In 1971, PBS and documentarian Craig Gilbert inadvertently birthed reality television thirty years before the culture was ready for it with the 12-episode-long documentary series, "An American Family."
Culled down from 300 hours of footage, "An American Family" chronicled the experiences of the Louds, a relatively normal, nuclear family in Santa Barbara, California. Making TV Guide's 50 Greatest TV Shows of All Time list in 2002, the show was groundbreaking for peeling back the layers of privacy in a way now prevalent and accepted on reality TV shows, depicting the first openly gay character on television (the eldest son Lance who died of HIV and liver-failure problems in 2001), and showing the dissolution of the marriage with what was essentially an on-camera ask for a divorce.
In 2010, HBO announced its plans to make a film about the making of the famous documentary and hired "American Splendor" directors Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini to direct what would become titled "Cinema Verite." Award-winning documentarians before they ever found feature success with the 2003 indie film, which combined narrative and documentary elements, the married couple jumped at the chance to helm a picture that not only spoke to them, but had art-imitates-life personal elements to it as well (the documentary camera crew who shoot the Louds in the film were also a couple).
Perhaps almost as interesting as the documentary itself was the fall-out of the series. The show did become a phenomenon, but America wasn't ready for reality television in 1971 and the series was, ahem, loudly criticized around the country on television, in magazines and newspapers (the filmmaker was so traumatized from the experience he never made a movie again). We recently had a chance to speak to Berman and Pulcini about their experiences making the film, reality television, the ethics of documentary filmmaking and a whole lot more (they're currently prepping a new comedy with Kristen Wiig called "Imogene" which you can find out more about as well).
Airing tonight, Saturday, April 23, 2011, the "Cinema Verite" cast includes Tim Robbins as the father Bill Loud, Diane Lane as Pat Loud, Thomas Dekker ("Kaboom") as Lance Loud, James Gandolfini as the filmmaker Craig Gilbert, plus Patrick Fugit, Johnny Simmons and more. "Cinema Verite" airs tonight on HBO at 9pm ET/PT. Here's the trailer if you haven't seen it yet and here's a conversation with Diane Lane we had earlier in the week.
"The Extra Man" wasn’t that long ago, you have "Cinema Verite" coming out this weekend, was it back-to-back shoots?
Robert Pulcini: It was pretty tight, Cinema Verite really kind of came out of nowhere for us. And we didn’t develop it, we came on it and developed it further after we came on, but it was already kind of in the pipeline at HBO. When I read it I was like, "oh my god we have to do this, this is really up our alley."
Had you seen "American Family," were you aware of it?
Shari Springer Berman: We were a little too young for it, and I kind of remember I thought the name Loud family was so funny for people to be named Loud, that was a funny thing as a little kid. But I didn’t know much about it and then when Bob and I…you know we come out of documentary filmmaking. Our first films were docs, so at that point when we were immersing ourselves in watching great documentaries, we really became aware of it and also I was a fan of the Albert Brooks movie, "Real Life" [a 1979 sendup of PBS' "American Life" documentary that Brooks starred in and directed] so we were very much aware of it, but it was impossible to get. There was no DVD, it wasn’t available, I guess you’d have to go to the Paley Center and watch it. Which neither of us actually had the time to do. So we neither one had seen it until we actually signed on to do this movie.
Here’s some footage from the documentary
And then did you guys watch the whole thing? Did you get really immersed in it?
Robert: Yeah we really did, we kept watching it over and over which is not easy because it’s twelve hours long, and then Pat Loud wrote a book which became very important to us. She wrote about her experiences, and there were tons of articles written at the time, interviews with Lance Loud. James Gandolfini actually started up a friendship with [the reclusive documentarian] Craig Gilbert, who he’s playing in the movie. And you know Craig really didn’t want anything to do with the film but we got his viewpoints on things through James, which was really kind of beneficial. All of the actors had this wealth of material for the people they were representing and they became very protective of them and their perspective because there was a "Rashomon" quality to this story. It’s like if you talk to anyone who was involved you’re going to get a different take. For us it was really trying to find a balanced way to represent the story that wasn’t pointing the finger too far in any direction. I mean ultimately it’s Pat Loud’s story but we really wanted to hear all sides.
