What’s most immediately striking about Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady’s latest film, “Norman Lear: Another Version of You” is how the filmmakers, known largely for such revealing verite films such as “Jesus Camp,” “12th and Delaware” and “Detropia,” decided to go about their first biography, taking a form that’s often staid and enlivening it by applying similar techniques that they’ve been so successful with in evoking a strong sense of place to the towering presence of the showrunner behind such shows as “All in the Family,” “The Jeffersons,” “Good Times,” “Maude” and “Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman.” The two shake things up by conducting interviews with Lear and other luminaries such as Mel Brooks, Carl Reiner, George Clooney, and Russell Simmons on a soundstage set up as if it were a proscenium, with screens projecting Lear’s TV shows reflecting back at the interviewees to inspire reaction, much as the shows once did to millions of Americans in turbulent times, mirroring the culture they lived in with a much-needed laughtrack. The film’s theatricality gives credence to the notion that life is a performance, with few so able to channel the rage and rebellion of those who felt out of sync with society as Lear, who could not only cut to the quick but do so with a sense of humor.
“I feel like they’re all totally relevant, more now than ever,” Rachel Grady said of revisiting Lear’s shows now for the film. “There was an ability to be so politically incorrect and so edgy that despite the fact that we have a thousand things you can watch now, a lot of [which] is outrageous, it’s different than what he did, which is satire with things that are dead serious – with race, with sexism, with racism, with politics. When we shared the shows with, say, our interns or assistant editors that never had seen them, their jaws dropped.”
The revelations won’t only come for those just discovering Lear’s work now, but for anyone who was weaned on his revolutionary sitcoms, dipping in and out of his personal history to connect it as a creative wellspring for each show despite his guarded nature. (As son Ben says, at one point, ”I learned more from his book than him about [his time in] World War II.”) Whether it’s Lear tearfully recalling how listening to the antisemitic radio sermons of Father Charles Coughlin that he’d enduring growing up, ultimately leading him to enlist in the army, or relating the tension between himself and Carroll O’Connor that fed into “All in the Family,” when the latter would become responsible to the public for the incendiary things Lear would write to provoke, the film never feels as though it exists in the past, but the present in which the 92-year-old is still very much active. Shortly before the film hits theaters following a premiere earlier this year at Sundance, Ewing and Grady spoke about making this fusion of personal and national history, drawing out the purest of observations from their interviewees and trailing the endlessly energetic Lear over the course of his promotional tour for his autobiography.
Heidi Ewing: We met Norman a couple years ago on another project and we were startled to learn very quickly that there was no documentary film about his life. He was 92. Since he was writing his autobiography, and he had never been ready to allow someone to take a pass at his life and he was going to get his own story out there, we thought it was a good time to see if he might be ready to turn over his life to filmmakers. It turned out he was, and luckily, he was a fan of our work.
Rachel Grady: We started a couple years ago, and Norman had no editorial control on the film, and we quickly learned that he has a real respect for the artistic process, [which] of course is partly how he got to where he’s gotten to – trusting other people to do their jobs, so he was really ready to go. For us, it was our first-ever attempt at a biographical movie, so that brought its own challenges that we hadn’t experienced before, but it was also a very hyper-creative experience for us, aside from being just a real pleasure to get to know Norman.
You take inspiration from the idea that all the world’s a stage with a little boy running around a theater – how did you decide that was a good way to frame this film about Norman?
Heidi Ewing: There’s a whimsicality to Norman, and also, to be quite frank, sometimes Norman feels like an orphan. When he was nine years old, his life changed in every possible way – his father went to jail and he was no longer living with his mother, he got his first brush with antisemitism and racism and [realized] that it existed in the world – and a lot of formative moments happened in his life between nine and 10. Everything that he ended up focusing on and getting into as an adult stems from this absolutely pivotal year, so we wanted to figure out a way to make that clear and to make that a very active part of his story.
Rachel Grady: Of course, there’s no material of that, but there is material of his work that we feel was influenced by these experiences, so the trick was being able to fold all of these things into each other and we often saw flashes of that kid in his face when he was answering questions, so we thought we would introduce this whimsical device in the film. We call him Norman’s alter ego or avatar, and we just thought that it would add a layer of richness visually. We jumped off a cliff, and it organically developed from there.
