Thursday, January 26, 2012

Cindy and Lisa on "Phyllis and Harold"

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Cindy and Lisa on "Phyllis and Harold"

(from 8/3/10)

Beginning this Friday at the Cinema Village, you are going to have the great pleasure of meeting Phyllis and Harold, and I guarantee that you'll be talking about them for a long time after. Harold passed away in 2003 and Phyllis in 2006, but the Kleines of Long Island, who were married for fifty-nine rocky years, are very much alive in the eponymous documentary made by their youngest daughter with equal parts affection, resentment, and bewilderment. Kudos to Cindy Kleine, who previously made a number of acclaimed shorts, for recognizing that her dentist father and housewife mother, who at first and fiftieth glances won't seem much different from your own parents or someone you know well, could be fascinating, unique subjects of a feature-length documentary. By innovatively using an array of storytelling devices--including extraordinary old photographs and home movies, love letters (written by her parents in the forties and read to each other in the nineties), interviews, and animation--she manages to go beneath the surface of a marriage that to outsiders seemed boringly solid to examine the shaky foundation. At the heart of the true story is a secret. For the first few years of the marriage, the beautiful Phyllis carried on an affair with her married boss. After he left for California, she continued to carry a torch for him but settled into her marriage to a man she never loved. She had two daughters, Ricky and Cindy, whom she never fully embraced, which damaged them both, but in time took them in as her sole confidants about her lost love. She even had them facilitate a resumption of the affair with her lover when she was in her seventies. She never confessed her secret to Harold. I recently had lunch with Cindy Kleine (who is married to Andre Gregory) at her SoHo studio, where we were joined by the film's inventive animator, Lisa Crafts. Our conversation can be read before or after you see the movie:
Danny Peary: How do you two know each other?
Cindy Kleine: We go so far back I can't even remember.
Lisa Crafts: We met in Boston/Cambridge, where we were both young artists. Cindy was a roommate of Karen Aqua, the animator, and Jane Gilloly, the documentary filmmaker, and we were all friends. We must have met when we visited each other or at parties we'd throw on Inman Street. They were theme parties: If it was a Valentine's party people could get into the love nest we painted and have their pictures taken. Or we might have a paint-your-own-shoes party. I'm sure Cindy was there.
DP: Cindy, when you went to Lisa's parties, did you know of her work then?
CK: No, we were just friends. All my friends were artists, but the only work I saw was by students I was in school with. Lisa and I didn't work together until we moved to New York. She moved first and years later I moved here and we started working together in 2001 or 2002. Lisa did animation for my film Inside Out, which I think was finished in 2005.
DP: Did you ever do animation yourself?
CK: Yes, I wanted to be an animator. I went to Wesleyan for my first two years of college intending to study film and film animation, but there were no animation classes there anymore, so I transferred. The summer before I went to Boston for an intensive animation workshop given by Robert Breer and someone else. I met Karen Aqua in my class and we decided to move to Boston and look for a place together. This was 1978. I got to Boston and didn't leave. I decided very soon after that you have to be too crazy to do animation because it is too much work. [Laughing] Lisa will be the first to admit that. I didn't have the patience to do it. So I switched to still photography.
DP: What kind of animation did you do?
CK: Line drawings, kind of like Robert Breer's because he was my teacher. I was making flipbooks with the line drawings.
DP: And Lisa, what were you doing at that time?
LC: I was animating. I had been animating since I was eighteen. First on flipbooks and then on index cards, probably in Robert Breer's style, too. Then I started doing cel animation. Independent, just for myself.
DP: Did you go to school?
LC: No. It was all self-taught except at one point. In the seventies it was hard to find schools that taught animation and the only one in Boston I knew of was Harvard and I was able to sneak in and sit in on classes and use the facilities there for a couple of years.
DP: Were you getting known among film people in Boston?
LC: I guess in the mid-to late-seventies I had a bit of press. In the late seventies I was in my twenties and had made two or three films that had gone on the festival circuit and even found distributors. Back then there were wonderful little art houses all over the country so you could actually show your five-minute film in a theater, which is harder and harder to do these days. I also did freelance animation for other people. A lot of it was maps and diagrams, although I did a piece for the Boston Museum of Science and I did some children's television animation. We had a local show in Boston that won a daytime Emmy for Animation and Special Effects when I was like twenty-one or twenty-two. So I was animating a lot at that point.
DP: Were you a painter then, too?
LC: I was always a little bit of everything. I was a kid who liked to draw and make stuff with my hands. So I was always doing sculpture and painting. I never really thought of myself as a painter until many years later when I moved to New York and tried to only paint for a while. I painted for about ten years and then realized I much preferred something that moved and had a soundtrack and had a story.
CK: That's the same with me. I also painted and drew and then did still photographs, but then I wanted to make things move.
DP: Did you both know that you were able to collaborate with people or did you think of yourself as solo artists?
CK: I could never collaborate with anyone until I started collaborating with Lisa and Siobhan Dunne, who had been a student of mine at Boston College years before. I started working on Inside Out with Lisa and Siobhan, who was helping me edit it. And that was really the first time I ever collaborated with anyone and I was amazed that I could do it because I used to be a control freak and wouldn't let anyone near anything I did. Much to my detriment, I am sure. I was trying to do everything myself and each film I made was more complicated so that became impossible, especially if I wanted to do it well. Once I started collaborating with Lisa and Siobhan, who also worked on Phyllis and Harold along with my editor Jonathan Oppenheim, and collaborating with a lot of other people, I never wanted to go back. Now I can't imagine trying to do something by myself. It's too daunting. As everyone says, it's a collaborative medium and you have to seek out people who have skills you dont have.
