Listen as host and series executive producer Michael Kantor sits down with Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady, co-directors of Norman Lear: Just Another Version of You (2016). The two veteran filmmakers share their experiences working in the film industry, and most recently with nonagenarian producer Norman Lear as their subject. The documentary is streaming now at pbs.org/americanmasters and is available on DVD, Blu-ray and Digital HD from PBS Distribution.
Rachel Grady: I only know what it’s like to work as a woman, in any way in any, you know, shape or form. So I have nothing to compare it to. So I really I don’t know if guys are have it easier or better or whatever. I know that we are two women that own our own business and I think that has been an advantage for us because there’s two of us, and-
Heidi Ewing: And two women equal one man. [Laughs]
Rachel Grady: Yeah. Two women equal one man. So, you know, and we both are very-
Heidi Ewing: We’re joking.
Rachel Grady: Confident.
Heidi Ewing: We’re being sarcastic.
Rachel Grady: Confident and outspoken so, and we have each other’s backs, so I think that helps a lot in terms of you know, just too much mansplaining happening.
Heidi Ewing: It’s probably better in a meeting. We don’t really know. I mean we’ve never gone undercover as a dude to see what it’s like to see if their budgets are bigger because I’m always assuming that their budgets are higher. But I have no proof of that whatsoever. I can tell you that when we started out there were less men in the field, because there was less money in the field. Now there’s more money, wherever the money is there was more men. So now that there’s a lot more buyers for documentary film and it’s actual business and there’s many more eyeballs and there’s more at stake financially. There’s a lot more men have come into the field that is definitely 100 percent true, and that’s fine. It’s just you know there’s a lot more competition now than there was before, you have to stay on your game, you have to be ahead of the curve, you’ve got to be fresh you’ve got to be paying attention to what’s going on, because there’s a lot of people that want to be doing what we’re doing. And so you know it keeps it keeps you moving and keeps you honest, and it’s a very exciting field. And we love we love doing it. I mean look the numbers, the numbers are the numbers. You know everyone says documentary filmmaking is better for women than it is for men. There are more women making documentaries than are making fiction films, that’s because they’re allowed to make documentary films because, again because the budgets are lower. If you’re if you’re dealing with 15, 50, 60 million dollars most of those budgets are fiction films and they’re going to male directors. It’s not- there’s not a lack of women who want to make fiction movies. There’s a lack of opportunity and this is- we’re the last people to say this out loud, this is absolutely in the in the discourse.
Michael Kantor: I heard you use the word sisterhood. It feels like regardless of the numbers, there’s a real sisterhood within the documentary. You know Susan Lacy ran American Masters, and Sheila Nevins is over at HBO. Across the board when you look at who’s winning awards now there’s a lot of women filmmakers.
Heidi Ewing: It’s great and there’s a lot of female executives in television. Female women can do very well as television executives, seriously across the board. You’ve got you’ve got a lot of powerful women and they’re commissioning films, that has to help. All you want is a fair chance, you want your right- You don’t want special treatment, you just want to get your fair shot. And I think it does help to have a mix of men and women executives up there that are making these decisions. We really, can’t complain we don’t complain, because we have an excellent career and we’ve had one for a long time and we have a lot of opportunities and, pretty much every film we’ve wanted to make, we get to make, we do make. So I think that and there is a lot of young women that approach us at screenings and they’ll call us and e-mail us that are, very- they are inspired because they like our work and they know that we’re a female-owned business and that actually feels great.
Michael Kantor: You did a mentorship thing at Sundance right with a young woman filmmaker?
Heidi Ewing: That’s right. I actually it was women and men but I had three female mentees and, we’re- I’m them helping them make their films. And we do a lot of mentorship, it’s fun, and I do like to mentor women just because I think- ’cause I got to give ’em a leg up give ’em a little more confidence to push ’em out there. The men don’t need the confidence so I- we try to mentor people that that might be a little bit of a boost in order to get herself out there.
Rachel Grady: It really is the confidence. It really is you know. You know I think Heidi and I what we have in common is we didn’t know we weren’t supposed to be confident. Somehow we didn’t- no one told us that.
Heidi Ewing: That’s true [laughs]
Rachel Grady: But you know I see women work for us all the time. People just getting out of college, boys and you know women and young men and the men ask for everything. They really do. They are not scared to ask for more money, to ask for more responsibility, to give their opinion-
Heidi Ewing: To go into the field with us to go on shoots with us.
