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A Woman Pioneer Speaks: Lisa D’Apolito on Love, Gilda

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By Janine Gericke.

What makes Lisa D’Apolito’s new film Love, Gilda so special is that, like the 2015 documentaries Listen to Me, Marlon and Ingrid Bergman: in Her Own Words and Samantha Fuller’s A Fuller Life (2013, also discussed here), Gilda tells us her story. Out of Gilda’s own journals, recordings, photographs, and home movies, D’Apolito has created a collage of Gilda’s life. It’s funny, heartbreaking, and worth the ticket price.

Gilda was a pioneer, one of the first female cast members on Saturday Night Live in an era when female comedians were just becoming part of the mainstream. Gilda says that the Women’s Movement allowed SNL’s female cast to tackle things they couldn’t do before, by creating an opportunity for social commentary. Throughout the film modern comedians like Amy Poehler, Maya Rudolph, Melissa McCarthy, and Cecily Strong read from Gilda’s journals, providing some of the film’s funniest and warmest moments. Their reactions to her words show that Gilda made a huge impact on them and their careers as women in comedy.

I am excited for people to see Love, Gilda and hope they enjoy it as much as I did. I recently had the pleasure of speaking with D’Apolito about her new film and why Gilda is truly an inspiration for so many.

Like so many others, I grew up watching Gilda on SNL and in her many films. What is your very first memory of Gilda?

You know, my first memory was of her characters. So, I remember that, probably the first one would be Roseanne Roseannadanna. When I thought of Gilda, I thought of her characters. And probably Rosanne Rosannadanna would be the first thing that came to mind.

That’s definitely a character that sticks out for me too. What was it about Gilda that made you say, I want to make a film about her?

I’ve done the fundraising videos for Gilda’s Club in New York City for the last eight years and Gilda’s Club is an organization started by Gene Wilder and Gilda’s friends after she had passed away. I would interview the members of Gilda’s club and they would talk about Gilda as if she were a friend, or as if she exists now. Many of them had read her book and I just thought she had such an amazing legacy. She’s not only this female icon and one of the best female comedians of all time, but she’s also really an inspiration to people who are going through some really hard times. So, I thought she was really unique and different.

There are so many things that Gilda talks about throughout the film, about her life, that I feel that many women can relate to or really anyone can relate to. What did her story say to you?

Gilda 02I think it’s the same thing. I think, though Gilda struggled in her personal life, her professional life, she was 100% confident of who she was. She could compete with John Belushi and all those guys and they loved her and never thought of her as any different than any other comedian. So I think the way she just went for it, truly with passion and conviction and never doubted herself is something that is really inspiring to me.

I really enjoyed watching the archival footage of her in the early days, kind of being a fly on the wall. I have an archival background, so the use of home movies and the cassette tapes of Gilda really peaked my interest while watching the film. Where did these materials come from and how much were you dealing with?

Oh my god, well if you have an archival background you know it’s like you become a detective. You get whatever you get. There was material that Gilda’s brother had sitting in boxes in storage since Gilda passed away. So that’s really the basis of the film. I was really lucky about half-way through the film he gave me access to these boxes. It’s not as tedious as it sounds, he had every VHS tape she ever recorded, so there were hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of tapes. In her book she wrote about how she taped three different things, and what I really wanted to find was her ninth chemotherapy video that she talked about. I couldn’t find it and then Gilda’s friend Judy went into the boxes and found it and that was the big find. And then, subsequently, I would go back and forth to Detroit and go through the boxes. And then there are 32 hours of audiotape of Gilda telling her life story. That’s how she wrote her book. She hired a reporter and over a period of months recorded all their interviews. So that was amazing. Once I heard Gilda telling her own life story, she was often on the bad side of things, almost all of those 32 hours had some damage in the tapes. Some of them you can kind of understand, it was really hard to listen to. So then, I really went on a mission to try and find audio, because I wanted Gilda to tell her own story. So I went to try to find interviews she did, and I reached out to reporters hoping they had recordings of their interviews with her and I found a couple things that way. Then I asked her friends and family and anyone who Gilda ever worked with or any place she ever was, to try and find as much material as I could. My producers helped and even though it seems like a lot, we never had enough. There was still stuff that we wish we had. It took a couple of years and a lot of work, detective work, and convincing people to go into their storage units or have somebody go into their storage units, but that was pretty great. And all the journals, there were both journals that Gilda’s brother had and her friends sent me letters she had written to them, so I had material from all different people. It was pretty amazing.

