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A Midwife's Tale | Behind the Scenes

Behind the Scenes

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Laurie Kahn-Leavitt

Laurie Kahn-Leavitt

Raising money for "A Midwife's Tale"
Raising the money for this film probably took as much time as making this film, as is the case with most small budget, independent films. And it was a slow process. It began with an idea, obviously, reading the book and having an idea, and then going to State Arts and Humanities Councils; and Tom's of Maine, the toothpaste people; and little family foundations that gave me research money and development money. And I spent a lot of time in archives and reading books and all the rest, speaking with scholars. Then went to the National Endowment for the Humanities for scripting money, and back to them again when the script was finished for production money. And they gave me -- they loved the script. They said, "We absolutely adore the script, but we've never seen a film like this one before, I mean, you know, one that evolves from a documentary into a drama and that interweaves the past and the present. And prove to us you can do this thing." So we then did a test real, went back to the NEH, and they gave us the biggest grant they gave to a media project that year, but it wasn't enough to shoot the film. And then a couple of months later, the American Experience came in and gave us what we needed to get back into production. And then in post-production, I raised some other matching funds to the NEH grant. I mean it's a long process of proposal writing at different stages of the game.

Actress, Kaiulani Sewall Lee
Kaiulani Lee, who plays the role of Martha Ballard, I think is a really brilliant and physically expressive actress. And we were looking -- at the very beginning, Dick and I started looking at sort of who would be -- who should be Martha, what kind of a person. And there was a lot of pressure to go with a big star, someone who is a household name. And we decided pretty early on we didn't want that because then Martha would be seen as so and so's latest role, you know, Meryl Streep in her latest role, rather than this anonymous person from the past who has been made real by Laurel Ulrich. And we were looking for a very non-modern combination of warmth and reticence. And it was interesting. We must have auditioned 50 really accomplished actresses looking for Martha, mostly out of New York City, but from some other places, and looked at audition tapes of people from around the world, actually. And even Mary Tyler Moore's agent sent in her head shot. There aren't good roles for older women out there. And the women -- the actresses who came to audition, the ones who understood the warmth in Martha's role, tended to tip into sentimental. And the ones who understood the reticence in Martha's character tended to go cold. And Kaiulani came in and she just nailed it.

And what's interesting -- and this is not why we cast her -- what's very interesting is that her middle name is (Sewall), Kaiulani Sewall Lee. And she is related to all the Sewalls in the diary, and there are lots of Sewalls. The opening birth in the film is Tabitha Sewall. 

The relationship between filmmaker and scholar
I was blessed on this project with fabulous advisors. I mean the most important, obviously, being Laurel, who trusted me with her book, and trusted me with her material, to sort of make it something different. I mean you can't make -- a film is a completely different medium than a book. And she understood that even though she didn't know a lot about films. She knows quite a bit now. But she trusted me to sort of run with it and worked closely with me, and ultimately with me and Dick, and the production designer, and the costume person, and the prop person. And, you know, she was very involved. And she is a wonderful collaborator, so I was blessed. And my board of advisors was a sort of who's who in -- I like to call them my main mafia. You know, it's like the who's who of people who know about history in this period. And they also all were very -- they gave me enough room, but I think because I have a background in academia, I know how to talk with academics maybe more than the typical film maker does. So I was able to get really great advice when I needed it, and try things out on them and bounce ideas off of them. But they also were really good about recognizing that I was -- that Dick and I were the film makers. So their advice was historical advice, not film making advice.

And I think where some of these partnerships between scholars and film makers fall apart sometimes is that the film makers don't know how to ask questions and get useful info out of the scholars, and the scholars sometimes think that they're making the film. So I was blessed. I was very lucky. I had a great group of scholars. And then there was an informal sort of network of dozens of other people who were advisors to the project, and historical societies, and sort of hobbyists and scholars from Art Schrader, who used to be at Sturbridge, who knows a ton about popular music of the period, which was really important, in addition to Steve Marini, who was officially on my board who knows about the religious music of the period and religion. I mean his specialty is religion and religious music. And Art could tell me about all the secular music. I mean there were just all these other people who knew about Tom Johnson, who is now at Old York Historical Society, who, you know, used to be head of Maine Citizens for Historic Preservation, and he helped me scout a lot, you know, for locations and taught me a lot about what buildings were and weren't in Maine and why things have survived from 200 years ago.