Rachel Grady: Never, never. There’s never a shy guy. And the women are just don’t ask. And that is advice that I give women all the time, young women all the time because they do reach out to Heidi and I all the time as women business owners. And that is my number one advice which is just don’t be afraid.
Michael Kantor: I read something on line about even within the current administration’s cabinet, women were trying to amplify when someone else would say something by just reiterating to make sure it was heard, which I thought was really interesting.
Heidi Ewing: What’s that?
Michael Kantor: That-
Heidi Ewing: You mean in meetings?
Michael Kantor: Yeah in meetings. Someone would say something, and someone else would kind of reiterate it from a different way to make sure that the idea, a good idea, would be would would land in the same sort of- in the same idea of the confidence.
Heidi Ewing: Yeah speak decisively and put a period at the end of the sentence. Don’t speak and ask a question, say something and be done. These are basic things that men do that you know we we try to teach women who work for us to do the same.
Michael Kantor: Are there other, in particular women filmmakers, whose work you admire and who- or who influenced your own work more more interestingly? You know Amy Berg did a film for us earlier this year. I have a list of a few names: Nancy Buirski, Laura Poitras, Liz Garbus, Susan Lacy- whatever. Is is there anyone where- I remember for instance in my job now as the executive producer, Susan Lacy told me all my Quincy Jones American Masters, the only one I ever worked on, “More poetry.” And that stuck with me it was like, it’s not about a particular story point or pivot point or transition. It’s about finding the poetry in the story. And I’m wondering from your side whether there was anyone who ever told you something like that.
Rachel Grady: Well I, had an experience early early on in my career when Heidi and I were making a film called The Boys of Baraka. It was our first film, and I had always- I loved this film Streetwise, I love it. to this day it’s still something that you know I practically know it by heart. It was- it’s a observational film from the 80’s, and I shared a rough cut with the editor, Nancy Baker, and she came in the next day and she couldn’t- she was overwhelmed with how much she loved the movie and it had never occurred to me that I could do anything that was good enough for her to have that reaction, and it was extremely motivating. And I will- I’ll always remember it.
Michael Kantor: She cut Harlan County didn’t she.
Rachel Grady: She cut- she cut Harlan County, she cut All The Ropes.
Michael Kantor: Yeah.
Rachel Grady: She’s brilliant.
Heidi Ewing: I really enjoy my conversations with Barbara Kopple and Chris Hegedus, and of course part of the D.A. Pennebaker fame, the two of them together. I really only of the last few years have I sort of forged a friendship with those women of- I always kind of kept my distance just out of respect and also not sure what to say to them. And that’s changed in the last few years very naturally. And every now and then we’ll have coffee or we’ll see each other at an event. And I like to sit with them so much and just hear what they’re working on and their perspective about the business. And I don’t know I I- I think they’re very they’re they’re giants in the business for a reason. And I do think I like being around them. Sort of the elder stateswomen let’s call it of the documentary business. And in terms of my other colleagues there is really a sisterhood you know from, you know Liz Garbus and Lucy Walker and Laura, and I mean there’s-
Rachel Grady: Kristi Jacobson.
Heidi Ewing: There’s, yeah, e-mails exchanged and tax and we get together and do things together and it’s just a wonderful group of people that support each other, because all of us know how difficult it is to complete a film and make it excellent. And so you’d think there’d be some sort of competitive side to it but there’s room for everyone and we all make different kinds of work. And so it was really really fun to sit and talk to them. So it’s really- we’re very lucky I don’t know a lot of industries that have this kind of-
Rachel Grady: Companionship.
Heidi Ewing: Family family-
Michael Kantor: Camaraderie.
Heidi Ewing: Camaraderie. Yeah it’s it’s it’s really something else. I’m interested personally in the body of work in my career. The body of works that I’m proud of and I’m interested in longevity of a career. And so I think the more contact you have with your colleagues and discussions you have about how they’re accomplishing those goals. It’s just really really helpful for how you manage your own, your own career.
Michael Kantor: So steering back to Norman Lear, do you- when you were making the film was there any issue regarding gender and taking on the subject that is worth talking about or-
Rachel Grady: Not really I mean this is the guy that created the character Maude, so he’s pretty evolved. He is a man and he is-
Heidi Ewing: 94.