Craig's refusal to be involved in the making of “Cinema Verite” is sort of alluded to in the conclusion. He was pretty shell shocked from the entire experience, right?
Shari: I didn’t get to personally ask him why he never made another film again, but from what I understand from people who have spoken to him, he was too burned by the experience. It was really brutal. They all got attacked. The Louds got attacked terribly, the things that were written about Lance were insane. I think it was too painful for Craig to go back to working in the industry.
In the coda footage of the film on “The Dick Cavett Show” he looks as if he’s been through the ringer. He looks emotionally worn out.
Shari: Yeah, apparently he had an anxiety attack during the show and had to leave. On a commercial break he left.
Robert: I think he really had artistic intentions. No one ever dreamed that ten million people would tune into this thing and it would become a phenomenon. It was really for educational television and I think he came from this very traditional documentary background. I think he ultimately ended up doing something quite revolutionary but it wasn’t his intention to give birth to reality television. That was not what he was in it for. And at that time everybody questioned his motives, and the filmmakers motives and whether you know their ethics in making this show and the Louds were called exhibitionists. It was just ugly all around for everyone involved.
No YouTube footage of Gilbert on “The Dick Cavett Show" exists, but the Loud kids' appearance is below as well as a solo slot by Lance Loud (there’s some brief footage of Craig here)
It was almost 40 years ago now, so I guess it stands to reason that people weren’t ready for reality TV yet.
Shari: I think it says a lot about our relationship with privacy as a culture. I think in the '70s it was unseemly to invite people into your home and see your private life. I think in 2011 there is no sense of privacy. Everything is on the Internet, Facebook, social media and reality TV. It’s a different relationship with privacy.
Robert: I think the sport of it is still the same in a lot of ways. I think that people that participate in reality TV are in on it in a way. Looking at wealthy people and feeling superior to them is a huge part of all of these you know "Real Housewives" shows. I don’t hear people saying, “I really identify with so and so on the ‘Real Housewives of Beverly Hills.’ ” They just talk about how awful they are and that’s the appeal. Whereas the Louds were just a normal family, but I think people saw them as very West Coast and wealthy and they were very attractive, tan and thin and I think they were very threatening to a lot of people.
Probably these days their story would be quaint.
Shari: Exactly. It’s ironic that one of the big criticisms of the Louds was that they had money and they were flaunting it because there’s a scene in the original documentary where Pat goes to the supermarket and goes shopping and people were saying look at how she bought expensive cuts of meat and wasn’t really looking at the price of food, which is just so ironic considering now the extravagance on the Kardashians and all those shows. It’s totally different, different worlds we’re living in.
How do you negotiate a film that’s called "Cinema Verite," that's about a documentary, and is supposed to be a truthful documentary, but then, as you say, there's a "Rashomon" effect and everyone has a different take on the story... how do you balance it all?
Robert: I think the title's ironic. In a lot of ways it’s about the birth of reality television but it’s also about the death of people actually caring about all of those ethical questions that make up true verite filmmaking and capturing reality and all of those things that people used to grapple with that now seem very quaint. No one talks about that when they watch this stuff on television, now it’s more like… it’s like professional wrestling. It’s set up, the conflicts are fake but people still enjoy it.
One could argue that it was the death of Cinema Verite in that era.
Robert: I think there are still practitioners of Cinema Verite. I mean, certainly Frederick Wiseman went on to still make films of that ilk, but I think, I do think in the context of television and reality that’s accurate.
What was the thing that hooked you in to making this movie beyond the script?
Shari: Aside from Bob and I being married, documentary filmmakers like the Raymonds [the documentary camera couple in the film, one of them played by Patrick Fugit], we had the feeling like we could relate to both Craig and the Raymonds, having been in both those positions in our careers. What I personally found most moving in the story was that Craig openly says he had a negative perspective on the family when he started this project. He had just gone through a divorce, he had a strained relationship with his own family, he was questioning the whole concept of family and felt that the representation on television was false with “The Brady Bunch” and “The Partridge Family.”
