Lucky number 13 of our series of interviews with some of 2008's top nonfiction filmmakers...
Morgan Dews' MUST READ AFTER MY DEATH had its US premiere in June at the Los Angeles Film Festival, but, like Tommy Davis' ONE MINUTE TO NINE, it had already had a strong run on the international film festival circuit before it hit stateside, even though it's a truly American story.
Based on audio tape diaries and audio correspondence between his grandparents in the late 1950s and early 1960s, the film is a beautiful, dreamlike accounting of a troubled family in the midst of changing times, particularly differing attitudes toward sex, mental health and psychiatry. It gets a US limited theatrical release via Gigantic next month.
In this exchange, Morgan talks about his discovery of the archival material at the heart of his film, convincing his family to trust him with their painful past and what he's learned about film festivals after his go 'round with MUST READ.
So part of the background of MUST READ AFTER MY DEATH is the discovery of a series of letters and audio recordings left by your grandmother, which reveals not only a very surprising dynamic between her and your grandfather, but also shines a light on the era in which they lived. Tell me about the discovery of your grandmother's archives and your decision to make a film about them.
I grew up very close with my grandmother Allis. I spent a lot of time up at her place in Vermont and had pretty much free rein of the woods and attic and shed. I'm not sure if she showed me their old 8mm home moves or I just dug them up, but from a very early age I was setting up screenings and watching them.
My mother and uncles were already sick of them as children. All they could remember is their father chasing them around with huge lights and making them do multiple takes coming down the stairs on Christmas morning. My brother and cousins weren't interested in them so when Allis died in 2001 I took the 200 odd reels back with me to Barcelona.
I took my time splicing them onto bigger reels and taking notes on all the footage. There was only a little more than eight hours of material, but all that film is unwieldy. I thought I could use Allis' letters or a memoir that she had written and make an interesting short film out of the material.
Then in spring of 2004 two interesting things happened. First I got a package of cds from my Uncle Bruce. He had found the dictaphone letters in a box somewhere, bought a machine on eBay and transferred it all to CD and sent it out to the whole family. Now these are about ten hours of audio letters my grandparents and their children sent back and forth when Charley, my grandfather, was away on business.
Secondly, I went out to dinner with Bruce's ex-wife Barbara. We hadn't seen each other since their divorce in the 80s. She hadn't had such a great relationship with Allis. When I told her I had all of Allis' home movies she asked me if I was going to be using the tapes. I asked if she meant the dictaphone letters and she said no. She said about the time Bruce had been sent to the mental institution, Allis had driven around with a portable reel-to-reel tape recorder making diaries to give to her shrink.
I was pretty excited. Barbara assured me that these tapes still existed. I made some calls and sure enough, they were still out in the shed. I arranged for them to come to my mothers for our first big family Thanksgiving since Allis died. We got a reel to reel tape recorder and I spent thanksgiving week putting it all onto a hard-drive.
Once I got home and heard the tapes I realized that there was a very different film in there. It also really excited me that the material mirrored the outrageous pressure to conformity of the fifties that lead to the social upheaval of the '60s. This story is really about what that process looks like inside a suburban home with the shades drawn.
The tapes are so intimate and revealing, I kept wondering whether there was ever any thought within your family that maybe it's not such a good idea if Morgan turns these into a movie?
Yes. In fact when I told my mother and uncles that I was making a film out of these tapes they were pretty taken aback. "Yikes!" they said, "and listen, that's a box of random recordings of the worst moments of the worst years of our childhood. We don't even know what's in there."
I said that in order to find funding for the film, they were going to have to trust me and sign release forms. They said, "Make your film and show it to us, and if we're OK with we'll sign the forms."
A lot of people told me that this could be a real disaster. But I think when people put their stories in your hands you have a big responsibility to portray them in a way that they find acceptable. I don't think having a release relieves you from your responsibility. Plus this is about how my family disintegrated forty years ago. This is something that we're all still recovering from and the last thing I would do is something to make things hard for us again.