Rachel Grady: He is from a different generation, so it’s even more impressive actually how open minded he is. And he has, he has five daughters and I think he’s used to being around strong women. So it never came up at all.
Heidi Ewing: No and he was one- he’s one of those guys where he’ll test you, and you know he- he could be he can be short-tempered and demanding at times, and if you just take it and don’t give a little bit back to him, it’s not a good thing. So he’s-
Michael Kantor: Never in a rude way though.
Heidi Ewing: Never in a rude way, you just-
Michael Kantor: In a professional way.
Heidi Ewing: In a professional way you know you got to put the brakes on sometimes. And I think he’s a kind of guy that- he is asked his entire life and demanded and he’s gotten really far so that’s not a character trait that you just like give up when you turn 90 you know. So he always made it known where he stood about things and he appreciated it when we did the same, and that was extremely comfortable for Rachel and I. There was not a lot of tiptoeing around on eggshells around Norman Lear. It’s a wonderful thing. I will say in the gender side there were several male filmmakers that we know that wanted to make this film [laughs] and were saddened that they didn’t get the opportunity. So I mean it’s it’s a nice thing that there was a lot of people that wanted to make the film about Norman and that, you know, we had the opportunity to do it.
Michael Kantor: Well and I think to your credit Norman is so proud of the work you did and it it from day one it felt like an ideal fit, so, tough for those guys. [laughs]
Heidi Ewing: [laughs] Exactly.
Michael Kantor: You mentioned it before but are there other examples of Norman pushing a more progressive agenda whether it’s for women or for minorities-
Rachel Grady: Always.
Heidi Ewing: He- He’s actually doing something really interesting now, he’s just executive produced this series called America Divided and it’s going to be on the EPIX network and he is also in it. And basically it’s a multiple- multi-part series looking at inequality in terms of housing, in terms of crime and policing, in terms of- they’re looking at the Flint water crises and how you know the most impoverished people are the ones who are poisoned, and looking at all the ways that the country- that inequality in the country and how the country is divided in some way and also what to do about it. And you know he really- was during that while we were shooting started doing it and getting involved with a lot of gusto and ideas and he is a progressive at heart. And he really kind of pops his head up and shows up wherever there’s someone trying to you know bring to light a lot of these inequalities. I mean the man is extremely wealthy. He lives a very luxurious life. He’s aware of that and it’s not that he’s trying to make amends for that but he wants to remain close to the things that have always mattered to him. And at heart he’s a poor kid from Hartford Connecticut. And somehow he’s been able to preserve that, that persona, that he did all that- he’s in there that person. I don’t know how actually because he has a very very comfortable lifestyle. But that’s something we really admire about him is that he really put his money where his mouth is and people for the American way still very much an entity that he’s part of that he started. So, so yeah the man really, he- I think he walks the walk.
Michael Kantor: I think he also uses every second of the day, you get the sense not just ’cause he’s 94 and he knows tempus fugit but, he’s always has. And I wonder sort of what did you- we touched on this a little bit before but what did you take from him in terms of your own professional lessons or, or personal lessons?
Rachel Grady: That I am never going to work as hard as Norman Lear.
Heidi Ewing: [Laughs] Oh my god that is so funny. I was going to say I never say I’m tired anymore. Ever. It’s like ridiculous. I mean he’s 94, why would- what am I tired. I mean that guy is really, you know-
Rachel Grady: So we’ll finish a shoot and he’ll tell us that he has dinner reservations at 10:15 which is insane. We had dinner with him at 9:30 last night after he had an entire full schedule doing promotion, doing a panel at the Ford Foundation and we did a 9:30 dinner reservation we offered- his daughter was too tired to go and his son-in-law. We’re like “Do you want us to cancel? It’s way downtown.” “No let’s go.” We were out till like 11:30 with him last night.
Michael Kantor: No I tell the story of the event in Chicago, the breakfast event, which, we were called at 7:00 a.m. and he flew in from L.A. So that’s 5:00 a.m. L.A. time in Chicago and the night before he’d been out at a screening. So it’s-
Rachel Grady: And what did he do? He killed it.
Michael Kantor: Yeah, it’s true.
