By Anna Weinstein.
Gayle Kirschenbaum ’s 2004 documentary A Dog’s Life: A Dogamentary, which premiered on HBO, explores the bond between dogs and humans, told through her relationship with her Shih Tzu, Chelsea. Her documentary short, My Nose (2007), was a festival favorite and became the inspiration for her most recent documentary, Look At Us Now, Mother! (2015). Look At Us Now follows Gayle and her mother, Mildred, as they try to get to the bottom of why Mildred was abusive to Gayle during her childhood.
A veteran TV producer/director, Gayle created the TLC and Discovery Health reality shows, I’m Pregnant and May Be Having a Dwarf; Little Parents: Big Pregnancy; Little Parents: First Baby; Little Parents: Big Charlie; and Dwarf Adoption Story. She also co-created the television series Judgment Day: Should The Guilty Go Free.
Gayle spoke with Anna Weinstein in late February to discuss the long process of shepherding the film to the big screen, the film’s unexpected outcome, and next steps for Gayle and her mother.
What a fascinating film. How does your mother feel about it now that it’s out in the world?
She’s proud of me. She looks at the film as separate from herself, as a piece of art. She’s been to a lot of the festivals, so she’s seen the reaction to the film, which has been really overwhelming.
Can you tell me about the genesis of the film?
I made a short film called My Nose about my mother’s relentless campaign to get me to have a nose job. I hit middle age, and I finally said, okay mom, I’ll go see the plastic surgeon, but only as long as I can have a camera crew with me. So I made this film, which is what I like to call a little film with a big life, because I realized that the film was really speaking to people. And that led me to become an accidental therapist, teaching people my seven steps of how to forgive. So I just kept hearing more and more stories, and I thought maybe I should take this journey with my mother to make Look At Us Now, Mother!
Was she game from the get-go?
I’ll tell you this way – after My Nose, we were on the cover of the Washington Post style section, and the journalist wrote, “If you have a mother like Gayle Kirschenbaum’s, you better get yourself into psychoanalysis,” and my mother read that and went, “Great! Bad press is better than no press. I’m on the cover of the Washington Post.” So I knew then that I had a mother with a very thick shell.
Did you run the idea by her first?
I asked her, and she was like, “Whatever you want Gayle, it’s fine.” See, the fact is that my mother always had tremendous trust in me. I don’t know anybody else who has a mother who would have been willing to do what my mother did.
And another thing: I have a really funny mother. Not every mother is funny. She wasn’t funny when I was growing up, but in her senior years she’s quite funny. And she’s an exhibitionist. She likes attention at all costs. So she was very willing and in amazing shape for her age.
I noticed that about her!
So I have to thank my mother for being willing to go on this very personal journey. We shot it over a few years, and other people were interviewing her, including therapists. She was getting asked questions over and over again.
When did you start shooting the film?
2011 is when I decided to make the film, and we started shooting soon after. It was a tough film to make. I had to figure out how to tell this story and not look like a victim, because nobody cares about a victim. I remembered that I’d been keeping diaries since I was young, handwritten diaries. So I sat down and read them, and that brought me back. I relived it all. It was horrible. I’ll tell you, if I knew how painful it would be to make the movie, I don’t know if I would have made it.
I’m curious about the therapy aspect of the film. Do you feel like going to therapy with your mother was beneficial? It’s pretty stunning to have pieces of that documented on camera.
Sure, we’re not in therapy anymore. There’s no reason to go now. And the good news is the response to the film. Someone just emailed me yesterday, he’s a psychologist and said this should be required viewing for everyone in the mental health field, students and teachers. My very dear old friend, a retired emergency doctor who’s like my life coach, he said, Gayle, if you help one person, you’ve done your job. So all I can say is, it was worth it.
Can you tell me about the work you’re beginning to do now with mothers and daughters?
I’ve been putting together a team of thought leaders, and lots of people are joining behind us as the film is screened, but it’s about healing between mothers and daughters. There are a lot of initiatives. One is going to be Drama With Mama, because everybody has a story. I want to launch it like The Moth and curate it and make it a competition. And I want to launch a podcast series. I know I hit a nerve with this film. And now my life is totally changed, because I realize that I don’t want to make another film. I really want to build this movement, and all the content I’m going to create from now on will be based on this topic.
You’re a filmmaker, but it’s fascinating that this whole experience has changed your direction – tapping into something deeper that you’d like to focus on rather than making another film.
Well, it’s interesting, because when I was in college, I considered psychology as a major. I think anyone who has a tough upbringing considers going into psychology as a major. But I ended up volunteering at a mental hospital and a TV station, and I remember thinking to myself, I don’t want to be around sick people the rest of my life. I want to be around creative people. So I chose that direction in my career, and I’m really happy I did.
I don’t know if you believe this, but I feel like I came into this world as an old soul, like I came in with knowledge. So even though from the minute I was born there was nothing right about me – the criticisms and the physical abuse, it was relentless – but I knew that I didn’t do anything wrong. I knew there was something wrong with my mom.
