Ever since it wowed opening-night crowds at Sundance 2016, documentary biopic “Norman Lear: Just Another Version of You” has met a range of reactions. That’s because it’s more than a straightforward cradle-to-grave chronicle of Lear’s remarkable decades of television creativity. (Music Box opened the film in New York July 8, Los Angeles hits July 15, PBS’s American Masters airs in October, followed in November by Netflix.)
Documentarians Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady (Oscar-nominated “Jesus Camp,” shortlisted “Detropia”) recognized that, at 93, their subject is still vital and engaging—years after creating groundbreaking ’70s shows “All in the Family,” “The Jeffersons,” “Maude,” and “Sanford and Sons,” among others, not to mention founding liberal action group People for the American Way.
And so they gave Lear leeway to fashion his on-screen persona, and brought in plenty of friendly talking heads, including, most controversially, George Clooney. In turn, Lear let them dig and explore the darker nooks of his workaholic life, as well as recreate his youth via an unusual visual device: a young Lear avatar, a spirit guide who watches the past unfold.
The movie works as a crowdpleaser, and should join other showbiz portraits that have played well on the arthouse circuit, from “Amy” and “Janis: Little Girl Blue,” to “Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work.”
Anne Thompson: When you take on a beloved subject, is it dangerous to fall in love?
Heidi Ewing: I love him. Sure. But always with an arm’s length. We were very self-conscious about hagiography. We don’t make films about celebrities, are not interested in celebrities. We don’t make biographies at all.
Rachel Grady: We like the people in the corners that no one gets to see, for sure.
Ewing: We chose to make this film after we met him, because it’s a great yarn, but we were very conscious about just doing a, “Hooray! He’s so awesome” film.
Grady: It’s boring.
Ewing: So we looked in the crevices for all the nuances of the person and the other layers, and tried to get down to, “Yeah, just another version of you. Doesn’t always tell the truth. Sometimes isn’t a great family man. Not always a great dad. Sometimes there’s the ego.”
We really tried to reveal those things without making it a takedown. There’s no reason to do that. He seems like the sort of person who’d cop to a lot of things.
Also you bring in a sense of “age brings wisdom.” He’s obviously done a lot of work on himself.
Grady: And he’d be the first to say he’s mellowed. At the peak of his career he was 60, and he was a different person. He was only tunnel vision, always looking forward, operating on —ego’s the wrong word, but a stubbornness that was inflexible. As he got older, he realized that his flaws were something to be embraced. So we got him at a great time in his life.
Ewing: Maybe the only time.
Grady: His memoir came out last year, and we started filming him before the press, so he was primed.
Were there any uncomfortable tussles with him?
Grady: Oh, sure.
Ewing: Oh, yeah.
Grady: When he felt like we were asking him to do something he felt was unnatural, he would get furious. Even if we’d done it the day before.
Ewing: Even if we missed something and he didn’t want it, he wouldn’t do anything that is conventional documentary. If you missed a shot and asked him to walk, no, he wouldn’t do that. If you missed it, you’re done. In fact, on Coney Island, our poor cinematographer was just chasing him down the boardwalk, because we were taking a walk and he would just remember things and then we left — it was cold. In any other film, you would have a little more time with the subject. No! Every single thing would happen the way it would happen and then he was like, “Let’s go to lunch!”
Grady: He was trusting, though. He was very trusting. He was wonderful. He knew our work a little bit.
Ewing: He was a huge “Jesus Camp” fan.
Grady: Which makes sense. People for the American Way and “Jesus Camp” are major simpatico. He knew the film well.
Grady: It was like the personification of his issues, so he liked us. There was trust. And he’d also seen our work, and he was ready to let it rip. Like Heidi said, there’s no reason for a takedown. This is not an exposé. He doesn’t want that.
You’ve made a crowdpleaser, a really accessible movie.
Grady: It played so well! Oh, my God, it felt so good.
Ewing: We surprised ourselves.
The section that’s so great is about the ‘70s shows and the racial issues. That’s tricky — and timely.
Grady: That’s juicy. And this is the stuff people don’t know.