DP: What about you, Lisa?
LC: Being sort of a lone-cat animator I always worked on my films alone. But when it came to doing a soundtrack I realized that is 50% of the film! I might have worked a year on the film, while it might take them only a week or less to do the soundtrack, but my part was still just going be 50%. So I worked with people, wanting them to be themselves yet give the emotional resonance to the film that I needed. I came to realize how much I loved to collaborate; it became the most exciting part of filmmaking for me. The next step I took was to collaborate with Caleb Sampson, an amazing composer from our film and music community in Boston. He really wanted to do something big on stage. So, we started thinking about what could we do and decided we would do this sort of Fantasia Live. I was inspired by Kandinsky's writing about visual music and musical visuals and we came up with the theme of "The Octopus's Exaltation." And we spent about a year working on it and performed it in Boston at five or six venues and it was really, really exciting. And after that I collaborated with my husband, Ken Brown. MTV wanted him to animate one of his tee shirt designs for an MTV idea. And then we started working together on ideas for VH1 and Sesame Street.
DP: You were married already, right?
LC: We were unmarried and living together. We got married on our 25th anniversary.
CK: I'm learning so many things I didn't know.
DP: And now in addition to animating you teach.
LC: Yes, at Pratt.
DP: Cindy, the production notes for Phyllis and Harold say that you taught in Boston at Boston College, Harvard and Museum School. But weren't you also going to Bard and MIT?
CK: I took classes at MIT during my Museum School years, from about 1981 to '84 or so. I was enrolled at Museum School, but you could take classes at eight other schools through their exchange program, or whatever you called it. I started teaching at Boston College in 1985. I was in the Bard Graduate Program in the mid-'90s, when I was in my thirties.
DP: And you were always working on film projects. On Phyllis and Harold you asked people along the way for their feedback. So, had you always wanted feedback even when you thought you were a solo person?
CK: No. I worked on the film for such a long period of time-- twelve years or so. The first years, it was a short called Till Death Do Us Part. In 1995 I shot the first interviews with my parents. I finished the short in 1998. It was a twenty-minute film with just those outdoor interviews where they are wearing sunglasses. Head shots. I interviewed them about their marriage separately and asked them the same exact questions and they answered like people who didn't even know each other and certainly not like people who are in the same marriage. At that time during the summers I was in a graduate program at Bard getting an MFA, and I was forced into having people look at my short and talk about it. It was a community of about ninety people, students and faculty. Every night a couple of artists would show their works and the whole community would give feedback; and every week, you received personal critiques from different faculty members. So I was constantly being given feedback. I found it agonizing most of the time.
DP: But you seemed to have listened.
CK: You know, I didn't always listen. Some people would look at my film and say, "Oh, it is fabulous!" But other people just hated it. I listened very carefully to everything everyone was saying and then I let it kind of filter through, almost like I was distilling something. That way I could tell if I agreed with something or not. Asking someone close to you for feedback is different. I met Andre Gregory, who is now my husband, while I was still working on the short. After grad school I was in New York finishing it and it was coming along very quickly and I had decided it would consist only of headshots and that I wouldn't cut in anything else. I was quite excited about it. And then I got feedback from Andre and a couple of other people that I asked to come to the studio to see it. Also on Phyllis and Harold I used Andre as a sounding board because I really respect his opinion when I'm not sure about something.
DP: In 1998, you showed Till Death Do Us Part at Telluride. Did you think you were going to film anything more?
CK: I knew it was a piece of a longer film. The intention was to make it a longer film and a fictional film. I was editing those interviews of my parents thinking that I was going to transcribe them for actors. But once I got into cutting it, I realized that there was no way I could get actors to be like my parents. I'm not saying that there is no way the best directors could get actors to play them realistically, but I didn't know how to direct actors. Mike Nichols saw the short and called me up and said, "This is amazing." I didn't believe it was him--it was like Obama phoning. I think he knew about it from either my husband's close friend Richard Avedon, who loved it, or another close friend, a French director. I told him or someone else told him that I planned to extend the story and that my mother had re-met her lover from years before. I remember him saying that it could be a great fiction film but there had to be a twist at the end. I think he was asking me to write something for him, so I just wracked my brain for months trying think what would the twist be. It couldn't be that suddenly we meet the lover and he's from the Zulu tribe in Africa or something. That was too crazy. I just couldn't figure out what he meant. And I never had another conversation with him because I was too shy. But I did think then that somebody could make a fictional film of this, but not me. And I thought Harvey Keitel would have been perfect as my father.
DP: If you had tried to make a fictional film, how truthful would you have wanted it to be?
CK: Well, that's the thing. At that time I couldn't tell the truth. I imagined the film being made in parts. I would finish part one and then work on part two and then over the years I'd continue to work on it because I really saw it as a kind of life's work. I kept thinking, "Oh my God! Am I going to be eighty-five and still be working on this stupid thing?" Thank God, it's not true. I knew that I couldn't tell the whole story in either a fiction or nonfiction movie as long as my father was still alive and my mother hadn't told him the story about her secret lover. I tried to get her to tell him when Till Death Do Us Part was starting be shown at festivals. The Sundance Channel called me and said it wanted to buy the film and I was so thrilled but realized there was no way that I could sell it because my father didn't know the secret. I couldnt have millions of people know it. I could show the movie a few times at the festivals like Telluride because I knew my father or people he knew wouldnt see it. My father was already in his eighties and he was sort of out of it and he wasnt going to see it even if it showed in New York. But I couldn't let it out into the world without his permission.