And the family endured despite it all.
Shari: The Loud family had everything thrown at them and seemingly fell apart, but the truth is they didn’t. They actually thrived in the end. In spite of it all they’re a wonderfully close family. And there’s so much love there and they all so rallied around Lance and were there for him through his illness and ultimately his passing. So to me it was about the triumph of family. I mean it might be a different kind of family than the ‘70s ideal was, it definitely didn’t look like “The Brady Bunch,” but it was a beautiful, loving family in spite of that. So that was really to me what made me excited about doing the film.
Robert, what drew you in?
Robert: I was excited about the idea of revisiting that era. And that landscape of California and family life. It all seemed so exotic to me, as a kid watching those shows that all had a huge impact on all of us. It seemed like this far away place where these families lived in the sun and they seemed to have an easier time. To go back and look at that era and see a family that’s not celebrated by television, but victimized by television was really fascinating to me. It also would be exciting to shoot the cameraman's perspective and all of those aspects.
Considering it’s 12 episodes deep and armed with all of the back story you guys know, it sounds you yourselves could have made 12 episodes on this story.
Shari: Oh yeah, the hardest part of this was figuring out what to include and what not to include, for sure.
Robert: It was overwhelming given the fact that we had a very limited production and we really had, we were researching and writing and passing and there was so much we were doing. I’ve never done so much work in pre-production. Usually it’s about making the movie, it’s not about all this research and reading and changing the script and all of that but that’s…that’s what was overwhelming about it.
Making those decisions, of what to keep and what to edit out, given the massive scope of the picture must have been daunting.
Robert: I understood Craig Gilbert when I read the script, I understood the pressures he was under, the panic when you’re making a film, a documentary film that, “Oh my god I'm shooting all this stuff and it’s horrible.” It’s a very scary process making a documentary and being in the middle of it, wondering if it’s going to take any shape. I was sympathetic to his position but I also understood the Louds and you know having no precedent for this, having no clue how it could be edited and you know when you make a documentary everyone involved imagines the movie in their head. They don’t always imagine the same movie, they never do. It’s an art form where you’re using people to make the art. That’s just the nature of documentary filmmaking, and ultimately you have to keep asking yourself ethical questions in the process. What’s fair and what’s not fair. What is right for the movie and what is right for what I’m trying to create and what is wrong for me to do and it’s just a process.
Those ethical questions are sort of just inherent in the filmmaking.
Robert: Yeah, it’s inherent in the filmmaking. Frederick Wiseman said that as soon as you put a frame on a film, you’re always making a comment because you’re excluding things out of that frame and you’re choosing what to include and what to exclude and it’s always someone’s perspective.
So next for you guys is “Imogene” with Kristen Wiig. Tell me about it.
Robert: Sure, Michelle Morgan wrote the script. She’s a very unique female comic voice. She actually has a bit part in “Cinema Verite.” She was an actor who has become a very in-demand screenwriter now and Shari and I really liked her voice and thought it was different. We’ve both been a fan of Kristen Wiig’s for, since she first started appearing on SNL, we both thought she was such a standout and so we really liked it, and really hope to do it with her, we just think she’s a great talent.
Shari: It’s a comedy about a woman who in a very funny kind of situation is living in New York City, and winds up having to be in the custody of her mother who she really doesn’t get along with, and her crazy family, living outside of Atlantic City in New Jersey, and all she wants to do is get back to New York City.
Robert: Then she finds out all of these family secrets that spiral her whole life further into disarray. It’s kind of hard to describe, it’s a great character comedy movie. We’re taking a deep breath. Kristen right now has “Bridesmaids” and we’re going to go right into it, take like maybe a night off. I’m like please, ‘let me have one day off.’ “The Extra Man” we went from Sundance to this so I’m a little tired. I’m ready to go, just one day off and then we’ll go.
You can read our review of “Cinema Verite” here, which again, airs on HBO tonight at 9 p.m. ET/PT.