POV: How did you come to make this film?
Freida Lee Mock: Right after 9/11, I happened to read an L.A. Times article about Tony Kushner’s new play, which dealt with Afghanistan. It was going to be produced off-Broadway, and it was a play called Homebody/Kabul. It told the story of an unhappy British housewife who becomes enamored with Afghanistan; she leaves her family and goes to Kabul, and the play explores what happened to her. In the process, we as an audience begin to engage with the history of Afghanistan and acquire an understanding of what Afghanistan means to us in the Western world, particularly at a time when 9/11 hadn’t happened, since Tony started the play before then. The play is a kind of a dialogue, in one sense, between Tony and the audience members, about our relationship with Afghanistan and with the Middle East.
I was struck when I read the article, since I was particularly interested in Afghanistan. I thought, “Here is this person who is quite well-known as a gifted playwright. It could be a really interesting story to tell as a film.”
POV: You also made the Academy Award-winning documentary Maya Lin: A Strong Clear Vision (POV 1996). Can you talk about Wrestling with Angels compared with your Maya Lin film?
Mock: In fact, I look at this film as a counterpart to the Maya Lin film. Both are about artists whose works are profoundly social and political in their outreach and who have had a very profound impact on the social and political questions of our times through their work. Maya Lin did it through public memorials; Tony does it through drama and theater. They are both extremely articulate characters. Both have a certain outsider’s perspective, but their impact is very much a mainstream impact. And they both have a sense of responsibility and an awareness of how they can make a difference through their work.
POV: What is it about Tony Kushner that makes him so compelling as a subject?
Mock: The first time I saw Tony was at a graduation ceremony where he was receiving an honorary doctorate. He was told he could speak, but only for one minute. The impact of his one-minute speech on his audience was huge, and I found that kind of response typical during the four or five years I was filming with him. Tony is incredibly engaging, extremely funny, serious and profound, which makes for an interesting combination. He has a real ability to be empathetic with the people he’s engaging with, whether it’s a small group of students or with a larger audience. He often speaks about social and political ideas, and I think that’s very inspiring because he has an ability to give people the sense that we can all do something to make a difference. Ultimately, he is a citizen of the world, as he said; he feels a great responsibility, and he imparts that to whomever he engages.
Somehow Tony has a capacity to reach your soul and your mind and leave people with the feeling “maybe I can make a difference in my small way.” He’s not asking you to change the world, but there’s a quality about the way he sees the world and is able to frame the questions and issues that is very human and engaging.
POV: Do you think that one of the reasons he agreed to do the film was to take that sense of engaging with people a step further?
Freida Lee Mock: I don’t know why he did the film. Actually, I didn’t ask him why he agreed to be filmed because you don’t want your subject to reconsider and say no. When he said yes to me, he just went forward.
Tony is very much a public figure, but I call him a reluctant public figure. Angels in America established him as a major force in drama as well as in the public arena, and there are many people who read his work and follow his work. Maybe having seen my other work, he felt safe in my hands, and he felt that it wouldn’t be embarrassing to be filmed.
He hasn’t actually seen the film. He tends not to read things about himself, and so he just hasn’t watched it. But his family have seen the film, his partner Mark has seen it, his nieces have seen it — and they’ve reassured him that he would like the film.
POV: How much of what happened during the film was a surprise for you?
Did you know that shooting this film was going to be a three- or four-year process?
Mock: Oh, never! I think that most filmmakers think they’ll do a film that might finish in a year and a half. But typically, I find that with these kinds of projects — like Wrestling with Angels and the Maya Lin project — that they take longer once I get into the story. As a filmmaker, I will try to get the big picture by reading a lot to make sure I understand what’s going on. But you never know exactly what’s going to happen until it happens right before you in front of the camera.
I certainly didn’t know that Tony’s dad was turning 80. And that turned out to be an opportunity to go home with Tony to Lake Charles, to the south, and for the audience to understand what influences him as an artist, where his ideas come from and who was profoundly important in Tony’s life.
Also, during the film we see Tony getting married. That was not on the horizon when I talked with him in 2001. Those are the kinds of personal moments that I feel give the audience an understanding of the human underpinning to this artist. Because certainly the wedding is symbolic of Tony’s commitment and activism in the cause of gay rights.
POV: What do you want audiences to get out of this film?
Mock: Well, I hope the audiences have a good time when they watch the film. And I hope they are engaged and inspired by Tony, as I was. People who’ve been around Tony in a public setting are often surprised at how he really touches them. Someone once described him as the most charming dissident around! I also hope the audience can think about the big ideas that Tony addresses in his works: AIDS, class, race, the war on terror, gay and lesbian rights and social justice issues. I hope that those who watch the film can see that it’s also a call for social activism in its own way. It reminds us that we can all do our part.