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‘To Be Takei’ Director Jennifer Kroot on George Takei’s “Singular Personality” and the Takeis’ “Functional-Dysfunctional” Marriage

'To Be Takei' Director Jennifer Kroot on George Takei's "Singular Personality" and the Takeis' "Functional-Dysfunctional" Marriage

Meet the Takeis — George and Brad — two married men who go around the country talking about Star Trek, gay marriage, and other important issues like the Japanese-American internment during World War II. It’s impossible not to be fascinated the life George Takei has led — now chronicled in a new documentary by director Jennifer M. Kroot — and how he has remade himself in his twilight years into an activist, a radio host, and a social-media star. 

Kroot spoke to Women and Hollywood about Takei’s “singular personality;” George and Brad’s intense, “functional-dysfunctional” marriage; and how she got her subjects to agree to her “documentary with a romantic-comedy twist.”

To Be Takei will be released in theaters and via VOD on August 22. 

WaH: Give us your description of the film.

To Be Takei is a documentary portrait of the actor and activist, George Takei. Takei is most well known for his role as Sulu on the original Star Trek, but at age 77 he’s reinvented himself as an LGBT civil-rights activist and social-media phenomenon. Even as an activist, George doesn’t take himself too seriously, and because of this attitude, the film can explore a very broad range of topics, from George’s experience as a child imprisoned by US internment camps to his 20-year friendship with shock jock Howard Stern, and everything in between!

The film also follows George’s present-day, charmingly functional-dysfunctional relationship with his husband and business manager Brad. It’s a documentary with a romantic-comedy twist! The film also includes never-before-seen Star Trek gossip!

WaH: What made you interested in doing a documentary on George Takei?

I really admire that George has faced a range of obstacles (internment, discrimination against Asian American actors, being “closeted” for most of his career) throughout his life and that he’s remained relentlessly optimistic. I also appreciate his ability to come across as professorial or completely outrageous, funny and politically incorrect.

He’s a singular personality! He’s very opinionated about politics, but charms people so much that he doesn’t seem divisive. That’s very rare. I wanted to explore what makes him this way, and also connect the dots in his unique story. And I’m a Star Trek fan!

WaH: Did you have a certain vision of the film at the beginning that had to evolve as filming continued?

The vision that I had at the beginning of the project was to include the wide variety of George’s life experiences. I knew that this would include a broad range of themes, moods, and emotions. I was more familiar with George’s actual past than his present-day reality. I wanted to include a lot of his day-to-day life, because I find it so interesting to see an older person really living their life to the fullest. Also, George is very present in the media today, so we needed to capture that.

I tried to be open to following George (and his husband Brad) and I tried not to anticipate what would happen. This can be scary, because I’m a control freak (probably like most filmmakers), but it’s also very freeing to let go of expectations. I enjoyed “discovering” George and Brad’s wonderful relationship and letting it “play out” in our footage. Their dynamic make them very accessible. 

I also knew early on that I wanted to play with time, and not have it be a straightforward, linear story. In film you can manipulate time to tell a story. You can include memories, flashbacks, things that haunt you. I wanted the sense that the story is in the present, looking back at various points in George’s life. We take stream-of-consciousness segues to link one time or thread to another.

This was a complex puzzle to edit, because of all of the themes, but it was incredibly satisfying to watch it come together and now to see audiences respond. I knew I had to have a great editor, so I followed Bill Weber around for a couple years trying to entice him with the footage, and it worked! 

WaH: Was it easy to get George and his husband Brad to agree to participate?

It was relatively easy, but mostly because they enjoyed my previous film, It Came From Kuchar. It took several months of talking with them about my vision of the film. I’m not sure that they followed my vision when I tried to explain it, but we shared a lot of the same values and enjoyed a lot of the same films and our personalities clicked.

I don’t blame them for taking a while to commit. It’s a big decision. I’m forever grateful that they trusted me with their story.

WaH: What was the most unanticipated thing that you learned about the couple?

The Takeis are EXTREMELY close! They spend 24 hours a day together. They work together, they eat together, they travel together, and it seems like they sleep together too. We all know George Takei from the media, but what we don’t realize is we’re also seeing Brad in the George Takei brand.

WaH: What was the biggest challenge in making the film?

Fundraising was tough. We did receive a number of grants from foundations, but my experience is that most foundations that fund documentaries these days consider themes about popular culture to be frivolous.

I think that documentaries about art and culture are just as important as films about human rights, and in the case of this film, there are multiple political/social issues, so I was confused when foundations said they didn’t want to fund this film because it was a Star Trek film. It’s ridiculous to categorize it that way.  

WaH: What do you want people to think about as they are leaving the theatre?

I hope that audiences will fall in love with the Takeis’ marriage. I hope that they’ll recognize and relate to the Takeis’ dynamic whether they are straight or gay. I also hope that audiences will have the unique experience of finding a film that’s educational about the internment of Japanese Americans to be fun and entertaining. I know you only asked for one thing, but here’s a third thing — I hope that we can learn from George Takei the ability to laugh at ourselves.

WaH: What advice do you have for other filmmakers?

Only make a film (documentary, narrative, or experimental) if you are OBSESSED with it! Otherwise it’s just too hard and not worth it. Also, don’t try to film your movie on your iPhone. Use high-quality cameras and real sound gear. There’s a weird mythology that consumer equipment is good enough these days to make films. Unless you’re a true underground filmmaker, I suggest professional equipment. Last thing, filmmaking is almost always a team effort, so it’s best to be able to listen and to be diplomatic. It’s probably best for the ego to have these skills too.

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