Tribeca 2023 Interview: Robert Lyons and Jeremy Workman on a Moment for Choice in “Deciding Vote”

Local news crews back in 1970 were dispatched to the New York State capital in Albany to do something rare in those days, keeping the cameras rolling for an entire session of the State Assembly when the debate over a bill that would make abortion legal through the first 24 weeks of pregnancy was on the docket. They were indeed about to witness history when legislators would pass the broadest laws at the time legalizing a woman’s right to choose, then a rarity with only Hawaii making abortion legal for its residents, but the odds were stacked against it when such legislation had been denied even getting to the floor for discussion the year before and both the State Assembly and the State Senate had Republican majorities.

It isn’t only the footage of the floor debate that Jeremy Workman and Rob Lyons restore to its full glory in “Deciding Vote,” but the notion that open-minded political discourse can take place on the most heated of issues as they observe State Assemblyman George Michaels change his position in dramatic fashion, breaking a deadlock in the Assembly and paving the way for a law that would become a precursor to the Roe vs. Wade decision when it became model legislation for abortion rights across the country. Michaels was a Democrat, but he represented the predominantly Catholic and conservative community of Auburn in upstate New York, acknowledging that with his vote, he was essentially giving up his seat in the Assembly. Yet as noted in the 20-minute short, the vote wasn’t along traditional partisan lines, ultimately signed into law by a Republican governor, and for Michaels personally, it wasn’t an easy conclusion to come to when his own beliefs may have steered him towards voting against the bill, but talks with women in his life, including his daughter-in-law Sarah, led him to believe it was the right thing to do.

For as much attention as the vote received at the time, it is a moment that has largely fallen through the cracks of history in spite of the profound impact it would have, yet Workman and Lyons find as they speak to Michaels’ children Jim and Lee, as well as many others who have dedicated their lives to keeping the memory of it alive, that there is considerable enduring power in the example of someone setting their personal politics aside for the greater good and that swimming against the tide at one point could mean being at the crest later. With the eye-opening doc set to premiere at Tribeca this week, Workman and Lyons graciously took the time to talk about dipping into the past to find such a vital story, freeing the conversation around politics from its typically rigid dimensions and finding time and again how one person can make a difference.

How did this come about?

Jeremy Workman: It came about in an odd way where a older friend of ours Doran [Steger] approached us and said, “There’s this crazy story about the 1970 abortion bill and this one assemblyman. No one knows this story and I think it could make for an amazing documentary.” And Rob and I heard this story and [thought], “This sounds really crazy and incredible.” Sure enough, it really wasn’t that publicized and we saw the original speech, which at the time you could only find in crappy formats on YouTube, and we all decided it could make for a great short film. It was all during the pandemic and Rob and I were doing a lot of other projects at the same time, so we just took it slowly…

Robert Lyons: We reached out to Jim [Michaels, George’s son], who was amazingly supportive and we had some Zoom conversations with them. At that time, we were thinking about the 50th anniversary of the legislation, but we didn’t want to make a Zoom movie. We really wanted to actually shoot it with him in person and take our time with it because we knew that Roe was in jeopardy, even at that time. It seemed like it was only increasing in importance as we worked on it, and then it shocked us when Roe repealed and then we really felt like it was that much more and redoubled our efforts at that point.

Jeremy Workman: Yeah, it was amazing how little known this story was and that blindsided Rob and I. We assumed it’s in lots of documentaries and you would think there must be a wing of him about him at museums, but that really was not the case.

Robert Lyons: It seems like it could almost have been a Jimmy Stewart Hollywood movie — this dramatic moment where he changes his vote, and when we started doing research, the dialogue and the bipartisanship [around] the issue at that time was so different than it is now. He was a Democrat, but at the time it was his party who was against him, so it was fascinating and the debate itself really struck us as we dug into it. It really moved me to hear people on both sides of the aisle having a vigorous debate about the issue and it wasn’t as black and white as it is today. That aspect of faith and family that you never hear of in this context being used as an argument for pro-choice legislation feels like it’s been co-opted in the modern day, so it felt so important for that reason to me.

Jeremy Workman: Yeah, the co-author of the original bill, Constance Cook, was a Republican, and we were constantly surprised at how different things were at that time than they are today in the political landscape.

Unless I’m wrong, this is actually your first archival-based film, though there’s plenty of interviews in the present day. Was it a different way to approach a story?

Jeremy Workman: That was one of the reasons why I was so excited to get involved and also why I wanted to have a co-director with Rob. It was so different from the other projects that I had done, which are these verite ride-alongs where it’s usually me with a camera running behind somebody, and obviously the archival was incredible, but I didn’t really know how to even do one of these kinds of movies. So we went really slow. Given that it was a 20-minute movie, we really took years to figure out how to get the material, how to access the family, how to connect with archival and historical groups up there in upstate New York. It was just a different kind of filmmaking.