You wind up getting some really interesting responses as a result of showing some of your interviewees, including Norman, clips from his shows. How did that idea come about?
Heidi Ewing: Norman told us once over lunch, and also it’s in his book, that he used to go to the tapings of “All in the Family,” stand in the back, and watch the audience and his favorite moment would be when the entire audience all laughed at once, leaning forward in that motion that humans do when they’re laughing really hard, and he would get such great pleasure out of watching the audience watch the show. When we were developing our aesthetic for the film, we thought before we did the first interview, “Well, let’s show some clips to certain people, but we’re not going to tell them which clips, and we’ll film them watching the clips.” So we invented this green-screen concept so that the audience would be able to watch the clip and the person watch at the same time. It was amazing how emotional and pleasurable it is to watch someone else watch themselves, and because you’re across the stage, you’re seeing all kinds of emotion and memory and nostalgia and regret that you don’t get to see if you’re just watching a full-frame clip.
With people like Rob Reiner and Russell Simmons and Norman himself, you’re reliving through someone’s facial expressions something that they remember and lived themselves, so it’s weirdly intimate. We were surprised with the kind of emotion that this device yielded – again, it’s something we tried and we continued to do it because it worked.
Beyond Norman’s inner circle, how did you decide which people to talk to?
Rachel Grady: We didn’t actually interview that many people, and we wanted just the right sampling, because the guy knows everybody in the entire world. He has six kids, so we basically interviewed one child from his first set of children, and then we interviewed someone from his second set. We interviewed George Clooney because of their liberal activism [together] and they have that connection. We interviewed Rob Reiner because he was in his shows, and they made each other’s careers in a way. We looked at all the things we wanted to hit and we picked ten people.
Heidi Ewing: Sadly, the vast majority of Norman’s collaborators are no longer with us, which is something that really saddens Norman. He’s outlived almost everyone, including Sherman Hemsley, who was George Jefferson, and of course, Bea Arthur, who was Maude – [that’s] his very favorite person in the world. There’s almost no one left that collaborated with him, so we tried to bring them back through clips we found from the past, like Esther Rolle, for example.
And you don’t want to be interviewing 50, 60 people for no reason. We actually cut six or seven people out of the film, sadly. We did interview Louise Lasser and Mary Kay Place and different people that were great, but we didn’t want it to be a smorgasbord of too many people. We wanted the film to feel focused and seamless, so those were very difficult choices in the end and Norman really does a great job of telling a lot of the stories well because he was doing his book.
It does feel entirely present, even though there’s that mix of archival and new material. Since I typically consider your work to be verite, is it interesting to find that energy in recounting history?
Rachel Grady: Yes. For us, it was a new challenge. As we said, we’ve never done this genre before, but [Norman] is a tough character to follow around and do observational filmmaking. He invented television. He is extremely camera aware, so we got just enough, I feel, to hold together the archival [material] and really make it feel like a present-day film, which of course, it is.
We actually have a lot of different types of material to play with. We had the recreations, a little observational, the archivall, the book reading, the shows, and then of course, we had the interviews. The trick was making it not feel like a kitchen sink, but feeling like …
Heidi Ewing: Or a chicken sink!
Rachel Grady: …As Mary Hartman would probably say. That was the nut to crack, which is to make all these things feel like they informed each other.
Heidi Ewing: Also, in “Detropia,” but we did some of the same interplaying with Detroit then and now. In a lot of ways, this is a film about memories. It’s about reflection. We had some fun moments in the film where we do that cut from a Santa Monica Boulevard in the 1940s to Santa Monica Boulevard now or those quick cuts between Norman going on these talk shows in the ’70s and Norman now, and it’s like the more things change, the more things stay the same. That was all supposed to reflect the idea of taking a moment and remembering, because Norman is somebody who likes to say, “Over, next, onward. He’s like a silver bullet – he only moves forward, only thinking about tomorrow. It’s very hard to get someone like that to reflect, and because he’d just written his book, and we pounced on that one moment to get him to sit and remember.