DP: Is the secret revealed in the twenty-minute film?
CK: It kind of is, but it is not like my mother goes into great detail about it. She basically says that she was having an affair the first seven years of her marriage.
LC: Is that true? I'm not sure that she does say it directly, but it's the way that she reacts to your father's letters that makes it seem like she has a different reality going on. You know what, Cindy, we need to look at the short again.
CK: I know. I haven't seen it in so long that I actually don't remember how much she says. But for sure the secret is revealed enough so that I felt too uncomfortable, ethically, showing it. I thought that if this gets shown on the Sundance Channel my uncle could see it and go, "Oh my God!" So I had to say no. This was really funny too: I thought my parents would be so proud that the Sundance Channel wanted to buy my film, so I told my mother and she said, "Oh, that's fantastic. How much are you going to get?" And I said, "Well, Mom, I cant sell it them." And she was like, "Why not?" I said, "Well, because Dad doesn't know the story." And she said, "Oh, don't worry about him!" [Laughing] Once you've seen her in the film, that reaction makes complete sense because she was in her own reality. She thought I was being stupid about a business deal.
DP: Lisa, did you ever meet Phyllis and Harold?
LC: I met Phyllis. I feel like I knew Harold because I handled the footage so much, but I don't know that I ever met him. But, Cindy, I met your mom and she was really, really proud of you and was sure that everything you touched would become wonderful. It's nice to see a parent support a kid who is an artist.
DP: Cindy, your mother being so supportive surprises me because in the movie it seems like you were kind of an appendage to her.
CK: I was. But there were two things going on in the film. The other layer of her relationship to me was that I was the artist she always wanted to be and couldn't be. So in a sense she lived vicariously through me. That was another aspect of her. She could be very supportive.
DP: Always? Or did she change over time?
CK: At a certain time she changed. When I was young, her message was much more mixed. The message was: you're brave, you're an artist, you're creative and that's all wonderful but you have to learn how to make a living. Although she was less like that than my father. His position was: if you are not making money at something why are you doing it? It wasn't something he understood.
DP: You describe him as pragmatic.
CK: Yeah. He was a businessman and thought work equals money. My mother was very supportive of me on one level but she was also influenced by him and worried a lot about me and my sister. So the worry part would get in the way sometimes, and it would seem like she wasn't supportive. Like she'd be: "Are you sure you want to make another film? As I said, there was a mixed message.
DP: Seeing your father in the movie, I am surprised that he cared if his daughter worked or not. Did he care if you made money?
CK: Yes, he did. He was really kind of cool and unusual in that way. He never was the kind of dad who thought, "Oh, I want my daughters married off to some men who can support them." Ever. In fact he bugged the hell out of me when I was young. He wanted me to be a dentist like him. My first job was being his dental assistant, kind of his nurse and helper. I just now realized that was my first experience with photography because he taught me how to develop the X-rays in his office. When I said I didn't want to be a dentist, he said I should be a dental hygienist. He really urged both me and Ricky to have professions. I think on one level he was disappointed and perplexed that I chose to make films. I think he found it quite disturbing.
DP: Because you weren't looking to make money?
CK: But I was. I was always getting jobs to support my filmmaking. I was a bartender. I was a waitress. I did all that. But then he would yell at me, "I don't want you to do that. Quit that job and I'll support you." He thought my jobs were beneath me and said, "If you are going to get a job, get a job related to the art you do or a real job. I don't want you to waste your time waiting on tables or pouring drinks." When I became a teacher in 1985 he was happier because I actually made a salary.
DP: Did your mother stay out of those arguments or did she back you up?
CK: He'd yell at me and she'd yell at him, "Why are you yelling at her?" There was always fighting going on between everybody. [Laughing]
DP: Could anybodys weird parents be the subject of a documentary or are Phyllis and Harold the rare exceptions?
CK: I don't think they are the rare exceptions by any means. But I do think there has to be a interesting storyline. What motivated me to tell their story was this whole bizarre thing about the lover she had when she first married and re-meeting him when she was in her seventies and resuming the affair. Without that, it it would have been just about a bad marriage. There was something special to me about the fantasy she maintained her whole life, this other life that made the story more compelling. I know from talking to people after they've seen the film about how crazy some people's families are, families that make mine look like the Cleavers in Leave It To Beaver.
LC: I also think what makes the film work is your role as their child and how you are the observer for the entire time you are growing up into your adulthood. So you are seeing a marriage at a very intimate, close range, and if you saw any weirdness you are going to take it in emotionally and that will be the story you might need to tell, whether to viewers by making a film or to your shrink or a bartender.
CK: Actually that's true. So the answer about whether other people should make films about their parents is: if you need to tell it, it's worthy of telling. I really did need to tell it.
DP: I admire that you realized that a film about your parents would make a good documentary. Because I would think most people would say, "Well, everybody has something going on with their family that could make a good movie."
CK: There are two things I would say to that. One has to do with the unusual story of the lover. The other has to do with that incredible treasure trove of images that I had. I could never have made that film if I didn't have those slides my father took and those home movies. Without that visual documentation I would have made the short and that would have been it. One of the main themes of the movie is the mystery of time passing so we needed those images of them when they were young. I've looked at a lot of home movies and people's snapshots from their families, and most are really bad and boring. So I was incredibly lucky because my dad was an incredible photographer and my grandfather shot those beautiful movies. So the stuff was actually really compelling just on its own. I think those two things--the story of my mother's lover and the photographs and movies--made me realize that this story could be told and make a good film.
