I recently had the amazing opportunity to chat with director Susan Lacy and producers Emma Pildes and Jessica Levin about their upcoming HBO Documentary JANE FONDA IN FIVE ACTS. The film chronicles the life of the legendary actress and sheds light on her personal life as well as the controversy surrounding her activism. I hope you find my conversations with these filmmakers as interesting as I did. First up, director Susan Lacy...
Susan Lacy: Hi there.
Annette Kellerman: Hi Susan. Thank you so much for talking with me today. I really appreciate it.
Lacy: Oh, I'm delighted to.
Kellerman: I always like to ask straight off, how did this project come about? Was this a project that you got hired on to do, or was this already a passion project of yours? I know you've-
Kellerman: Yes ma'am, I do.
Lacy: I ran it for many years. Almost 30 years, and so I was always looking for...you know I spend a lot of time figuring out who we should be making films about and trying to get the rights and make some money and have a balanced line up. And so many years ago- about 17 years ago when Jane's book came out- I read her book and I thought she would make an extraordinary subject. First of all, her story's fascinating. Secondly, she's very comfortable and candid in telling it. The third reason, there's an enormous amount or archival footage to work with to tell that story. It was getting harder and harder to raise the money, because it's a quite expensive film. Archives and film clips and music and all that is terribly expensive, so it just kind of never happened. And when I made the move from PBS to HBO I remembered that Jane was doing a series on HBO called “Newsroom” and I thought this might be the perfect time. So I proposed it to Richard Plepler and he was completely gung ho to do it. And that's how it finally happened. I had another film, when I made the move- my first film was a film on Steven Spielberg, so Jane is now the second film since I've been at HBO.
Kellerman: That's so great to have that leeway now and to finally get it done. Did you have any personal experience with Jane Fonda in the past that led you up to this aside from just reading the book?
Lacy: I didn't have a personal relationship with her, but we had met and we had talked about doing this film. And then I was getting ready to make this move and I actually ran into her. She came to a screening of my David Geffen film and she said, “Whatever happened?” And I said, “Well, we have an opportunity now.” So it was very fortuitous, you know, my move, running into her at the screening, and her still being interested in doing it.
Kellerman: So she was always receptive to the idea and ready to be candid and talk about her life it sounds like. Was there anything that was off limits?
Lacy: No, actually, I can be totally honest about that, there was nothing off limits. She has told a lot of this story in her book, so the challenge was doing...it's one thing to sit in a room by yourself and write a book. It's another to tell that story with a camera and knowing millions and millions of people are going to see it. And also many, many years later reliving it. And I think it was not always easy. There are a lot of painful subjects in the film and emotional subjects. But you know, she signed on to do it and she gives everything her all. But I also did a lot of interviews with her, I did about twelve interviews and each one was about two hours so I had a lot of time with her. We did a lot of interviews at her house. So we'd have lunch and we would talk. I went onto the set of Grace and Frankie, and I went with her when she went to Emma Willard where she had gone to boarding school. I went with her to the ranch to see Ted [Turner]. So we spent time on airplanes and in cars and having lunch in addition to the long interviews. I think we built a very comfortable and very easy, trusting relationship.
Kellerman: I guess building that sort of rapport is essential and you're obviously very experienced doing that and drawing sometimes difficult subject matter from the people that you've covered in the past. There was a lot of pretty deeply personal stuff. What was the toughest subject for her to tackle? Like you said, she's written about much of this in the past, but as far as expressing it on camera and telling the story, what do you think was the toughest for her to dive into?
Lacy: I think her childhood is still painful for her to talk about. Obviously her mother's suicide. Her painful, but loving relationship with her father who really was never actually able to say I love you. I think Tom Hayden's falling in love with someone else. Her admission that she wasn't a particularly good mother to her daughter. That she didn't know how to be a mother, talking about her postpartum issues. I mean, there's so much in this film. Talking about all that was not an issue. It wasn't like, oh, I'm done with this. I think there was a lot of things...I think it's hard for her to watch the film and see herself sitting on that anti-aircraft gun you know? I think it took a lot of courage to go into all those places and then watch the film. I think she was quite grateful that I chose to not make a film about a movie star, but make a film about a woman. Because that's why I think she wrote the book. She felt, if I can experience these things- born into wealth and of Hollywood royalty- if I can experience all of these things and not feel good about my body and have husbands who aren't faithful and have insecurity issues that she still faces, maybe my story can be helpful to other women. And that's why I think she wrote the book to some degree. She also wrote the book to help her daughter understand her better. Because in the film she talks about when she decided to write her memoirs, she wanted to understand her past. To do that she had to learn about her parents' background. And she found out a lot of stuff about her mother which helped her realize that she was not responsible for her past. So I think she wanted her daughter to know that none of this was her fault. It was a lot of very emotional territory in this film. I can't tell you what would be the most difficult for her, but I think all of it was a little bit. And then, you know, revisiting Vietnam all those years later and talking about it and being queried. We spent many interviews on Vietnam.
