Stranger Than Fiction - "Must Read After My Death" - Feb. 3, 2009
Must Read After My Death
Q&A with director Morgan Dews
New York, NY
February 3, 2008
(Morgan Dews and David Nugent. Photo by Brian Geldin.)
Last night’s Stranger Than Fiction was Morgan Dews’ Must Read After My Death, “a documentary about documentation” or in other words, Dews took his late Grandmother Allis’s home movies and audio tapes from the 1960s and constructed them into one cohesive story arc dealing with Allis’s unconventional relationship with her husband Charley and the psychological effects it had on their four children. The entire film is told through these documentations without any narration or talking heads. Must Read After My Death, which debuted last fall at the Hamptons International Film Festival, will be distributed by Gigantic Releasing and opens Feb. 20 at Quad Cinema in New York. David Nugent, head programmer of HIFF, moderated last night’s discussion. Below are some of the highlights. (I have not included any of the audience Q&A because most of those questions pertain to specific things that go on in the film, and I don't want to give too much away. You just have to see it for yourself.)
Nugent: How did you come across the tapes and what was it like the first time for you to listen to them?
Dews: I actually found out about the tapes really late. I always knew about the films, but my uncle’s ex-wife told me about the tapes…It was kind of shocking actually. I was very close to my grandmother…I was born about the end of the story. She in fact never really talked with me about Charley. She would talk with me about lots of other things…It was really crazy to hear this life that she had that I had no idea about.
Nugent: In looking at the film again I realized, with the exception of one shot, there really isn’t sync sound footage in the film. What sort of guiding principle do you have in your editing choices?
Dews: I think a lot of the things I’m happiest with about the film happened through necessity. I really had no sync film, except for…the black and white television interview with Charley…The majority of the footage of the original material is from about 10 years earlier…I basically worked out this idea where I would use the images in a very poetic, sort of metaphorical way…One of the things that interested me about the material was that in the visual, you’re presenting a classical view of the ‘50s where everything’s kind of shiny and new and everybody’s very happy, but on the tapes, it’s a very subterranean view of what’s going on, sort of whispered secrets…I really thought the juxtaposition was very beautiful because I feel like a lot of the pressure of the ‘50s and the later explosion from the ‘60s that were put onto people was this idea that everything had to be perfect on the outside and I think that caused a lot of anguish. The guiding principle I used was can I use a person that’s talking? If I can’t use a person that’s talking, is there some image that I have that says something to what they’re saying or contradicts it in some way?...It really became like trying to make one puzzle out of a box of maybe 20 different images.
Nugent: How much do you think the time period compares now from 40 years ago in respect to the social morays, the state of psychiatry and communication challenges?
Dews: I was really shocked in just the way the whole situation seems extremely conditioned by the times and the belief system of the times. The whole thing with their sort of love of psychiatry comes true in the visual footage of their love of trains and airplanes and tape recorders. All of this stuff somehow is part of the same thing…It made me wonder how much of what I do or how my life is conditioned by my time, emails and cell phones, things like that that they didn’t have. I always kept thinking that my grandmother had one of the first driver’s licenses in the state when she was young and they didn’t have telephones when she was born. Her father was a great fan of telegrams…I think they were a transitional couple maybe. That they were sort of stepping from the 19th Century into the 21st in some way because of the decisions they made and the beliefs they had, but…for some reason or another they couldn’t see through to get divorced…I struggled with this idea that they were so advanced and so modern in some senses and just not in others.
Nugent: How do you think this film would have been different if it wasn’t your family?
Dews: I can’t really answer that, but I try to think of it as if it was somebody else’s family, but they were just characters in a way. I don’t know in what sense that I succeeded, but a lot of people at first found this material and decided to make a film kind of pushed me in a direction where I can do a personal documentary about my discovery of these secrets of my family. I just felt that it would be such a disservice of the material. The material was so powerful and these voices kind of whispering at you from beyond the grave would be so much more compelling than whatever experience I could have of the material.