DP: In the old footage, your mother is gorgeous. Where does that come into play? I have my opinion...
CK: What's your opinion?
DP: It's probably the same one you have, and its that this woman with vitality and beauty couldnt express her love because she married the wrong person.
CK: Yeah. Well, that's an important piece of it because--and I think this was a generational thing, too--she was sort of brought up to be beautiful and attract the right man who was going to marry her and take care of her. Her mother, my grandmother Nana, was very much into making her beautiful and making sure she was well dressed. She made all her my mother's clothes with beautiful fabrics, which was how my mother learned to sew and make her own clothes. That was where my mother was encouraged. I'm sure she looked at a million fashion magazines and found all of her perfect poses in the photographs. Her poses amaze me. My father had a 100,000 slides, and most of them were of her, and there were only like...
LC: ...two pictures when she wasnt posing.
CK: Yeah. Two pictures that are candid and she is not posing. That's all. And in the rest she has the perfect bend of the knees and the perfect angle of the torso. It's as if she studied magazines. I can get into a whole feminist treatise about this, but I think that she was someone who was aware of the male gaze on her. I was very aware that she saw herself in light of the gaze upon her and that either caused or increased her level of self-involvement and narcissism, for lack of a better word. It was almost as if she was so concerned with how she looked that it was as if she was almost never really there. Thats the sense that I always had as a kid. I say that in the film. She is so beautiful and so perfect, like a princess, but who exactly is she and where is she?
LC: Didn't you described her like a birthday cake, something beautiful but over there?
CK: Yeah, yeah. "A beautiful icing that you are not supposed to touch." DP: "Mother always seemed to be elsewhere." That is a line from the movie. Was that the key to her?
CK: Yeah. I'd say that that was the big key to her for me. It was like I never knew where she was and it was very, very hard to really feel like she was connecting to me except on an outer level.
DP: I don't think she connected to anybody else.
CK: I don't think she did either. I really don't. Even her best friends.
DP: You say right at the beginning of the movie that you wanted to find out what your parents were doing together all those years and who they are. Were you able to explore them enough to figure that out to your satisfaction?
CK: To feel that I've explored their story as much as I could do or wanted to, yeah.
DP: Hearing what your father wrote in his letters to her, it's obvious that he loved her, even was emotional about her. You had seen your parents interact with each other for many, many years. So did those letters totally shock you?
CK: I saw those letters for the first time when I was making the film. I was totally shocked. What surprised me about my father's letters was that he was so emotionally forthcoming because that was not the person that I knew. In my lifetime he didn't talk about emotions. But what shocked me more than his letters were her letters. His letters didnt shock me that much because he always adored her. He was a much simpler than she was and much more authentic. He was who he seemed to be. She was very hidden and her letters shocked me because I never imagined from what she had told me that she was so flirtatious with my father in the early years. What interested me about her letters was that they vacillated between "No, no, I dont want to get married " to "Oh, no, I'm so upset you are not coming home because I miss you so much." They are so lovey-dovey. It was as if she was toying with him, pulling him in and then pushing him away. And that completely shocked me because when she told me about the past she never admitted that she was at all interested in him. She always made it sound like, "Oh, he chased me and chased me and finally I gave in." So I didnt expect to find such loving, passionate letters to him.
DP: Did it sadden you?
CK: It did actually. I think the whole thing was enormously sad because in many ways it was just wasted time when they never said what they should have said to each other.
DP: Did your parents watch the footage of the letter reading together?
CK: Yes. And they totally cracked up.
LC: I thought that was such a funny reaction when you told me that they laughed. I thought they would be dumbfounded.
CK: He thought those outdoor interviews were hilarious. He thought, "Yes, she said all those derogatory things about me but here we are five years later and still married." Unless he was laughing at it nervously. I don't know. But he definitely got some big laughs out of it.
DP: After reading the letters, do you think your parents should have worked as a couple?
CK: No. I think they were together for all the wrong reasons.
DP: I guess if your mother married the wrong person then your father married the wrong person also. Was he satisfied?
CK: He married the right person. But it's hard to know if he was satisfied. I wanted to see him with a woman who really appreciated him and was really kind to him and loving towards him. On the other hand, that's not the kind of woman he would have been attracted to. It's like how for years I was attracted to men who were difficult and tough and emotionally not there and I would always want to change them. I think we are attracted to people from the life we come from--and his mother was very difficult. So I think he would have been happier with someone who was nicer to him but I just don't know if that's whom he wanted to be with.
DP: She describes him in the early years as someone who was angry and drank all the time. Was that true?
CK: No. Jews didn't drink in those days. He just drank socially. He wasn't a raging alcoholic who would come home drunk after drinking all day. He drank at parties and he was a flirt. He was gorgeous so they flirted back. He told me, "In those days you touched a woman on her breast or you slapped her ass. They liked it, they would laugh. Now if you do that you will be arrested." He was lamenting that it wasn't the old days when all the men behaved like that and no one complained. What's in the movie is what she told me. I don't know if she was exaggerating to make him seem like a monster of if she really saw him like that.
DP: That's another reason that she could gravitate toward somebody else.
CK: Right. Like it was a rational decision.
DP: Do you think your mother would have been a good wife to her lover if he weren't married or was she incapable of being a good wife to anyone?
CK: I am not sure if a marriage with her lover would have been a bed of roses either. It would have been quite difficult for her to be married to anybody and particularly him. I can't say too much about him, but he was known in the world and traveled a lot and was around a lot of women all of the time. I don't know if it would have worked at all. To protect his identity, I didnt put into the movie what the lover did, but she was employed by his company and he was her boss. Back then he was just starting out in the company but he went on to bigger things in California.
