When Paige Goldberg Tolmach started conversations with Mark Monroe, the longtime invisible hand behind such documentaries as a screenwriter on “Icarus” and “Chasing Ice,” about the best way to frame “What Haunts Us,” in which she returned to her home of Charleston, South Carolina to tell the story of the sexual abuse scandal that occurred at the school she attended, she thought she had a pretty good idea of how it would go.
“It’s my first film, but my personality is such that I want to control everything and I know how to get everything done, [so] I was like, ‘Mark, here’s the movie. This is going to happen and this happens and this.” And Mark’s like, “Ok, just go shoot some film,’” recalls Goldberg Tolmach, with a laugh. “And what Mark knew that I didn’t and I came to understand is that these movies find themselves. It took me a long time to take a breath, stand back and say, ‘You know what? I don’t have this. I’m not in charge of this movie. This movie’s in charge of me.’ And when you let the movie find its own way and you follow that, then you have a movie.”
It’s how “What Haunts Us” became as much of a revelation for its director as it does for an audience, despite the fact that she had long wanted to tell the story of what happened at Porter-Gaud, her old prep school. Though she had moved to Los Angeles in the intervening years, Goldberg Tolmach was never too far away from the past as she recollects in her debut feature, reminded with updates from back home of the class action lawsuit filed against the school in 1998 and the occasional phone call about fellow alums who committed suicide after coming into contact with Eddie Fischer, a trainer for the football team. Yet time and geography aren’t the obstacles Goldberg Tolmach encounters with “What Haunts Us,” but rather how people can insert their own distance towards traumatic events as she gradually learns as many details about Fischer’s crimes as how they were allowed to persist over a 40-year teaching career when few, if any, had the courage to speak up.
Goldberg Tolmach spares no one, including herself, in illustrating how a school fearful of reprisal and a prideful community, resistant to any charges that would bring shame to their good name, largely looked the other way, intentionally or not, when evidence mounted against Fischer, even when Guerry Glover came forward with a formal accusation of molestation. As much as the director conducts a standard investigation of her own by interviewing Glover and other survivors, she interrogates herself and those close to her just as rigorously to ask why there wasn’t more suspicion raised by the teacher who would openly invite male students over to house parties and choose to groom those hailing from of the city’s most prominent families. For a scandal that was hiding in plain sight, Goldberg Tolmach makes “What Haunts Us” undeniable and particularly insightful as the fallout from systemic sexual abuse scandals such as the ones roiling the US women’s gymnastic program continue to play out. With the film in contention during the awards season following a release this past spring, the filmmaker spoke about digging into the past, using animation to help illustrate such a difficult subject and premiering the film in Charleston.
How did this come about?
It’s interesting because it changes as I think about it more and more, but the truth is this was a story that was in me for a really, really long time and I just didn’t know it. I became a mom and I started to see the world in a really different way and I really wanted to investigate and understand what had really happened at my school because here I was now a mom who needed to know how to protect her kid. I knew something horrible had happened in my past, and I [thought], “How was that allowed to happen?” And as I got deeper and deeper into [investigating] the story, I realized I knew nothing and my classmates didn’t really know the truth, so I thought it was important to document it and make sure that we knew it as well as other parents in the world.
You reveal relatively early in the film that a box is sent to you with all kinds of material related to the case – how far along in the process were you when that happened?
As you can imagine, I had to be super-delicate in the way I handed this because nobody really wanted to talk about this anymore. It took me a couple of years to gain the trust of people who would ultimately talk to me. When I finally started to have really great conversations with Guerry Glover, he would send me to another person who would then send me to two more people, and then to two more and on and on. And I gathered all these people and and one of them said to me, “I’ve got a box of stuff I’ve collected all of these years. Do you want it?” And I was like, “Yeah, I want to know what was in that box.” And I sobbed through [looking at] the whole thing. There were newspaper articles and tons of transcripts, but the videotapes, which we end up using in the film, were heartbreaking to watch because they told such a personal part of the story that I never knew. That kind of killed me.
In the way that testimony was filmed, it looked like there might’ve been a previous attempt at a film. Was there?
What they had done is a group of the young men had come together – Guerry was one of them – and this was probably right after the trial, in the year 2000 or so, they said, “We really want people to know the true story and to really understand it. This should be a narrative film.” But they didn’t know how to do that, so they did some research and through a friend of a friend, found a screenwriter who wanted to write the narrative version. [The screenwriter] came to town to do her research like any good writer does and she [made] tapes of these people so she could use them as characters. And they owned this material, but they had never really done anything with it, so when they showed it to me, it was just extraordinary to see these many survivors. Quite a few of them would not be in the film today, so I didn’t use them, but the things I’ve seen were quite credible and intense.
