POV: How did you convince Tony Kushner to step in front of the camera?
Freida Lee Mock: I wrote him a letter, as I often do to people I may want to do a film about. I wrote him a letter and sent some of my previous films. Eventually we talked on the telephone and he seemed interested. He lives in New York and I’m in the L.A. area. So I said, “Before we venture on this journey, we should meet.”
Tony Kushner visits the set of the HBO miniseries, Angels in America, directed by Mike Nichols, in Central Park to watch the filming.
I met him in New York while the rehearsal for his play, Homebody/Kabul, was going on. And from there, we began. He said yes to being filmed. And then I filmed him for the next three years. It was a particularly prolific period of his work, so there was a lot to film. Initially when I talked to Tony, he said, “I don’t do much, I just sit and write.” But I knew already that he was very active with his community and was highly sought after as a speaker.
I could tell that there was a tremendous amount of work coming out of Tony, so I thought it would be a great time to be with an artist whose range of works dealt with huge ideas. Tony’s works deal with war and race and class and AIDS, and he takes a look at our moral responsibility in the age of terrorism. He writes about these big ideas, but within very human, small-scale settings, showing people at turning points in their lives. I felt that there was a lot to mine with a film dealing with him.
POV: You also directed the Academy Award-winning film Maya Lin: A Strong Clear Vision (POV 1996), about the architect and artist Maya Lin, who designed the Vietnam War Memorial. Did you write her a letter, too, when you first approached her?
Mock: Yes, I wrote Maya Lin a letter. It’s actually how I start a film most of the time. I said, “I’d like to do a film about an artist and get a sense of your work.” It was not unlike the letter I wrote Tony. It’s almost like a form letter, I think, and it seems to be working, so you just don’t change it. Tony and Maya both called me and said, “Okay, let’s do it.” With Maya, there was less of a dialogue about starting the film; I had more of a dialogue with Tony. But that’s typical, I think, of Maya’s decision making. In her film, she says that she designs in ways not unlike when you drop an egg: It just happens. I think her decision-making process is somewhat similar, and so she just said yes to the film.
POV: How far did you go in terms of opening up Tony’s life for the rest of us to see? Are there boundaries that you thought you couldn’t cross?
Freida Lee Mock filmed Kushner’s father’s 80th birthday party in Lake Charles, Louisana, because she felt it was an important part of Kushner’s story.
Freida Lee Mock: I was able to do what I set out to do, which was to tell a story about a public figure. The film is about an artist and playwright: It’s about someone who has had a really important voice. Therefore, it was never my intention to go and look at “a day in the life of …” or make minute personal details an important part of the film. To the extent that Tony’s private life is in the story, it was meant to help further the understanding of why he is the way he is, both as a playwright and as an activist. So, for example, his wedding was a very private moment, and I had to negotiate that. When I heard about the wedding, I felt that it would be important for that moment to be in the film. As you can see, it was all family and friends. So I had to reassure Tony that we were not going to be intrusive. I said, “Listen, we will use a very tiny camera the size of a baked potato.” But the camera was a little larger than a baked potato, so I was very sensitive about not being this big studio group coming in and interfering. I felt the same way about filming Tony’s father’s 80th birthday party. But, yes, I was pretty much able to film everything I felt was important for the story.
POV: Can you talk about the film stylistically and about the choices that you made in that regard? How did you approach structuring the film?
Mock: The film is woven with huge themes that pop out of Tony’s life and work. I felt it was important to help the audience make sense of all of it because although there’s a lot going on in various periods of his life, there is a strong thematic underpinning to all the things he does. So I was happy that I was able to structure the film in an almost playlike format — there’s a prologue, three acts and an epilogue.
All these sections of the film deal with big thematic ideas, and all the titles are taken from Tony’s own words. The first is his concern with being a citizen of the world. You can see from Homebody/Kabul and his work on Laura Bush that he’s dealing with issues around the Middle East and Afghanistan. He’s very concerned and takes it as his responsibility as a citizen to speak out and to write about those areas. Then the second act deals with the roots of how Tony became who he is. The title of this act is “Mama, I’m a Homosexual, Mama” There you understand how he found his voice by dealing with his sexuality and his need for parental love and finding reconciliation through his writing of Angels in America. Ultimately in the second act, you see his commitment ceremony with his partner, Mark. Finally, the third act chronicles the roots of his activism and his sense of social responsibility, which comes from his life and his family, who are members of a progressive Jewish faith and culture. You can see how that influenced his work, including his profound concern with the Holocaust and his decision to work with Maurice Sendak on the opera Brundibar, which is a wonderful opera, but also tragic, as it was performed by children in the Theresienstadt concentration camp.
Structuring the story was a challenge. How do you take all this material and then have a narrative arc so that the audience feels they’re on a journey? That’s how I set out to create the story, so that as you watch the film you have a sense of going on a ride, and you’ll make discoveries on the way as an audience member.