DP: If your mother never had a secret lover, would her parenting have been different?
CK: I don't know. Some family therapist would have to guess on that one. I don't know if her sadness over her past affair was the cause of her distance from Ricky and me or if that was just a symptom of the distance.
LC: It might have been that she was from that generation of women who felt dutifully that they had to get married and have kids. She might have not had a kid otherwise. She had her kids and just went through the motions of being a mom without mothering them.
CK: That's definitely true. People now decide that they want to have children, but in that generation they had children because that's what they were supposed to do. She was twenty-four when she got married. She was in love with this guy that she couldn't marry because he was already married, so I think she worried she'd be an old maid if she didn't marry someone else. And her mother was pushing her saying, "Oh, he is so wonderful and he's going to make a good living and he is Jewish." So I think she felt pressure to marry my dad. And after marriage, you have kids.
LC: It really freaks me out when she goes, "Well, you know that game where the music stops and you have to sit down? It was rankling me after I first heard her talk about musical chairs because she was taking ten minutes to describe it. Can't you just spit it out? And then she says it was just time for the music to stop and for her to get married.
DP: Her making the musical chairs analogy was really quite profound. Many people do get married to whoever they're with when they hit a certain age, rather than wait longer to fall in love. People get married too young basically for that very reason and your mother understood that.
LC: In those days twenty-four was old. She was like spinster material. Mostly women got married from eighteen to twenty.
DP: People change a great deal from twenty-four to thirty. Did she change?
CK: That was the period in which she was in love with that other guy. She was having a relationship with him over those years. She was thirty when she had Ricky and thirty-six when she had me. In her early years she was still involved with this other person and then he left and she had to come to some acceptance of her life as it was. She changed enormously in that she found things she liked to do that fulfilled her and she started building a life for herself. That would probably be like six years after my sister was first born. That was in the early 1950s. I know she didn't really want to be a mother.
LC: Yeah. In all the footage, in all of the millions of hours of interviews with her, she never once mentioned the children.
CK: Yeah. That's in the film. That's a shocking realization.
DP: Why do you think that was? You say it might be that all women of her generation felt like that, but with her was it her tremendous vanity that caused her to neglect you?
CK: I don't think it was all women. At that time all women may have felt they had to have kids whether they wanted to or not, but not all were distant from their kids. I do think it was her vanity.
DP: Did having a child make her feel older or tie her down to the man she didnt love?
CK: Oh, there was that. When she found out that she was pregnant with my sister I think her first feeling was, "I don't want to be pregnant with him." If she wanted a kid, she wanted a kid with the guy that she was in love with. My guess was that she was perplexed by it. She didn't really know how to raise a daughter. She had a very strange relationship with her own mother, who was like an old world matriarch. Not emotional at all. Never cried. She was just very tough. She tried to mold my mother into what she wanted her to be. They weren't cuddly or close.
LC: There have been two recent versions of Phyllis--the Julianne Moore character in Far From Heaven and the January Jones character in Madmen. Both are beautiful, neglected women who dream of lives beyond the confines of their social status and expectations and of their front gates. Those two women also neglect their children, and both have household help. This was probably a typical situation for women in the pre "liberation" years--and it was profoundly sad for their children!
DP: Cindy, you say in the film that you were less close to your mother than your nanny, Annie McCarter, who took care of you until you were about ten and she couldn't handle the situation anymore. What was the significance of the scene in which you visit her and try on hats?
CK: For me, that scene is like testimony as to who I am when I am able to feel really comfortable and be myself. I was like that with Annie, but I'm not like that under the constraints of being with my own family. The hat scene is the only time you see me being me. I'm at ease and having fun with Annie. She sees me and knows who I am and vise versa. I never had that kind of goofy, fun, relaxed relationship with my mother and in fact there is a hat scene with my mother later in the movie in which she says, "Well, what do you think of this hat? It doesnt look right. I used to have hair here." There, I'm very uptight.
DP: Have you read the fiction bestseller The Help, about black women in Mississippi that take care of white kids.
CK: No, but thats the subject of a whole other film that I would like to make--a film about Annie, Annie's World, as I call it, in Alabama.
DP: I doubt if your mother shared her secret with Annie. Did she share her secret with anybody?
CK: Not until me and then my sister much later. Then in the last ten years of her life with her closest women friends.
DP: So it must have been hard being alone and not being able to tell anybody that your heart is broken. She must have been devastated when her lover left for California, but your father never realized anything was wrong. It's amazing she was able to hide her feelings like that.
CK: She was devastated for years. She thought my father didn't know, but my theory is that he knew or at least certainly suspected. Once I asked him, "Why did Mom quit her job?" And he said, "Because I didn't want her to work. I was making a good living and said to her, 'I want you to quit her job. No wife of mine is going to work.'" Like it was a matter of male pride. But I think he suspected that the reason she was coming home a ten o'clock at night was that she was having an affair. She told me that once she came home at ten and he had locked her out. She was sitting on the stoop and couldn't get in. He knew. He wasnt stupid. He just didn't want to say it out loud. He was a man who "didn't know" what he didn't want to know. That was just how he survived. There were a lot of unpleasant things that we learned when growing up that he just couldn't deal with. It would go in one ear and out the other and he never mentioned it again.
DP: Well, the twist in that fiction film you were talking about earlier might have been that the husband is having an affair too.
CK: Yeah, that would have been it. That's right. I'm sure my father did have affairs. But my guess was that he was never really in love with anybody else, like she was.
DP: Did you ask your mother about that?