I’m sure it was kind of grueling, but it also sounds like a fun way to spend your time. Maybe not trying to convince people to talk to you, but to go through old tapes and reaching out to people that meant something to her.

Gilda 03Also reaching out to some local tv stations who had things that weren’t online. Yeah, it was fun. It’s a lot of work, but you know when you find something that’s like “Oh my God!” People post things on YouTube, so you have to constantly look. Because things appear that were never there before. We found the footage of Gilda, where she’s on the bus in the film, she’s getting off the bus, we found that on YouTube. And it wasn’t on YouTube like a month before. My editor found it, so she was like “you need to look at YouTube!”

Speaking of the journals, where did the idea come from to have Amy Poehler, Maya Rudolph, Melissa McCarthy, Bill Hader and all of these amazing comedians read from her journals rather than do a straightforward interview?

I wanted to find a way to bring some of Gilda’s materials to life. I didn’t want to animate a lot of her voice. And, actually it was a surprise, once I shared the journals with Amy Poehler and saw her enthusiasm, all the other comedians were all so thrilled to have something that Gilda wrote. That was actually pretty surprising. I didn’t know it would be so powerful and that they would be so moved by being able to see her writing.

That was definitely one of my favorite points of the film, was seeing them read these passages and kind of comparing it to things that have happened in their careers. These scenes are funny, but also made me tear up a bit, because this is someone they obviously admire very much. I’m sure it meant a lot to them to be able to read something so intimate.

Also they gave me a new perspective, because they had all walked the same path and they’d all been on SNL, they all identified with Gilda, which made me realize there is a common theme of performers who are inspired by her and what it’s like to be on SNL, so I really learned a lot from them to about Gilda through their own stories. All of the women, Bill too, but most of the women loved how Gilda’s comedy was so positive and so female in such an empowering way. And they just loved the goodness of it. And the innocence of it.

Was there anyone that you wanted to, and I apologize, I’m sure you’ve been asked this a million time, but was there anyone you really wanted to interview that you just couldn’t get in touch with or they just weren’t responsive for whatever reason?

Well, to get anybody to be interviewed was difficult. People don’t necessarily jump onto being interviewed for a documentary. And also, people are very close to Gilda and loved her so much. Even for the people I interviewed it was very hard for them to talk about her because they really loved her so much. But I did want Bill Murray, I really really wanted him in the film and I tried many times in many ways to reach him. And then, the people closest to me, to him, had said to me “you’ll never get him. It’s just not his thing. You’ll never get him.” But I really did want him in the film. A of lot of her personal friends, not her actor friends, thought it would be important to have him in there, so it’s a shame that I couldn’t get him. And then Jane Curtin I wanted also, but she told us that she’s a very private person and that she really loved Gilda and it would be emotional for her to talk about her. So, I respect that also. I really wanted Gilda to tell her [own] story, so that was the most important thing to me. Everybody else was sort of not as important as Gilda, but I would’ve really like Bill Murray if it did happen. But he’s in there, I feel like he’s in there.

I actually didn’t know too much about their relationship. And the comment that she didn’t want to see Ghostbusters, I didn’t know about that either. I really loved that you included the Howdy Doody sketch and I was wondering, because there are so many amazing skits that she did and so many hilarious characters, what was it about that one that made you want to include it in the film?

Well one, Gilda talked about it. The sketches we started with, we started with ones that we knew she told the story about herself. So she told that whole story and that is such a funny, that’s probably her funniest sketch because everybody laughs to it, it really holds up. So the fact that she told that whole story was definite reason to put it in. It’s really funny.

Janine Gericke is a Film International ‘In the Field’ writer.

Read also:

“All My Treasures”: On Ingrid Bergman – In Her Own Words (2015)

A Personal Fever Dream: Listen to Me Marlon

Time in “the Shack”: A Fuller Life

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