Heidi Ewing: It’s really amazing and you know it’s funny, he-
Rachel Grady: It’s good genes.
Heidi Ewing: Yeah.
Michael Kantor: Yeah.
Rachel Grady: It’s good genes, married with curiosity. I really believe that. The curiosity is a, you know, burns as a fire in his belly, and he’s an incredibly curious guy and that keeps you alert, keeps you alive.
Heidi Ewing: And he also likes to say, he says it I think in the film, that he goes to bed and the last thought is the taste of the coffee that he’s going to drink the next morning. And there’s something about that for looking, like, I think he appreciates every moment he has on his planet especially at 94.
Michael Kantor: And what else would you say you learned from making this particular film, whether it’s from Norman or making the film, that you want to share with either aspiring filmmakers, or people right now who are doing their homework and admire your work and want to think about how they can better their own work?
Heidi Ewing: I think you have to be able to bend your style and go into aesthetically, areas aesthetically that you’re uncomfortable with you that haven’t tried, because the film is asking you to do that. You can’t just make a character into an observational vérité character because you know how to do that very well. You can’t fight the story and the type of film that you should be making. And I think that it’s very hard to do that when you’re known for one type of filmmaking, you’re comfortable in a certain genre; it’s like, this movie I call it a very shiny penny. It’s a shiny movie. It glows and it should. It’s it’s it’s lit that way for a reason. Nothing is arbitrary. It was the way that this story needed to be told, that needed to be most mostly a studio film, and that did not come easy. We resisted it for the first several months tried to make this into a vérité film. It wasn’t meant to do that. So I think we’ve finally smartened up and found the way to tell the story, but I would tell ’em, in terms of filmmakers, you just got to really meditate on, “How should this film feel and look tonally?” Because it might not be something you’ve done before or are comfortable doing. And I think that that, we’re like mid-career and we had to sort of, myself personally had to had to learn that, and to start studying projections and talking to theater people and figuring out how things were done and green screen we didn’t know. So it’s just like, it felt good to gain that knowledge and also to bend towards the place that the movie needed to go.
Rachel Grady: You should be a little nervous, different than not confident, should be a little nervous at trying new things. Each film that we do we try and take at least one big risk, we need to learn something every time. And this was a risk for us because it was a genre that we feel everyone knows and has ownership of and they you know, they-
Heidi Ewing: Expectations.
Rachel Grady: They have the expectations that are very clear.
Michael Kantor: Formulaic.
Rachel Grady: Formulaic, and we wanted to push the genre. And that made us nervous because how many different ways can you make a biography? Well, turns out you can- there’s one more way, the way we did it.
Michael Kantor: Well it was your fine work that prompted the launching of American Masters Pictures, and it’s the theatrical banner for American Masters and I’d love it if you’d speak briefly to the importance of a theatrical presence for any film, and how that can sort of lift all boats in terms of building audiences.
Heidi Ewing: Well you’re never going to get as large an audience as you get broadcasting. Broadcasting is where you get the millions and millions of eyeballs. There’s no question about that. However, a theatrical release allows people to gather, hundreds of people, to gather together in a communal way to enjoy the work together. That is the singular experience that cannot be repeated on any large TV screen. That’s one. The other one is that it moves- it elevates a film, a theatrical release, elevates a film into a type of promotion of press, of coverage, of critique and criticism, that you don’t get any more in television because the market so saturated. So you’re reaching an audience that is hungry to experience the communal experience of movies, and you’re also getting the kind of analysis and critique and discussion around a movie in a public forum that’s very difficult to get with a television broadcast these days. And so really as a filmmaker you want to hit all the different corners; you would like your festival release for buzz and for that wonderful festival-going crowd, and those crowds are growing every year. You want your theatrical release for the reasons I just mentioned. And then of course you want your big television broadcast where millions of people can see it for free. They don’t have to leave their home or buy a ticket or take the subway or get in a car. And then of course you have the SVOD and all of the digital ways to see it later because you just want to give yourself breath and life, you want to blow life into your movie. And a theatrical is a very special way to sort of tee up the eventual broadcast. And for filmmakers and audiences it’s a pleasure and a gift to be able to do even limited theatrical releases.
Michael Kantor: And you mentioned the festival screenings, you all attended innumerable festival screenings. Doesn’t feel as though our whole culture is more interested in coming to documentary festivals now than 10 20 years ago?
