Camille Thoman was on her way home from a successful debut of her documentary “The Longest Game” at the Woodstock Film Festival this past weekend when she discovered that the film missed out on the festival’s audience award by just one vote.
“Neither Elizabeth [Yng Wong], the producer, or I voted,” laughs Thoman. “I learned a big lesson.”
Consider it a continuation of the education Thoman received while making “The Longest Game,” a film about Hal, Charlie and Maurie, a trio of 87-year-old men who get together every day when the clock strikes 1 p.m. to play the relatively obscure sport of paddle tennis (like doubles’ tennis, except played on a smaller court with solid paddles as opposed to racquets). Yet it isn’t just their pursuit of the little-known game that makes the film distinctive, but Thoman’s instinctual approach to her subjects, which deviates from the well-trodden narrative that older folks can be just as active and engaged with the world as the young to something far more probing about the slippery nature of memory, the connections we make that are truly important and an appreciation of the little things that continue to make life worth living.
“The Longest Game” is just as spry and eager to tease as its subjects, who more than once draw Thoman into the frame to talk about her own life plans. Clips from old game shows, reels of Super 8 home movies and interviews filmed in the present day all harmoniously blend into a stream of consciousness curated by Thoman, who actually says at one particular point, “This is relevant, but I can’t figure out why.” But she ultimately does, finding the warmth in the three old gents during a particularly chilly winter in Vermont that one compares to having “10 pounds of ham for two people” as well as placing their wisdom and experience into a universal context.
As she was recovering from the film’s premiere, Thoman took the time to talk about how she first met Hal, Charlie and Maurie, why it was important to follow her instincts wherever they may have led and also why there won’t be much difference between this light documentary and her next effort, a dark thriller called “You Were Never Here” that’s set to be produced by Zachary Quinto’s company Before the Door.
My mother has a home in Dorset, Vermont and one day, about three-and-a-half years ago, she said, “Hey, come play paddle tennis with me.” I thought it was ping pong. It was right around 1 p.m. and we went in to what’s called the “Paddle Hut.” There they were [Hal, Charlie and Maurie] and I’m not somebody who’s easily transported, but I was so charmed by them, almost embarrassingly charmed. They were being really adorable with my mom and I and I was laughing so hard with their jokes. I left thinking, “Oh, I’ll spend the weekend in Dorset and make a five-minute movie about these lovely old men.” Pretty soon, we were making a film about a lot more than the old men. It became this movie about the game of life that we all play.
Did that evolve even after shooting? It was interesting to read a synopsis on IndieGoGo in 2011 and see that while it’s still a film about ageism, which sounded like your intent then, it’s about quite a few other things now.
To be honest, it was pretty early in the process. What I struggled with for a long time was how to talk about it. I knew that I was making this film that was about ageism and it would be good for people who are getting older to watch. Ageism is a big problem and this would be a very human film. But ultimately, the story of the film is my story, it’s your story, it’s his story, it’s her story, and when you’re 87, you’re not really that different. An 87-year old man is not really that different from a 35-year old woman. We are all on the wheel of life.
Although I was talking about that on the Indiegogo [page], it took a long time for me to explain to people. It was pretty early in the edit that I started bringing in these clips [of old television shows], these human moments captured in time that really resonated for me. I followed the string basically very early in the filming. I would allow the comments that would come up that the guys to take me on a tangent. When Charlie started joking about Joanne Woodward, I started Googling Joanne Woodward and I came across some clips. They really resonated with me and I wanted to include them.
There’s actually an interesting intersection there because it’s mentioned late in the film that your producer Elizabeth Yng-Wong was actually making her own documentary about her father, who appears as a contestant on “To Tell the Truth.” Were those things intertwined?
Yes. I knew I was making a film about how our stories are mirrored by each other and about change and these cycles. We build careers and relationships and we build and we build. Sometimes these things we build blind us to the larger truth that connect us, the vast forces of time and change. I knew I was making that movie and I saw Elizabeth on her parallel track, where she would also say, “Oh, I’m making film about change.” Then I saw the clip of her father saying, “If we see the universe as motion rather than structure then it will change the lens through which we view everything” and when I saw that, even though my film looked different and felt different, that was really what it was about, so I really wanted to include that. I was so amazed at the synchronicity of it, especially as I was making a film about how our stories marry each other.