Ewing: And, also, getting a hold of that footage was another story. No one’s ever seen that material, behind the scenes. It was on 16mm, sitting on a shelf.
Grady: You couldn’t see it until it was developed and sent to us.
Ewing: We could exhibit and reveal, visually, all the stories he was telling us. You could feel that tension that was going on; it was real. In the sections of “Good Times,” and “The Jeffersons,” he was arguing with the black cast members. Have we come that far? Is black representation on television that much better? We’re in that moment right now, and this film reminds us that, yeah, we can pat ourselves on the back — entertainment has come that far — but we’ve got some of the same sticky issues that Norman was dealing with. Almost all of them!
Grady: He’ll say it, Russell Simmons said it, Rob Reiner said it, all of them said it — which is that political correctness is reining in progress at this point. That we got far enough and it kicked in that this was the norm, but people felt like they didn’t need to talk about the very uncomfortable aspects and say it out loud, the things we all know are going on.
Ewing: At least on network television.
You caught Lear in these very candid moments. Tell me how that happened.
Ewing: Actually, before we met him, there were other directors on the table. We read the galleys of his book. He talks a lot about music he listened to in World War II when he was homesick – “We’ll Meet Again,” “Vera Lynn,” “Dipsy Doodle” – songs that are like a soundtrack for his life. And, as filmmakers, you’re looking for those tidbits.
Ewing: Also, what’ll trigger his memory. So we put together a Spotify playlist and then we brought a little speaker with us to the interviews, and they were always playing in-between takes and resets. That’s how that happened. He was walking in, just like you see, with the Frank Sinatra, and it happened to be on that playlist of, like, 50 songs— I wish we were playing a cheaper song when he walked in, because it cost us a g-d fortune: “Oh, no, he’s singing ‘My Blue Heaven.’ There goes the budget.”
We loved the song and, in-between when he’d take some water, we’d hit it and he starts playing it, singing it, so we thought, “Let’s include that.” That’s how we got those moments: we were just always rolling. Like Russell Simmons, anyone who’s watching the clips, it was 24 hours of rolling.
What happened to ex-wife Francis Lear? She was sort of famous in her own right. Couldn’t you get her to talk?
Ewing: We have a line in the film where it says they split up. She moved to New York, started that magazine [Lear’s]. Interesting woman. It would’ve been a whole other chapter.
Grady: Francis has passed away.
Ewing: Not in her suicide attempt, but later. She died of cancer.
Well, you start with that love story, and the kids talked to you.
Ewing: Yeah. We brought two of the kids in the studio. He has six kids, and we chose one from each of those marriages that we thought could articulate the best. There’s always the question when you’re making a documentary if the talking heads will work.
Grady: It’s just instinct in terms of delivery. He’s got a lot of friends. They just didn’t, for our purposes, deliver what we needed.
If you interview George Clooney, you have to use George Clooney? What purpose was he serving?
Ewing: No, you don’t. He could care less if he’s in or out.
Grady: If you analyze the film, he is serving a general cultural context when we see him each time.
Ewing: He’s also a peer of Norm’s in the sense that he uses his celebrity for political means.
Grady: That’s why they’re friends. That’s why they know each other.
Ewing: And he’s extremely knowledgeable about the era, because of his father’s job as a reporter. He’s intensely interested in Vietnam and the ‘70s, so in a way he is a journalist.
Grady: He’s the new generation, the new legacy — we think — of Norman.
Ewing: Totally. We tried not to overuse him; he’s there three times. Also, to be honest, the reason he’s in there and Russell Simmons, Phil Rosenthal from “Everybody Loves Raymond” is there — partly because we wanted to remind people that the influence of his work remains strong, and the creators of now owe a debt to him. All the first people to say such a thing. So instead of having the old-timers and the people who were there with him.
So we wanted to say, “There’s a continuum here that we’re a part of.” It started with him in a lot of ways, so those guys remind people of that. That’s why he’s in there. Did you think we did it just because he’s got a great jaw?
You knew it would be a little bit of catnip for the audience.
Grady: Okay, it doesn’t hurt. But luckily he’s very, very smart and said stuff that we needed.
At Sundance, Lena Dunham interviewed Lear. She’s hard to get!