CK: Yeah. She says that he fooled around.
DP: She didn't care?
CK: She did care and I think that was why she felt justified having an affair. I think it was like a power struggle.
DP: Do you think that at the same time she was having an affair he was having an affair? Or did he have them later and she pulled away from him?
CK: She pulled away from him pretty early on.
DP: But all of a sudden she had two kids. There must have been some bargaining going on.
CK: Yeah. Something. [Laughing] But, as they say, I don't think he was getting too much steak at home.
LC (laughing): I think she was very fertile.
DP: If somebody watches the movie and then says to you, "I hate your parents" how do you feel?
CK (laughing): They do. Usually they say, "I hate your mother." I feel like I did my job. While I didn't want anybody to hate them, I certainly didn't want to glamorize or glorify them. Nor did I want to rip them apart. I was trying to paint as fair a picture as I could but I learned from the reactions to the film that it's hard to do that. I'll get this response: "Oh, my God, your mother is so fabulous and I love her and your father is so weird and I can see why you were so troubled." Or the opposite: "Your father was such a great guy. I couldn't stand your mother. She made me so angry." I realized that everyone projects their own stuff onto the film and it's read very differently by different people depending on their own parents, childhoods, and life stories. That's what I wanted to do. I was trying to paint as honest a picture from my point of view, my mythology, as I could. Several people have said, "Well, you seemed so close to your mother and not to your father. It seemed like you really didnt like your father." That perplexes me because I adored my father. I dont think there's anything in the film that would make them think that. I don't think it reads at all like I'm saying anything bad about him. But I get confused. Is it the way they're reading it or is there something in the film that makes people think that?
DP: When sports broadcasters do a game, fans of the losing team always think the broadcaster loves the team that is winning because he's praising them and that he hates the team that is losing and is saying negative things about. The truth is that unbiased broadcaster can't say a lot of good things about the losing team simply because they're just not playing well. In the movie, your father doesn't "play well."
CK: Exactly. He doesn't play well at all. Maybe what you mean by that and I think it is true is that she is so gloriously comfortable on camera and so talkative compared to him that she comes off better. There are a lot more minutes when she is on the screen and in a sense the film became about her more than about the two of them even though the title is Phyllis and Harold. That's because he is not as much of a screen presence and wasn't as forthcoming about his feelings or his memories.
DP: He seemed tired. He sat in his chair for sixteen hours.
CK: In 1995 he didnt, but that definitely happened more and more over the years.
DP: And he says that she has become very domineering. I think she was able to be that way because he was just sitting there.
CK: Yeah, He was on Prozac by that time.
DP: Your mother talked about how she wasn't a good match for your father, that they had nothing in common. But obviously they shared a love of travel.
CK: Yeah. They really had that in common. I always guessed that she enjoyed traveling with him because when you travel with someone, your focus is always outward. So you are sharing a new experience without focusing so much on each other. She did appreciate that she never would have traveled to all those places if not for him. So that's why she remembers at the end, "You know, he showed me the world."
DP: I'd think a therapist would have told them, "Your marriage isn't working, so travel more because that might help."
CK: That's possible. If they had gone to a therapist, which they didn't.
Phyllis and HaroldHAMMOCK.JPG
DP: I didn't think they would. But did your mother ever say, "I wish I had gone to a therapist?"
CK: Well, she did go much later. It's very interesting, actually. When my father was about seventy he sat down in that chair and said, "I'm not traveling anymore." And she was like, "What do you mean? You're not old." And he said, "I did it my whole life. I'm done. It isn't the same anymore." He was right in that it had gotten much more stressful. And then she would say, "Okay, then I am going to Florida to visit my friends." And he would say, "No, you're not going without me." So they had this war because he didn't want to do anything. She kept telling me and my sister, "I want him to see a therapist. There is something wrong with him. He's depressed. He's got to see a therapist." And she kept saying that and I kept gently saying, "Well, you are not going to get him to go. Why don't you start going and then the hope will be that he'll see that it is making a difference or he'll be jealous that you are talking to some therapist and then he will want to go." That was exactly what happened. She went about five times to this shrink and every time she came home he would say, "What did you talk about? What did he say?" He was paranoid. She kept saying, "If you want to know you ought to come with me." And the sixth time she was driving out the driveway and he got his coat and said, "I'm coming with you." So he did go for few months. The therapist put him on Prozac and he really got into that because he loved getting free samples. So he went for a while and it helped. And they did start getting along better actually. It was interesting. [Laughing] I don't know if that was the Prozac or the therapist but he got mellower as he aged.
DP: How much of this film is about you?
CK: I don't know. What do you think?
DP: Well, it could be a third. You are the third other person. I don't see this movie as being really therapeutic. You may think it is.
CK: The act of making the movie was in some way therapeutic for me, but I don't see it that way either. Maybe a third is about me because I'm the storyteller and it's my point of view that you are hearing and everything is filtered through me. And because Lisa so brilliantly animated me.
DP: Lisa, in Cindy's director's statement in the production notes, she wrote, "Lisa Crafts was able to magically transform my ideas and dreams (literally!) into little nuggets of poetry." When you began, what did she tell you she wanted from the animation?
LC: My recollection is that Cindy first came to me for this film with the scene with her mom at age seventy reuniting with the lover, and she wasn't sure what it should look like and how it would be handled. She was trying to figure out how she could show this in her movie and finally went, "I think this needs animation." And Cindy gave me the voiceover and I thought about it a lot. I had seen cuts of it. I had worked on some parts of it, maybe just scanning photos or something. I had seen Till Death Do Us Part, so I knew bits about the story and, Cindy, I made you a storyboard to see what you had thought about my ideas.
