For more than a year now, Susan Kaplan‘s “Three of Hearts” — the story of a ‘trinogomous’ relationship between two men and a woman — has been receiving overwhelming acclaim on the film festival circuit. Kaplan explores what might seem like a sensational subject in “Three of Hearts: A Postmodern Family,” delving deeply into the lives of the three subjects and offering a distinctive portrait of a unique family, told over many years. The film shows what can be achieved through the patience and persistence of a talented filmmaker, editing hours and hours of footage into a compelling story.
indieWIRE: Ok, so let’s go back to the beginning of the story. I believe you had previously met Steven and Sam well before deciding to make a movie about them, but it was their decision to bring a third person – a woman – into their relationship that compelled you to make a movie, correct? Can you elaborate a bit more about your early inspiration for the film? When was that again?
Susan Kaplan: A friend was staying with me in New York and asked if I knew Sam Cagnina and Steven Margolin from Miami Beach, Florida, where I was born and raised. I quickly said yes and she said she was having dinner with the two of them and their wife that evening. Thankfully, she invited me to dinner. Single at the time and very curious, I met them and formed the same question that I hear most people ask me now, how does it work? Spending the evening with them felt strangely natural; so much so, that by the end of the evening, I felt compelled to ask if I could tell their story when they were ready to bring children into the world. (They had been together for 9 years when I met them.) Samantha immediately responded with a no. Later, I heard that she said, “the nerve of that woman to ask to tell our story, I don’t even know her.” They had been asked in the past, but had always said no. Over time, though, I got to know them better. They began to understand that I was interested in telling their story with them, that it would be a collaboration. My hope was to challenge the notion of society’s idea of what constituted a family.
iW: How did your plans for the film change over time as the lives and relationship of Steven, Sam and Samantha was challenged and changed itself. Will you talk a bit about times earlier on when you thought the film was actually complete, or when you thought it might not be completed at all?
SK: I planned on filming for 2 years and then stopped when Siena was a year old. As I said, my original idea was to challenge society’s idea of family. I grew up in a neighborhood where many of my friends were in unhappy homes, even those who came from “traditional” family backgrounds. My home was often a safe haven for many of my friends and as a young girl I spent time thinking about why these friends were having such challenging home lives. Because Sam, Samantha and Steven were three, communication was the main ingredient for their seeming harmony. I just thought they offered an opportunity for me to explore the nature of family.
While filming I spent many interviews asking difficult questions, wanting to go deeper beyond the lighter side of their relationship. After eighteen months of working with my editor, Toby Shimin, the film was finished. During my sound mix, I got the phone call telling me that the threesome’s relationship had dramatically changed. I new deep in my heart that I could not send the current version of our film into the world. After consulting with my husband, David Friedson, and my producer, Sarie Horowitz, we all agreed to continue to shoot, which turned into an additional three-year process.
Over time, the main theme of the film shifted. We were still exploring the changing face of family, but more specifically, it became a journey of self-discovery and acceptance. With the help of BRAVO’s financial commitment to our story, we spent another six months finishing the film. The trio’s bravery in sharing their own story at the end of our film inspired many people to want to share their own stories. We developed a website called http://threeofheartsfilm.com/ to keep the conversation alive. On our site you can ask Steven, Sam and Samantha questions, share your own story, and/or talk to a relationship expert, Dr. Pepper Schwartz.
iW: Its quite evident that the presence of a camera can significantly influence subjects. With that in mind what sort of impact do you feel your camera had on their relationship, if any?
SK: In the beginning, they were uncomfortable with being in front of the camera. It was quite obvious in our early footage. Over time, though, as I gained their trust, they were much more open and candid with us. I have heard them say that they did not think the presence of the camera led them in any particular life direction. Although they each started therapy, I believe having to answer and think about choices that were made over such a long period of time had to have some influence on their lives. We were a fourth partner.
iW: You are the founder and head of DocuClub, which has shaped and supported many documentary projects over years. How did it influence the completion of your own film?
SK: DocuClub is in the middle of its 10th season. I am proud of the organization and its commitment to the documentary form. There have been so many incredible films that have been through our In-the-Works program; “Born into Brothels” and “Boys of Baraka” are among our more recent films. I feel strongly about promoting community and sharing information/resources. Most of the films that are made have important themes that need to be heard by a wide audience. My hope is that DocuClub offers a filmmaker a greater understanding of his or her story, and perhaps can offer the tools to allow some one to go back into the edit room and make the film a stronger story.
For my first cut, I held many In-the-Works screenings. I did not make it an official DocuClub evening, because I thought it might be viewed as a conflict. I took the concept and invited many of the members of DocuClub to my screenings for feedback and the result was incredible. We all learned so much from those early screenings. DocuClub’s web address is http://docuclub.org/.
iW: Now that this film is finally finished and making its way out into the world, can you tell us a bit about whether you’ve been focusing on any new film projects?
SK: For now, I am going to take a break and spend more time with my two children, my husband and focus on fundraising for DocuClub to secure its future. We have started to put a few projects in motion, and we are excited about them. During the filming of “Three of Hearts,” I spent about 3 years also filming the first class of a new public school in Manhattan called the Special Music School of America. These young people are now in high school, I would like to find them and continue to film their story. I have hundreds of hours of footage of when they were 5 and 6 years old. There are also two other films in varying stages of development.