Historical accuracy in the film
As Laurel says at the beginning of this film, the story is in the details. And it was really important for us to get them right. And there's sort of different kinds of details, and some of them we actually can know about, I mean things like what did Ephraim Ballard's maps look like when we make a replica, and that's on the set; what did Martha Ballard's diary look like, we make replicas; what did the newspapers look like when someone's reading one in a tavern scene. You know, we made replicas of stuff. Anything that we knew about, we would just make a replica of it. But then there is sort of the gray zone, and then the much more gray zone, I mean the sort of even fuzzier zone. There's, first of all, the kind of easier gray zone of having to extrapolate from what we do know about things like costume. I mean we know from portraits what the wealthy people wore. But the people who -- the other 90 percent of the population couldn't afford to have their portraits taken. So you've got to assume from what we know in Martha's diary, we know what they were weaving, we know what materials they bought at the store. So you can sort of get a sense of what mix of store bought cloth and homespun there was in that house. And we really paid attention to that. And so that there is some imported English fabric that's in the costumes, but most of it's homespun in that house and in other houses. And the wealthier people have a bit more of the imported stuff. And we paid a lot of attention.

When we then designed the costumes of the people who weren't wealthy enough to have their portraits taken, the costume designer, who was really imaginative, a woman named Kim Druce, would really think about the character of that person. I mean if you put people into Gap jeans, modern people, they don't all wear them the same way. People have their own idiosyncratic quirks and ways of wearing things and ways of combining things. I mean clothing is a way of expressing yourself. So she would then sort of get herself into the head of the character and dream up sort of things that might be ways that person really would dress so that there's that kind of gray zone, which is interesting and a lot of fun to be inventive with. Likewise, with household implements, you know, what things were in the house. I mean we covered a 27-year span. So we had to know about changes in technology of things in the household, changes in fashion, you know, different styles of teapots at different points, different styles of pens, I mean so that things had to change over 20 -- we had to, first of all, get it right and it had to change in sort of the right way, so all these objects had to be right, and all these buildings had to be right. And styles of architecture changed a bit over 27 years. So there was a lot of research, again, into what we know about mostly the high-end, the top 10 percent, where there are houses that survived, there are objects that survive in museums. But you have to extrapolate to what the rest of the population might have been able to afford. Fortunately, there are probate records and inventories of estates when people died, just like there are today. And so we have these lists which we used.

In the meetings with the scholars, in talking with the production designer about what does this place look like, what is it filled with, what kind of houses, what kind of objects do these people have, we sat with all these real probate records in front of us with lists of, you know, I'd have to read them to you but they're really -- they're quite fun to read. It's like the estate of Thomas Sewall or the estate of somebody Savage. And it says three spotted cows, four oxen, you know, seven pigs, four chairs of a slightly damaged, you know, and then ten pots and two ladles and all this stuff. So we had a sense of what stuff was really in those houses in Hallowell, Maine. And, again, the same way the costume designer was thinking about how do people really live in clothes, the production designer thought about how do people really live in houses. And if you walk into a house in the 1990s, you don't see all 1990s stuff. And it's a mistake that film makers often make where, you know, a '50s set is just all '50s furniture. No. I mean people keep old stuff. They inherit stuff. They have kind of a mish mosh. And the people who are more fashion conscious might have a little more of the latest. So she also put herself in the heads of -- Nancy Denner put herself in the heads of the kinds of people who were in each of these houses that we were creating to figure out what kind of a mix of inherited stuff and new stuff they might have and how that changed over 27 years as styles changed. So it was a huge challenge. But that's what I call the kind of easier gray zone.

