Hasan Mihnaj moderates a discussion with the filmmakers and subject.
Master documentarians Rachel Grady and Heidi Ewing just released their latest film, Norman Lear: Just Another Version of You. Following the film’s New York premiere at the Film Society of Lincoln Center there was a Q&A with the two women and Lear that was moderated by Daily Show correspondent Hasan Mihnaj.
Hasan Mihnaj: How did you first come up with the idea of using an actor to play ‘Young Norman’?
Rachel Grady: It was a process that we developed it, but it started from this idea of this time in his life when we felt like so many things happened and those things informed his work so much. It really worked to weave those stories throughout, so how are we supposed to do it in a story that happened quite a long time ago and we don’t have any material? So we sort of came up with this form and function concept of this avatar; this nine year old that lives inside of all of us, inside of Norman. And we just went from that.
Mihnaj: Did you have that idea mid-production? When did that happen?
Heidi Ewing: Well we talked about it early in the production and then we just said no, let’s table it for now, and we sort of kept discussing it throughout the year, and then once we were in the edit we continued to develop it and we really like layered films, we like watching layered films, we like making layered films. And we had a lot of archival material and original material, but we felt that there was an additional layer because sometimes we’d be talking to Norman and the nine year old would flash across his face, and I’m sure a nine year old flashes across mine too, and we started talking about it and we decided it would be a layer of whimsicality and a little bit of melancholy and it just evolved.
Mihnaj: Norman, clearly you’ve shown through your body of work that you’ve always had this thirst for knowledge. When did you know that you had that?
Norman Lear: Can I just say for a moment that I was at Sundance when it opened and I saw it at Sundance, but so was my entire family, and I spent the viewing eagerly listening to all of them and wondering what they were thinking. So this is really the first time I’ve experienced this film fully. And I just haven’t got enough words to tell you how artful I think it is. The way you built it, what you selected. I never saw a rough cut. And I’m just blown away tonight.
Mihnaj: Was it hard for you to see all the father stuff?
Lear: I felt the same way sitting here through this the way I behaved in it. I cried at the same times. It was very touching. Carol O’Connor in that elevator when the baby is born, that look on his face. When he’s talking about his father. I was very much involved in that scene. And I’ll see it fifty more times in the next years and it’ll touch me that way every time.
Mihnaj: I love how you said you needed that. And I think we all have those sort of emotional salves that we use to sometimes to help us go on.
Grady: And I love this idea that’s a takeaway for me of spending time with Norman which is you don’t get over your life. You don’t get over anything. You take the whole thing with you the whole time. So embrace that. That’s your life.
Mihnaj: I’m going to misquote it but towards the end of the film you said something about how we need to find our own happiness.
Lear: We always talk about making somebody happy. We can’t make anybody happy. You are responsible to yourself for your own happiness. And everybody is responsible to themselves for their own happiness. Of course you can be loved and be important in somebody’s life. The core of being who you are – you must find your own way. And you make your own happiness.
Mihnaj: Biggest lesson learned in making this film about a living legend?
Ewing: Never skip lunch. Norman never skips lunch and we had a lot of great conversations over lunch. But I actually mean never skip lunch in the sense that we’re documentary filmmakers and our job is to watch and to listen and to eavesdrop and to listen for dialogue and how people say things. That’s our job and I feel like we’re good at it. But then we would go to lunch with Norman and he wouldn’t be on his phone. I would be checking my emails, he wouldn’t be. He’d be kibitzing with the waitress and noticing someone across the way and making a comment to someone who walks by. Watching, looking, really looking. And I thought, ‘I gotta do this better’. Especially when we would go to lunch I would notice this. He would walk out really having a real conversation with a stranger and a takeaway. And for me that is my biggest takeaway of working with Norman and now we’re becoming friends and that’s something I wanna do more of and I admire.
Grady: I would say my takeaway is very simple. It’s hard to do but it’s really simple. It’s to give a shit. Just give a shit. Everything will work out.
Photo credits: Film Society of Lincoln Center.