POV: How did you get started on this film, and did your opinion of the romance community change at all as a result?
George Csicsery, director of Where the Heart Roams: I was not in the community — I initially got involved as a journalist. I covered a few small conferences and then a big one in 1981, writing an article for a womens magazine called Savvy, which I don’t think is around anymore. I’ve actually used this technique for other films, turning to a print medium as a way to subsidize my research, and also to see if a story holds water and is worthy of a film. By publishing these two articles, I got to know the writers and characters who eventually appeared in the film, and meeting them convinced me that a film could be made.
The actual subject and narrative arc of the film was handed to me by Chelley Kitzmiller, who appeared in one of my articles and told me that she was organizing this train. A train has natural story structure — especially a train going from Los Angeles to New York. There was a natural beginning, middle and end. What could be more of a lucky narrative thread than a railroad track?
At first I wanted to make a general sociological film about this community, this huge phenomenon in our culture. I was hoping to highlight the story through my journalism as a backlash, or a counteridea about women, because there was a very strong feminist streak at the time that wanted to claim that women were not like this — women were much tougher and didn’t care about this stuff, which was a false and a very thin ideology. It permeated the mainstream, and people thought that women in general were this way, but here was a world that defied that. I wanted to say that these people are not living in your university fantasy. They are developing their own fantasies and maybe not in ways that you would like. They didn’t fit the contemporary political drumbeat. Ironically, the film is commonly used in women’s studies courses today. It exactly reached the audience I was after, and I was surprised more than anyone else to have that happen.
There was a deeper motive for making the film when I look at the questions I was immersed in. I was looking into how people addressed loneliness and I think this story fits into that, and provides some answers — escapism and finding alternate universes to face grim reality. I felt that was a more important idea than just the political one.
POV: Where is Chelley today?
Csicsery: Chelley became an author and is continuing to thrive. She has a whole line of Western romances and fairly seriously historically researched. I came into contact with her again by chance when I was doing some research, because she wrote a book on the bandit Joaquin Murrieta, which was a big success. We had a meeting about that a few years ago in the town she lives in in California where she owned a bookstore for a while and now writes these romance novels and nonfiction. She’s really done something — she’s found a niche and its one of several different professions she’s pursuing. [She’s] also very active in animal rescue.
POV: Was it easy to gain the trust of your subjects, or were they hesitant?
Csicsery: The fact that I researched and wrote for magazines helped a lot. My articles on the subject appeared previously and the subjects could see how I treated them. Therefore, it opened them up and convinced them that I wasn’t out to make fun of them or exploit them in some way. This technique has been valuable for me — researching a subject with a print outlet in mind, then showing it to individuals so they can see how I treat it. I’ve done that three or four times.
I don’t know if I have the print outlets today — the magazines are not as available so I’m not sure if I could repeat that today.
POV: What was the biggest challenge you had in making the film?
Csicsery: The film logistically was not much of a challenge, but we were forced to work with extremely small amounts of money. You can imagine with a subject like this that funders wrote saying they were only interested in films with serious literature, not romance novels. The film was shot in 16mm, and you can’t shoot as much footage as you like unless you are really loaded. The 81-minute film was based on, possibly, as little as 14 hours of footage. Today that’s crazy for people, but back then when you shot an interview you would rehearse — you would ask a question then say, “OK, let’s shoot that!” or “Can you give me a shorter version?” The cameraman would just sit there waiting, not in every case, but in many cases that was the approach. It made life easier for editors because they were dealing with a smaller quantities of footage and most of it was good material.
POV: What do you hope people take away from the film 25 years after it was made?
Csicsery: I think the ways that people create escapes are just as valid today as they ever were. I’m interested in how people face and escape reality, and there’s nothing that’s changed in that respect. I think it’s perhaps more difficult to keep these escapes because reality intrudes into our lives all the time through the increases in technological sophistication. It’s harder for people for forge a coherent narrative fantasy because its being preyed upon by all of the intrusive media in their lives. This film was made before people were using computers, cellphones, Twitter and Facebook, and you have to look at it that way when watching it.
POV: Where has your career led you since making Where the Heart Roams>?
Csicsery: My next big documentary resulted in a big career change even though I didn’t see it coming. It was a film called N is a Number, about Paul Erdös, which is a film about a mathematician that’s been aired in the United States for about eight or nine years now. Ever since then, I have essentially been hijacked by the math community. I’ve been making biographies of mathematicians and stories about mathematics, and that’s been pretty constant since the late 90s.
I made a doc about the Oakland police called The Thursday Club. I also spent about eight years working on a film about a false-accusation child-abuse case in Pittsburgh called Hungry for Monsters. I just finished a film that took 11 years to make about Transylvanian folk music called Songs Along a Stony Road.
Many of the other films, as I said before, deal with math. The most recent one, which we have yet to premiere to the public, is about a mathematician named Shiing-shen Chern and it’s called Taking the Long View.
More information about these films can be found at the Zala Films website.