Then there's the really difficult gray zone. And the really difficult gray zone are the things which we have very little evidence for, like dialect, how do these people speak. I must have spoken to -- I read lots of articles, I spoke to lots of experts. They don't agree. So what do you do? And they all basically sort of turned to me and Dick and said, "Well, you guys decide." Well, you know, it's like I'm not a scholar. So we knew that we wanted something that was quite foreign, but comprehensible. And what we ended up doing is using Martha's phonetic spelling as our best guide. For example, Martha spells daughter, D-A-F-T-E-R. And it was thought that that pronunciation, like laughter, L-A-U-G-H-T-E-R, we now spell it D-A-U-G-H-T-E-R but pronounce it daughter. But laughter is laughter. And that pronunciation of daughter, it was thought that it had died out about 50 years before Martha's diary. And we figured, well, if she writes it like that, she probably said it like that, because all of her other spelling is phonetic. So we picked up like fatigued and things like that. We know that the E-Ds were often pronounced in this period. And we were fortunate that there was a guy named Len Travers who got an NEH grant, spent time in England researching dialect to teach the people at Old Plymouth Plantation their accents. So he really thought a lot about accent and dialect and he had just finished writing an article on 18th Century Maine. I mean it was just serendipitous. So we had all these different people with different ideas of what they sounded like, but we went with Len's ideas because, first of all, he had experience training people to speak it. He had trained people in Plymouth, all those people who were in the village. And we wanted someone who could really work with the actors. So Len became our advisor on accent. And we changed. You know, between the test reel and the real film, we actually switched because the accent that we used in the test reel, people said sounded a bit Irish to them, which some of these vowel sounds are a little bit, to our ears, a bit Irish. So we decided, we said to Len, "Look, whatever the evidence is, let's pull back and go a little more down East." You know, so we just fiddled with it.

And then there were the questions like also in the very sort of difficult gray zone are questions about behavior. How close did these people stand to each other when they talked to each other? I mean that is a cultural thing. You go into different societies and different cultures and sometimes they stand a lot further apart and it feels very foreign and alienating, or they stand too close and it's uncomfortable. We don't know. Or when Martha went to examine a minister during the scarlet fever epidemic, would she have opened his shirt? Would she have looked in his throat? Clearly, she would have done that for women and children. And this question came up on the set in the middle of the freezing cold, Staten Island set where we did the epidemic sequence. And the actors turned to -- the actress, Kaiulani, turned to Laurel, and me, and Dick, and said, "What do I -- you know, do I open his shirt?" And Laurel and I ended up going to a cold pay phone on a corner in Staten Island and calling up a couple of her colleagues, you know, these are the most famous people in early American history, saying, "What do you think?" This is very interesting. The men all said, "I don't think that she would have opened his shirt." And the women all said, "Of course she would have opened his shirt." So we shot it both ways and decided in the editing room.

But there were just lots of areas that are beyond what anybody who is a responsible historian will guess. I mean, you know, they will say -- another good example is Martha writes "Mrs." in her diary, for a married woman. But we know that this is a period of transition, when they used to say Mistress. And after Martha's diary, they said Mrs. for sure. So what did the people in Hallowell say, and what should Martha say when reading her own diary. She's a very traditional, very old fashioned person who is upset by the changes in society around her. And would she have stuck to mistress. And, initially, Laurel and I decided she probably would have stuck with mistress, and we spoke to a lot of people about this. But then we were concerned that people might confuse that with a hierarchical sort of feudal thing about mistress and master, and so we told her to just go for Mrs. But we worked things out. You know, it had to work in the film. We got as much evidence as we could. But we just ultimately had to make the best guess we could. Or we know that Martha put onions on feet to draw out a fever. And so I'd written it in the script, you know, Martha applies an onion to this child's foot. Well, are they raw? Are they cooked? Did she put them on the top of the foot, the bottom of the foot? I mean what does she do? Applies onion. I mean I didn't know. So I ended up speaking to ten herbalists, modern day herbalists, to say, "Do you ever use onions with fevers on feet and what do you do?" And just there's a zillion examples like that. But on questions of behavior and accent, those are the hardest to guess.

What comes next
Well, that's a great question. Because this film is this very unusual hybrid of drama and documentary, I could really go in either direction at this point. And a lot of people out in L.A. really like this film. I mean Jodie Foster's production company, (A) Pictures, had a screening and all the distributors came. And then it made its rounds of the major studios even, which tickled my funny bone. And they all say, "Come back to us with your next thing." Talk is cheap in L.A., so I don't know. And they also say you've got to do a drama next because if you do a documentary next we'll just kind of give up on you as a hopeless documentarian. But I know the documentary world better. That's where I've come from. I do know that whatever my next film is, it will be based on a true story in the past. Whether it's a doc or a drama, I think it depends mostly on what material I've got to tell the story and what way of telling it would be most effective. And then I also have to think about who is going to fund it. So I have about 30 books in my office. I've got about ten ideas which I've had for years and I need to spend the time to read the books to sort of immerse myself in the material to decide, first of all, what do I want to spend another couple of years of my life with, and maybe more than a couple. Who knows? I hope it's not six again. And which of them can I sell, which of my ideas will really be saleable? So I don't know what's next yet. I had thought that I would know by now, but the work it takes to distribute and publicize a film, and the marketing, it's much more work than I imagined it would be.

