Director/Producer Laura Gabbert, Producer Caroline Libresco and Producer Eden Wurmfeld talk about meeting Lucille and Irja, hearing about Sunset Hall and the importance of telling powerful stories.
How did you hear about Sunset Hall?
On the same sunny morning in April1998, Laura and Eden opened the front page of The New York Times and found a riveting article about a Los Angeles retirement community—Sunset Hall—where Bingo was banned and the residents regularly stepped out to protest and change the world. Laura and Eden called each other on the phone and agreed that this place would make a fascinating documentary. To research potential story lines, they began volunteering their time and meeting the colorful cast of characters. And the rest is history.
What do you want to achieve with SUNSET STORY? What has the audience response been so far?
Our overall goal is to tell a gripping, emotional, funny and artful story that will ultimately humanize old women for audiences. American society tends to discard/ignore/avoid the elderly—and especially elderly women. SUNSET STORY offers an intimate experience with three-dimensional characters not usually seen onscreen, so we are able to see formerly invisible characters with new clarity and perspective.
We have found that SUNSET STORY has a deep impact on audiences, transporting them through both raucous laughter and profound tears. Because it is character driven, it doesn’t play as “educational,” but rather imparts its unique perspective through a truly entertaining theatrical experience. In this way, people get past their trepidation of watching old people, and become engaged in the story and the characters.
How and why did you choose to profile the people featured in the film? How did you meet and develop a relationship with them, and gain their trust?
Initially, we thought we would make a film about a range of characters living at Sunset Hall: telling their stories would result in a narrative history of the American Left and an exploration of political activism over the last century. But it quickly became clear that the majority of residents were not truly capable of engaging cogently in conversation. Most were suffering from dementia, Alzheimer’s or simply crippling old age. We began to despair, wondering how we would find our story without viable characters. Then, thankfully, Lucille and Irja arrived. They moved in within two weeks of each other and immediately clicked. For our part, we immediately saw they would be our documentary subjects. And then SUNSET STORY began to take on a life of its own.
Have the families of Lucille and Irja seen the film? If so, what were their reactions?
Yes, many members of Lucille and Irja’s families have seen the film. At our Los Angeles Film Festival premiere, both of their sons were present as well as a host of cousins, siblings and friends. All responded very positively and very emotionally. And it was so moving to watch them take in the audience’s adoration and rousing response.
Now that both women are gone, the film is not only a document of, but also a tribute to their lives.
What were some of the challenges you faced in making this film?
Money, money and money. One of the hardest things to do is raise money for a documentary film. Why? It’s really a Catch-22 situation, because without footage in hand, it’s tough to convince investors and funders that you’ve got a worthwhile project. The key is to begin shooting and to edit a sample together so potential financiers can see what you’re going for. But without money, how do you do that?
Because one of our main characters (Lucille) began to get ill, we were faced with the urgent reality of having to either shoot or terminate the project. So we ended up begging, borrowing and stealing from friends and family to finance the shoot and the editing of a sample piece. Ultimately we were able to show the sample to ITVS, which, mercifully swooped in to complete the film.
What was one of the most touching things you experienced in the process of making your film?
Certainly the most moving aspects of making SUNSET STORY was losing one of our characters shortly after we finished shooting.
Was there anything you would have liked to have in the film that didn’t make the final cut?
Oh, lots of stuff! But as they say in the business, “you’ve got to kill your babies.” In other words, you’ve got to let go of some material if you want to end up with a sleek and economical film. In the theatrical version of SUNSET STORY, which runs 16 minutes longer than the PBS broadcast version, there is an entire story line involving Lucille’s son, Paul. Of course this adds a wonderful layer of meaning to the overall film.
The independent film business is a difficult one. What keeps you motivated?
We are driven to tell powerful stories. All three of us feel that a potent story told creatively can help expand people’s minds, move them to new emotional experiences and thereby make the world a more tolerant, more open-minded place.
Making a documentary is both a mysterious and compelling process; it is a dialectic between the filmmakers’ ideas and the reality of the subjects’ lives—one is always both in and out of control, and out of that contradiction can come exciting storytelling discoveries. All three of us like a good challenge: the difficulty of our business keeps us on our toes, which we ultimately enjoy.
Why did you choose to present your film on public television?
Public television, and especially the groundbreaking series Independent Lens, is a place where less formulaic, fresh documentaries like SUNSET STORY can find a thoughtful and receptive audience. We also think it is the right place to reach our natural and wide-ranging constituencies—baby boomers with aging parents, 20-somethings with aging grandparents, political progressives, members of the Jewish and Unitarian communities and women at large.
What are your three favorite films?
Laura: (sorry, couldn’t list just three) The Ice Storm, Nanook of the North, Life and Times of Harvey Milk, The Bicycle Thief, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Klute, 8 1/2, Fanny and Alexander, The Rules of the Game
Eden: Best Years of Our Lives, Raging Bull, Murnau’s The Last Laugh
Caroline: Monsoon Wedding, Secrets & Lies, The Graduate, The Last Waltz, Meredith Monk’s Book of Days
In making SUNSET STORY, we also watched many fine documentaries to glean ideas about story structure, style and aesthetics. Favorite inspirations included the Maysles’ brothers remarkable Grey Gardens; a short fiction film entitled Madame Jacques Sur La Croisette by the wonderful French director Emmanuel Finkiel, which brought exquisite poetry, sensitivity and nuance to the depiction of elders living in Cannes; and of course The Odd Couple, starring Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau.
If you weren’t a filmmaker, what kind of work do you think you’d be doing?
Laura: political work, psychologist
Eden: hands-on work to help those in need
Caroline: therapist or professor (I’m a film programmer in my day job)
What do you think provides the most inspiration for making independent film?
Laura: coffee, inspiring characters, and my collaborators!
Eden: something crunchy, but not when recording sound!
Caroline: an understanding of psychology—what makes human beings (i.e. characters) tick on emotional and spiritual levels
What advice do you have for aspiring filmmakers?
Ask a lot of questions from anyone who knows more than you. Meet lots and lots of people. Stay calm and always be gracious. Be someone they will want to work with when they are next looking to crew up or hire. Don’t let others tell you what stories are important to tell. Most importantly: find great partners and remember that collaboration is the name of the game. Also don’t let anyone tell you that you can make a living from making documentaries. Unless they are talking about reality TV, they are lying. Stop talking about it and start making it. The best way to hone your filmmaking craft is to MAKE a film.
If you could have one motto, what would it be?
Anything is possible.
What sparks your creativity?
Love, openness, relaxation, a sense of urgency to change the world.