And I remember that I always wanted to understand what made people tick. I was in my single digits and I thought this way. Why do people do what they do? And I used to pick my mother’s brother’s brain, “What happened to my mother when you were children?” I wasn’t getting any answers, but I was digging since I was young. And honestly, when I was young, I always thought I was adopted, because I was watching my brothers being loved and adored, and it was like I was Cinderella.
What makes the film fascinating is that you’re trying to get to the bottom of why she was so mean to you when you were growing up, but now, the two of you get along so well. You really seem very close.
When my father passed away in 2006, I think she started to respect me. We went to Europe together – I had a film playing in France, and she watched me in action, as a person, as a professional, and as a traveler. And she came along my way in the end, kicking and screaming. She bitched a lot, but she had the time of her life. And that was the beginning of her really seeing me.
As a young woman, what was your relationship with your mom like then?
Well, I was living in Los Angeles, so we didn’t see each other a lot in that period. By the way, I have serious memory issues, which has been diagnosed as post-traumatic stress disorder, which is pretty natural in this situation. But in the early 1990s, I played a psychological board game that a French woman facilitated, and she said to me, “Now close your eyes and imagine your mother as a little girl.” I had already gotten some of the skeletons out of the closet, so I was already able to see her as a wounded child. I could see her pain. And then she said, “Now imagine yourself as a little girl.” And of course, I already knew my pain. And then, suddenly we were friends. We were two little girls in a lot of pain. She was no longer my mother.
That was a huge light bulb moment for me, to reframe how I looked at my mother. And I held onto that, because I knew that was the answer to forgiving – reframe how you look at people who are unkind. I took my mother off the pedestal as a mother who should love and adore me. Anyone who is abusive, you know they’re hurting and in pain. And you can take away their power by forgiving them. But if you attack back, you’re just putting more coals in the fire. And that’s how I used to react to her criticism and abuse, just igniting the fire.
Was it always a fiery relationship between the two of you? Were you always engaged with each other that way when you were young?
Well, when I was very young I lived in fear of her. I never knew what would trigger her – it was very unpredictable. But I was in enemy territory. My father was a very unhappy man – he was the German Shepard she would sick on me. Every piece of footage I had of him, he was always screaming at me – I couldn’t find any when he wasn’t. But I was afraid, and I tried to block her out. And she would say to this day that I ignored her, but I was just trying to shut it out. It was relentless.
When did you start fighting back?
When I hit my teenage years, and my appearance was such a big thing for her. She was having my hair professionally straightened when I was in third grade even, but when I was a teenager she was putting falsies in the top of my bathing suits. That was in the film. It was humiliating. She wanted me to have breast implants when I was fourteen.
That footage was pretty amazing.
And I developed a food addiction. When I was growing up, I didn’t get love. I grew up feeling abandoned, so my issues are trust and abandonment. I’m not married, and that’s no accident. I do pray and hope that by going out there, I’ll attract the man who will be a good partner for me, because I do have faith.
But you can’t hang onto anger and resentment. I always forgave my father, because I knew about his childhood, because he was very vocal. He grew up a victim and he took on the victimhood throughout his life. So I knew that. He was a tragic story to me. But my mother, I never knew what happened. She never talked, and she always acted like everything was great. So in a way, this film, it was me trying to get to the bottom of this. I needed to understand why she did this so I could forgive her.
And you feel like you achieved that? Making this film killed those demons for you?
Mom and I, now we can just feel comfortable with each other. We keep each other company, we can curse each other, we hang up on each other, we call each other back. It’s hysterical. We go at it, back and forth. She has no sensor, and I have no sensor – but yes, we love each other. If I’m going somewhere in New York, she’s going with me on the phone. We keep each other going. She’ll be on the pot. I’ll hear the toilet flush. But we keep each other company now. I call her many times a day.
Your dog Chelsea, she’s actually a pretty significant part of this film in that you’re really mothering her. Was that intentional? That you weren’t mothered as a child, and you became a mother to Chelsea?
When Chelsea came into my life when I was in my forties, my maternal instincts kicked in. I always called her my “dog-ter,” and everyone always said, oh you’d be such a great mother. But life turned out that I didn’t become a mother. But you know, when we do the Q&As for this film, my mother always tells the audience that I’m her mother now. So I do have a child – she’s just ninety-two, that’s all.
You have a very happy ending to your story, it’s really very nice.
And I’m here to help other people have a happy ending. That’s my mission. Because if I can do it, other people can do it. It takes work, but everything good in life takes work.
Look At Us Now, Mother! opens in Florida on March 25, in New York and Los Angeles on April 8, and in Long Island on May 6. Visit www.lookatusnowmother.com to find out about screenings near you. If you’re interested in hosting a screening in your community, contact email@example.com.
Anna Weinstein is a frequent contributor to Film International. Her “Diva Directors Around the Globe” series has featured interviews with internationally acclaimed filmmakers Gillian Armstrong (Australia), Susanne Bier (Denmark), Anne Fontaine (France), Caroline Link (Germany), Cristina Comencini (Italy), Marleen Gorris (The Netherlands), Sharmeen Obaid Chinoy (Pakistan), Claudia Llosa (Peru), and Isabel Coixet (Spain). Anna’s book series PERFORM, on working in the film industry, is forthcoming from Focal Press | Routledge (January 2017).