“Loss was a natural part of my childhood.”
Today, Liz Garbus’ documentary film, Nothing Left Unsaid: Gloria Vanderbilt and Anderson Cooper will debut on HBO. The film tells an incredible story of a mother (Gloria) sharing memories of her past with her son (Anderson), and through this beautiful sharing of stories, artwork, pain, and loss, the two become closer than ever before.
This past Monday, The Knockturnal sat down with Anderson and director Liz Garbus at the HBO offices to talk about the making of the film.
The losses you sustained affected your decision to pursue the kind of work that you do. Can you talk a little more about that?
Anderson Cooper: I think that any time you loose someone at an early age it changes the course of your life, and who you are. I think the person that I was before my dad died was much more interesting and compelling. After my brothers death, I became really interested in questions of survival. Why do some people survive and while others don’t? And why two people growing up in the same family have different outcomes. I found it hard to talk about my loss and sense of grief, but I wanted to be around people who spoke the language of loss. I was interested in combat and military history, and I started to go to wars by myself when I was about 23 years old. I snuck into Burma and hooked up with the students fighting the Burmese government, and I ended up in Bosnia. I spent about 2-3 years going from one combat zone to another. I was learning about survival and something about hearing other people’s stories helped me with my own.
Tell us about how the book and the film came together.
AC: We started the film first. My mom has been in public eye longer than anyone else today, and I had been shooting stuff with her on and off since I started working with cameras out of college, so I had the stuff that I hadn’t looked at in years. But I felt that she was turning about 90 and there was not a lot that I actually knew about her life. I started going through these boxes she had in storage which revealed the incredible life story she has – she’s lived many different lives – and I thought, “There’s a film in here.” I didn’t exactly have the time to shoot it, but when I approached HBO and Liz Garbus, we decided to make it happen. While we were doing the film, my mom turned 91 and got ill, so we took a short break from filming. I decided that I wanted to change the way my mom and I talk about things. On her 91st birthday we started to have a new conversation between us over email, because I didn’t always have time to be there. But what we discovered that talking over email was freeing – there was no embarrassment or awkwardness. It was like putting a message in a bottle in the ocean that would sometimes return quickly, sometimes not. It became this year long conversation that changed our lives and made me realize things about myself that I hadn’t realized before. It’s something I hope the book encourages other people to do – sit down with an aging parent or parent with an adult child and get to know each other in a new way.
There was a moment in the film where you revisit Carter’s grave with your mom? What was that moment like for you?
AC: Yeah, my dad and brother are both buried together out in Staten Island and I actually hadn’t been there since the funeral of my brother. Going to a grave doesn’t have the sense to me as it does for others – it doesn’t feel like he’s actually there. But it was interesting – there was snow covering the graves so I had to scrape it off. It was strange … there were birds tweeting – I don’t even know how to describe it. It was very strange but nice to see them side by side, and I know it was important to my mom. I love the way it was shot in the film – it was shot the way it felt. It felt stark and white, and it was cold outside but the light was bright and washed out. There was a moment where a bird tweeted, and I looked up, and my mom looked up not realizing that I had just looked up at the bird. To me it was an odd coincidence of how similar we are in many ways without even realizing it.
How much control did you have over filming/editing?
AC: I had no control. This is Liz Garbus’ film, and I think it’s important when you have a talented filmmaker to step aside. I love being in an edit room, but with something like this, she would bring me into the editing room for a couple of things. After watching the opening sequence I realized she was making connections on film that I would never had made in the edit room, but that are far better choices than I would have ever made. You need a separate pair of eyes and someone who has distance from it. That opening scene where my mom is on the beach that I shot long ago intercuts with archival film of my mom as a child on the beach is so smart. I wouldn’t have done that and I think it’s amazing and I was hooked. I knew I didn’t need to try to push my way in to the editing room at all. I was happy.
Did your mom have any say?
AC: No – in fact I didn’t mean to show it to her. I had the ‘almost’ final cut that Liz sent to me on my iPhone. My mom was feeling down and I visited her and I thought, “I’ll show her the first opening sequence because she’ll love it.” Once I stopped it she was like, “Why are you stopping?” I told her she shouldn’t see it on a small iPhone. She was like, “You think you’re going to get out of here without showing it to me?” So I ended up showing her (chuckles). I didn’t tell Liz for a long time that I showed my mom on an iPhone because Liz was like WHAT?! But yeah, she loved it.
Was there anything that you learned through making the film or book that you hadn’t known about your mom?
AC: A lot. My mom never talked about her childhood or her past when I was growing up. My dad was from a large family in Mississippi, and had tons of stories. Because my mom’s childhood was full of conflict, and she was disconnected from her family it was too complex for her to talk about. So she spent her entire life figuring out what happened and getting perspective on it. There were a lot of details I didn’t know. I vaguely heard when I was a teenager that her mother was accused of being a lesbian, in a custody battle at height of the depression, and that had turned the country against her mother. And then my mom was taken away from her mother and given to my aunt to raise. I heard that my mom reconnected but never really reconnected with her mom. And she became estranged from Dodo, and that’s one of the biggest regrets of her life. So I think my mom is at a place at 92 where she sees her life in a different way and is able to face a lot of things. She also talks about her problem with drinking in the book, which we had never talked about before. I think the book can encourage other people to be open and have these kinds of conversations.
What you do and what your mom does is an art form and craft in itself. Would you say she encouraged you to paint or find your own way of expression?