Grady: They were a good match. And there’s definitely an influence between them. She’s about 30, and she knows his work and knows she can put out very flawed characters.
Ewing: You can root for someone who’s imperfect.
Grady: You can root for someone who’s not-great. He’s inspirational. The movie has a spiritual way of looking at this person’s life, seeing what they did wrong and right, that I find very moving. He feels like being an artist is fun and wonderful, but a responsibility. He really believes that, and he’s right. If you look at it that way, you have a different passion behind it.
If you were struggling in the edit room at all, what would it have been?
Ewing: Structurally, it was really important to us to take our viewers through his life and show how his shows were impacted and influenced by his personal life story. So it was structurally a puzzle, because it’s actually not in chronological order. That was what we struggled with most. But we had good material.
The use of the kid was a risk.
Ewing: Huge risk. Some cliff-jumping. And we could’ve not used it after we shot it.
Grady: We wanted to see how it worked out when we shot it. But it did a lot of work for us. Aesthetically, it brought something else. We wanted to shake up the genre a bit, and biography is the classic genre of documentary filmmaking. We wanted to bring something fresh to it, and after spending time with each other, talking to each other, we needed something to help us flesh out these stories from his childhood.
Ewing: There’s barely even five photographs.
Grady: Even if there weren’t any, it’s not the same thing. It’s not the same to just hear him say it.
Is he reading from the memoir most of the time?
Ewing: Only when you see him in the chair. Other times, it’s an interview with us. Those three times are from the audio read.
Grady: We tried to use it so that it was seamless and the audience isn’t thinking, “Where is that from?” You shouldn’t be thinking any of that stuff.
Ewing: Whenever it feels like an audio-book read, we tried to show him in the audio book, because we weren’t really able to borrow from the read. But we wanted to make a visually interesting film. We like visual layers, stylistically, that’s something we enjoy and seek to do. You see our timeline on the Avid, where it looks like a castle with many, many layers going on, and we wanted our films to feel like that, too.
So we felt like there was an aesthetic layer missing to the film. Of course we could’ve made the film without it. He is a nine-year-old stuck in a 93-year-old’s body. He has those same needs. He has moments where he’s such a child and refers to that era of his life all the time. Someone called it a spirit guide, this little puckish figure that kind of floats through the movie. With his hat.
Ewing: Like an alter-ego. It’s playful, a whimsical thing. Norman did know we were doing it. That was one element where we let him know we were thinking of doing this, and he loved the idea. He didn’t say, “Hell no, you shouldn’t.”
Grady: I think he was a bit nervous. He’s a scripted guy. For him, stories are written in advance, so he kept asking us, “How exactly will it work?”
Ewing: And we’d say, “Well, we’re not sure.”
Grady: “But we will totally let you know.” We’re freestyle; we’re jazz.
Ewing: That’s exactly right. So, when we were doing final casting for the kid, he was in town and we let him come to our final casting and sit there and watch. That’s when he met the three kids we had in mind. That’s why there’s an encounter: he was in town for casting. That was like a lucky thing. It was extra. Of course, there’s the symbolism of him coming to terms with himself and all that good stuff. Look, it was a creative risk and I’m sure we’ll get taken to task for it by some people, but others like it.
Grady: It’s worth it. There’s a difference between what critics and audiences say.
Ewing: The audiences like it. Strangers have been rushing up to us, and I’ve been taking a poll.
How do you know when your movie’s finished?
Ewing: When you run out of money!
Grady: It’s never quite finished. There’s always a little something you can fix.
Ewing: And you do tweaks before it goes theatrical. But, God, how do you know? When you’re shooting and you start getting repeats — when we’re getting a scene for the second or third time. It definitely happens in observational-vérité. You’re like, “We’ve got this scene, we’ve got this beat.” Or when the stories start to repeat themselves. When there’s no more story to tell.
Grady: And, in editing, when you start realizing you’re really futzing stuff, and making it worse. So it’s like, “Okay, it’s time to wrap this up.”
Ewing: You sit there for three hours with your editor and say, “Okay, we just made this worse! High-five! I hope you saved the old timeline!”