And we did start with the Michaels family, and with Jim. He just gave us a ton of information just about what was happening behind the scenes with the family and that was so interesting [because it involved] these major political issues, but it was the kitchen table is where this thing got swung [with] Sarah’s involvement as the daughter-in-law. They were so compelling once we started talking about the issues and while we were still researching and watching a lot of archival footage, slowly it just developed where their story mimicked what was happening in the [New York congressional] chamber rooms, so that’s how it came together, but it was very slow and methodical in that way. We spent a lot of time with them over Zoom before we went and shot them individually. There was definitely a moment where we were considering this as an all-archival documentary, but we found the family so interesting that here we were 50 years later and there was still such an impact on them from this.

Robert Lyons: It had this major ripple effect where [George Michaels’] grandchildren feel such a positive impact of his actions and he really suffered for his decision in that moment. His career was ruined and the family suffered in the short term, but then it really had this amazing positive effect on the family and our country and the world. It’s amazing the power of what one person can do and it was unique how clearly delineated that moment was.

Outside the family, I was also interested in how the past could meet the present in that visit to the Cayuga Museum of History and Art where letters to George Michaels following his statement were kept. There’s a great scene where Rebecca Fitzgerald, an archivist begins talking about her own experiences at the time while she’s looking at the letters. Did this open up those conversations?

Robert Lyons: That was an amazing afternoon after we had. The Cayuga Museum was amazingly supportive and they have all of his archives, so they had been sending us information and we knew there was an archivist, but we didn’t know Rebecca directly because we’d been dealing with the museum director. We hadn’t really planned it because there are two museums up there, and Jeremy and I went over there to go just see the archive, but then when we met Rebecca, Jeremy whipped out the camera quickly and and it became so compelling to us as we looked at the footage because it’s amazing how this obscure piece of legislation really has such an impact on everybody. Everybody’s got a relationship to it and her story was so compelling that she became the star of our movie in that moment.

Jeremy Workman: It was neat because it wasn’t like some big planned interview where we cast the net and found her. It was literally just me and Rob showing up.

Robert Lyons: Yeah, she’s not looking for accolades. She’s a volunteer doing that and she would be working away on the fourth floor in this little cubby even if we weren’t there and it’s just her passion for it and her meticulous handling of these materials was so impressive. It’s extraordinary that people like that exist in this world and finding her and being able to see how that archival kind of came alive with her was, we were really lucky that became part of the story. That’s when we started realizing like, “Wow, there’s really something powerful here and it really has its tendrils in all these different places with different people.” Another surprise was Ruth Messinger and her excitement — she teaches about George Michaels as a lesson in moral courage, and we had hoped that we could film her in a classroom, but she’s still [teaching] mostly remotely, so we got that little bit of a Zoom. She speaks so eloquently and was really great with letting us come in and film her talking about it. That was our approach, [to making this] — that it was light and keep things informal a bit.

Jeremy Workman: There are these people that have really been championing the George Michaels story for the last 50 years, and not in a way where it’s big and out in public, but she’s been one of them. We just thought that was amazing and then Rob and I really connected also to the fact that here was this man doing this at the time this was [seen] as an issue mostly for women yet he understood that sometimes you have to embrace an identity that’s not your own to make change and that spoke to us as well as filmmakers.

Has the family gotten a chance to see it yet or will they at Tribeca?

Robert Lyons: We did share an early version with them and it’s changed a little bit, but we did share it with all the relatives] who were in the film and he has a lot of grandchildren and other people who haven’t seen it yet who are planning to [see it] during Tribeca, so we’re excited to hear that. But they definitely gave us the thumbs up on our early take and we’re so appreciative to them. It really is a tribute to the family and honoring them as well.

Jeremy Workman: Yeah, Sarah, the daughter-in-law, was also really interesting. She’s worked at Syracuse University in the accounting department most of her life and it was just really amazing when you could tell that she realized like her role in this. That moment where she says like, “This was maybe the most important part of my life.”

Robert Lyons: It almost like dawned on her as she was speaking. And she seemed to really appreciate having her story told too. We got along with the family so well. We visited them in their homes and we were going after that kitchen table feel, because that’s where these conversations were happening and affected the legislation, and they were just so welcoming. We’ve had such a good time getting to know them.

Jeremy Workman: Yeah, can you imagine that? You’re Sarah and you’re just like realizing, “Wait, was [am I] the person that really convinced George Michaels [to change his vote]?” And then this led to Roe v. Wade. It’s crazy.

“Deciding Vote” will screen at Tribeca Festival at the AMC 19th St. East on June 8th at 8:15 pm, June 9th at 2:30 pm and June 17th at 3:30 pm, and June 14th at 6 pm at the Village East. It will also screen at DC/Dox in Washington D.C. as part of the Shorts Program 1: Against the Grain on June 16th at 11 am at the Edlavitch Jewish Community Center.

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