CK: As Lisa says, I realized I needed animation in the places where a story needed to be told visually and there was no footage for it. I didn't want to just keep showing my mother telling the story.
DP: In the statement Cindy says, "the animation is, in a certain sense, me and represents my point of view." Did she convey to you that the animation represented her?
LC: When I am working with Cindy that is pretty clear to me. Cindy, I try to channel you as much as I can. I understand your vision and I know what images would amuse you or intrigue you or make you feel like, "Yeah, that's it."
CK: But I wasn't conscious of that until I saw the film in public several times and there were Q&As. There are two things I say about the animation in my production notes. One is I realized that the animation is a Brechtian device. It takes you out of the heaviness of the story and gives you a more whimsical perspective. And I realized that in a certain way the animation is me because that's the way I am telling the whole story. I sort of stand outside the whole thing and am able to see it from a hopefully humorous perspective.
LC: I didn't see it in the way that she describes it, but it was her voice and she was telling a story, so in that way it's Cindy. But I probably didn't think of it consciously.
DP: Because Cindy has an animation background, did that interfere at all with what you wanted to do?
LC: No. I'm not sure I knew she had an animation background.
CK (laughing): Well, the truth is my animation background is so minimal. I dont have any idea how Lisa does any of the stuff she does. The funeral animation was a huge surprise to me. That was the most mysterious to me because I had no idea how she was going to do it. All I said was, "Here's the voiceover that says my husband told me my father was dead and I thought it was a joke."
DP: Did you have places where you'd say I'd like animation here?
CK: Yes, but not until very late in this process, the last year of editing.
DP: Lisa, did you make suggestions?
LC: No. Cindy and Jonathan Oppenheim, the editor, came up with the places where we needed it.
CK: I was very aware that there had to be enough animation to make it kind of a thread all the way through the film. She did the little piece of animation of my mother meeting the lover for the first time very early on. I knew immediately that there had to be more animation but I didn't know exactly where it should go until the last months of editing.
DP: Is the style consistent throughout the film in your view?
LC: It's a little inconsistent, especially the animation with red car and balloon. It is so funny and it really fits the tone, so I think that it is fine. [Laughing] My style sort of evolved because we worked on it for several years, so by the time we get to the dream and the camel scene and all of that, it was more refined. But it still all fits because it is colorful and has the same sensibility.
DP: It was kind of upbeat and then the last scene, the camel stuff, was dreamy.
LC: Yeah. Very dreamy.
DP: How long did that take you?
LC: I don't really know. It was like right at the end of her film and I remember I had something else I was starting and then Cindy came to me with this idea and I wanted to do it so badly. I think we got it together in like under a month. It was pretty fast. I'd be handed these incredible gifts to animate and they were just so inspirational that I just put in pretty long hours and did not do anything but that.
CK: I think every single time Lisa would show me the first draft of something I'd be blown away. I never said, "Oh no, no. That's not what I had in mind. That doesn't work." I was always just amazed by how she could invent these visuals. I started to weep when I first saw the camel dream. I was just astonished with what she did with the suitcases and those stickers on the suitcase. It was a big mystery because she would call me up and go, "I'm working on this. Do you have any old suitcases that your parents used? I need an old suitcase." I would be like, "Oh, yeah. I got this really cool leather one with stickers on it. You want to come see it?" She lives four blocks away and she came over and pulled the thing out of the closet and said, "Oh, yeah. Can I borrow that?" She did. Or, "Do you have a photo with you in Egypt with your parents and a camel?"
LC: I could have taken pictures off the Internet or taken my own pictures but this film was so personal that I really wanted to put as much in as I could that would really resonate for Cindy. I felt the film would then really go together. For when her mom is in the train coming into New York, I actually asked about the train her mom rode. This was totally nutty but I wanted to take that train and see what she was looking at when she was coming into town going to meet her lover. So I took pictures wherever it was.
DP: Cindy, in the final animation scene, with the camel, you say your relationship with your parents was "a burden and a gift." What's the gift?
CK: Oh, God, the gift was hugely complex. The gift was the means to live as an artist and make my work, which I couldn't have done without them. I couldn't have finished this film without them. I finished with money that I had inherited when they died. So it's the freedom to live the way I live and make the work that I do. Also I fully acknowledge that I get a lot of my creativity from them. I certainly got my cinematographer's eye from my father. When I looked at those photographs I realized that this talent got passed on to me, and that's why I am always seeing things in frames and I am always composing images. It's because of him. And I appreciated my mother's way of looking at the world with new eyes and great enthusiasm. She just loved beauty and every spring would go, "Oh, come out with me. Let's go for a walk and look for the signs of spring." She'd get all excited when the crocuses were coming up. She never lost that kind of childlike enthusiasm for nature and beauty. Her whole way of looking at the world, I either inherited or learned.
DP: Your mother says in the movie: "Did I ever do anything else in life but sew?" What's your answer to that?
CK: Isn't that a great line? She did a lot but she spent a lot of hours in those years sewing every dress she owned. Literally. The film includes the animation with the dresses. You know she made all of those evening gowns? All of them. That's a lot of work.
LC: I love the stories of your mom coming into New York City and looking in the windows of Bergdorf Goodman and sketching what she sees and going home and making it.
CK: Well, first she would go to the lower East Side and buy the fabrics cheaply and then make her own patterns. That's where she got her designs.
LC: Amazing. She was really talented.
DP: So, looking back, maybe your mother could have gone into clothes design and your father could have gone into photography for a living. So did they choose not only the wrong mates but also the wrong professions?
