance.
Hannah and I started working on the music at a very early stage of editing and went on for several months. Part way through the process her mother Audrey was again instrumental. I had been mainly interested in incorporating Hannah’s instrumental music as opposed to her lyrics, feeling that the use of lyrical songs in documentaries is often problematic. Audrey urged me to get Hannah to write some words. Only the strength and subtlety of Hannah’s poetry emboldened me to go down that road. The resulting songs, I think, are a beautiful and essential part of the film.
POV: Talk about how you have chosen to use the archival footage and the home movies to evoke a sense of your character’s experiences and their social context?
Simpson: From the start, we knew we wanted to include three kinds of archival footage in Refrigerator Mothers: home movies of the mothers and their autistic children, educational films about autism from the 1950s and 60s, and advertising footage that conveys a sense of how women were viewed in that era, especially in relation to children and to their domestic environments.
Collecting and editing this third type of footage was a lot of fun, but ended up proving especially problematic. We had planned, for example, to build a humorous sequence around those iconic fifties images of glamour models lovingly caressing their new Frigidaires (a comment on the roles that housewives were trapped in, as well as an attempt to find humor in the absurd metaphor of the refrigerator mother). I edited several versions of this sequence. In the end, we backed away from including it for a number of reasons. It felt like it was motivated more by the filmmakers’ vision and sense of humor than by anything the mothers said. In addition, I feel that using these sorts of 50s iconic images is becoming increasingly tricky: they are employed so frequently in post-modern filmmaking, from David Lynch to TV advertisements, that their precise meaning in any given instance is at risk of becoming subsumed under a diffuse and facile critique of mid-century culture.