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Laurel Thatcher Ulrich

Laurel Thatcher Ulrich

How the diaries survived
Well, I think the diaries went to the daughters. And they sort of surfaced again in the historical record in the 1870s when two of Martha's granddaughters give the diary to a descendent named Mary Hobart. And she thinks -- let me kind of say that more succinctly. The diaries pass sort of from mother to daughter until the late 19th century when Martha's great great granddaughter, Mary Hobart, who is a doctor, she's a physician at Boston Hospital for Women, receives the diaries. And she says, "I thought that I had inherited the mantle of my gifted ancestor." So this Dr. Hobart, who was a single woman, an early professional, an obstetrician working in an urban hospital, took care of those diaries until she became elderly. And in the 1930s, worried about the safety of the diaries in her wooden house and handed them onto the Maine State Library in Augusta.

Why Martha Ballard kept a diary
I think it probably started as a record of births, a part of her work, and then kind of grew from there. It might also have started as little notations in an almanac. And rural people did that a lot. I mean you need to remember when it froze last year, and when you planted, and just little things like that. The structure of the diaries suggests that it may have come from an almanac. But then I think the practice of writing transformed the diary and it became a way of sort of shaping an identity, a way of accounting for the worth of one's day, a way for jogging memory about important things. It really became a source of structure in a way in her life. We can tell from the diary that she went back and re-read parts. She occasionally refers to earlier events and there are some things, places where she added notes later in the diary. So she used it. It was an active work-a-day diary, to do with her work as a midwife, to do with her planting and weaving and other household activities. Then it became a kind of friend to her. And the diary changes. After her daughters leave home, it becomes a much more -- I don't think it ever becomes a real introspective diary, but after her daughters leave home it becomes a place where she can record feelings and not just what happened.

Women diarists in early America
Yes, there is a way of knowing. There are very few diaries left by women of her generation. And there are a lot of diaries starting just after the American Revolution, they tend to be kept by young girls. The education is improving for women. Very few diaries that are sustained over several decades, as hers is, and there's a good reason for that, because in Martha's generation, she's born 1735, you know, maybe only 30, 40 percent of rural women can sign their names, let alone keep a diary. Education is improving in her lifetime. It improves remarkably. But it's rare.

Martha Ballard's education
Martha doesn't tell us how she was educated, but she writes in a cursive hand and probably she learned in a country school. There was the beginning, in her generation, of an effort in some small towns to give a primary education to girls. But more important, I think, she comes from a family that values education. Her younger brother, Jonathan Moore, actually attended Harvard, became a minister, became a librarian, I think, for a time at the college, and then went on to be a minister in Rochester, Massachusetts. And it's possible that there was some kind of private tutoring in her family. Her mother isn't able to sign her name. In the few documents that she left, she signs with a mark. But Martha clearly is. And some scholars believe it's really Martha's generation when more and more women learn rudimentary writing. In the -- let me back up -- in the 17th and 18th century, girls were often taught to read, but not to write. So when we talk about literacy in that period, we're talking about something a little more complex than when we talk about it today. So children were taught often to read the Bible, but not to write. Writing is an active thing. And it's really associated with craft, with certain occupations, with the male role as head of the household, as owner of property. And the assumption was girls didn't need that skill. They were taught to sew.

Martha Ballard's midwifery skills
We don't know how Martha learned to be a midwife. And I can guess that on the basis of the diary, because the diary describes a world in which each birth was attended by a number of people, neighbors, relatives, friends. It's a world, I call it social childbirth. So she learned by doing, by observing, by participating. I have a hunch that it was probably a female member of her family that was a midwife. It could have been a mother, a grandmother. No records survived so we don't know about her. But her brother-in-law was a physician. She had an uncle who was a physician. And sometimes midwives appear in the same families as male doctors. But as they don't leave records, we don't know if they exist. We wouldn't know Martha was a midwife if she hadn't kept this diary.

