First-look footage from HBO’s Cinema Verite unveiled Friday in L.A. at the television press tour played as a punchy, potent and emotionally explosive look at what went on behind the scenes during the creation of a landmark television experience.
Based on the PBS documentary An American Family, which aired in 1973, this feature film version stars Diane Lane and Tim Robbins as Pat and Bill Loud, the Santa Barbara couple who allowed filmmakers to spend seven months recording them and their five children in what HBO is positioning as a precursor of today’s reality television phenomenon. In the course of the filming, the Louds' marriage fell apart, and eldest son Lance revealed his homosexuality. The frank treatment of these topics came as a shock to television viewers of that era.
“There was no precedent for this,” said Robert Pulcini, who directed the movie with longtime collaborator Shari Springer Berman (American Splendor). “It was a big experiment, and it was enormously expensive. Imagine shooting a reality show on film for seven months.”
While the program drew huge ratings for PBS over the course of its 12-part airing, the Loud family became the subject of intense media scrutiny and public censure. They apparently declined any involvement in the HBO project. “We did reach out, as we normally do with films that are fact-based, to invite their participation, but they chose not to be a part of it,” said HBO Films President Len Amato.
Lane said she relied on Pat Loud’s 1974 book about the experience for insight into her motivations. “They were the first domino that fell,” said Lane of the Loud family. “Did they jump or were they pushed? When I read Pat’s book, she still wants to know why she did it. She’d undo it if she could. Because you can only be innocent once. And America was so angry.”
The movie depicts documentary producer Craig Gilbert (James Gandolfini) as attracted to Pat and perhaps motivated to prod her to discover her husband’s infidelity, which led her to seek a divorce.
The family’s growing agitation as the camera invades moments that are truly painful leads to emotional fireworks. “It’s hard to take 390 hours of footage, and reduce it to 12 without an agenda,” noted Pulcini about the original documentary. Events in the doc's 12 hours were compressed to less than two (along with added behind-the-scenes scenarios) for the script of the feature, which premieres on HBO in April.
Gandolfini described reality filmmaking as “an intellectual exercise at the beginning,” when Gilbert undertook it, and said that since that time, the format in general has “turned to such shit.”
Lane noted that in recent years, Bill and Pat Loud have reunited, and now live together in Los Angeles.
“Lance Loud said ‘television ate my family,’ and his wish on his deathbed was that his parents would get back together. They succeeded in overcoming what we saw them go through in our film,” Lane said.