The Making Of
Immy Humes reflects on working with family members as subjects, missed opportunities and how a spouse can be the pathway to a great interview.
What led you to make this film?
When my father was dying in 1992, I was already a documentary filmmaker. I was so sad to be losing him and so glad to have some time with him in the hospice—and I was suddenly struck that someone should make a film about him. And then I realized that I was the only person in a position to do it!
I started then and there, just shooting a little—and that’s when he made the money-back guarantee that opens the film: “Anyone who wants to see this film for free can get his money back!”
So, it was a way of cheating death, at first, which is really one of the most fundamentally magical things about movies—any film is by definition a time capsule, of course, a way of capturing the now forever.
What were some of the challenges you faced in making this film?
I found this film deeply challenging, for many reasons: most of all, finding the funding. I am grateful to public television, as I don’t think anyone else would have funded it. The ITVS funding was too little for what I wanted to do, but it was much more than I would have gotten anywhere else.
How did you gain the trust of the subjects in your film?
Most of the people who gave interviews were happy to talk about Doc. Some people needed convincing, but essentially I wore them down; Norman Mailer was the best example of that. I asked him maybe six times until he finally agreed. (And that was because his wonderful wife helped make my case.)
Was it a different experience to make a film about a close family member, rather than a subject who is not a relative? If so, how?
It’s very different in some obvious and fundamental ways. The painful parts of his story are still, sometimes, painful to me. That happens in other films too, but perhaps it’s more acute. Dealing with my sisters and mother as interview subjects brings many special challenges—mostly you want them to be happy with the film so you worry about all kinds of things that you might not otherwise worry about quite so much.
It was more surprising to me how in many ways the challenges were the same as any other film. The artistic, narrative challenges especially: just working and working until the story builds and flows in the right way, is just like with any other film.
What didn’t get included in your film that you would have liked to?
Oh, so many things!! Many people, from Alan Ginsberg (who died before I could ask him for an interview) to others who gave me great interviews but who I couldn’t fit into the time allotted. There was lots of shading and subtleties, as well as darker and also funnier stuff. That’s why I have a longer version of the film; it’s 96 minutes, [that] is played in theaters and will be available on DVD. It includes much more stuff, from Norman Mailer stabbing his wife to Gerald Ford on heroin (according to Doc)!
Were there any technical challenges you faced while shooting, and if so, how did you resolve them?
Just in terms of how to shoot cheaply and intimately, but still have it look and sound good. Sometimes we did that very well and sometimes—well, ‘nuff said.
What has the audience response been so far? Have the people featured in the film seen it, and if so, what did they think?
The response has been phenomenal. Really. All filmmakers say that, don’t they? But it has been great to see how many different kinds of people relate to the film: young and old, white and black, men and women, conservative and not. I’ve been especially glad that people who’ve loved mentally ill people have been moved by it and consider it valuable.
The people in the film, with one important exception, are pleased by how it all came out I think. That exception is Peter Matthiessen, who in the film spoke for the first time publicly about having been a CIA agent back in the 1950s when he was founding The Paris Review with my father and the rest. That’s a long story, and you’d have to talk to him.
The independent film business is a difficult one. What keeps you motivated?
Why did you choose to present your film on public television?
Public television is our only hope, although it may be dying before our very eyes.
What didn’t you get done when you were making your film?
I didn’t pay my bills. Forget about saving for anything: a house, a retirement account, a life. Get out your tiny violins, right?