The relationship between the midwife and the doctor
Well, from the vantage point of Martha's diary, the relationship between midwives and physicians is generally cordial. There's a real division of labor. Doctors are part-time. They have some kind of book learning. They come in in emergencies. They do things like draw blood or set bones. There's not a whole lot the physicians could do in this period, and the day-to-day sort of primary health care is really done at the household level and by village specialists of various kinds, often women. This changes in Martha's lifetime. In the late 18th, early 19th century, the beginnings of professionalization of medicine can be seen even in country towns. And the conflict that she has with Dr. Page is, in part, a consequence of the fact that he's a young kind of upstart who is not happy with this sort of part-time expert role, but wants to be a full-time practitioner and earn his living by medicine in a very good way to ensure continuous practices to deliver babies. So there is a shift in the nature of the profession that doesn't really threaten Martha a lot because she is so well established and so good at her work, but it's going to make it difficult in the early 19th century in towns like hers for younger women to enter the field.

Why Martha Ballard's family relocated to Maine
I think that Martha and Ephram moved to Maine for the reasons that New Englanders had been moving in every generation since the initial settlement, and that is there's land. You've got lots of kids; how are you going to set them up? There were opportunities opening up. And because Ephram Ballard was a surveyor, he had done some surveying in Maine. He had seen some of that land. He saw possibilities there and hoped to provide new opportunities for his sons especially.

The relationship between the scholar and the filmmaker
Well, I learned about that motto of the history police. I learned that the professional crew on the film feared the presence of a scholar because often scholars -- we're very picky. We're very nitpicky. We want everything to be documented. And there's a whole lot of stuff that we don't know that we have to -- and when we don't know things, we don't like to guess. And so it probably just absolutely drives people crazy. You have to make a decision on the spot and make something happen to have somebody say, "Well, it might be this. It might be this. I've got to go read ten books and figure out that." And it's another world. I mean the world of teaching and scholarship, it can be a world of exploration of ideas. But the world of film is about telling a story and doing it in a vivid and concise way. I love interdisciplinary work. I really felt like the process of making the film was an encounter with another view of the world, another kind of language, another take on the material that I loved. So I wasn't -- I actually welcomed the differences between filmmaking and history writing. What was very tense for me was being in the film because I was in the film and also a consultant to the film. So I felt like in some way my presence in the film made me responsible for what was on the screen. And that was uncomfortable: A) because it wasn't always my approach, you know, it was someone else's project, not mine; and B) because there was a lot I didn't know. So that was resolved I think in a really wonderful way for me by the whole concept of the film. For me to be able to say I'm, you know, right there with Martha Ballard, big as life on the screen, I don't know what Martha Ballard looks like, helped me to establish a distance between what I can do as a scholar and what the filmmaker was doing. And I think that was an important part of the message of the film that history is a reconstruction and that we can have areas of things we don't know and that we don't have this magic time machine that can take us into the past, that we have to earn the right to not only to write the things we do about the past, but to present things in a documentary about the past. And I loved that about the film. It was hard. There were lots of disagreements and arguments and struggles. But I think that's how creative work is done.

The reaction of colleagues to the film
When I'm asked what I think about the film, I always begin by expressing my admiration for the filmmakers. And I really do think it's a beautiful film and I like it a whole lot. I also think it's not the same story as the written -- the book version of "A Midwife's Tale," that it's a different story. And I think that's valid and important. If I were to comment on, from my point of view as an author, the difference between the film and the book, I think the film is a little darker. And I think it's darker because a film is inherently dramatic. And so the filmmakers really had to go for episodes that told stories. In the book, I had the freedom to be more analytic. And the kind of up part of the book that many people appreciate is the story of a rural society in which women worked and produced and made a difference through barter and trade and household production and health care. And it's kind of hard to convey those things dramatically. And it was very difficult in the film. And I think probably Laurie and Dick would agree that there's a lot missing in the film. It's hard to convey a community in the film when you have a limited budget and only so many stories you can tell and only so many characters you can introduce. What I tried to convey in the book was the complexity of a community. That's probably not totally in the film. It's suggested in the film. The other thing that I think isn't in the -- is in the film, the other thing that I think is in the film and wonderfully and that I'm very excited about is the -- that isn't in the book, and can't be in the book, is the encounter with the primary document itself, the diary. There can be a photograph of the diary in the book, but the film conveys the physicality of the diary, the process of diary writing, and you actually see the texture of the paper and the ink and it's not fake paper, it's the real paper, it's the diary. And that, to me, is really exciting and almost worth doing the film, just to feel that people could see that document and to have some sense of it and what it meant to keep a record day after day for 27 years.

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