It’s really interesting in that respect since it seems like the film is going after something on a very subconscious level. There’s a connection between how you conduct the interviews on the paddle tennis courts with the guys in a slightly surreal way with the editing rhythms to your use of personal narration. It’s quite distinctive. Was it difficult to develop that kind of internal logic into a cohesive style?
It is all totally related. You’re right. It’s different but it’s not. The rhythms of it mirror where these guys are in their lives — that they have led these lives, but as we all do, because they’re in their late 80s and their noses are pressed up to the glass of their own mortality, the structures are falling away. The film itself, I think, begins in a very conventionally narrative place, then it really does move to a more dreamlike, poetic place.
I also wanted to mirror our own rhythms, the way we do have these communal moments that are very structured. We’re out there in life, playing the game, going through our checklists, doing what we need to do, then we have these moments that are left uncharted. The whole film really looks at the relationship between these underlying forces, the dreams and the fluidity between us and the ways in which we’re connected and [how] the life and death cycles and artificial elements of the structures in our life sometimes blind us to the underlying stuff.
Then in terms of the guys on the court, I never wanted to pretend that Elizabeth and I weren’t there. A lot of the aesthetics of the film definitely look at what’s fictitious and what’s not fictitious and presenting the stuff of our quotidian life possibly as a fiction. I really wanted the film itself to be a story, that the film was my story and then Hal has his story and he has a Super 8 footage and he uses very filmic language to describe his own life.
It’s this idea that all the world’s a stage and life is but a dream and life is a game, yet at the same time, we’re all playing this game. At one point, one of the characters say, “We’re all in it together.” That’s what the film is trying to say with all its visuals.
You’ve actually come from both the stage as a performance artist and narrative filmmaking. Was it any different to make a documentary or is all just storytelling?
It is a very different process, but at the same time I would be almost more inclined to say it’s all storytelling. I really believe in following this little inner voice that almost pulls at my collar and says, “This is what you need to focus on right now.” For instance, if one of the men is talking about something that I don’t consciously understand how it can be related [to the main subject], but I have this inner voice that says, “Film this or film it like this, make it this, make it like this,” I don’t know while I’m doing it why, but I know I have to follow that thread. In my narrative work, I really let the voice lead me and then I understand later the logic in it.
It was also interesting to me how the film broadens its scope as it progresses. You don’t meet the men’s significant others until later in the film, but there’s an impact with their presence. Was gender as interesting a dynamic to explore as age?
All my narrative stuff is very centered on women and I’m a big believer in female protagonists, but at the same with this story, it was about the 1:00 players and they were all male. As we got to know them and spend more time with them, we explored their relationships to their wives and it felt important to include some of the perspective of the wives. At one point one of the wives joked, “Why are you making a movie about paddle tennis? Why aren’t you making a documentary about our bridge group?” The story was the the 1:00 players, so I kept it anchored more in the men and if the wives hadn’t wanted us around from the beginning, we would never made the documentary in the first place.
You’re actually set to make your first narrative feature after this, a thriller. Is it interesting to make that leap?
Actually, they’re all the same. I keep exploring the same themes over and over. It seems like my short film [“Falling Objects”] was about the end of a relationship, but really, it was about the cycles of change that we are all just inexorably in and the thriller [“You Were Never Here”] is an identity thriller, so even though it very Hitchcockian and has a very exciting plot and lots of twists and turns that will hopefully keep the audience very engaged, it still turns on the same axis of these structures that we think we live in and we really hold on to and try to control. And the reality is that we are not in control. Everything is always changing and in flux, and that actually is scary. It actually makes for a good thriller — that idea of the tenuousness of what we like to believe is fixed and stable and it’s really not. There is something slightly eerie about “The Longest Game” and I think there’s something eerie probably about my short films and the thriller will be considerably more eerie.
“The Longest Game” will be released through 7th Art Releasing. It will air on Vermont PBS on May 3rd at 7 pm.