A riches to rags story, “The Good Life” will inevitably remind many of the Maysles Brothers’ “Grey Gardens.” Focusing on Danish mother and daughter Mette and Anne Beckmann, director Eva Mulvad references the iconoclastic film but shows the Beckmanns in their own light with their own special relationship. Hailing from a well-to-do background, having lived in Paris and Copenhagen, the two have settled in Portugal, now living a meager life after the loss of their family fortune.
At 56, Anne has never held a job. In fact, she still fancies herself a princess, and to her getting a job is taboo. Mette’s weekly €20 pension is all that the two live on. They bicker constantly, usually stemming from Anne’s belief that she should have been taken care of by the family money. With a sharp eye, Mulvad observes their present life even as the two live in their past. She cuts through the sensationalism of their situation and creates an unbelievable, sad, and amusing portrait of two souls bound together for better or worse. [Synopsis courtesy of the Tribeca Film Festival]
[indieWIRE invited directors with films in the Tribeca Narrative, Documentary and Viewpoints sections to submit responses in their own words about their films. These profiles are being published through the beginning of the 2011 Tribeca Film Festival. To prompt the discussion, indieWIRE asked the filmmakers about what inspired their films, the challenges they faced and other general questions. They were also free to add additional comments related to their projects.]
“The Good Life”
Primary Cast: Mette Beckmann, Anne Mette Beckmann
Director(s): Eva Mulvad
Producer(s): Sigrid Dyekjær
Editor: Adam Nielson
Director of Photography: Eva Mulvad
Composer: Jóhann Jóhannsson
Sound: Rasmus Winther Jensen
Responses courtesy of “The Good Life” director Eva Mulvad.
Becoming a documentary filmmaker…
Ever since I was a kid, I loved to go to the local library. In the beginning, I wanted to be the lady who worked there. Later, I figured out that it was really the stories in the books I liked. I wanted to be a writer or a journalist, and I started to work as such for some years when I was in my early twenties. I worked at a magazine that did both political and human-interest stories, and soon it was clear to me that politics were less interesting than people with feelings and thoughts.
It was a long shot when I applied for acceptance at the national Danish film school documentary department. I didn’t have any experience with stories told in images, and I only got in because a student that got accepted didn’t want to start. The first two years were difficult. I doubted if I was any good at telling stories on film. Documentary films are always a challenge to make, so it never gets boring.
An internal subject matter…
I was looking for a fairytale kind of story after making a more political film, “Enemies of Happiness,” about a young woman fighting for change in Afghanistan. One day, I was driving in my car and I heard a radio piece where these two women told their life story. I had to stay in the car until the piece was over. I was totally absorbed in their universe. Later the journalist who made the radio show introduced me to the women, and I started to visit them in Portugal a couple of times a year. It was a difficult story to materialize because not a lot happened. The mother and daughter were still poor and still fighting to accept that their wealth was gone every time I visited them. I was looking for a solution to their problems. some action on the outside level, but it turned out to be a static story. The big drama was on the inside. “The Good Life” is a psychological drama where you slowly accumulate an understanding of the characters and their difficult relationship to each other in the past and the present.
Finding a complex character…
I wanted to create a film that felt like a novel. I wanted the characters and the story to have a lot of layers. Journalistic documentary filmmaking often leads to films about important themes like social issues and current affairs. I wanted to make something more poetic like the Maysles brothers “Grey Gardens.” I was specifically looking for a character with a complex personality, somebody who was not a hero and not a bad guy, but a person described with many shades of grey. I think the daughter in this film is a person like that, and it has been a big challenge to get the portrait of her right, to show her as complex, funny, annoying, fragile and decadent.
That nothing happened. I was not sure if two women on a sofa fighting with each other could make a feature-length film. Something does happen in “The Good Life,” just on a level where it doesn’t bring real changes or a solution to the problem that these women have. They used to be wealthy and now they are poor. At the age of 56, the daughter has to look for a job for the first time in her life. That is a big development, but when I was filming, it didn’t feel that way. I wanted her to change in a more “Hollywood” kind of way. Unfortunately, in the real world people have difficulties changing so radically. I think we all know that changing habits or personality is not piece of cake. As soon as I recognized that the “small” changes were good enough, it was easier to see how the film should be put together.
Adjusting to a different pace of life…
I had a really good relationship with both the mother and daughter, but when I first arrived from Denmark, it was a bit difficult for me to adjust to their pace of life. I wanted to be efficient and get things done, but Anne and her mother could not be dealt with in an efficient manner. In Denmark, we “work first and then you can enjoy” while Anne went by “enjoy first, then you can work.” Until I realized that, I was pushing her with no success. I learned that if I wanted something done, I had to invite the ladies to lunch, coffee or a glass of wine, and then I could ask them to shoot the scene.
Looking to the future…
I just had a baby, so I am taking a break. I have a few projects waiting for me. One of them is trying to dig a bit further into the life of the upper class. I think that it is important to tell stories from this part of society. Documentaries tend to look “down” on the lower classes and their problems and it is dangerous if we only know the upper class from the glittered magazines.