Rachel Grady: Seems like it. I mean we’ve been making films for over 10 years, and there’s- and they seem to kind of- like, even Sundance. It’s an internationally known event. People know what it is, everywhere in the world. So I feel like it is something. Documentaries are not are not like the little step-sister anymore. They’re absolutely- given the critique, given the credence, there’s expectations that there’s excellence.
Heidi Ewing: Also, it’s really exciting because in terms of the festivals there’s more and more regional festivals that are popping up every year. And I actually really enjoy those regional festivals. Traverse City, never miss it if we’re invited. I always go, not just because I’m from Michigan but you know Ashland-
Michael Kantor: True/False.
Heidi Ewing: True/False, Ashland.
Michael Kantor: Columbia, Missouri.
Heidi Ewing: Yeah, in Columbia, Missouri. Ashland, Oregon. I mean there are these little festivals and everything is sold out. People come, they stand in lines, they, you know, have breakfast and they go to a 9:00 a.m. screening, an 8:00 a.m. screening. I love the regional festivals because it shows that people are hungry for, you know, cultural experiences they can’t get all the time. And so I think it’s a great sign that the United States, that all of these towns are opening festivals and they’re so heavily attended. It makes me feel very warm and happy feelings about people’s curiosity that they still want to learn new things, so it’s really great.
Michael Kantor: It’s been really fun seeing the Norman Lear film play festivals. My hope is that for every thousand people at the festival that sees it, a million people will see it on TV.
Heidi Ewing: Yes!
Rachel Grady: Us too brother.
Rachel Grady: We hope too and also the people that- it’s all sort of the buzz factor you know, that people in Ashland who saw it are going to read in the paper “It’s coming,” and they’re going to watch it again or tell their friends, “I saw this at the Ashland Film- Oh you can’t miss it!” You know people like to tell their friends something.
Rachel Grady: They are, they’re ambassadors to the film.
Heidi Ewing: They are.
Michael Kantor: Who would you say, and this is sort of a personal question, if you had to narrow it down, who’s the most important person, that when you showed the film to your like, “Oh I wonder what they think?”
Rachel Grady: This particular film or always?
Michael Kantor: For you guys, no this film. Was it a family member, was it a colleague?
Rachel Grady: No it’s- it’s for me, it’s the subject typically. I mean, in this case it’s Norman but- You have three responsibilities when you make a film: you have one to your subject, you have one to your audience, and you have one to yourself. So, showing it to your subject, it is such a strange experience. It is a very unique experience that I think only documentary filmmakers actually do.
Michael Kantor: And what was it like watching with Norman?
Rachel Grady: I just sat in the same row as him, did not care about watching the movie, obviously I’ve seen it a million times, and I literally just washed his face and his body language. And it’s- there’s no one, there’s no one that we’re going to show it to that’s it’s going to affect like that. So, in this case it was Norman.
Heidi Ewing: Yeah I- we were the opening night film of the Sundance Film Festival this year, so it was a very elevated, wild experience and kind of a blur. But I do remember, Norman of course was in the audience and, you know, we’re backstage with Robert Redford and it’s starting to get nervous about- we go out to the stage and there’s twelve hundred people and pretty much everyone we’ve ever worked with in our entire career is sitting there. That’s pretty much a fact. There they were, all of the faces. And there’s some family members, and there’s Norman and there’s Norman’s family, and all of our colleagues are sitting there. And, there was- I was excited and nervous to show them this sort of very different departure for us. And so I was all around just excited to- and nervous, to be at that platform because you’re, you know, to be there in that position. And so you just want everyone to love it, and not everyone’s always going to love your work. But that was an especially important night for us, because it was the culmination of a career that started – and we started our business in 2001, our first film came out in 2005 – so it was really a culmination of all those years of work and I felt a lot of pride that night to share the movie with our colleagues.
Michael Kantor: Well, American Masters has been around 30 years and I hope you return to this genre and cook up some other brilliant take on a legendary figure like Norman Lear.
Rachel Grady: Maybe the Pope?
Heidi Ewing: We’ve always wanted to do Pope Francis. I don’t know if he’s done American Masters.
Michael Kantor: We’ll see.
Heidi Ewing: Does he paint? [everyone laughs]
Rachel Grady: He’s in a jazz band.