AC: Yeah, both of my parents are incredibly creative – my dad was a writer and my mom paints and writes. Creativity was the thing in my house. Painting, art, writing, and self expression was just part of the ethos of the house and was in the air. Everyone who visited the house were artists and writers so being creative I grew up believing in the power of writing. Writing a book was the greatest thing one could possibly achieve in my eyes. I remember falling asleep at night and hearing my dad type on an old type writer as he was writing. So my mom encouraged creativity. She encouraged the idea that you can do anything and explore many different things.
In the film she says she would try to find a part of herself with each role she played. Do you feel that way with each person or story you cover?
AC: I learn from each story that I do. When I do the kind of work I love, particularly in the field with people who are in harm’s way or figuring out how to move forward in midst of horrible tragedy, I absolutely learn from that and I carry those people. When I close my eyes at night I still think about people I met in Haiti after the earthquake, or Mississippi after Katrina, or the bodies I’ve seen and wonder who they were and what lives they lived. I definitely see a commonality there.
With all of the sadness in the film, there is a lot of humor as well – between you and your mom. I love the moment when you ask your mom, “Didn’t it give you pass that your first husband may have murdered his ex wife?”
AC: My mom is funny and she is able to laugh about herself and I think that’s one of the great benefits of her age. She can see things that was crazy for her to do. She had no parents, and in the book I think she says she felt like a “girl playing blind man’s bluff.” She just had no idea where to go and to be able to laugh about that and sex and all of the things she has perspective on now is a real gift.
I read in the NY times story you have an exchange about you coming out to your mom – but that’s not what the book is about.
AC: It was interesting because my mom’s mom was a lesbian, but she also had important relationships with men. I always sort of knew that, and I knew when I came out to my mom there was something in my mom’s past that deeply impacted her as a kid, because this was the 1930’s. The court was closed down and turned her country against her grandmother. My mom feared inheriting the gay gene. She recently told me she had a lesbian relationship with another teenage girl when she was a kid. She always wondered if she was going to be gay – so when boys came around it was relief for her. Even though now she wishes she was a lesbian because all of her best relationships were with women and she says, “some people have all the luck.” But I knew ultimately she would be supportive because when I was 11 years old, we always had gay people in the house. Jose Contra, the famous broadway director, and his partner Nick would come over for dinner all of the time. I remember asking my mom, “Why are Nick and Jose seated the way they are? And she would say, “They are a married couple.” I was 11 years old, it was 1979 most people would not consider them a married couple, but in my mom’s eyes they were married. And I knew when I came out to her that though it might be surprising to her, she would be supportive. In the book I say, “I appreciate that you accept it,” and she says, “I do more than that – I rejoice in it.”
Later, we interviewed Liz Garbus, director of the film.
What was it like collaborating with Anderson and Gloria?
It was interesting because I’ve made many films before, but Anderson certainly knows a thing or two about films. So it was an interesting relationship to figure out in the beginning, but he was so hands off and respectful of my process that it wasn’t too hard to navigate. It was similar to the way I make my other films – I ask for what I ask for, and I work independently. Anderson would give feedback, but creatively he left it all in my court.
Anderson mentioned that he thought his mother’s life would make a good film and he went to HBO. How did you come to do this project?
So HBO suggested me to Anderson and Gloria based on some other work I had done. First, I didn’t even know that Gloria Vanderbilt was Anderson Cooper’s mother. I didn’t know – I knew about the jeans, and I knew about the story of the poor little rich girl, which meant something to me. I didn’t know the ins and outs of her life. And of course I knew Anderson from the world of news as we all do, but I didn’t know the connection. First, Anderson told me he’d been filming his mom and he had the boxes of tapes and that really intrigued me. Then, when I met them the first time I walked into Gloria’s apartment with Anderson, she was so warm towards me. She immediately put Anderson to work to fix an outlet under the table that she couldn’t reach, and he dutifully went to work. I just saw something so warm and familiar to when I go to visit my mom. It’s “Oh, the storm windows have to come off” and it’s that sort of change of where the younger generation picks up. I saw Anderson do that very beautifully and spending time now that he spent that he hadn’t before because of his lifestyle. He was deciding to be more present, and that was very meaningful and inspiring to me.
Did anything change from the beginning of your filming process to the end?
I didn’t know that Gloria was such a prolific artist. So I knew about the jeans and decor, but not about the paintings. When I went into her studio I saw all of the art and how narrative it was. There is a lot of longing, loss, beauty, and fantasy. I realized this was her, and there was a way to tell the story through showing the paintings, which that excited me creatively. It wasn’t something I knew going into this at all.
Anderson was saying he loved how you took the old movies on the beach and the shots seemed that time flowed into each other. Were you surprised with the material he gave you?
He didn’t even remember shooting that scene on the beach. When he finally saw that scene he actually had no memory of it, but for us it was such an exciting find! There is all of this footage of his mother on the beach that is so beautiful.
Was there anything that was difficult to film, such as Anderson and Gloria talking about Carter’s suicide?
I wrote the questions for Anderson to help prepare him. I have to ask the question in a way that is appropriate for a son to ask his mother, and sometimes thought, “How do you pose that?” What I ended up writing is, “What do you want to say about Carter?” We gave her the topic and let her guide us. Knowing Anderson’s interview skills, I knew that he would bring her there. It was an interesting interplay. Obviously Carter was a moment that entirely changed their lives so we couldn’t make a film without asking that question. How could I empower Anderson to let her be there? The truth about Gloria is once you start talking about things she is so open. There is no off topic. She answers everything without apology. Yes she has regrets, but she goes there. She doesn’t cover it up.
Do you know the whereabouts of Chris?
I know that there is some reconnection there. So hopefully that will continue to grow.