CK: When my mother was in her sixties, she actually started to do ceramics and sold it where she lived in Long Island. She had a booth and she did that for herself. If she thought of herself as a designer she could have sold the clothes she made to stores in New York, and she definitely would have been very much happier because she would have felt confident. Even making ceramics made her much more balanced and a centered person. My father was different. He had to make money and support the family and that was really what he wanted to do and was trained to do by his parents. I am not saying he was in the wrong profession, but certainly he would have been more fulfilled if he had worked in a creative field. He was poor growing up and was just someone who was never given the opportunity to think about what he really wanted to do. He told me a story that was staggering to me. When I first realized he was an amazing photographer I said to him, "When you were younger was there a time when you really wanted to do something like photography? Was there a dream you had about a certain profession?" And he looked at me like I was crazy. And he said, "That I wanted to do? I never would have even thought of it that way. When I was fourteen, my parents sat me down and said I had to make a certain amount of money." They told him, "You have to support us and you have to support yourself and you are going to be a doctor or a lawyer or an accountant. It's your choice but you have to support us." His rebellion was being a dentist. He went to medical school but decided to switch to dental school and his parents disowned him! They screamed at him and said If you are not going to become a doctor we are not paying for you. For years he had to work full-time to put himself through dental school because they wouldn't help him. And then they finally realized that he was serious. But they were very unhappy, presumably because dentists don't make as much money as doctors. So they thought it was a real stupid choice.
DP: There are a lot of old love songs on your soundtrack. So is the movie a love story?
CK: No. The love songs are herded into a ten-minute section in which we go back in time into what might have been a love story. I felt there was some irony to how the music is used. It was extremely romantic and nostalgic, as things seemed to be at that time, but things weren't really as they seemed.
DP: What are your thoughts about the obsessive-love documentary Crazy Love? Is there a connection to your film?
CK: There is no connection at all because that story is just so crazy, except that I do think it's amazing what people choose in their lives and put up with. It's a mystery why people still stay together after treating each other so badly. You can never figure it out.
DP: Lisa, you seem to animate on an emotional level, which is kind of an interesting concept. Do you see this film as an emotional experience?
LC: Well, it really made me think a lot about those questions about why people stay together. During the years that we were working on it, different friends became single or became couples and I started looking at it with the eyes of time that Cindy shows us in this film. Diverging a little bit: I had seen so many cuts of the film and when I finally saw it finished in a theater, it was remarkably moving and to me very successful. I was thinking of it in the way that Phyllis talks, "Well, I had this feeling that I was looking up at the cosmos and all the stars and all of time." That's how I felt and I was really channeling Phyllis in how I reacted to it. Because it felt like we were seeing something sort of deep and profound and timeless.
DP: Because you know Cindy how does that translate into your work on this film? Would you do the same work if you didn't know her?
LC: I would have made a point of knowing her. It's how I work. When I collaborate I really like to become part of the project in as deep a way as I can.
CK: She asked a lot of questions and got to know me a lot better than she had before.
DP: How did Ricky react to the film?
CK: I was very terrified of her reaction. But she really loves it. I think it kind of helped her see the family objectively in a way that was refreshing to her and allowed her to sort of let go. She's seen it quite a few times and loves being a star also.
DP: Your mother loved being photographed. Would she have liked to have been in movies?
CK: She loved being in mine. The fact that Phyllis and Harold is opening in Cinema Village and that she is not here to see it is one of the saddest things. I burst into tears just thinking about it. Wherever she is, shes shopping for the right gown to wear.
DP: Did she see the footage?
CK: She saw the early short film and saw them reading the love letters to each other and a little bit more of the raw footage. I kept waiting because I wanted to show her the film finished. I didn't want her to see a rough cut because it would have been hard to explain to her what was rough about it. I kept waiting to show it to her and then she died so she never got to see it.
DP: What would your father's reaction have been to your movie?
CK: I think he would love the movie. I think he would be really proud of me and wouldn't see the bad stuff. I think he would be amused by it. That's my guess. They both would love being celebrities on the red carpet.
DP: Is there a sadness in that you have to put this film to bed? Or is it a relief that you put it to bed?
CK (laughing): A big relief. I'm really glad I did it. I don't often watch it at screenings, but when I do my responses vary. Sometimes it makes me really sad about the story and my parents being gone. I miss them. And the other response I have is that I am so glad I made it, just as a document, because there they are. They are still alive in the film. And every time I see I them I say, "Oh, my God, there they are." It is so much like bringing them back to life every time.
DP: They will be famous. They will be part of movie history.
CK(laughing): Hopefully.
DP: I wish I had a film of my parents.
CK:. A lot of people say that. A lot of people see it and they, "Oh my God, I so wish that I had done that as a document." I did it with my grandmother, too. It keeps them right there in a strange way. The last time I saw the movie was last summer, Andre and I watched it together and it was in an audience in Martha's Vineyard with about 300 people in the audience and after two minutes of the opening Andre leaned over and said too loudly, "Oh, my God. Phyllis is so good tonight!" And we cracked up because I totally understood what he meant. It was like we were watching a live performance.
LC: Right. Film does that. It's weird when you see your film over and over. The audience gives the film a totally different meaning. And sometimes it's a wonderful revelation and sometimes it's horrible and you want to run screaming out of there.
CK: Yeah. "Oh my God. How did I make this horrible thing?" I'm very curious to see how the film plays at the Cinema Village. It's been at a lot of festivals around the world but this is going to be the first movie theater audience. It's exciting!


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