Kellerman: I thought it was pretty fascinating just to see her perspective and the context of her life and what was going on at that time when she was getting involved in activism. This new role being sort of the celebrity activist. And I think that's gonna give a lot of people closure whenever they watch it to know that, a.) There was a lot more going on in her life, that b.) Your perspective does change and that she's proud of a lot of what she did, but she also took some missteps. And I thought that was great that's she dived right into it. So I'm sure that was different.
Lacy: Yeah. It's a complicated subject. It's not black and white. I mean, I think sitting on the anti-aircraft gun was a definite mistake. And she's the first to acknowledge it, that she will go to her grave regretting it. But she's proud of a lot of what she did in Vietnam. You think about what really motivated her- this was new and certainly I didn't know any of this before I read her book- that she went over there to essentially bode the Nixon administration's plans to bomb the dikes.
Kellerman: To bomb the dikes, right.
Lacy: Which would have caused extreme starvation in that country because it would have ruined the rice crops. Wow. I don't think most people knew that. And unless you read the book you didn't know that. That there was a real reason that she went there and she didn't...I mean, it was probably ill-advised to go on her own. She was young and inexperienced. But she knew that her celebrity would bring attention. She wasn't the first one to go, by the way. I think there was 300-some Americans who'd gone to North Vietnam before her.
Lacy: But her trip got the attention because she's Jane. She wanted to keep them from bombing the dikes. I mean, she was successful in her mission.
Lacy: Well, not everybody on my team thought it was a great idea because it seemed like it was diminishing Jane to do it that way. But she's the most honest person in the world about that. That she, in fact, became a different person for each. She spent the first part of her life trying to please her father and a good bit of her life trying to mold and be shaped- to be the woman that each husband wanted her to be. And of course there was always Jane- but not being confident enough, not being secure enough, wanting to please. She said, “I spent so much time in my life trying to be perfect and please, because I thought that was the only way I could be loved.” Seriously, that is her story. And then all of this, through her own hard work, she reached a point where she didn't have to do that anymore, and become a fully realized Jane. Even though she says she's still a work in progress. So the notion of the acts, I didn't know it from day one, but the notion of acts was embedded in my brain because she said in her book that she wrote it because she wanted to understand her first two acts so she would know how to live her third. So that idea of acts was in my head from her book. She didn't structure her book the way the film is structured by any means, but it was a natural leap starting with her idea of acts to go with the five acts because that is, in fact, the story of her life. She was a different person in each act of her life and they were completely influenced by these four men. So I felt pretty solid about it and, you know, we showed the film at the Cannes Film Festival and they can be a tough audience. So when "Jane" came up- the title- the whole place just erupted in applause.
Lacy: And it was a wonderful ... you know, just like they really got it, you know? It was Jane's turn now.
Kellerman: That's how I felt too! I was like, oh, yes, finally! And then it all made sense. I thought that was brilliant formatting and I wanted to know if that was from the beginning or not.
Lacy: It was pretty early on, my decision to do that, yeah.
Kellerman: Well, our 15 minutes is up. So thank you so much again. I really, really enjoyed the film, and I learned a lot. All the things that you mentioned about Vietnam and the men in her life and her childhood, it was a real revelation to me. So, congratulations, on another wonderful film.
Lacy: Thank you so much, I enjoyed talking to you.
Jessica Levin: No problem!
Kellerman: Well, I loved the film and I'm excited to get right into it here. First off, there’s so much incredible archival footage. Can you talk about just how you guys put all of that together? And also I was curious, some of the childhood stuff looks so personal. Who shot that stuff? I mean, it's obviously family stuff.
Levin: Yeah. Henry shot a lot of footage when Jane was young. He had the camera around a lot. Jane had a lot of that material available for us at the beginning of the project to be able to screen through. She had a few reels of stuff, which was a real blessing. But what happened was that for the childhood stuff, you know the stuff of her where she's wearing a Native American headdress and she's going through the woods?
Kellerman: Yes, yes. It's incredible.