Did you know from the start that you’d have to include yourself in the film to tell the story or did that evolve over time?
No, I didn’t plan on that at all. We’d have these creative meetings and I thought I knew the story going in, but as I got deeper into it, what was interesting to me as someone who loves documentaries was the realization that we all play a role in this. I had not seen that before and that was my way into the story, and it was the truth – here I was telling this story because I love my school and my friends and I wanted to tell this story and to acknowledge my role in that. I knew if parents could see this and relate to me, which most of them can, then people could follow the story. They wouldn’t turn it off the way we do with so many of these films because they can be horror films, but if they can hold my hand and go down the road with me, then people could be moved by it.
You’ve got that great line of narration, “The more you know, the more you see.” Did the nature of memory present challenges throughout this?
I didn’t remember any of these things until I started. Honestly, opening that box as I say in the movie was literally like opening my past and I remember the minute that I remembered that incident when I was in the car with that boy [who describes being molested in broad terms] – I was on the phone with a friend, and [I told them] “Oh, wait a minute, I just remembered something.” I kept that inside of me for a long time – for years. I never talked about that with my [film] team. I never thought it would be something I’d put in the film. Then finally, I [thought], “My God. I’m part of this. I’m part of this machine that kept it all quiet and kept the silence alive,” and maybe if I acknowledge that, that’s the first chance I have to let people realize we all play a role in making this bad stuff happen, but if that’s the truth, then we can definitely play a role in making the good stuff happen too. That was really my takeaway emotionally from making this myself and what I’m trying to relay to people by making the movie.
There had to be plenty of limitations in how you could illustrate this, both as a matter of taste and in terms of what materials you had access to, but you embrace them in a clever way – was it difficult figuring how to make it as visually alive as you do?
Yeah, I had a cut that had no animation, and it did feel like it was lacking something. I didn’t know what it was going to be. I didn’t want to do recreation. I never feel comfortable with that in a movie. And I was really inspired by a couple movies that I saw. I thought “Tower,” [which] Keith Maitland made, was so brilliant and brought the story alive in animation for me in a way that I had never seen before, so I was really inspired, and then I saw “He Named Me Malala” and I reached out to Davis Guggenheim, who I know [asked], “Davis, who did you animation? Do you have any good animators you can send me to?” And he sent me to his animator who did “Malala” and David [Navas] lived in Spain and we communicated through Facetime all the time and talk about emotionally what I wanted. Again, I knew the story was horrific, so I kept in the back of my mind the whole time that I have to make sure sure this movie is digestible to people, so he created these gorgeous images of memory for me that I knew would help us get through the story.
This premiered a year ago at DOC NYC where you surely couldn’t have anticipated how it would tap into the zeitgeist in the time that followed. What’s it been like seeing the reaction?
It’s been hugely validating, [for me] and for the people in my film. Their lives are changed now for the better, [feeling] like “I can finally speak about this,” and the world happened to be speaking about this right now. It’s interesting because a lot of people say to me what perfect timing – the stars aligned and you made this movie at the right time, and I say I’ve been making this movie for six years, so it is extraordinary that it was ready to be released at the time it was.
Did you have a chance to show it in Charleston?
I did. Before it was released on Starz, I said we really need to have a big premiere in Charleston. I thought I owed that to the community. But I was a little terrified because a lot of people in that town are really angry that I made the movie. They don’t understand why I did it. And this great theater in Charleston said, “I really want to show the film” and he has this little theater with five different houses under one roof. He opened one of them and tickets sold out in no time and he said, “You know, I’m going to open up another” and that sold out in no time. He opened up every single one of the theaters and he ended up screening for another week because [the theater] couldn’t accommodate all the people that wanted to see it. So we had this big Q & A in Charleston after where everybody came into one theater and we emotionally talked about this for the first time since it happened. It was an incredible night. There was anger in the room, there was sadness, there was joy, there was gratitude – so many people came up to me crying afterwards, thanking me. Other people were yelling and screaming. And that’s why you make movies — for people to react to them and to be able to talk about them. It was an incredible night and I think it helped release a lot of the ghosts that we had floating around for all those years.