Levin: That footage, which is just amazing, we could not find the actual footage. She just had an old scratchy copy of it on some DVD of it. And we didn't know where it was, and we searched, and searched, and searched. And eventually it was found in her step-mother's, her father's fifth wife, who is still alive, Shirley Fonda. It was found in her basement.
Kellerman: Wow, I mean, that took some digging.
Levin: Oh, yeah.
Kellerman: That's amazing.
Levin: Yeah. And we knew it existed, but we couldn't ... It was because it looked bad.
Kellerman: There, clearly, is a lot of present day interviews that were done with various people throughout her lives. Was there anyone you couldn't get? I mean, I know there's a couple people missing, and that may have been on purpose. But was there anyone that you wanted to get that you couldn't get?
Levin: Yeah, I mean, the obvious omission is her daughter, Vanessa.
Levin: Who obviously she has an evolving relationship with. We did ask several times. And she just, I just think she wasn't ready to do that.
Levin: And it's interesting. I think Jane was kind of sad that she didn't want to participate, but you can see from the movie there's a lot of emotion there. And I think that she had to respect her daughter's wishes. Although we were disappointed not to have Vanessa's voice, I think Vanessa very much comes through in the film.
Kellerman: Definitely. And then, I guess, her brother isn't in it either, except for in the archival stuff.
Levin: He's a mercurial individual. And for whatever reason, he didn't want to talk. I think he has his own emotions about his childhood and stuff. And I think a little bit of that comes through when they talk about their childhood.
Kellerman: Sure, sure.
Levin: We used that piece of archive of Peter. Again, in some ways, and I think this goes to trust on a film like this when you have a subject that's trusting the filmmaker to be respectful, you don't pry too far. If somebody says they don't want to participate, you have to, on some level, you just have to respect that. We're not doing a whodunit. It's not true crime. We don't need that person to tell the story. And I feel like that's kind of a decision we made to just leave it alone.
Kellerman: What's your favorite part of the process or what was different about this particular documentary or this subject for you than other ones that you've worked on?
Kellerman: Definitely. What would you say was the biggest challenge? I mean, there's a lot of like I was mentioning earlier, the archival stuff, but also all of the people that you gathered, children and you know.
Levin: I guess I would say the biggest challenge probably, from a creative point of view was culling down the tremendous amount of material that was out there and available on Jane Fonda. I mean, her life has unfolded in front of us on camera, in many different aspects, and at many different junctures of her life. So we went on a huge gathering mission because we weren't sure what we were going to find. And in the end, you can't use it all. I think that was a real creative challenge, I think Susan really rose to it beautifully by really culling the footage down to the things that were the most relevant to our story. I mean, believe me, there was lots of stuff we were like, "Oh, we just want to use that just because it's so great."
Kellerman: Oh I'm sure!
Levin: But Susan really is a master at that, and she's really wonderful at choosing- obviously in collaboration with the editor the archival moments that are going to be most effective, and the storytelling.
Kellerman: Susan did say that Jane has seen the film, that you guys showed it at Cannes. And she kind of touched on it a bit, what did Jane think of it? I mean, it must be so weird to see your whole life. I mean, I know she wrote a memoir, but to see it up on the big screen paired with the archival stuff and all of her loved ones talking about her.
Levin: Yeah. I mean, I think that Jane is a very interesting woman. She's very strong. Even though she's so forthcoming, and terrific, and opens up so much in the documentary, obviously there's a difference with doing that in a room with Susan, and having it out there for everybody to see. I mean, I think that she was happy because I think she felt that the film captured the spirit of who she is at her core. Some people complained because we didn't focus on her acting as much. And I think that Jane really respected that decision, and was happy that we painted the portrait of a woman on a journey, rather than only the glamorous aspects or whatever.
Kellerman: You're a documentarian so you do your research, but was there anything that you learned about her that you didn't know with all of your research? Was there something that came out during interviews?
Levin: Oh, I mean, so many things. I mean, I had no idea that the Jane Fonda Workout was brought into existence to fund their political activities.
Kellerman: Same here. I was like, what?! That is so cool.
Levin: I mean, that's pretty interesting.
Kellerman: It is!
Levin: It's like, what? All that time I spent in front of a VHS and buying all the different videos, that was to fund her Council for Economic Democracy. That is pretty darn interesting.
Kellerman: That's ironic, yeah.
Levin: And I had no idea. When we had that revelation, we were like, "Wow. That's pretty interesting." Of course, we all read the memoir so we got all info, but to hear Jane talk about it was just great.
Kellerman: Well, I guess I'm going to wrap it up and leave it at that. But thank you so much for talking to me today. I really appreciate it.
Levin: You're welcome.